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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


75. [Plate 76]
Veterans of Heroic Wars

Say what you will about combat vets. Give 'em their due, but still. They just don't know how to present themselves. Living with terror, boredom, and sudden death as they must, does something to them. They don't talk about it afterwards, unless it's with each other. They don't think you'd understand. If you ask them to tell you a war story, they'll just shake their heads and say that there's nothing heroic or uplifting about war, that it was just something they tried to get through intact and out of as soon as they could.


We who served behind the lines know what war is really like. We brought in the supplies and typed up the reports, constantly alert, constantly aware that something could happen at any instant. The fact that it didn't invalidates nothing. It could have!


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So the stories we tell imply that it did. That slinky Vietnamese chanteuse pulled out a gun just when we were most vulnerable. That Afghani sonofabitch walked into the photocopy room with a flamethrower. We were on the plane to Hong Kong for a little R&R when six of Osama bin Laden's most fanatic whipped out box cutters and...

Real combat vets don't have stories like those. "I was so fucking tired," theirs begin, or, "We were defending this hill, fuck knows why, and I had diarrhea." Then they tell you something pointless and demoralizing. It's never about heroism, unless the hero is some poor sonofabitch who fell on a hand grenade to save their lives, or a second looey who distracted the CO while the whores were hustled out of camp. If it's exciting, it's the kind of exciting that makes you glad you weren't there.

That kind of shit gives war a bad name.

We tell the stories those guys won't. Stories filled with nobility and purpose. Ones where the good guys win and the enemy realizes a fraction of a second too late that they've been tricked. Their eyes go wide and — boom! We grab a handful of magnesium flares and a combat knife and grunt, "I've got an idea. Cover me!" Dodging bullets, we zigzag uphill. Our adventures always end in victory.

Okay, granted, they're lies. But they're good lies, the kind that firm up your resolve, make you brave, and prepare you to lay down your life for God and country. Contrary to what you think, our stories aren't just a pathetic bid for glory. We don't do this for ourselves.

We do it for the children.


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This is the 75th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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