The supreme leader was still at work, although it was late. He didn’t like the war minister’s report and cast it aside. Surprisingly, he was resigned, not angry. Something had shifted.
The ornate and delicate decorations of his office contrasted sharply with the blasted remains of city centers on the photos spread across his eighteenth century desk. The office was a world in color; the photos black-and-white.
President Diktat slapped his half-full glass on the table, spilling a bit.
‘Dammit! I want facts, not speculation.’ He growled while staring blankly at what spilled, swirling what remained slowly round in the glass.
The war minister shifted almost imperceptibly, trapped between the need of the moment and the truth. For once in his life he needed to be direct, not dissemble. The situation was bad.
But he found the old habit of dissembling died hard. ‘Sir, facts are very hard to come by, even with our intelligence working overtime, and…’
A chopping motion of Diktat’s left hand silenced him. The right gripped the drinking glass more tightly, as though to crush it. ‘We have 85 thousand people in our military intelligence. Surely one of them can provide something tangible.’
‘You are correct, sir. The service is robust. The difficulty is keeping up with the speed of changes on the ground. You’ve said yourself the war isn’t going to plan.’ The minister battened down the hatches and sailed on in the face of the storm growing in his superior’s gaze.
He sighed and spread his hands. ‘If we were to pause the operation for three days, even two days, to allow human intelligence to be gathered, we could make much better recommendations.’
‘No. That simply gives the enemy time to regroup, resupply and rest.’
‘That’s true, sir, but even that brief rest won’t change the maths. We have a larger force, but not an overwhelming one. We can prevail – in time. But it would be good to know more about the situation on the ground.’
‘Can’t our commanders tell us this?’
‘They can, and they have. But we need time to sift, analyze and coordinate the data.’
‘The media will make up excuses about why we’ve stopped advancing. That we’re overmatched, or we’ve run out of fuel, or we don’t have good command-and-control.’
This man spends too much time on the internet, the minister thought. Watching the news is one reason he’s been so misinformed.
‘Sir, with all respect, I say let them say what they want. While they offer lies, we solidify our supply lines and then advance again. When we begin knocking down more targets the media will focus on the explosions, not on how exposed we are in the field.’
The war minister was only buying time, he knew. He remembered the last war, which ground on for ten years before cooler heads (and a depleted national treasury) finally forced a retreat. This war came out of the same wishful thinking as the last one, he thought.
He was on the ground for half that decade, watching good men get killed in ambush against a vastly inferior force, but one which had something to die for. Our army did not and does not, he thought.
The president finally drained the glass, staring off into the near distance.
‘Fine. Order it. Order a 48-hour halt to the advance, but only after the foreign ministry has put out a statement demanding unconditional surrender. Ask them if they’ve had enough.
‘We won’t mean the offer, of course. And they will say no. But it will be a useful distraction. Make sure everyone knows this does not include a cease fire. Continue to target any nearby assets, just don’t advance on the ground. Crank up the air strikes at the same time, with the excuse of protecting our ground forces from counter-attack.’
‘Yes sir. I’ll have the statements and orders for your review within the hour.’
The war minister left, knowing it was all for nothing. He wondered if the president was dissembling as much as he was. He walked out with the same internal question as his leader: Did anyone tell the truth any more?
We may take the country, the minister thought, or at least its control centers, but that’s not winning a war. He wished war could be left to his generals and field marshals. No civilian leader is worth his salt if he hasn’t been through the War College, he thought. Even if his own supreme leader had been an infantry sergeant ages ago.
The minister walked through the outer office past the president’s private secretary, who looked up. He knew it was now his turn. The secretary entered just as the president was about to call his name. Diktat opened his mouth to speak, saw his aide, offered a twitch of a smile. ‘You anticipate my every need,’ he said.
The secretary walked to the table, took the president’s glass and moved to the bar as he was queried.
‘Sir, I agree with the minister. But as we’ve discussed before, any failure doesn’t come from a military shortfall. We have the power to turn the entire country into a plain of glass. I’ll say again at risk of my position, the miscalculation came before we invaded. It’s the same one the Americans made repeatedly: in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan; thinking they would win hearts and minds. That what they did would be seen as liberation, not invasion.’
The president said nothing, just stared at his refreshed glass. This very thought had been through his mind more than once.
‘If I may, sir…’
There was no response, so the aide gulped and continued. ‘We need a way out, sir. You need a way out. We can win this war, but we will definitely lose the peace.’
His leader finally looked up, still silent. The secretary himself was the answer to his question. There was still someone who would tell the truth. And, we can still like them, Diktat thought, even if we don’t like the truth.
The aide felt a catch in his throat. He had no idea what was coming. Finally, Diktat croaked, ‘Thank you, my friend. You can go. Please close the door on your way out.’
The president sat there a long time, and remembered something his mother would say: You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Just make sure an omelet is what you want before you break them. Simon Diktat had built his life, established his empire on breaking eggs. Now somehow, his omelet left a bad taste in his mouth.
After long reflection he rose to study the situation map pinned to the wall. It was old-school, that paper map. Old school, like me, he thought. But he could put pins in it, make marks on it. It was better than the electronic screens in his situation room, where the generals and advisors played in their virtual reality world.
Nothing but video games for them, he thought. The generals were divorced from it all. This map, this paper map, this political map, this is the real map. This map told the truth.
He’d used a map like this on maneuvers as a much younger man. He could take a map like this and find his way into the wilderness and back out again. It told him the terrain, held memories of the weather, suggested strategy and showed concentrations of people. That thought stopped him.
The people, he thought. In his mind, each face became imprinted on a broken egg. Damn the endless media pictures.
Down in the situation room these same individuals were dehumanized into collateral damage, unfortunate but excusable. They were rows of figures, not dead bodies. Dead data not dead souls. The president knew better. He’d been on the giving end and the receiving end of gunfire. He’d taken life and been faced with those who would take his.
Images of innocent faces from that other war also bubbled up, unbidden. His mother’s face also now looked at him steadily out of a shadowy corner of the room.
I was wrong, he finally thought. Those people didn’t need liberation after all. They needed to be left alone.
He poured himself one more drink, swallowed half of it and returned to his desk, where he opened a drawer. Papers, pens, a notebook, his cigar case. The handgun.
The phone buzzed, startling him. The foreign ministry had the statement ready, his secretary said.
‘Send it over.’
It would take a few minutes for the email to arrive after being printed; again, being old school, he only reviewed things on paper.
It was enough time. The drawer was still open. The gun was still there.
He took it in his left hand and drained the last of his drink with his right, after silently saluting his truth-telling aide through the door.
Glancing one last time at the map, he walked toward his apartments. His secretary was right and told the truth. He needed a way out.
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