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The Battlefield Philosopher

By David Gardiner

(This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author)

It wouldn't be entirely true to say that I had arrived at this airport by chance. There were many routes that I could have chosen to get home to London from the Far East, stop-overs at Bucharest or Abbu Dhabi, Vienna or Cairo, but I had chosen this obscure little Central European capital because as soon as I had seen its name I had remembered my old friend of University days, Oliver McClure. Oliver had been my favourite teacher, a charming and eccentric Irish ex-priest, not a great deal older than his students, who lectured to the trainee teachers on the esoteric subject of "Philosophy of Education". I had never forgotten his answer to a young girl's question in the very first lecture that he had given to my group: it was an answer that had seized my attention and led me into an obsession with philosophy which came to rule my life. "Will studying philosophy make it any easier for us in the classroom?" she had asked. "Only if I fail," Oliver had answered without an instant's hesitation, "if I succeed it will make it infinitely more difficult."

The lesson that Oliver had been trying to impart had been nothing less than the central imperative of Western philosophy since Socrates: Question everything. It doesn't make classroom teaching easier any more than it makes life itself easier, that isn't it's point, it makes both of them infinitely more difficult and infinitely more worthwhile. My detour therefore was to renew my acquaintance with a hero of my late 'teens, the man who had convinced me that the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined doctrine unworthy of acceptance.

I left the cold grey concourse of the crumbling airport terminal with just a light rucksack slung over my shoulder, having been assured in broken English by the clerk in the transit lounge that my luggage would be transferred to the connecting flight the following afternoon. Outside the terminal a cluster of ugly and functional windowless buildings, clad with corrugated iron and disfigured by rust streaks and the dents and scrapes of decades of tight manoeuvres by clumsy truck drivers, formed a large oblong courtyard in which half-a-dozen State-owned taxis, all painted regulation grey and bearing a motif of the national flag on their front door panels, waited apathetically to carry arriving passengers on their onward journeys. They stood on a yellow taxi rank one behind the other, spaced out with military precision. I went to the one at the head of the line and tapped on the driver's window. He wound it down with that air of grim resignation that state control of industry is so good at producing and waited blankly for me to name a destination.

"Can you take me to Grundhof Farm in Latvihasse?" I asked with exaggerated clarity, hoping that he would be able to make sense of my murdering of the place-names. To my relief his whole countenance lit up and he motioned towards the rear doors, plainly inviting me to get in. "You know Grundhof Farm?" I asked, mainly for reassurance, as I tossed my rucksack on to the back seat and made myself comfortable beside it.

"I know," he returned in a deep bass as he started the engine. I rolled down my window a fraction to make the odour of stale tobacco-smoke a bit less intense.

Although this was notionally the international airport of the capitol city, the road out of the terminal looked entirely rural, twisting its way through dormant ploughed potato fields, the troughs choked with compacted snow, the landscape dotted with the roofless skeletons of primitive farm buildings and the shells of abandoned gutted vehicles, everything falling to ruins and beginning to blend in with the snow amid the random clumps of winter-naked birch trees.

"Civil war," the driver explained in his booming voice, adopting the role of tour guide, "many people die, many farms destroyed. Now all owned by Government. Still no good. Still grow no crops."

It sounded like dangerous talk. I nodded sagely.

Oliver had left his lecturing post at the London University Institute of Education under circumstances that had seemed at the time heartrendingly romantic. He had fallen in love with Eva, a young palely beautiful student from this godforsaken Central European cess-pit who had been admitted to study abroad under some obscure United Nations bursary for gifted scholars from bankrupt and despotic hell-holes. She had been chosen from among more than ten thousand applicants. That was a perfectly realistic measure of how gifted she was. For the first time in his career Oliver had been given the charge of a student every bit his intellectual equal, with the looks of an angel and the sad serious eyes of a motherless fawn. I said that Oliver fell in love with her, in fact every male that she had ever met had fallen in love with her, but in Oliver's case there had been some degree of reciprocation. Then (without meaning to sound melodramatic) came the revolution. The tanks rolled over the fields her father and her father's fathers had ploughed since human beings had known how to grow crops. It was only a couple of months before Eva's final examinations but there was no way that she would sit in a comfortable seminar room in London while her parents waited for the 4.00 AM knock on the door, or the explosion of the mortar shell that would end her family line forever. And of course against all the dictates of common sense and the strongest possible urgings of the Foreign Office Travel Advice Centre, Oliver had gone with her.

We rounded a bend and came upon a group of parked military trucks where uniformed and heavily armed soldiers stood around in groups, chatting and smoking with the same bored resignation that I had seen in the faces of the waiting taxi-drivers. One of them signalled us to stop and the driver wound down his window with the same unhurried detachment with which he had wound it down for me. "Soldiers," he explained, rather redundantly. They exchanged a few curt words in their own language. I heard the word "passport". The driver leaned back and repeated it to me. I handed the dog-eared document through the open window. As the soldier turned its pages he continued his conversation with the driver. Eventually the driver turned around to address me in a deep quiet undertone. "I tell him you want to go Nazzibrink, not Latvihasse," he explained, "is better. Okay?"

For the first time, I felt a shot of unease. What had looked like the picturesque eccentricities of a foreign way of life suddenly took on a menacing importance. Why did we need to lie to the soldiers? I nodded and swallowed hard. This wasn't the time to start an argument.

Within a few moments my passport had been returned and we were on our way again. I considered asking the driver for more explanation, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to do it. It seemed such a natural reaction to him, to question it might have seemed naïve. We came to a place where the road forked and the driver took the right-hand track, the narrower and less travelled of the two. We started to ascend into wooded, snow-covered hills. The road seemed icy, but he maintained a brisk speed. For the second time in that journey I felt apprehension for my personal safety. The driver seemed to have slipped out of his tour-guide role and for the remainder of the trip he remained stonily silent. I hoped that he was concentrating on his driving.

The forest became more dense as we rose higher, and soon we were moving through a tunnel of trees that overhung the narrow track and seemed to close over above it. The trees also seemed to serve an insulating function and the road surface became less obviously lethal.

Oliver's leaving the University had been the biggest gossip topic of my student days. He had been a popular and lively tutor, an approachable man, who attended student parties when invited, and took part in the Union Society debates, and drank regularly in the Students' Union Bar. A little circle of disciples had grown up around him, myself prominent among them, and more than once we had talked-in the dawn sitting cross-legged on the floor of some student rooming house, solving the problems of the world and probing the mysteries of existence with that intensity of purpose that for the great bulk of us seems to melt away in the first couple of weeks following Graduation Day.

He sent us a total of three letters after he left, all of them hurried, uncharacteristically brief and direct, friendly in their way, but (perhaps understandably) preoccupied with matters more weighty than we could readily understand. Yes, he was all right and Eva and her family were all right - so far. The fighting was still a few miles from the farm. Her older brother was in the mountains with the Freedom Fighters, her younger brother was still at home. One of their farm workers had been killed in an ambush. They had planted nothing this year, and there would be nothing to feed the cattle in the coming winter. There was no diesel fuel for the generator, and nobody came to empty the sceptic tank any more. And so it went on. By the time the second letter arrived, Eva knew that her older brother was dead, and her father was finding it harder and harder to keep the younger one at home. There were soldiers of fourteen out there now, Axel was sixteen, there was no excuse. This might have to be the last letter, it was too dangerous to ask people to smuggle them out and post them abroad. But no, there was one more letter. What a change of mood! The Freedom Fighters had won the day! They had marched into the capitol, shelled the Presidential Palace, set up a Provisional Government! Eva's younger brother had come back alive, a hero of the revolution, with medals and citations, but (sadly) without his left foot. Her family could start to rebuild now. The future was bright, Oliver wished us all a life as happy as the one he was having with his adored Eva.

His three letters were published together as a framed single-page feature in the student newspaper. That edition sold out in about two hours.

We came to a crossroads high in the mountains. The trees had largely given way to a rocky, snow-bound plateau, the road itself had turned to a ribbon of compacted snow between two raised mounds, almost certainly the result of drain-digging. There were no skeleton buildings up here and no abandoned vehicles: just the rocks and the snow and the little twisted shrubs that pushed up through it here and there, jagged and indestructible.

We took the track to the left, down into a different valley from the one by which we had ascended. I had lost my sense of time, Oliver's farm seemed to be a very long way from the airport. "Is it a lot further?" I asked conversationally. I don't know whether he understood me or not but he did not answer. A light flutter of falling snow began to obstruct the windscreen and he switched on the wipers. Before long it had become heavier and I could see little beyond the drainage mounds at either side of the track. To my relief he slowed down and turned the windscreen wipers up to full speed. It crossed my mind that if I became snowed-in and missed my flight the following day all kinds of dire consequences would follow. I began to wonder what had possessed me to come here, without even an advance phone call to let Oliver know that I was on my way. What if they didn't live at the farm any more? What if I was being taken hostage by this strange and taciturn taxi-driver to become a pawn in some incomprehensible local power-struggle? My heart was beginning to beat at an unaccustomed pace and I had to force back an urge to demand, or more accurately beg him to turn around at once and take me back to the airport.

Suddenly we were passing through the rubble of a village. To either side of the road I could glimpse through the snow the shattered walls of houses with daylight showing through their windows, charred wooden roof beams pointing at dizzy angles towards the sky, burned-out vehicles, many of them on their sides, casually nudged on to the pavements so that fresh traffic could pass by. Nowhere could I see a human being, or evidence of recent habitation. Without needing to be told, I knew that this was Latvihasse.

A sick numbness had come into my stomach. This was a killing-field. This was what war looked like, even years after. How on earth had Eva and her family managed to survive fighting of this intensity?

Just a few hundred yards past the village, the driver slowed down and turned in through a gap in a wall where there had once been gates. We were headed for the front courtyard of what had been a sizeable farmhouse, now merely another picturesque roofless ruin.

"Grundhof Farm?" I whispered. This time the driver heard.

"I wait for you," he replied in booming acknowledgement, "You walk rest of way. Keep hands out from sides. Show you have no gun. Okay?"

Okay? Delightful, I almost answered. Instead I said nothing but pulled myself out into the stinging snow and started to plod my way towards the freezing corpse of the old stone building. I held my hands out in plain view as the driver had advised, even though the snow made them tingle and the ruins looked like they would provide scant shelter for a rat let alone a gunman.

What on earth was I doing here, I asked myself, what on earth did I suppose I was going to learn from it? What kind of trap was I walking into?

My attention had been on the old building and its tragic state, but as I approached it I suddenly noticed through the snow something else entirely. Parked over to my right, where the corner of a partly demolished stone wall provided a bit of shelter, was a rusting military truck about the size of a small furniture removal van, its rear end facing me. The wheels were missing and concrete blocks had been used to stabilize the chassis underneath. There was also a large galvanized water tank on the roof that seemed to be connected up to pipes of some kind, and alongside the vehicle was a series of butane gas cylinders with orange flexible tubes disappearing beneath. The final proof of human habitation was a gently sloping wooden ramp leading up to an improvised metal front door whose frame had been welded into position in the bottom part of the original huge rear door panel. The top half of the door was made of glass, and behind it, just discernible through the falling snow, a seated figure was watching me.

At the sight of the crude shelter and its mystery occupant my spirits took a momentary upward bound. They really were all right! They had lost the farmhouse but they were clinging to some kind of existence, the same as everyone else who had come through the country's recent inferno.

Throwing off all caution I quickened my pace and waved to the man whom I was now almost certain was Oliver. Then, as I got to the foot of the ramp, I saw something that hit me like a physical blow and almost stopped my heart. My whole body went numb and my arms fell to my sides. Between the truck and the wall, in a space that was well sheltered from the snow, three small wooden crosses had been driven into the ground. They had been there for some time and the neatly painted names had begun to flake, but they were perfectly legible. One of them I did not recognize. The other two were Axel and Eva.

I don't know how long I stood there staring at them as the snow fluttered past my eyes and melted into little rivulets that trickled down my face and the back of my neck.

It was the once so familiar voice of Oliver McClure, his Dublin brogue now oddly overlaid with the local accent, that brought me back to my senses.

"You shouldn't have come," he said very quietly. I looked up. The door was open and a disturbing pale effigy of Oliver McClure was looking down at me from a battered wheelchair just inside. His once round and ever-cheerful face had become gaunt and drawn, his bright ginger hair thin, wispy and almost entirely grey. Beneath his joyless eyes yellowish drooping bags spoke of years of strain and insomnia.. Had I met him in other circumstances I might have wondered if this was Oliver McClure's father – but no, there was no real question, this was Oliver.

"You had better come in," he said in that same resigned monotone that seemed to be the badge of this country.

He reversed the chair soundlessly into the dark interior and I followed and pulled the crude door shut behind me. I stood and looked down at him. For almost a minute neither of us spoke. He must have seen the shock and disbelief in my eyes.

"I'm afraid what I said in my third letter wasn't entirely true," he began at last in that strangely Europeanised brogue. He motioned me to sit and I found a plain wooden chair. Stunned into a foolish silence, my surroundings made no impression. He spoke very quietly. He seemed to find the English language quite difficult, you could tell that he didn't think in English any more.

"They came here… it was early evening. Broad daylight. Not like now. Warm. Summer time. They killed all of them. Axel. Eva. Her father. They didn't kill me. That was a very big mistake. They broke my legs and held me so that I couldn't move, but they didn't kill me. They made me watch. They thought it was very funny. I don't know why they didn't kill me. Maybe it was because I was a foreigner. I don't think you want to know what they did to Eva before they killed her. They shot Axel in the stomach. It took him a long time to die. But not as long as the man who shot him. It took him three days to die. I was very inventive. Come to think of it he got off fairly lightly. One of them took five and a half days. I had my technique almost perfected by then. You see, broken legs heal again."

I stood transfixed, as if in a nightmare. I tried to speak. Oliver was in no hurry. He waited for me to get the words out. "So it was all lies," I whispered almost to myself, "the glorious revolution. The glorious future. None of it was real. Why? What made you do it Oliver? Why did you lie to us?"

"It isn't the way it's supposed to end," he said quietly, "the young starry-eyed revolutionary doesn't end up a stinking cripple in a wheelchair. He doesn't become a torturer and a sick killer like me. He gets the girl and they live happily ever after. They rebuild democracy and prosperity in their shattered homeland and bring their children up to love freedom and justice and treat every man as their brother. The meek inherit the earth. We have it all on very good authority. Those students back in London… those children, because that's all they are really… what would it have done to their dreams, their idealism… if I had told them the way it had really turned-out?"

I realized at that moment that I was one of them, that I couldn't bear to let go of the fairytale. That I wanted to reject the evidence of my own eyes. "Wasn't any of it real, Oliver," I pleaded, "any of it?"

He shrugged. "The rebels won. That bit was true. There's a new socialist President and if you look closely enough you might be able to find some difference between him and the one we executed, though I can't se it myself. But we did win. And I did fight with the rebels. In fact I became a very dangerous man. A man who doesn't care whether he lives or dies. A man like that is a formidable soldier. I set myself the task that I would kill ten state soldiers for every one that had raped Eva. That came to forty. In fact I reached a score of fifty-one, a bonus of eleven. I was very pleased with that."

"You make it sound… like a game," I whispered.

"Oh it is. It's our national sport. Every few years we wipe out half the country's population in a competition to determine which dictator we want to live under. It gives us something to do in the long winter evenings. I understand we're almost ready for the next one. There's an armed movement starting up again, against the new President… whoever he is. Difficult to remember." He paused. "But anyway, I've retired now. Just waiting to die. I took a good many wounds, finally took one through the spine. I'm a sort of a national hero, you know. I have a military pension to live on… not much, but more than a lot of people around here."

"This is… insane," I rasped lamely.

"Yes. Completely insane. I couldn't agree more. So I want you to promise me something." His tone became more serious. "I want you to promise me that when you get back to London you won't say anything about this. This isn't real. You're having a bad dream. Reality is the place where the good guys win, where young idealists make the world a better place. Where all the clichés come true. Tell them I said so. They'll believe you if you tell them I said so."