Hard news about war comes to the home front.
A group of Marines kill a wounded and unarmed Iraqi and walk away talking tough. I flash back to another war: WWII, New Guinea, 1944, leading a patrol behind Japanese lines, climbing out of the steaming coastal jungle at a South Pacific paradise named Aitape toward the snow-capped Owen Stanley mountains.
The trail is narrow, twisting up mud-slick hills so steep we reach for roots to pull ourselves up. I carry a 60-pound pack and a light carbine for this patrol. There have been no sightings of Japanese troops or activity for the three days we have been looking for them. The radio isn't working. It pours down tropical rain every night, but last night we found a friendly native village where we slept under huts raised on poles.
The Army combat handbook for reconnaissance patrols makes it clear that if we are seen by either combatants or noncombatants we are to kill them; our safety depends on it. If the enemy were told we were in the area, it would, at the least, compromise our information and, at worst, lead them to hunt us down and kill us.
We know the people in the village where we spent the night hate the Japanese troops; we trusted them not to betray us. So we cautiously ate our K rations in front of them and shared our high-energy chocolate bars with their children.
Perhaps we should have hidden ourselves from them, for their protection as well as our own. But we didn't. In the morning we woke up and left them and sweated through the next leg of the patrol.
Now our Piper Cub spotter plane flies over us and drops new batteries for the radio and more K rations. The Japanese — if there are any — know where we are now. After 40 miles and three days of sweating through 90-degree heat and almost 100% humidity, they can smell us a mile away.
Then we see the yellowish-tan uniform by the waterfall. It is an officer. He is curled asleep on his side by the falls, his head on his backpack, his rifle by his side. At first I think he has died there. But we freeze, staring at him, and we see the faintest movement of breath. For what seems an eternity we stand like statues, barely breathing ourselves. I think: Why didn't he hear us coming? The waterfall rushing beside him has screened out our footfalls. I look back — the guys are all staring at him, nobody moving. We can't be sure he hasn't heard us and is faking sleep.
This is our first combat tour. We haven't yet killed anyone; we haven't seen death or dead bodies. He is the first Japanese we have seen.
This is also an intelligence mission. Japanese prisoners are extremely rare and highly prized for what information they might give about the true condition of their forces. But we are only three men, and our mission is to go by stealth deep into the interior of the island. To move with a prisoner for another week of cutting through jungle brush, wading in hip-deep swamps, climbing when we got to the mountains, would be impossible.
To extinguish that life is to end a universe. A sense of my own death sweeps through me, a darkness reaching out to the end of time while we have stood here for seconds, and all this hurricane of thought and feeling roars in my head.
I think, should we wake him up, so he will know what is happening to him when we shoot him? No, let it happen so he slips unaware from his little sleep into eternal darkness.
I hand signal to my second behind me. He very quietly raises his carbine, silently releases the safety and fires a single shot. The Japanese officer's body jumps with the impact; he turns, rolls, and for one single second his eyes open wide in astonishment as he sees us. A second shot through his head throws him on his back, his legs thrash then slow to twitching and then lie still. The jungle goes silent.
We whip around, looking, listening for sounds of movement, answering shots. Blood threads crimson into the waterfall. Nothing. I'm suddenly aware my heart is pounding, my chest gasping for air, I have not breathed for so long. Then bird songs. Breeze in the tree canopy high above. Far away a monkey complains. Behind me, the guys slump, leaning back against their packs. They smoke. The Japanese officer's face is peaceful but slewed away from the head wound.
In the moments that followed, I stripped his insignia from his uniform, noted that his weapon is rusted, dirty, that his uniform was muddy, his boots worn and unpolished, he was skeletally thin. He had been surviving alone for some time. I pulled a sweat-soaked wallet from his backpack. His name and rank and unit. Photographs. A young and pretty wife. A child, a boy maybe 5 or 6. An infant. A life. In one picture: trees, a neat park-like setting, peace. A sadness overcame me, and perhaps it has never left me.
I turned away and left him sleeping by his waterfall.
I've thought of him often in the nearly 60 years since. In one sense, he and the young wife and children live on in my memory, always young, always smiling into a future they could not know. They will be alive and not rest until I am gone.
A few days later, when we came back down the mountain past the waterfall, he was gone, probably dragged away and his bones scattered by wild animals, like everything else in that jungle reduced to bare bones in days or even hours. His rifle and backpack were gone, incidental bounty of war for the native hunters. All of that world is gone. Even the lovely cove of the village of Aitape was washed away in a tidal wave some years ago.
It was our job to hunt down and kill each other; it was also our responsibility to ourselves as humans to hold tight to a sense of honor, a sense of respect for the enemy soldier that is the root of rules of war and the Geneva Convention.
The officer was a soldier, and if I hope to have mercy when it is possible in the savagery of war, and circumstances permit, I owe him respect as an equal.
In World War II there was rightful outrage at the mass executions of our troops captured by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge. There is no doubt that the rage of battle drives soldiers on both sides to inhuman acts, massacres, casual executions like that of those Marines in Fallouja. War is hell, but it is not an excuse to descend into savagery.
That war is hell is a challenge — the highest and most difficult challenge is to behave well in the face of everything that drives us toward revenge, retribution, toward the worst in ourselves. War demands that we be and act at our best and most noble or else all is lost, and we become our very worst. To maintain one's moral balance in the desperation and confusion of combat is the measure of military discipline, of humanity, of maturity.
The outrages at Abu Ghraib are not the answer to the lynching of the Americans on that bridge in Fallouja. And though I differ with President Bush on almost everything else, the president responded to the news from Abu Ghraib with righteous anger and moral passion when he said, "This is not America. This does not represent our values." It was his finest hour, the words of a worthy leader and a commander of men and women in war.
I don't know that our killing, a minor incident in a war that killed tens of millions, represents any summit of good behavior. Perhaps because it was our first kill of many to come we were especially aware of the enormity of taking a life. We were not yet numb to the carnage. Did we behave well? We followed our orders. We cared. And what we took from that officer I carry with me forever.
I won't judge those trash-talking Marines. I only hope they remember that bloody, defeated man they reduced to a corpse as something more than meaningless residue of battle. Or the battle itself is meaningless.
Frank Pierson wrote "Cat Ballou," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dog Day Afternoon," among other films, and is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
© 2004 Los Angeles Times