A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

Death at Dawn

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Broken light from the weak sun filtered through the scant opening above the two men’s heads. They stirred from what had been a restless sleep and, stretching their arms and legs to rid themselves of the night’s stiffness, looked at each other. With that look they became aware that this was not a dream. They were in a holding cell. They were due to be executed by firing squad this morning at the stroke of 0900.

He’s been there for three days. Hanging on the wire sideways, hands clutched at the rim. He nearly made it over the top but the Maxim machine gun caught him at the apogee of his flight and left him forever suspended in space and time. The men had made macabre jokes to ease their tension. ‘He’s grown a little thinner today.’ ‘I don’t like that aftershave you have on today Ben.’ The blood has dried and crusted over the dozen or so exit wounds in his back and the smelly excreta has finally been overcome by an even more malodorous scent as the flies start their relentless feeding and laying of eggs. The men would have cut him down but didn’t want to end up as scarecrows on the battlefield.  They argued amongst themselves who was the more inhumane.

The powers that be had not seen it the way the men had. They saw their reluctance to leave their trenches and advance on the enemy as an act of cowardice. An act that needed to be punished so that other men in the army would see that this sort of behaviour would not be tolerated. Sacrifices had to be made. Lives given to the God of War. The door to the cell swung open and a priest entered, flanked by two heavily armed guards.

It is a remarkable and often commented upon fact that when men (or women) are sentenced to death they are treated with a dignity that far outweighs their place in the grand scheme of things. Normally then condemned have committed some gross transgression of what is normal, accepted, human behaviour. That’s why the death penalty stands for murder, for betrayal. Yet, ironically, once the sentence has been delivered the purveyors of justice develop a softening of attitude and behaviour toward the accused. They wrap them in cotton wool. What would you like to eat? Is that bed soft enough for you? Who would you like to talk to?

The duty of the commanding officer of a firing squad is simple. He must first assemble his firing squad. Some think that only one member of the squad has a blank in his weapon and all the rest live ammunition. This is a fallacy and it is probably widespread so that a solider enlisted into a firing squad can convince himself that he has not killed one of his comrades in cold blood. Any man who uses a weapon to kill knows if he is firing a blank or not. All rounds are live and each soldier has a full clip so that, in the unlikely event that the first volley does not kill the target, the leader of the firing squad may order another volley. He may also choose to do what he must do to end the ceremony and that is to approach the fallen body and shoot him once through the right temple with his service revolver. The revolver contains special ammunition of the dumb-dumb variety so that, on impact, it explodes into tiny fragments which they branch outwards and destroy most areas of the victims brain. It had the unfortunate side effect of almost destroying the head of the target. The leader of the firing squad also has to ask each victim if they require a blindfold and if the answer is in the affirmative then they are required to tie the blindfold around the eyes of the victim. They must also issue the command to load, aim and fire to complete the act. They are usually in possession of a sword with which to brandish in a ceremonial fashion while they carry out the latter duties. Although the role of the head of the firing squad is not too different from that of an executioner, they are held in much higher esteem than those gentlemen. Needless to say no head of the execution squad has ever been decorated for that deed, and it is a role that is not usually talked about at after dinner drinks. Men die ‘with dignity’ and the ceremony is performed with ‘dignity’. No heads of firing squads will tell you about the surprising number of men who piss or shit themselves. None will talk about the large number of men who are so drugged that they barely know what is happening to them. The ceremony of certified murder is blanketed in military mumbo jumbo and is a severe lesson that the authority within the army is essential for its continued working.

They were marched outside into a blindingly white day. The sun, previously filtered through the cells windows, had risen to half its journey to the top of the sky and beat down on the barren courtyard.  They blinked and tried to become accustomed to the new day although, when their eyes cleared, they wished they hadn’t. The two men could see the posts that they were to be pinioned, each with a chair in front. They both knew from what their jailers had told them that each chair had a pan beneath it to catch and conceal blood and other fluids from the gathered audience, and, more importantly, their comrades. They could also see the two crude coffins placed beside two freshly dug holes to the side of the posts. Behind the posts were black sheets placed over what must have been sandbags. Presumably to stop any ricochets and, heaven forbid, cause an injury or death to any pf the official squad or the curious group of garishly decorated officers who had come to bear witness to one of the armies more desperate ceremonies. They were asked to sit on the opened coffins while the firing squad readied themselves. The officer who had been chosen to be head of the firing squad looked at the men as though he personally hated them.

“I don’t want any snivelling or fainting or wailing. Be men for the last moment of your lives. Your wives are watching. Die with dignity.”

One of the men thought of his wife and his young son. The women had bought the boy into their bed on the morning of his departure and the child had lain next to him, his tiny fingers seeking to wind themselves around his larger appendages. He thought fondly of that moment and how happy it now made him feel, although, at the time, he had been midly irritated and distacted that his sleep and possible lovemaking, had been curtailed so abruptly.

Restraints were applied to the victim’s arms, legs, chest and head. A head restraint was applied loosely around the neck to hold neck and head in an upright position. To support the impression of dignity. The restraints were tight and bit into the wrists and ankles of the men. One of them jokingly thought that if they weren’t loosened soon he might have his circulation cut off and his feet and hands might start to go gangrenous. He choked back the laugh which could easily have turned into a scream. They then felt the white targets being pinned to their chests but because of the restraints they could not see that the target was a simple white square with a blue circle in the middle, which was approximately over where their hearts should be. The tiny blue circles were the approximate size of a soverign. The same man thought briefly to himself that he had not thought a sexual thought for the last twenty-four hours since he had been made aware that he was to be court-martialled for cowardice ness. For refusing to venture over the wire, past his dead and decaying comrade, to what would have been certain death.

They heard the officer in charge of the firing squad ask them if they had any last statement to make. They also heard sotto voice “make it fucking quick and no drama” They heard the question if they wanted a blindfold. One prisoner chooses the hood and the officer placed it roughly over his head, murmuring under his breath. The other prisoner stiffened his posture, as if he had finally come to accept that this was not going to end with a last minute pardon; that he was going to be killed.

They both heard the officer gave the firing party their orders: “Aim straight. I don’t want to have to finish them off.” Neither of them heard the order to fire.

One of the two prisoners was slightly wounded and fell over struggling on his coffin; the other was not hit at all but with desperate energy broke his pinion and snatched the blindfold from his eyes. A murmur of mingled pity and disgust ran through the division. The officer ordered another round to be fired. The squad quickly worked the bolts of their rifles and a ragged volley of shots rang out. Not the coordinated first firing but almost like some of them had lost their nerve, whereas others were impatient for this thing to be over. As the smoke cleared the horrified audience could see one body, bleeding profusely, half draped over a coffin, his blindfold dislodged, his legs and arms at impossible angles. His body was still twitching and small plumes of smoke arose from the wounds, clearly visible on his torso. The other body was slumped in front of his chair. Falling forward or perhaps leaping forward to somehow perversely escape the fuselage he had dislodged the covering of the chair and the gathered officers and colleagues could clearly see the blood, urine and fluids draining from the upturned pan. He was still clearly very alive despite numerous wounds. The officer thought of ordering a third volley but common sense or decency overcame him and he strode forward and discharged his revolver as he did so, all in the general direction of the prisoners head. By the time he had reached the fallen prisoner he had discharged three rounds and the bloody pulp that met his eyes still pleaded for mercy and, incredibly, still seemed to be alive. He placed his weapon on the edge of the bloody pulp that had been the victims head and slowly, inextricably, he pulled the trigger for the fourth time.

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