All over the world, in markets and plazas, on red clay ruts generously termed “roads” and along ancient streets paved by the Romans, Persians, or Chinese, people live with guns pointed at them. Security forces, militia, soldiers of the occupation, peacekeepers, 21st century police–a cordon of rifle muzzles regularly surrounds us.
It’s a deeply uneasy feeling with which millions of people contend every day.
In America, we rarely see rifles or sub-machine guns at the ready (excepting our monthly gun-massacres.) Only in our big transportation hubs do we glimpse the menace of raw firepower, such as in New York’s Penn Station or Grand Central Station where soldiers with cradled rifles outnumber the columns holding up the roof. For the most part, our police officers keep their pistols holstered, the threat of force partially veiled.
To walk on a street where lethal violence could erupt and have to gaze down the business end of a military rifle is an experience you’re not likely to forget. The purpose of such arms becomes suddenly, naggingly clear.
One day in 1996, I walked behind an armed patrol on a street in Northern Ireland. I rounded a corner and there they were, 20 yards in front of me, a dozen British soldiers in camouflage uniforms and helmets moving single-file, justifiably grim-faced and on high mental alert. Each one toted the distinctive L85A1 “bullpup” rifle, so-called because its 30-round magazine sits behind the trigger, making it much shorter than a conventionally designed assault weapon.
I was a graduate student at Trinity College in Dublin. On a long holiday weekend I decided to visit my uncle and his family in Newcastle in County Down, one of the six counties which comprise Northern Ireland.
I took a train from Dublin’s Connolly Station to Newry. My journey’s second leg was to be by bus, but when I arrived in Newry I faced a two-hour wait. Impatient as the wind, I decided to hitchhike to Newcastle, a distance of about 21 miles.
Newry has been designated a city, but it would be a big town by American standards. An ancient habitation founded in 1144, the town arose on both sides of the River Clanrye so that half of modern-day Newry lies in County Armagh, half in County Down.
The railway station sits in the northwest part of Newry, in County Armagh. Since I was headed due east to Newcastle, there was no sense in sticking out my thumb until I crossed the river and stood on a road on the other side of town. I started walking. It was a typical kind of Irish winter day with on-and-off drizzle from a steel-gray sky and the cheerful smell of peat smoke from many a chimney as counterpoint.
Picturesque Newcastle, with its long beach and famous golf course, sits at the foot of Slieve Donard, the tallest of the Mourne Mountains at 2,790 feet. I’d brought my hiking boots along to climb it for the second time.
Throughout the era of Ireland’s sectarian violence known as The Troubles, a period starting in the late 1960s and ending in 1998, Newcastle remained peaceful. Newry, on the other hand, saw some of the bloodiest action, including an Irish Republican Army mortar attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) barracks in 1985 which killed nine RUC officers and injured 40 more.
Closer in time to my walk through town, an IRA sniper had killed a member of the RUC at a vehicle checkpoint in 1993. The year before, the IRA ambushed an RUC armored patrol car using a horizontally mounted mortar. The attack killed one RUC member.
I knew all that, but it seemed an abstraction, history, until I happened on the tail-end of a heavily-armed squad of British infantrymen.
So many thoughts raced through my head. My senses grew hyper-keen. I made observations–the number of soldiers, what they carried, the street’s layout, the trace of rooftops–while simultaneously pondering the observations of the soldiers in front of me, chiefly what I looked like to them. High up in the balcony of my brain, a detached observer remarked on the irony of the situation: four years ago, you wore an infantryman’s uniform, carried a rifle, and led men like these.
How I wished I could convey that knowledge to this squad of men.
Like any good infantryman, the last man in the unit turned to scan behind him every three or four steps. As “tail gunner” it was his job to check the squad’s six o’clock. Very quickly, we made eye contact. What reams of dialogue conveyed wordlessly!
He made the slightest nod, angling his head beneath the cloth-covered helmet and subtly changing his visage from one of expressionless surveillance to the hint of a smile.
But his eyes fixed me with a sad glance I’ll never forget, a look of resignation which seemed to say, “no hard feelings, mate, this is just where they sent me, luck of the draw, if you know what I mean.”
I tried to return all the empathy I could reasonably muster (I couldn’t exactly crack a big smile.) The soldier had dark brown hair and eyes with very fair skin and he reminded me a lot of my cousin. In another epiphany, I realized that he was younger than me. I was 29 at the time and he was probably 20, 22 tops.
I began to feel sorry for these guys. They probably hailed from every part of Great Britain, their barracks banter a mix of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish accents. I guessed many of them viewed their assignment as a hardship tour; here they were in a part of their own country and they were targets, at home and in combat at the same time, as likely to see a sneer as a smile. I wanted to shout: “Hey, I’m an American and I was an infantry officer–a soldier, just like you!”
But I said nothing. And every three or four steps the dark of that muzzle looked me in the eye.
Seeing the soldiers, I had immediately slowed my pace. Now the walk seemed endless. I saw how the street formed a long crescent, curving slightly to the left. A jolt of electric fear ran through me as I looked at the long line of parked cars: any one of them might be packed with enough plastic explosive to level a building. The stretch was ideal: a spotter in a third-story window a block away could easily eyeball the detonation.
Finally, the squad turned a corner. When the line of men had almost disappeared, the young soldier who reminded me of my cousin began walking backwards. I gave him a distinct nod, as much to say "good luck" as "good riddance."
And then the soldier and his rifle were gone.