BEIRUT: He was a boy, not old enough to vote or drink in most countries, but this wasn’t any other country. It was Lebanon during the Civil War. The country was fragmented into a dozen parts, each ruled by its own mini-state, with its own mini-army. He was a strong subscriber to the ideology of one of them, just like his parents before him, and their parents before them.
We met when we were twelve. “Tony” was from a neighboring village and we used to play football in the alleys, or talk about the future, or girls. We used to steal our parents’ cars, sometimes with the pretext of washing them, and drive fast and “nshaffett.” The Darak police had long disappeared from the streets, so our biggest threat was to be caught by our dads.
As the war spread closer, and Tony reached puberty, he enrolled in the militia with his favorite inherited ideology. He joined to fight for a cause, in which he deeply believed, backed by a divine fervor, just like every other boy, fighting for every other group, in every corner of the tiny country; ubiquitous, in those days, in every newscast in the world. He would carry on this extracurricular activity along with attending school. I wonder how you’d describe it on a college essay to an Ivy League school. Would it rank higher or lower for the admissions committee than playing the piano?
He graduated, through an exemption from the mandatory Baccalaureate exams, canceled due to a flare-up in hostilities, just like they seemed to do, every year, around the same time. He was extremely proud, for he had just completed his real curriculum of education — the newly established officer training for his particular militia.
He was now a brand new Lieutenant, one of the youngest in the force. He had to take this mandatory course, although, even at his tender age, already had several years of combat experience. The supreme leader of his militia had recently taken over decisively, through a coup, which happened every few months, although his would stick.
Shortly after taking over, the supreme leader decreed that all new and serving officers go through this course. He was allowed to take the abridged three month version called “re-qualification course,” instead of the full year that those other amateurs had to go through. The trainers were defectors from the Lebanese Army or hand-picked militia members of unquestionable loyalty. It consisted of weapons training, military strategy, physical fitness, military etiquette, and, most importantly, ideology.
Ideology was about why they were killing the other side and why this person is the right guy to lead this effort. He beamed as he showed me a picture of himself being presented with a sword by the supreme leader at the graduation ceremony. The picture still hangs in his house today. For the untrained eye, it could have been a ceremony at West Point.
After he graduated, he had several assignments, mainly in their security apparatus, which was a much-needed specialty. The latest weapon in the war arsenal, the Lebanese version of the World War II vintage V-2 rocket, had been unleashed and started to appear regularly on the scene. This was the car bomb going off in civilian areas. Hundreds dead and wounded, just for going to see a movie like Top Gun. During the Civil War, 3,641 car bombs went off, or an average of about one a day, seven days a week, so the Car Bomb God didn’t rest on the seventh day. Since the end of the war, bombs, shootings, or assassinations occur far less frequently, but just enough to shatter any illusion you might have had about living in a normal country.
The carnage from a car bomb was so devastating that no matter how many times you saw it, you never got used to it. Nobody understood then, nor now, the military imperative that these achieved, but they went on anyway.
One day the perpetrator of one of those car bombs was apprehended in Tony’s little mini-state. He was thrown in an underground prison cell of the militia’s security building. After an efficient interrogation, a speedy trial of his peers (from the captors), he was sentenced to death by firing squad.
For whatever reason, maybe to establish themselves as legitimate rulers, or maybe to test loyalties, a decision was taken that those brand new young officers were the ones to carry out this execution. Tony was one of those selected for this honor.
The convicted man was placed in front of a wall, eyes covered with a black bandana, just like in the movies. The half dozen or so officers, received the order, aimed, and fired. The bad guy crumbled to the ground.
When he told me the story in those days, I asked him silly teenage questions, that only someone as young and green could ask.
“Couldn't you say no?”
“No, of course not.”
“But how did you feel?”
“Pretty fu**ing bad. But I had my orders. And he was a bad guy!”
“Did you try to shoot him in the leg or something so that one of the others would kill him?”
“No, I shot him right in the chest.”
“Did you at least try to delay a split second so that one of the other people’s rounds would have killed him?”
“No, man. The others might have done that. My bullet was probably the first.”
Although I’d known him for years, he suddenly seemed much, much older. His face was older. His demeanor was older. His way of speaking was older. And ever since that day, he was ten years older than me and I would never catch up with him.
The war’s now been over for decades, and we’re still close friends, but we’ve never spoken of that incident again.
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