(Another chapter from “Absolved”, an upcoming novella)
Fort Campbell, KY: Nine Months and Two Days After the Battle of Sipsey Street
“Sir, I protest this requisition. If we fill this order, it amounts to a full fifteen percent of our existing stocks. It puts us below our own required minimums we may need in case of deployment.”
The Captain looked for hope in the bird colonel’s hatchet face.
There was none to be seen.
The Colonel was sympathetic but his hands were tied. He replied in a voice of flint, “Captain, this order originated in the E-Ring. The Corps Commander protested it and was overruled. I assure you that you have less stroke in this outfit than General Mackey. You understand why these people want our rations, don’t you?”
Of course O’Toole knew. Anybody who read the front page of any newspaper in the United States knew. The Feds and the Brightfire mercenaries carrying out Operation Clean Sweep had started turning up poisoned by their own rations. Thousands had sickened, hundreds had died. Some mess hall or supply chain perpetrators had been caught, but many had not. They no longer can trust their own food so they need ours, and they need it fast.
The Colonel snapped, “This order will be obeyed, regardless of our opinion of it. So shut up and soldier and get it done.”
A lesser man would have withered under the Colonel’s glare.
Captain O’Toole could just not bring himself to say “Yes, sir.”
The Colonel paused. He hated that they had been tasked with supporting Operation Clean Sweep too. The pained look on O’Toole’s face caused him to add, almost kindly, “Look, son, you don’t think that the present National Command Authority is going to deploy us overseas, do you? They promised the voters and the voters, God forgive them, gave them the power. The only military operations they’re interested in pursuing at the moment is against elements of our own people and the services won’t get involved in that, thank God. So if we have to give the Feds and the mercenaries some of our rations, understand that it could be a lot worse. We could be fighting our own people.”
The Captain mistook the Colonel’s softening voice for a weakened resolve and risked an insubordinate observation.
“Sir, it’s just that I hate supporting those murdering sons of bi-“
“Enough.” The command was iron. “Get it done, Captain.”
O’Toole retreated as fast as military decorum permitted. Exiting the G-4’s office, he walked outside, putting his cover back on as he strode across the street to the warehouses beyond. Tall, blond-haired and handsome but for the curving scar that ran from his cheek up through the right side of his nose (a souvenir of Operation Iraqi Freedom), O’Toole was every inch an officer. He was a mustang, not a Pointer, and he was damned proud of it. His rise, courtesy of the killing op tempo of the wars, had been just short of meteoric, but then no one begrudged him that. He was very competent at any task he was assigned and although unknown to O’Toole, the Colonel intended to try to get him a leaf and bring him along with him when he finally got his star.
The Captain entered the relative gloom of the warehouse and removed his beret, crushing it in his right hand with a killing grip. He walked to his office, shut the door behind him and flung the beret across the room in frustration. The cover struck the corner of the black frame of his favorite picture of the war, an image of O’Toole and his men outside Uday and Qusay Hussein’s death house, smoke still rising from the rubble. The force of the blow knocked the picture from the wall, and gravity took over, bouncing it off the bookcase below and then to the floor, where the glass shattered in a hundred pieces.
“Shit!” the Captain began and followed with 40 or 50 words and phrases, all of them profane, some of them scatalogical, and some worse than obscene.
He hardly repeated himself.
The Good Soldier Schweik
Master Sergeant Joshua Robinson watched him through the glass, smiling at some of the Captain’s more original combinations. He sure still swears like an enlisted man, Robinson thought with a grin.
Finally, O’Toole slumped in his chair, defeated, spent. After a few minutes, MSG Robinson entered.
The Captain ignored him.
“No luck, Sir?” the big black non-com ventured.
The Captain looked up. He was still so angry he did not trust his voice, so he just shook his head.
“Sir,” Robinson continued, “I think I have an idea. I’ve been on the phone to a buddy of mine at Bragg. They’ve got the same orders, and well, we talked about and I think maybe we can obey the order and still retain our honor.”
O’Toole, not daring to hope the Master Sergeant was right, asked “How’s that?”
“Sir, have you ever heard of ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’?”
O’Toole smiled broadly for the first time all day. “Yeah I have, first back when I was a smart-ass Specialist, and several times since. I’ve still got a copy of ‘The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War’ on my bookshelf at home. Too bad Jaroslav Hasek never got a chance to finish it. But what’s your point?
“Well, Cap’n, we’ve got an order here, and we’ve got to obey it. But that’s no reason we can’t obey it the way we want to, just like Schweik, is there?”
“Go on,” urged the Captain, still wondering where this was going.
“Well, you know how they’d give Schweik an order, like, ‘Take this important message to headquarters,’ and Schweik would run right over to HQ with the message but then not give it to anybody because they didn’t tell him to?”
“Yes,” said O’Toole carefully.
“Well Cap’n, they didn’t tell us what KIND of rations to send them did they? If you read the order again, you’ll see they don’t specify.”
O’Toole didn’t have to consult the text, he had it in his head. “That’s right. So?”
“Well, talking to ‘Willy’ Mayes over at Bragg, we started thinking about all the really crappy stuff that’s built up in the warehouses over the past few years. Stuff we never touched because we were either deployed, or we were on mess hall rations. Stuff troopers wouldn’t eat, or got returned from FTXs unopened. You know we never threw that crap away if it was still within its expiration date, we just tossed it in big palletized cardboard boxes.”
O’Toole nodded. He knew exactly the kind of rations Robinson meant.
“Well, what got me thinking was ‘Willy’ mentioned that they had a whole bunch of overage ‘Four Fingers of Death’ MREs that they’d never got around to throwing away and said it’d serve those bastards right if he sent ’em those. And that’s when I thought about Good Soldier Schweik.”
Master Sergeant Joshua Robinson paused.
“Sir, you know we’ve got some of those ‘Four Fingers of Death,’ too. And Chicken Fajitas. And Country Captain Chicken. . .”
“Oh, God!” O’Toole blurted. “That crap tore me up during the invasion. . .”
“Yeah,” agreed Robinson, “that stuff was almost as bad as ‘The Four Fingers of Death.’ And you know, sir, those feds and mercenaries, they’re not going to be used to eating MREs. The ones who don’t puke and shit themselves to death will be sealed up tighter than a drum for a month and you know what THAT’S like.”
Meals Refusing Excretion
MREs, “Meal, Ready to Eat,” variously known throughout their history as military rations as “”Mr. E” (mystery), “Meals Rejected by Everyone”, “Meals, Rarely Edible”, “Meals Rejected by the Enemy”, “Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated”, “Materials Resembling Edibles”, and even “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians”, are high in fiber, chemicals, vitamins, hormones and God alone knows what else.
Some called them “Three Lies for the Price of One” – it’s not a Meal, it’s not Ready, and you can’t Eat it.
But the nickname Robinson was referring to was “Meals Refusing Excretion.”
And that O’Toole remembered well.
When you first eat MREs with regularity, your intestines are a mess. You will not be able to defecate for several days, sometimes weeks.
Then you hit the point where you are so bloated you don’t want to eat and you start to feel the contractions and think, “Oh, thank you, blessed Jesus!”
But then you run to the head and you are forced to give birth to a 15 pound iron rod. O’Toole’s anal sphincter twinged at the memory of it.
It was the kind of thing where you hold onto the seat for dear life, your legs fully extended and there’s this stabbing pain that convinces you your guts are being lanced open from the inside out. And you grip that seat even tighter, and the only thing that you can think about while you groan and grit your teeth and the sweat pours from you is that there was once upon a time when your ass did not hurt that much.
And you pray fervently, feverishly, for the return of that day.
Men had been shot by the enemy and later claimed it did not hurt as much as MRE constipation.
Oh, yes, O’Toole remembered. So did his gut.
“You know, Master Sergeant, if we rounded up all the toxic MREs and shipped them to the Feds, we might actually create an entire new front in the war.”
Robinson laughed. “Yes, sir, we would . . . the Shithouse Main Line of Resistance.”
Both men laughed hard enough to be heard on the street outside the open warehouse door.
Then they began planning how best to emulate The Good Soldier Schweik.
“We’ll need to swap boxes on them, sir,” Robinson reminded him.
“I’ll get the extra hands from the Colonel, and we’ll reband them, just like new. We’ll still meet the deadline.”
O’Toole paused. “You know when the Feds figure out what we did to them, they’ll just shit that fancy raid gear of theirs.”
Robinson looked at the Captain, shaking his head.
“No, they won’t.”
And both Screaming Eagles laughed until they cried.
Ten days later, outside of Idabel, Oklahoma
“Sir, the MREs are finally here,” said the ASAC’s aide.
The supervisory ATF agent sighed with relief, “Great! Finally food we don’t have to worry about. It’s about time. Fish me out one, Harkins, I’m hungry enough to eat a sick snake.”
The agent pulled a brown plastic envelope out of the box and brought it over to the ASAC, placing it on his desk in front of him.
The ASAC turned it around and looked at the label: “Meal, Ready to Eat, Smoky Franks and Beans.”
The ASAC snorted in disgust. He was a veteran, and he knew what “The Four Fingers of Death” was.
“Harkins,” he ordered, “get me another one, I ain’t eatin’ this shit.”
“Sir, they’re all the same in this box.”
“What! No, there’s supposed to be an assortment of meals in each case.”
“I know, sir, Special Agent Marx said the same thing, but we’ve opened all of the ones we received and they all have franks and beans in them. And Charms candy. They sent us extra packs of Charms candy in each box.”
The ASAC knew what Charms candy meant too. No self-respecting soldiers ate Charms. They were considered bad luck, evil juju, a death wish. They came in the old M.R.E.’s but nobody ate them.
Great, a death wish and digestive terror from our own Army.
“Well, shit and shove me in it,” said the ASAC.
“What does it mean, sir? Marx said something about the Charms being bad luck.”
“What it means, Harkins, is that our own Army just told us, ‘F-ck you.'”
“Well, shit,” Harkins blurted, then remembering it was his boss, stammered, “uh, sir.”
“Well, maybe,” said the ASAC, “but probably not. Not for a while anyway.”
And then, to no one in particular, “Those dirty stinking bastards. The Four Fingers of Death.”
His hunger overcame his disgust. He took out his Gerber, slit the plastic envelope, and removed the contents.
“Those dirty stinking bastards.”