Looking Like Your Doing Something

The rain lashed against the canvas tent, the wind like a fist against a taut drum. Colonel Valentini slammed a battered map onto the rickety table, the sound a gunshot in the confined space. Captain Ricci, fresh out of West Point and polished like a new saddle, flinched.

“Easy to bark orders from behind a map, Colonel,” Ricci finally said. “Those men out there, they’re fighting a war no one seems to understand. We’re asked to do the impossible with spit and prayers.”

The Colonel turned, his cold blue eyes like chips of winter ice. “You think this war is about understanding, Captain? About grand ideals scribbled by politicians far from the mud and misery?”

Valentini’s voice, a gravelly rasp, cut through the drumming rain. “War ain’t pronouncements, Captain. It ain’t pronouncements in Washington across a mahogany desk, nor is it pronouncements here in this mud with a map and a compass. War’s about the boots in the muck, the men with their guts churning, the ones staring into the abyss and wondering if they’ll see another dawn.”

Ricci opened his mouth to retort, but the Colonel cut him off.

“War,” he rasped, his voice rough as sandpaper, “is about holding a goddamn line when every fiber of your being screams retreat. It’s about staring into the abyss and blinking back, one day at a time.”

The sun beat down on the dusty Italian road, turning the air into a shimmering haze. The Colonel squinted across the table at Captain Ricci, a flicker of annoyance in his tired eyes.

“Captain,” Murray’s voice rasped, roughened by years of shouting orders over the din of battle, “there’s a difference between action and results. Back home, they think a flurry of movement signifies progress. Like a bunch of children chasing butterflies.”

He jabbed a finger at the map. “Look at this. Men are pinned down, ammo dwindling faster than hope. You think a stirring speech or a fancy plan will save them? No, Captain. It takes action. Real action, messy and thankless.”

Ricci’s jaw clenched, his youthful defiance simmering. “Sir, with all due respect, we need a plan, we need to show we’re engaged. Morale on the front lines—”

The Colonel snorted. The sound was humorless. “Morale is holding a position when your insides are churning like a washing machine full of rocks. Morale is staring down the barrel of a gun and squeezing the trigger first. Looking busy might impress the folks back home, but it does little for the men out here slogging through mud.”

He leaned forward, the heat shimmering between them. “This war isn’t fought with pronouncements and parades. It’s fought inch by bloody inch, taking what you can hold, and holding it until your fingers bleed. There’s a lot of glory in the history books, Captain, but precious little in the trenches.”

Valentini straightened, his gaze distant. “There’s a lot of glory in the stories back home, Captain. But here, in the mud, there’s only the fight. You learn that, you learn what it truly means to do something, then maybe you’ll survive this bloody game.”

The Colonel paused, his gaze distant. “Back home, they think war is like a parade. All bluster and shining boots. But here, in the muck, you learn the truth. Looking busy is for fools. Here, survival is the only victory.”

Ricci swallowed, the bravado draining from his face. Murray sighed, the sound heavy. “War is a harsh mistress, Captain. She doesn’t care about looking good. She cares about staying alive. “Plans are for diplomats, Captain. Here, we fight with what we got, hour by bloody hour. We fight with what’s left in the men’s bellies and the grit in their teeth. We fight because there ain’t no luxury of surrender, because the Austrians ain’t about to take a tea break and discuss the finer points of fair play.”

He leaned in, his weathered face inches from Ricci’s. “Looking busy keeps the politicians in Rome happy, that’s true enough. But war? War’s about the unspoken things. The fear that chills you to the bone, the loneliness that gnaws at your soul. It’s about the quiet courage of men who know they might die, but fight on anyway.”

He sighed, the sound heavy with the weight of command. “Unrewarded, you say? Maybe. But those men out there, they see their captain leading the charge, not barking from a safe distance. That’s what keeps them going, Captain. That, and the knowledge some sorry son of a gun is facing the same hell on the other side of the wire.”

Ricci stood straighter, the fire back in his eyes. “Yes sir. Understood, sir.”

The Colonel nodded, a flicker of respect in his gaze. “Good. Now get out there. They need their captain, not a philosopher.”