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I. The Road to Bosnia

Bad Nauheim, Germany. Toot. It's Christmas Plus One, and in their train the Dawgs pass the frozen sugar-beet fields. In one compartment a PFC, a blanket around him, looks up as the door rolls open and a specialist stands there, chewing Skoal. The specialist mentions Bosnia and says, "It's gonna be hairy. The thing that worries me is the mines."

For days he's brooded about them. One false step (and how without x-ray eyes can he know it's false) and he could soar twenty feet, could fall and discover he has no legs, from the stumps the blood would be spilling, soiling his shredded camouflage clothes and the sod? the shrubbery? snow? the sun would fade and he'd die. He's scared. He feels that unless he talks about it he'll--burst, and he's gone down the train aisle looking for someone's, anyone's, ear.

"I heard," he continues, "that the Cro--" He pauses. "Let's see, you got Bosnian Serbs, you got Moslem Serbs, you got, uh, Croat Serbs--" He pauses again. "Or whatever. Well, one of 'em is actually actually markin' the mine fields and disassemblin' 'em. That's what I heard."

"They'll probably put more out," says the PFC, who's hoping the boy will close the door or, better, will go away, for he doesn't care to reflect on his imminent death in the Balkans.

"Well, I'm gonna strap a farmer," the specialist says, still chewing the Skoal, "to the front of a truck 'fore I do anything else."

"Heh heh," says the PFC.

"Come here, guy!" the specialist says, pretending to talk to a Serb, Croat or Moslem farmer. "You're goin' for a little ride! Now, where'd you say the mine field was? Oh, you wanna go this way?" He turns a make-believe steering wheel and says, "Oh, you don' wanna go that way!" He turns the wheel back and says, "Heh heh heh," then spits out a goober of Skoal, the objective correlative of the terror inside him.

 


Frankfurt, Germany. The spires of Frankfurt come and go, but the specialist still is a raven at this compartment door. "Did you see that film on Bosnia?"

"Yeah yeah," says the PFC. He's pumping his armrest up and down impatiently, wishing he were brazen enough to tell this grim, ungainly, ghastly boy to perch somewhere else.

"In that picture," the specialist says, commencing another exorcism, "I saw them women huggin' the UN guys. It makes me kinda nervous, some girl givin' me a great big hug. You," he continues, pretending to talk to a Serb, Croat or Moslem woman--"you got a nice pair of breasts. But back up, cause them breasts look too big." He explains to the PFC, "A coupla sticks of dynamite in 'em? That puts a whole new meaning to the word booosom. Heh heh heh."

 


Vienna, Austria. "La-la-la-la." At dawn someone hums The Blue Danube Waltz as the train goes over a Danube that's gray. He tickles some let's-pretend ivories, and Sergeant Cooper, the Dawgs's boss, a boy whose face is Africa black, says, "I'd be awesome with a piano. But," looking rueful, "my fingers don' listen to me."

Once, just once, Cooper was drummer in a Carolina high-school band. But being in the rear didn't excite him and he switched to drum major, tossing his golden baton to the clouds, in the army he rose to drill sergeant, barking at 'cruits, recruits, "No black! No white! No Hispanic! You are all shitheads!" On coming to Germany he got a platoon, a clump of twenty stray soldiers, white and black, some of them vets of Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, one just a private straight out of basic and full of piss, vinegar and adrenaline, and Cooper remembered the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp. A natural leader, the Tramp was a dog who took command of a pound--a Scottie with a Scottish accent, dachshund with a German one, chihuahua with a Mexican one, "My seester Chiquita Juanita." Cooper called his new kennel the Dawg Pound Platoon, he gave it bones and biscuits and barked, "Take you' collars off!" and the soldiers just lapped it up, telling him, "Woof woof woof!"

Cooper himself was King K9. Wherever the Dawgs go, he must go--he has two children in Germany but twenty today on a train that's halfway to Bosnia.

 


Budapest, Hungary. "Budapest," muses a PFC. "What have I heard about Budapest? Something about religion. You know what I'm sayin'? Like Buddha? Like Buddhism? That's what I think I'm sayin'."

 


Gyekenyes, Hungary. A lieutenant cries, "What the hell?" The train's in this snow-shrouded station, there's even snow on the overhead wires, even the sparks don't disturb it--bang! and the lieutenant has heard a gun. He runs out to where the sound was, and Sergeant Cooper thinks, Oh! I hope a Dawg didn't do it! Cooper's prime suspect is Riley, the piss-and-vinegar private, a boy he sees as a baby bulldog going around the block bowlegged and looking for someone to bark at or, tonight, to go bang at. "He wants the CIB," the Combat Infantry Badge, says Cooper, peering out his compartment window.

"The CIB!" a lieutenant gasps. In the snow the other lieutenant is still closing in on the source of that startling bang.

"The firs' thing outta his mouth," says Cooper, "was 'Will I get a CIB?' I was like 'Riley Riley. We gonna lock you up. With blanks.'"

Outside, the other lieutenant sees a Hungarian soldier. That boy, too, has heard the ominous bang but slides his hands to and fro, palms down, meaning forget it. He says in Hungarian, "Petarda."

"Firecracker," the lieutenant guesses.

"Silvester," the soldier says in German.

"New Year's Eve," the lieutenant says.

 


Staro Petrova Selo, Croatia. It's morning again, and the train is in Yugoslavia. At times the view is of cornstalk stumps that stick from the snow like tombstones and at times it's of eye-high cornstalks, the cobs decomposing, the husks hanging down like basset ears. "They didn't get too much of that corn in," a sergeant says to that bird of ill omen, the Skoal-chewing specialist.

"The farmers aren't stupid," the specialist says. "That's where the mines are. Heh heh heh."

 


Vinkovci, Croatia. No one knows why (no one knows nothin') but the train stops again, and the Dawgs go outside past a shellhole to see the sights of the waiting room. A black soldier sits on a bench as a Croat schoolgirl tries out her English, singing to him in clipped syllables,

I see vat you say!
I see vat you do!
I know everything,
Anything about you!

You vant to be my lover?

"You sing good," the soldier says.

"Vat?"

"You sing good. What's your name?"

"My name like umbrella. Mirela." Accidentally the soldier's rifle falls to the floor and Mirela returns it. "I am from Vukovar."

"Vukovar?"

"Is twelve kilometer from here," a schoolboy says. "No rock of the rock in the Vukovar. Serbs is destroyed everything."

"Every, every, everything," says Mirela.

"They bombadiered us," the schoolboy says as a schoolgirl tries on the soldier's helmet. "Their airio-planes throw the bombs."

"They kill our people," Mirela says.

"A very sadness," the schoolboy says.

The black soldier says nothing. He expects that when he meets the Serbs, they'll say the same of the Croats--he's right.

 


Zupanja, Croatia. A mile north of Bosnia, the Dawgs are camped in a jam-packed tent. On the inside it's cellar dark, and in the mud and muddy straw the Dawgs are forever losing things--gloves, knives, not yet any rifles. "Man," says Private Riley, the boy who wants a CIB, who's just lost a candy bar and is now addressing a PFC--"man, you took my Tootsie Roll!" Twenty years old, Riley has drastic acne from his overenthusiastic use of green and black camouflage warpaint.

"Do the Tootsie Roll," the PFC sings. He wiggles his hips to this tune by the 69 Boys, but Riley isn't amused.

"I know you stole my Tootsie Roll," Riley says.

"I'm in your squad. I wouldn't do it, Dawg."

"You picked it up and put it in your pocket."

"Why don' you search me?"

"I ain' gonna stick my hands in your pocket."

"You could say, 'Pull your shit out.'"

"How'd I know you'd pull out the Tootsie Roll?"

"I'd pull everythin' out."

"Except the Tootsie Roll!" Riley says and, sulking, picks up a paperback by Tom Clancy. The source of Riley's pugnacity is the books he's bringing to Bosnia from his enormous collection in Michigan. He's woozy from all these romantic novels about a soldier's vocation--like Don Quixote, Riley is somewhat deranged, and Cooper is worried about him. "You keepin' an eye on Riley?" he asks another sergeant. "I don' want that motherfucker startin' an in'ernational inciden'."

 


Zupanja, Croatia. Today's the day! Outside their tent the Dawgs line up, and as snow forms slush on their helmets the colonel, the boss of their boss, addresses them. He stands in the snow unperturbed and says, "You guys can hear me?"

"Hooah!" The word means more than yes.

"Okay. We go south of the Sava today."

"Hooah!" It means we're rarin' to go.

"Down Bosnia way," the colonel says. He says that south of the Sava River is Croat turf, then neutral turf, then Serb turf, then neutral turf--here, says the colonel, the Dawgs will camp--then Moslem turf. "Moslems!" the colonel suddenly cries. "Friend or foe?" and the Dawgs shout something that to the uninitiate may seem insubordinate.

"Don't care!"

"Serbs!" the colonel cries. "Friend or foe?"

"Don't care!"

"Roger!" the colonel cries, giving a leather-gloved high sign. The colonel himself taught the Dawgs to answer this way, for his mission is to be neutral neutral despite his suspicion that the most culpable clan is the Serbs. "Anybody hear of Milosevic? The president of Serbia?" his intelligence officer asked the Dawgs in Germany once. "Hey, Serbs are it," the officer said, pretending to be Milosevic. "Croats and Moslems, we want to get rid of 'em! And," he continued, becoming himself again. "What happened? A bloody war." Simplistic or not, his words were at once forgotten by all the Dawgs, who'd been instilled with a different mantra.

"Don't care!" the Dawgs cry today.

"Thank you," the colonel says, and Sergeant Cooper takes over.

"Two! Ten! Hut!" Cooper cries, a quarterback's bark that the Dawgs recognize as "Platoon! Atten...tion!" As they snap to, they crack every icicle with a twenty-throat roar of "Daaawg Poound!" then they run to their tank-like vehicles, to Bradleys with drawings of bulldogs with dogbones between their teeth, and arr! they roar across the Sava River Bridge.

 


Olasje, Bosnia. Button the hatch, we're in B-Land. And shutting it, the boys in one of the Bradleys are in a trunk in a room in A Night at the Opera. All they see is each other until, at ten at night, the Bradley stops and Riley (the boy who longs for a CIB) opens his hatch excitedly. He stands up and looks at Bosnia, the magnet that grabs him, his El Dorado, and his eyes become saucers. He says, "Holy shit!"  More

 

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