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Play the Enemy by Ian Randall Wilson
published in Volume 9, Issue 2 on April 15th, 2002

Because Jimmy says so
Five younger boys huddle
fall chilled and planning,
lines in the mud drawn by sharp sticks
send Billy this way
Kevin to cover our flank
Robby on the point.
We're behind my house
near a scatter of trees,
the shadowed woods beyond.
Our breath jets out
in plumes of steam.
We are excited.
We are scared.
Jimmy is calm.
We are executing maneuvers
designed by von Clausewitz and Tsun Tsu,
the names difficult to pronounce,
classic runs of Army confrontation
laid out in dusty books that Jimmy reads.
We never lose.

Because Jimmy says so
Five warrior children
charge the south slope
up a shallow incline, sliding
on the rotted cover
of dead leaves and loamy earth.
We weave through evergreens
hurling pine cone grenades
shout our Semper Fi.
The opposition has no chance,
the air blues with the pop
and crack of cap rifles;
Christmas presents for boys.
No prisoners are taken.
We never lose.

Because Jimmy says so
we build ice forts and a maze of trenches
with cardboard overhangs
that traverse the Feldman's sidewalk
to end up at the Smith's.
We take advantage
of the terrain's natural cover--
those are Jimmy's words--
laying in supplies of high-piled hardened snowballs,
and hot chocolate for drinking during truce.
The air stings our cheeks red
we wait for Jimmy's command.
Then, from across the street
with a shout and smash
the battle begins.
We hurl our snowball cannonades
as fast as we can grab and toss
high over the plow-heaped banks
a white barrage flung at the Enemy beyond.
Those brave boys who venture out
in desperate dashes
across the no-man's land of Aspen Ave
are easy targets for Jimmy's sure-thrown hand.
We never lose,
until our parents call, Dinner.
We never lose.

His letter comes to me
in the safety of my college dorm
between classes
with foliage raging into full color
during sweater weather
when the girls still show some leg.
Here, I plan my strategies
for bringing Mary to my bed.
Here, I devise ways
of answering the calculus tests.
Here, I read the words
of dead poets
analyze their rhyme,
examine their reason.
His letter comes to me
in the safety of my deferment
behind the defense of bad knees
and an uncle with a friend
who knows another friend
who put in the right word
with a senator on the right committee
with the right influence
for the right amount
at the right time.
Jimmy doesn't have those friends.
It's hot,
he writes,
so hot the air is weighted.
The jungle smells like nothing
he's known before.
Sound is swallowed whole
yet a branch's crack
gives away a position in a trigger flash.
He hasn't seen the Enemy, he says,
but three men in the squad were picked off
on patrol yesterday
and another died
when he stepped on a mine;
a censor has blacked-out the details.
The strategies don't work, he says.
The information is always wrong,
Intelligence always gets it wrong,
and how can you pull a flanking maneuver
in a jungle so thick
it takes five minutes to hack away five feet.
The Enemy disappears.
New men arrive
old ones die,
others rotate out.
His feet swell
from jungle fungus,
he can smell himself.
The strategies don't work, he says,
he's just trying to stay alive.

I don't believe in the war.
I think the country is wrong,
I think Jimmy was wrong
to go when the rest of us found ways
to stay behind.
But I don't tell him this,
I write about the high school game,
some friends of ours
that moved away,
the woods behind the house.
My letter comes back marked deceased.

I have thought about him,
less and less,
until I see my sons
behind the house.
At the instant the sun folds
and the outline of their shadows
run from the trees
Jimmy isn't dead.
His name isn't sandblasted
onto black granite
in a mall somewhere in Washington.
Where Jimmy is
warrior children still run
through phantom woods
throwing pine cone grenades
making gun sounds with pointed sticks
rushing forward in frantic charges
to sweep aside their friends
who this afternoon
must play the Enemy.
Where Jimmy is
the strategies work--
the flanking maneuver,
the interlocking fields of fire,
the enfilade.
There is no friendly fire misdirected
gouging out dirt craters of rock and mangled bone
where the squad's men used to hide,
there are no dust-offs to ambush
there are no shit-covered pungi sticks
there are no hills to climb in pouring rain
where every wave of new men are repulsed
by tumbling tracer rounds,
casualties do not run 70%,
there are no sucking chest wounds,
there are no screams in triage,
no one cries for Jesus
or his mother,
no one worries about body counts,
or punching his ticket,
or short time,
or the coming Tet.
Jimmy doesn't die
in a firefight
for a patch of ground
we win today
and give back tomorrow.
Jimmy doesn't die
in a firefight
where the choppers can't get in
where the radio's down
where the Lieutenant is dead
no one's in command.
Jimmy doesn't die
by a single round
through the heart
that stands him up
like a heavy bag
before he slumps into the grass.
Where Jimmy is
there are only golden afternoons
where sunset holds off another few minutes
enough time for a last skirmish
a last battle among friends
a last game
because Jimmy says so.

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