American Spartan (Prologue)

Although this story contains material from the world in which we live, including references to actual places, persons, and events, it should be read as a work of fiction. All dialogue is invented. Certain actual events have been altered or reimagined. All characters are fictional and not based on any actual living person.

It is said the Spartan king Leonidas, when receiving an urgent request from an ally for military assistance from Sparta, would sometimes send a single Spartan warrior, believing that under the prevailing circumstances, one special Spartan was sufficient to accomplish the mission.

The forsaken land was filled with endless dust and desert as far as the eye could see. When flying over it at night in a plane or helicopter, the only lights existed in cities; the hinterlands were dark and foreboding. History seemed to have passed it by. Generations of tyrants had done little to bring advancement. And so the land looked much as it had for thousands of years. Dry. Sandy. Crusted. Pockmarked with an occasional lake formed from the ill-conceived plans of men. What little rain fell was collected in these man-made reservoirs and left to stagnate unless it was released by dams to flow inexorably, methodically, to the gulf. Towns and cities downstream would siphen off the brackish water to irrigate what little vegetation there was; the product was stunted little bands of green along the rivers, beyond which existed nothing but a Godforsaken, wilderness desolation, crisscrossed with concrete roads between only slightly less forlorn villages.

History claimed that at one time the area had been different. This so-called Fertile Crescent was said to be the cradle of civilization. Well it wasn’t now. Clearly at some point something had gone terribly and irrevocably wrong. To be certain, there were bands of lush green along the rivers, but once one got out into the hinterlands it was like the surface of the moon, as if some huge, cosmic blade had descended from space and scraped away the topsoil, revealing only bedrock, which deposited dust everywhere. Dust so fine it could penetrate anything devised to stop it: the gas mask on one’s face, the goggles covering the eyes, the filter of an air-conditioner, even the apparent seal of a closed door; dust so fine one couldn’t see it as it drifted and floated into a room, but would settle enough overnight to leave a thin, but plainly visible sheen on every flat surface such that when morning came one could write in it with a finger. All of this also meant it stole its way into the lungs as well.

Hope was not a common concept of the native inhabitants; centuries ago life’s priorities had devolved to the lowest, base needs: food, water, security, survival. And so rather than there being a sense of community, or state, or nation, life settled into a dangerous coexistence among ancient tribes, where it was hard and often short, and score-settling was common. Western ideals of freedom and democracy were lost on these people. The so-called “rule of law” meant nothing to them. These were philosophical luxuries they found laughable and had no use for. Indeed, what mattered in the land of the two great, ancient rivers were power and those who had it.

It was this land abandoned by time that I found myself in during the sixth summer of the new millennium. The enemy was getting the upper hand in some places. So they called me in.

I had never fired a weapon in my life until I was a Marine. I wasn’t a country boy who had grown up in a hunting family; I was from the city. I never even touched a firearm until I was 24 years old at Quantico. To be certain, my father had several firearms in the house, but even though he was a small-town boy from the South, he was not a gun nut; we didn’t have gun cases with weapons visible anywhere. He kept them all hidden. I’m pretty sure he was afraid if we got hold of one we’d shoot ourselves. So growing up, I had no clue about firearms. I think my father wanted it that way.

Maybe that was why I was so easy to teach. I hadn’t learned any bad habits. I was a good student, and I could learn things didactically or practically. And at first, rifle marksmanship, taught correctly, is taught didactically on a blackboard. Indeed, it seemed a very simple concept to me when it was laid out. And the best marksmanship instructors on the planet taught me: Marine staff NCOs.

I was a young, commissioned officer, and they treated the subject with a near-Biblical reverence, speaking in soft, lyrical tones when we got out of the classroom and onto the range and it was down to just instructor and student, one-on-one. “This is very simple Sir. It’s all about sight picture, sight alignment, controlling your breathing, and trigger pressure. That’s all it is. If you can master those four things, you can employ this weapon effectively, hit what you’re aiming at, and kill the enemy.”

God blessed me with near-perfect eyes. I could see things others couldn’t. It made this marksmanship thing easier somehow. I could see the targets clearly. In sun or overcast or at night, I could see the target. He also blessed me with a simplicity of thinking. I could usually break things down into their simplest parts, and this helped greatly with firing a weapon or carrying out a mission. Things didn’t have to be complicated. Reduced to its essence, any situation could be simplified and successfully navigated; the fewer the moving parts or people involved, the simpler. The better. At least in my area of expertise.

I had learned to love the weapon and its nomenclature. The way it felt in my hands. The rear sight and front sight post. The bolt and its action. The firing pin, the machinery that extracted an empty shell casing and inserted another one into the chamber. So simple in its functioning, yet complex in its design. One wondered what kind of mind had conceived it and put it on paper. Who had come up with its design and how had he done it, and why? Who had discovered that if you forged rifling groves into a barrel that the round would spin on its axis and maintain its course toward the target? And if you just applied everything you had been taught, calculated the wind, distance and elevation, and operated the tool like it was designed to be operated, how did every single round go the same place, every time?

These were the minds that in less than two centuries had turned America from a ragtag bunch of rebels into the most lethal war machine in human history; whether it was a rifle or an atomic bomb — or anything in between — this was the most technologically superior nation-state that had yet existed on the planet, and I became one of the people who put those ideas and technology into practice.

And so, a man who had sufficient training, confidence and self-reliance with the necessary tools could literally accomplish anything he set his mind to do.

My freakish eyesight, combined with my reverence for the weapon and my training, all combined to create uncommon results on the range and eventually in the real-world. My original qualification score was nearly perfect; the highest score of anyone — officer or enlisted — in 27 years. The previous guy had been immediately whisked away to Vietnam and dropped into the jungle to stem the tide of a war that had started to turn very badly.

My qualification performance got the attention of some people, who wanted to see if it was a fluke or if I actually possessed rare abilities. They took me out to the 1,000 yard sniper range a few days later. At the 600 yard line, I was essentially at the maximum-effective range for the rifle I was using and had qualified with, the M16A2. But all my rounds hit the target. The observers chuckled, shaking their heads in disbelief.

“Ok, Sir, even you are going to need something else from here on out.” That’s when I saw it for the first time, the weapon that would become a part of me for the remainder of my career. He brought out and handed me a Remington M40, a Marine Corps-modified version of the Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, together with a Unertl scope attached.

The rifle was beautiful and it felt perfect in my hands. It was much heavier than my M16A2, the M40 weighing about fifteen pounds compared to the M16A2’s nine pounds. And it fired a bigger and more powerful round, a 7.62 mm as opposed to the M16A2’s 5.56 mm.

“It’s zeroed to 600 yards, so you’re going to need to put a few rounds down there and do your own adjustments.” I got into position and fired several practice rounds to get the feel of the new weapon and adjust to using the scope. The instructors went back and forth making suggestions based on where my rounds were impacting. After a while of this, I started to get comfortable, and I started to group the rounds into much tighter formations. “There you go, Sir. Nice.”

I went back from there. 700 yards. 800 yards. 900 yards. And then to the 1,000 yard line. Without the scope, I would look downrange and marvel at the distance to the target, a target I could barely see with the naked eye and that looked like little more than a tiny dot near the horizon. But when I put the cross hairs on it, it filled up the scope. Then it was simply down to those four old rules: sight picture, sight alignment (essentially combined when using a scope), breathing, and slow, continuous trigger pressure, all until the round broke. And the results were the same as they had been from everywhere else. On target, in tight groups.

That was the end of my short-lived time as a regular second lieutenant at the Basic School. Sure, I completed the rest of the required training there and graduated with my class. But I went to different places and did different things after graduation than the rest of the people in my company. And like the one Spartan, I usually went alone.

To be continued.

Copyright©, 2016, all rights reserved.

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