Winning Hearts & Minds

I don’t know what my rank is, or even if I have one for that matter. There isn’t anyone to give them out as far as I can tell. I’m not in an army I guess, but whenever I run across people with guns they seem to be fighting, and they try to capture me and anyone else that I’m with.

Most people don’t seem to think of themselves as combatants, they don’t believe in the war. I tried to explain it to one guy that I was supposed to recruit (that’s my job, recruiting, but not on any orders from above because there isn’t any above) and I said, “There aren’t any neutrals.”

This turned him off. “That’s what they all say when they want to get you involved,” he told me.

“Well, I was wrong then,” I said. I knew it was a lost cause but I kept on, at least because I had to figure out just what I meant. “There are people who don’t fight, who give up, they submit by default, and they think they’re neutral, but there aren’t any people who don’t fall on one side or another. You can choose to submit, and it doesn’t mean you deserve what you get because maybe your assessment was correct, that you couldn’t win here and now. The ones who say you deserve what you get if you don’t fight are the enemy, because then if they get power they’ll do what they please and say you deserve it because you didn’t fight. You don’t have to fight, but you have to if you want something different.”

I think he understood, but wanted to wait and see. Most people don’t want to throw in with suicide squads when the whole point is to live better. But we need more people if it is going to be anything but a suicide squad.

I’ve seen every sort of action, from full scale bombardment to infiltration, from capturing the enemy to being captured. I spent a long time in an enemy concentration camp, but I escaped because it was under the direction of people who thought they were running a rehabilitation camp for people on their side who had simply lost track. It was far from the center of the fighting, in a secure position, and the directors knew they were in such a solid position that they didn’t need to go overboard with the security measures. I kept going after that. Before I was captured I didn’t even know that I was fighting, or that there was a war going on. I’ve never seen any kind of base camp for our side in all this time. There’s no headquarters, no capitol, no place to regroup. I think we’ve been scattered, as if the war was won long ago by the enemy, and everyone forgot about it except when the abuses became extreme, or when they found some old books about it that hadn’t been burned. I wonder about it sometimes, though, because I know where all this ammo is stored, and there are little groups here and there who talk about the major offensive that’s just around the corner. I’ve seen the ammo dumps, there are thousands of huge tanks and planes and guns and all, and it’s all being turned out by no more than a dozen men and women on these massive machines. A few stragglers would drift in like myself every day or so and take what they could use, then leave. They all had stories about the fighting, about their local strategies, goals and all, and we shared info and codes and meeting places, and signed up to go help here or there. But there were never enough of us there at one time to make use of the tanks and planes.

I went with one group and stood with them against a full scale invasion. All we had were machine guns, and we couldn’t hold up so we were dispersed, and I ended up in another place where the people didn’t even notice the enemy. “Look, over there, it’s a tank and a bunch of army personnel.”

“Tank? So?”

“But they take your food, they kill you.”

“We give it to them because they need it to protect us. Besides, they only kill us when we don’t give it to them.”

“What if you starve?”

“If we get hungry we can always join their army, then we have all we need.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to just get rid of them and keep your food? You obviously don’t get enough to eat.” The one I was talking to was a mother with a child; the child had a bloated stomach, classic symptoms.

“But if we got rid of them, why, then there wouldn’t be anybody to make sure we tended our fields!”

Sometimes there are people living in an area where the invasion hasn’t taken place, or where the army is weak and could be thrown off with a minimal effort. I establish some contacts, then scout out ahead with a few people. Others get sent back to the warehouses to bring back the weapons we’ll need. Hardly anyone goes, though.

“But the tanks are coming!”

“Tanks? Show us these tanks, we don’t see any.”

The new contacts are exasperated along with me, but we don’t do any good, and the tanks roll in, usually to the sound of a parade.

Then there are the few who know about the tanks, the ones who say the only way to resist is to paint the tanks at night, make them look stupid. But the food still gets taken at gunpoint.

In all of this one group is the most frustrating, and one is most able to bring on fits of despair. The first ones are the people who have seen the tanks, who know that the food gets stolen, but who don’t believe in our warehouses.

“You don’t have enough weapons to stop them,” they say, “so just go away and stop bothering us.”

“But I’ve seen them! All we need is people to staff these weapons, then we can win!”

“Humbug, you’re just giving us false hopes.”

“Free for the taking, tons and tons, bombs that will smash a hundred enemy tanks!”

They snicker and still refuse to believe.

The worst of all, I suppose, the ones that bring on despair, are the people in the enclaves that resist us. They hate the enemy, but they fight us too, even when they know the enemy is on the way and that we would help. They think they’re strong when they can beat off a single corporal, a scout, armed with one beat up gun, with their pitchforks and hoes. They’re all proud of their accomplishments, crowing at night, but they haven’t seen the tanks. “We have enough weapons, leave us alone,” they laugh.

“You’ll be sorry,” I reply, not a very good recruiter after all.

“Anyway, if we lose we’ll join up with the invaders and then we’ll be okay.”

Well, maybe so. But I’ve seen those tanks, the ones they were too afraid to check out, and I’ve seen the warehouses, and I’ve seen the increasing number of people who go to the warehouses. By now the warehouses are secure against invasion, even if they can’t launch an offensive. And nobody likes a mercenary; in the end, no matter which side wins, the mercenary loses.

31 May 1982

Originally appeared in Inside Joke #12

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