First Kill, by Keith Nightingale, COL USA (ret)
Killing is not hard. In facts it’s easy. That’s the problem. We can all do it. It’s just a situation where either opportunity knocks or we have no choice on a primordial level. It’s managing the capability that becomes the issue.
Thousands of years ago, the Lieutenants antecedents learned to survive and passed their genetic factors forward to this place in time. They had dealt with animals large and small, trapped, free, vicious and relatively tame. They were superb hunters and had a primordial sensitivity that underwrote the success of the hunt. These instincts while passed on over hundreds of generations, remained subordinated to others as their existence became less and less critical. Until today.
The encounter was very sudden as most are. It was mid-day in the dry season and the air was heavy, torpid, fetid and unmoving. The air seemed almost visible through the tendrils of convection currents that coursed from the jungle floor to whatever small patch of light shown through the canopy. The slightest movement brought dots of sweat to exposed skin. Breathing was an effort. With some time of exposure to the environment, the senses had become blanketed and the brain dulled. The ground and vegetation ahead blended into a broad and undistinguished green and yellowish canvas. Still, the Lieutenant walked slowly eyes fixed on the Ranger to his front. Some of the primordial skill sets began to emerge though still sublimated to the conscious.
Ahead, a Ranger stopped and held his hand up, ivory colored in the dappled light. He quietly moved his rifle from his hip to his shoulder and looked intently over the front sight-seeing nothing but with the growing primordial sensing that goes with this existence, instinctually knowing that a danger was just ahead but still out of comprehension. To his rear, the rest of the column stopped, focused forward and awaited with a practiced level of detachment for resolution.
The lead Ranger took half a step forward and halted. Immediately several shots rang out-shots that clipped leaves, thudded into tree trunks and softly but clearly impacted into flesh dropping a Ranger to the Lieutenant’s immediate front. Birds screamed and flew in all directions. Leaves fell and the harsh sudden cracks echoed from the tree trunks in all directions as to come from no discernible direction.
Suddenly, all the Lieutenant’s core survival instincts were awakened. Man had replaced the Mammoth. Without seeing a target, the Lieutenant brought his rifle up and began shooting toward the lower throaty sound of the AK’s. His companions simultaneously did the same and the jungle erupted into screaming birds, yelling people, falling leaves and limbs and the dull thuds and musty grey black smoke of exchanged grenades. The noise was so intense that there was no single noise but a coalesced mass that shrouded the senses and created a supreme isolation for each participant who continued to reactively contribute to the effect. This went on for what was probably less than 10 seconds when the Lieutenant bounded forward to the point to get some sense of the enemy presence. He passed the wounded Ranger at a low quick trot and quickly gained the point stopping at the lead and cuing on his direction of fire.
As quickly as the incoming fire started, it stopped. The jungle ahead resonated with the echoing sound of retreating movement in the leaves, the screeching of birds and the distancing echo of the last shots. There had probably been less than 20 yards between the adversaries. Out of the corner of his eye, the Lieutenant saw movement to his right front where the ground gave rise to a small sunlit bare knoll. More a rise in the ground than a real feature.
He saw the momentary flash of glinting black hair melding into a light green shirt collar. Reacting with a deer hunter or skeet shooter’s skills, the Lieutenant raised his rifle to his armpit and fired an unconsciously aimed single shot with animal hand and eye coordination. His only momentary registered image was a spread of windblown coal black hair as the VC disappeared. Other Rangers began to move forward, firing as they went. Quickly overtaking the Lieutenant’s position, they all gained the slight high ground to his front, spread out, dropped to the ground and began to search forward with their eyes. Less than 20 feet from the Lieutenant appeared an anomaly at the base of the knoll. Nothing could be discerned from his position but some light green of irregular shape against the brown jungle floor in the discrete shaft of light the jungle permitted entrance.
The Lieutenant pointed toward the area. Several Rangers fired on its flanks. With no return fire, the Lieutenant and two of his companions crouched and slid down the hill on the soft wet red laterite clay. A Ranger reached in and grabbed the green. It was a shirt collar worn by the Lieutenant’s snap shot victim. He pulled the shirt and head up the hill to where it lay, bathed in the soft dappled light that escaped through the canopy. The features of the face were spread in an exaggerated moon shape with no real definition between the cheeks and the nose. The bullet had penetrated the base of the skull, tumbled on the top vertebrae and exited sideways just under the nose in a wide tearing moustache gash. The dirt-rimmed eyes were wide open with a mixture of yellow fluid and dust exuding from the corners of the eyes and ear holes. Already, ants were crawling across the eyes beginning the process of decay. A small fly sat on the right iris and began to probe the cornea.
The Lieutenant stopped and stared intently at the face and the eyes. He had a mixture of curiosity and morbid detachment. He had never seen a dead enemy let alone one he had killed. He felt nothing emotionally other than a detached professional interest. This was his first kill. The genes had been useful.
COL Keith Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.
This article was published on Small Wars Journal