…Conquista Todo: “Welcome Home”
We sat underneath your pergola eating fruit. You were going on about the war and I lay there staring up past the intricate latticework of wooden beams into the green canopy above. Through the spaces of the criss-cross, I watched tree branches convivially wave back and forth. They played in the wind, flitting back and forth, and made sunlight dance with shadows on your face. The way the light and darkness shifted on your face underneath this green layer reminded me of the jungle; it reminded me of Raoul.
I lit a cigarette and thought of the guerillas. I thought about my time with them for those three long years. How I contracted every known tropical illness and probably a few yet known, almost died of dysentery twice. I remembered following them on mission after mission, an endless routine of deadly raids and sabotages; I recalled the firefights most vividly, the exhilaration and terror as the bullets tore like sparks of lighting through the air above us; how the sound of warfare made me feel so alienated, hunched down and surrounded by the hollers of the dying. I remembered being hunted. I remembered fleeing with the platoon at night while the soldiers tracked us down; I remembered being shot, laying there in the dark muffling my cries of agony while a bean-counter worked on my wound; I survived; I went back out on the patrols; I witnessed them chase down a retreating soldier, I witnessed their war crimes; I got horribly lost in the confection of the slaughterhouse. Some of it I captured, most of it I did not.
Raoul knelt above the reach and was playing with some guppies trapped in a small pool. I stepped into the water. Small plumes of sand kicked up every time my feet touched the soft bed below. The water was unseasonably cold, which the natives considered the sign of a good coming harvest. Most of those natives had been either killed off or relocated from these lands during the nearly thirty-years war. The few remaining family clans lived there illegally and tried to avoid the Army and guerillas as much as possible. Their absence, yet known presence, added to the haunted quality of the jungle. Many of the soldiers would talk to me and each other about how all the blood from the war, the violence, the utter animus seeped into the jungle and rotted the soil and trees; “the spirit of the jungle was forever changed.” Some would laugh as they told me this. It was their punchline to a joke I did not understand. The only kind of humor that can come from a warzone. Others lit cigarettes as incense candles and planted them at the base of the tree and said a little prayer to their ancestors and the jungle to forgive and protect them.
Over three years inhabiting the unholy grounds, we grew comfortable with the cursed setting, and the longer we spent there, the more we began to feel as though we were part of the jungle and knew it as part of our own body. It was why they were so successful in their raiding missions and (when necessary) retreats. They could just vanish and were never taken by surprise. They knew the jungle and it knew them and sided with their cause. So it was safe out on the reach.
I took photos of men replenishing their canteens and cooling their bodies down. I took shots of men taking buckets of water into their porous caps and rushing them atop their heads. A small waterfall of river water cascading down their faces. Young men standing near the water, holding their rifles, laughing and nodding. The Lieutenant smoking a cigarette and discussing the map with his staff.
Raoul kept trying to catch a guppy in his hand. He had this silly way about him. He was a child, no more than twenty. He was a farmboy by nature. Conscripted into the local guerilla outfit when he was twelve or thirteen. He didn’t really know. It had been a while since he had seen a calendar and he wasn’t taught to keep track of time the way people in the city did. His family called it tiempo de tierra. He had been with the men for four or five years, give or take one or two. He joined the rebels with his older brother, Eduardo, who died a few months into their first year. Miliaria. It was a powerful loss for Raoul. It hardened him. Made his resolve even more intense. But he was still a farm boy at heart. He was in many skirmishes, but still a farm boy. He fired guns and burned crops, exploded bridges and destroyed supply lines, but still a farm boy. Lost a few fingers, bit off in a card game gone bad, killed the family of the leader of a pro-government village in front of him before immolating the hysterical man. Raped a few women. Killed livestock for sport. Ate rotted food. Got dysentery. Gave it to me. Cried for Eduardo in his sleep, cried for his mother and father and his other siblings. Sang revolutionary songs with a blithesome timbre. Played with guppies in a reach.
I wonder if people who visit the Museum and see the original hanging on the wall also see these things in Raoul’s face like I do. Events make a person. History poorly remembers them. Undoubtedly, the folks who have bought the mass-produced versions of his playful moment to hang in their hallways or living rooms, or the people flipping through their magazines and stumble upon him in the Madison Avenue advertisement don’t see it. They don’t see him. They see a kid playing in a pool of water with an assault rifle strapped to his back, his smiling face turned profile so you can observe his gaunt features and lacking teeth. Regrettably, that’s what I had seen at first when I was freezing him in time.
Worst of all, the only context that offers any nuance to his existence and endears him to the masses is the last event that had the most impact on his life.
Shortly after I took that photo, Raoul was shot dead. A sniper had fired a 7.62 bullet through the left eye socket. It ripped through him so quickly… I didn’t take a photo of the aftermath.
“What are you thinking about?” The sound of your voice and the roar of the cicadas retrieved me from the battlefield. I was lounging again in your hot backyard. Your dog looked up at me with its tired, drooping eyes for a moment and then went back to sleep. The ice in my cocktail shifted and clinked.
“Nothing much… The war.”
“Are you thinking about the boy?”
“In a sense.”
“It’s a real shame. All that bloodshed. He lost his life—and for what? The rebels’ government has fallen and the ruling class is back in power again. Utterly meaningless.”
“Meaningless. Hmm… have you ever heard the story of the Battle of Bergamo? During the French Revolution? No?”
“During the War of the First Coalition, Napoleon cut his teeth as a general of the Army of Italy. Northern Italy was seen as a secondary front, but Napoleon essentially leads the ragtag Army to not only crush the Italians (or more precisely the Piedmontese) and the Austrians down there, but he totally ends the fucking war which eventually sets everything else into motion and sees him become Emperor and completely wreak havoc on Europe, upending the old feudal and monarchal ways of living, etc. etc. It all started with his planned invasion of Northern Italy.
“But that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s actually right after the war. As this first campaign has wrapped, and the treaties have been signed, a regiment of the Army of Italy and a regiment of the Habsburg-Austrian Army stumbled upon each other outside the small town of Bergamo. Now, sadly, word had not yet spread to the generals in command that the war was over. So the French general (I don’t remember his name and it’s not important to my point) sets up his men and cannons on one side of this river… I forget the name of it as well.
“Anyway, the French are all set up on one side and the Austrians on the other of this river and the only way across for several miles is this one bridge that maybe, maybe fits four or five guys across and is over a hundred yards long. So essentially, these two regiments, which were actually larger than a typical size but I’m not going to get into why, they start blowing the hell out of each other while one side or the other keep making charges to get over the bridge day after day after day. One squad of young men after the next trying to rush across that bridge to the other side to break through the enemy and seize the day. But because both had equal strategic strength, both remained at a gory stalemate. The French would try to take the bridge, be stalled and then have to retreat; then it was the Austrian’s turn; both sides were encouraged to charge every time because they thought they finally had the advantage. The only real result was one row of young men, farmers, tradesmen, fathers and sons being gunned down after the next on that bridge. Each day brought the stench of sulfur and rot, great clouds of gunpowder obscuring the sight and burning their eyes, a cacophony of artillery and musket fire, and the screaming, the horrible screaming. Again and again, until at dusk when they called a ceasefire in order to retrieve their dead as to relieve the tremendous burden of all those corpses on the bridge.
“On the last day, the French general was preparing one last assault attempt on the Austrians. He had lost a majority of his troops and the will to fight on was waining. But honor and duty compelled him to try once more to seize the bridge and win the battle. It was as he planned his men’s last death march that a courier arrived to inform him the war was over. As he and the other Frenchmen exited their tents that morning, they were welcomed to the sight of a vacant bank on the other side of the river. The Austrian’s had a faster courier and left in the night. The Battle of Bergamo was over. No one won.
“All told, over five thousand soldiers lost their lives on an undecided fluke battle that was commenced a week after the war was over. Almost no one remembers it and certainly none of their names…
“Now. Tell me one more time about Raoul’s meaningless life.”