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
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?"
"Which one is Charlie?"
"What kind of fighter are you?"
"You don't sound like it."
"I can't hear you," he yelled, cupping his right hand behind his
"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
"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?"
"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
"What's the spirit of the bayonet?"
"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
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.