combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2007

The Quick and the Dead

First, as always, we stood and waited on the edge of an immense piece of dull flat browning earth twice the size of a football field and streaked with faint chalk lines that were barely wider than threads of yarn. Like everyone else in the company, I was in my undershirt, having taken my fatigue shirt off and placed it with the rest of my downed equipment, and was holding my rifle up in front of my chest, at port arms, and sweating freely. The air was humid and very hot. So, as a way of defying it, I imagined I was standing in a shower stall with streams of ice cold water shooting down my neck and back. For a few seconds I felt cool and relaxed, jailed in idleness like a person of extraordinary wealth.

Then I heard a shrill mechanical wail come from the other end of the field, and my heart raced. Immediately, without any sense of planned movement, all of us walked across the chalk line bordering the field, then began to move in a stampede, yelling fiercely, loudly, sounding possessed. We ran in the sand with the awkward carelessness of manacled slaves, stumbling and slipping each time our heels bit into the soft, changing ground. Soon we were strung out in a loose herd, each person going his own way.

Raggedly we headed toward a large elevated platform, approximately the size of a theater stage, at the north end of the field. On it were two long green trumpet-shaped loudspeakers, hooked to poles on either side of the stage, and in between them stood the short, heavyset DI with the bullet-scarred neck. He had a long wooden pointer in his hand which he flagellated across his head like a sword. Around his neck hung a thick green rope of solid metal and wire, to which was attached a small, square-shaped microphone. His other hand gripped it tightly and held it close against his screaming mouth. His clear, imperious voice cleaved sharply through the dense air. And so did our voices. As we ran toward him, all of us shouted wildly and emphatically, "Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!" every time our left heels struck the ground.

On approaching the platform, we stopped our running but continued to scream out our one word chant, and with equal passion the DI's voice met our cries and came piercing through the microphone and loudspeakers, shouting, "What's the spirit of the bayonet?"

"To kill!" we shouted back in unison.

He had us spread out into long, equal ranks, then began to perform in earnest, screeching in his powerfully charged voice, "There are two kinds of bayonet fighters. Which one are you?"

"The Quick!"

"Which one is Charlie?"

"The Dead!"

"What kind of fighter are you?"

"The Quick!"

"You don't sound like it."

"The Quick!"

"I can't hear you," he yelled, cupping his right hand behind his ear.

"The QUICK!" we screamed, growling and wrenching our faces to prove our aggressiveness.

Then, under his careful supervision, we practiced the various thrusts and parries and whirls deemed essential to the art of bayonet fighting. We held our rifles up in front of us and went through each tactical maneuver step by step, pushing and stabbing our bayonets through the air, until we had reached the point of executing the move with what he considered to be the proper mixture of grace, precision, and effectiveness. The movements had to become completely ingrained into our reflexes, making our actions conditioned and instinctive, not deliberate, so that in an actual combat situation we would be capable of employing the bayonet spontaneously with speed and effect.

The constant practicing needed to attain this state of execution was not unlike learning ballet, where exact steps and techniques and positions have to be perfectly fused together to produce an accurate and fluid performance. The goal, as far as all our superiors were concerned, was to have every little step coordinated so precisely that our thrusts and whirls had the fine, graceful movement that was part of ballet, as well as the dependability and rote perfection of machines.

We kept at it and kept at it, going well beyond what seemed necessary for merely learning a particular physical skill. In fact, at times, it seemed as if we were doing an elaborately contrived dance of death out there on the bayonet field, or else were making a kind of primitive, self-fortifying preparation for some great but unknown contest that lay ahead of us. Over and over we practiced. Frantically, I thought.

"Long thrust and hold!" the DI shouted. Hold! God, I thought, not that. Already I could feel my muscles begin to tighten and ache. Let us go, I screamed at him under my breath. For what seemed like hours, though, in truth, it was only a few minutes, we stayed frozen in this agonizing position, with our legs split wide apart and our arms stretched out in front of our shoulders as if they were trying to pull an immovable object, and in our hands, heavy as steel beams, were our rifles, which we had to hold in a high, lancing thrust.

Slowly he worked on us, drilling us psychologically, taunting us, challenging us, demanding to know if we were man enough to use our bayonet and kill with it, if we were quick enough and good enough to take it and stab it into the center of someone's chest and then pull it out in one clean stroke.

"Jody's got your girl and gone," he shouted at us, referring to some mysterious figure who was supposed to represent our civilian counterpart. "What are you going to do to Jody?"


"Jody's big and mean."


"What are you going to do to Charlie?"


"He's got a knife and he's comin' right at you, and he's gonna cut out your heart."


"What are you?"

"The Quick!"

"What's Charlie?"

"The Dead!"

"Charlie says he's better than you."


"Charlie wants your watch and wallet."


"Charlie's gonna take that picture of your girl that you keep in your wallet."


"What's the spirit of the bayonet?"

"To Kill!"

"Can't hear you, trainees."


"One more time."


"Let's hear ya!" he hollered shrilly.

So we growled the guttural sounds we had been taught to growl, then began to chant, "Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!" The weight of my rifle grew and grew. It felt like a huge stone. My muscles burned. I could feel the vessels popping out across my forehead and sweat rolled everywhere. For a moment, I wished I could cut my arms off, they hurt too much to keep. Then, finally, the DI released us. "Shake it off," he said annoyingly. I dropped my rifle butt into the sand and frantically rubbed the ache from my biceps. Slowly it disappeared, and I reveled in my miraculous powers. The rest lasted for only a few seconds, however, then we had to pick up our rifles again and do some more thrusting movements. The ache in my arms returned immediately.

A few minutes later a visitor stepped onto the platform. Koprolight. I had not seen him since the day he marched us from the Reception Center, the day I had that unforgettable confrontation with him in front of the whole company. He looked as mean and angry as ever, and I was glad I was far away from him this time. Very, very glad. He knelt down on one knee near a green chest and drew from it a sheath, and, quickly, he pulled out a bayonet, which, for one melodramatic moment, he held straight up in the air – parts of the blade were caught by the sunlight and gleamed brightly – then he brought it down to his waist, cupping it loosely and confidently in his right hand like a comb. He moved around the platform smoothly, buoyantly, moving from side to side, conscious of keeping our attention by letting all of us have a clear look at him.

"You people look scared and weak," he shouted suddenly, waving the bayonet in front of his eyes. "I bet I can take anyone of you on – right now, this second – just like this. Come on up here, and let's see what you're made of." He held the bayonet coolly and dramatically, letting the handle roll slowly back and forth across his fingers. A large, watery grin ran across his mouth. No one made a move. "Come on, ain't nobody got any guts out there. You people are supposed to be big, tough bayonet fighters, and you can't even go against me with just this little old knife." He waited a moment more then flipped the bayonet up in the air a couple of times, put it back in its sheath, and threw it into the green chest. "No guts!" he screamed, laughing, as he sauntered off the platform. The DI took charge again and immediately put us through some more lunges and parries.

Koprolight, knowingly or not, was just as much a teacher with his antics as our instructor was, for besides wanting to test our physical skill as bayonet fighters, he was testing our will. And this two-fold approach was at the heart of everyone of our bayonet classes: the instructors first taught us the mechanical skills, then they tried to inculcate into us the will to use these skills in actual combat. This psychological edge to the training program, evident at all times and in a variety of ways, both subtle and dramatic, was, I felt, as I attended more and more classes, directly related to the ideas expressed in an old pre-World War I book, Battle Studies, written by Colonel Ardant du Picq, a late-nineteenth century French soldier and theoretician.

Often, while standing on the drill field rotely screaming and going through the exercises we were supposed to go through, I thought of the book and wondered if anyone else on the field knew of it, if anyone besides me saw the close relationship between what we were doing and what du Picq had written. To me, the book, which was primarily concerned with the motivation of soldiers in combat, seemed to be the intellectual framework for the kind of psychological education in killing that our instructors were teaching us and that we were expected to adopt and exhibit. By studying past military history, particularly focusing on the armies of ancient Rome, as well as distributing a questionnaire among his associates in the French officer corps, du Picq gleaned the information that was to enable him to make a very important and influential military thesis: namely, that in all things relating to war the human heart is where one begins. It is the starting point; the place where decisions and plans are made, where victories are achieved.

With this idea, he grasped the real significance of human nature as far as war is concerned and discovered the need for proper motivation of the individual soldier as the way to make an army successful in battle. The source of power of the Roman legions, he discovered, lay in the way they motivated their troops: they did not focus on heroism, but on individual fear; not on creating in each ordinary soldier a heroic spirit, but on recognizing the terrible fear of battle and death that existed in him and trying to cope with it. So, he concluded, the correct methods of motivation and psychological conditioning through discipline and drill would not eradicate a soldier's fear in battle but would reduce them, would repress them until the fighting has been decided, thus enabling the soldier to engage strongly and decisively throughout the course of the battle.

by Thomas R. Healy
... who is a freelance writer residing in the Pacific Northwest, with works previously published in this literary magazine, in Appalachia, The Climbing Art, The Palo Alto Review, and elsewhere.

Table of

C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones