The business of war

Issue 3/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Lahti (‘Slaughter’, WSOY 2004). Introduction by Jarmo Papinniemi

Major Tuppervaara put his plate down on a tree stump and walked over towards us. He had long legs and walked with a spring in his step. Twigs crunched beneath every step.

‘Okay, boys,’ he said. ‘Peckish?’

‘Yes.’

‘Take your time and listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you. The training exercise will begin soon. Your job is to help out here, you’ll be doing the medical officers’ jobs, all things you’re familiar with. During the course of this drill you will see things you have never seen before. You must not tell anyone about them. I repeat: no one. Not your father, not your mother’ not your girlfriend or your mates, not even the staff at your divisions. No one. That’s an order. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Äyräpää. Hiitola and I nodded.

‘May I remind you that you are all bound by the military legal code. There’s a clause in there about people who can’t keep their mouths shut. You don’t know our names, but we certainly know yours and a lot more besides. You cannot call us, but we can call you.’

Somewhere in the distance the pigs were grunting. You could hear it clearly now.

Behind the field hospital was a pen made with planks of fresh wood and in it, forty or so pigs, approximately the size of a human, were grunting. It was cramped inside. Every now and then one of them would climb up on another’s back to have a look around, one would piss with its tail quivering, those nearby would do their best to get out of the way. The earth beneath them had been trodden black.

‘The stretchers are over there,’ said Tuppervaara. ‘You’ll carry them on my orders.’

Some of the officers were standing around the pen, others were a hundred or so metres away busying themselves by the racks. The majority of the doctors were hanging around the door to the field hospital laughing and kicking pine cones about.

The vet opened up his bag and produced a syringe. He filled the ampoule with a liquid that was so clear it dispelled the greyness of the weather. The doctor raised the syringe in front of his eyes and checked that the dose was correct. They always do that.

The doctor went inside the pen and guided one of the pigs into the narrow corridor, jabbed the needle into its behind, pushed the pump right the way down and came back to his bag to refill the syringe. The animal tried to take a few steps. It staggered for a moment like a newborn calf and finally collapsed unconscious on the floor. The vet then darted back inside the pen to anaesthetise the next pig.

‘Alright boys,’ said Tuppervaara. ‘Now’s you chance to show us what they taught you all at medical corps. Carry these patients up to the racks, as quickly as you can. Then come back down here to pick up the third one.’

Carrying the stretchers we went into the pen and rolled one of the pigs on to the canvas. I tilted the stretcher whilst the others pushed. It was as if the pig didn’t want the ride. We were dripping with sweat before we even got it on the stretcher.

‘Don’t make a song and dance about it,’ said Tuppervaara. ‘They’re the size of humans, they’ve been very carefully selected.’

We carried the pig out of the enclosure. Äyräpää was by himself at the front, Hiitola and I took the back. Close up the pig’s skin looked rough, the same colour as a human’s, not pig-pink at all.

‘Don’t take it feet first,’ shouted one of the officers.

‘That’s the way they taught us,’ said Äyräpää. ‘For the patient’s safety, it’s best if their head is in front of the man behind. Not as likely to fall on the stones.’

‘Get away,’ the officer retorted. ‘Who would teach you a thing like that? Even a kid would know you only carry the dead feet first.’

We put down the stretcher. Äyräpää came round the back, Hiitola and I went up front.

‘For Christ’s sake,’ shouted the officer. ‘It’s still feet first. This is like something out of a Chaplin film.’

We took hold of the handles and turned the stretcher around. Äyräpää was once again at the front, but the pig was the other way round. We set off towards the hill. There was no path to speak of and we kept tripping up on stones hidden amongst the overgrown grass. The pig jolted with every wrong step and seemed to double in weight.

I could feel the weight of the animal throughout my body, right up to my scalp. My heart beat in objection. Up at the top the chief medical officer indicated a specific point on the rack where the pig was to be placed.

‘Hasn’t anyone taught you how to carry a patient through rough terrain?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ Äyräpää replied. ‘But they had different ideas about it down there.’

We rolled the pig on to the ground. It seemed to be watching us with its tiny eyes. Its eyelashes were a brilliant white.

‘We’ll have to rotate,’ he said, panting. ‘Everyone has to take a turn up front. You get off with half the work carrying at the back.’

By the time we arrived with the second pig, the officers had managed to drag the first patient halfway on to the rack. The pig was strapped up, then gently and slowly lifted from the ground in a winch. The officers clearly knew what they were doing. They gave each other short instructions and nodded, not much needed to be said, the lock on the winch alone was audible constantly, rattling its own native tongue.

The rack was almost two and a half metres tall, its base a sturdy trestle made of four by four. Above it was a vertical platform made from square plank, against which the officers lifted the pig, as if standing it at a wall. At the top of the platform was a pin, through which a rope attached to the winch. All three racks were of equal size; they stood evenly in a row two metres apart looking down towards the field hospital.

‘Whoa, enough,’ shouted a short captain as the pig’s head was almost level with the top of the platform.

The officers then threaded straps through the platform and tied the pig securely in place. Thick cords were tied around its hind legs to spread them apart.

We went back down to collect the third animal.

Each pig was hoisted on its own rack and placed in precisely the same position. Their heads drooped to one side, like a drunk asleep in a taxi. Their wide-open eyes gleamed with emptiness. An officer walked over and closed their eyelids. He didn’t want any eye-witnesses.

‘Alright, Doctor,’ said the short captain. ‘Everything’s ready.’

A doctor in civilian clothing walked up to the racks, pulled a marker pen from his pocket, felt around the pig’s groin and drew a blue cross to mark the spot, and drew an identical spot at exactly the same place on all three pigs. He then inserted a sharp probe into the pigs’ stomach cavities, something resembling a roasting meter.

Twenty metres away, directly in front of the pigs, was another set of three racks. These were four-legged steel pedestals, contraptions about a metre high. The officers opened the lids of a number of green wooden boxes, from which they produced three assault rifles with a scope. They then screwed the rifles to the steel racks, their barrels pointed directly at the pigs like an accusing finger.

A firearms technician bent down over the furthest of the guns and looked through the target, whilst adjusting its settings with some tool or other. It was a Finnish assault rifle, an ordinary gun by the name of Sako.

‘I think that’s just about in place,’ the technician said and moved over to the middle rifle. It appeared to be an American M16, I recognised it from pictures in the papers.

The third rifle, bearing Cyrillic lettering, was removed from its cardboard box. It was a Russian rifle, but not a Kalashnikov. Once the technician had adjusted all the settings he fetched the ammunition cases and attached them in place. All the other officers moved round behind the rifles, out of the line of fire.

The American rifle looked slick; it was as if it would try to escape its rack at any moment. Its surface was entirely matt, black and threatening in its silence. The Finnish and Russian rifles seemed ashamed of their bleakness and stared blankly towards their respective targets.

‘Ready?’ asked the technician.

The lieutenant-colonel nodded.

The technician walked up to the Sako, loaded it and pulled the trigger.

The boom of the gun didn’t seem loud when you were expecting it. The surrounding forest swallowed up the sound, but the flames that flashed from the barrel were too much. The yellow flames exploded with malevolent force against the grey backdrop. The pig slumped in its rack. The bullet had been accurate. A bloody spot appeared at the centre of the blue cross, now framed with a dark patch the size of a coin.

The technician made his way over to the American rifle. He didn’t have to bend down or aim. The rifles were firmly attached to their racks and meticulously tuned, all you had to do was stand to one side and pull the trigger.

The M16 let out a noise like ten chainsaws, the flash from its barrel was long and thin, a greyish yellow. The middle pig shuddered in its straps, its head jolted from its left shoulder to its right, its tongue flopped out, a nerve somewhere made its legs twitch. The ropes stopped any movement. A red dot could be seen in its groin.

I looked over at Hiitola. His jaw was trembling.

The technician fired the Russian weapon. It too gave a sharp blast, just like the M16. It was definitely a lower calibre rifle than a Kalashnikov. They spoke a very similar language.

A small trail of blood trickled from the wound in the third pig. It proceeded calmly downwards, like a ladder in a pair of tights. There was a clean hole in each pig’s skin, even though they had been shot at close range with powerful rifles. Their backs doubtless suffered far larger exit wounds.

‘Right then,’ said the short captain. ‘Let’s have a look at the damage.’

All the officers and the doctors walked up to the victims. They gathered around the first pig, examined its entry and exit wounds, measured them with a ruler, photographed them with a digital camera, made notes and filled out forms. Cameras flashed. A doctor took out a stethoscope and listened to the pig’s heartbeat. It seemed to be alive.

‘What’s that roasting meter for?’ someone asked.

‘It’s a pressure probe. These bullets have hit the bone, but the worst injuries are nonetheless to the soft tissue. The M16 in particular is a right pneumatic drill: Once they had examined the injuries to all three pigs, the animals were unstrapped from the racks and carefully lowered to the ground.

‘Medical officers!’ shouted the short captain. ‘Stretchers, quickly. There are wounded here.’

We grabbed the stretchers and ran up to the racks. The doctors helped us lift the pigs on to the canvas.

‘Now quick smart back to the field hospital,’ someone said. ‘These patients need urgent attention.’

We hurried off towards the field hospital, but we didn’t run. The pig was lying on its side. I saw the exit wound on its back. It was large and rough, like a Christmas star drawn by a child. More than just a bullet had flown out of there. Flesh and bones, nerves and tendons, everything.

The doctors worked quickly, slipped on latex gloves, examined the bullet wounds, checked the pigs’ pupils, made their diagnoses, attached drips. They told each other in Latin what was wrong with the pigs and what had to be done.

We stood in the hospital foyer wondering at what had just happened.

‘This is the second phase of the exercise,’ said one of the doctors. ‘First we look at the damage each weapon causes, then we practice using the field hospital and treating war wounds. It’s handy to combine these two exercises.’

The doctor didn’t manage to say any more. He was called into the operating theatre. We were also summoned. The vet had anaesthetised three new victims.

It was difficult to lift the large, limp pig. I could feel stabbing pains in my back. The animal was still groaning to itself though it was deeply unconscious. Its eyes were open. It was like an old man reminiscing about days gone by.

We carried the pigs up the hill. The officers pinned them up against the wall and secured the ropes. This time the pigs were placed in a different position. Their front legs were spread out to the sides and their hind legs, tied together, were pointed straight towards the ground. There they dangled, their backs against the racks as if they had been crucified. The doctor with the marker pen drew blue crosses on their bellies, presumably next to their stomachs. He then inserted the pressure probes right next to the crosses.

‘X marks the spot. May the government pay its last respects,’ he said.

The Sako gave a crack. The pig shook as much as its ropes would allow. It gave a few grunts, its head jerking, its eyes staring blindly on.

The middle pig took a bullet in the stomach from the American rifle. It began to squeal like a child. Was it properly anaesthetised? It was screaming. Its eyes were wide open, and they were looking at us.

The final pig took its fate quietly, it barely moved. Hiitola was frozen to the spot, staring at the animals, the empty stretchers dangling in his hands. The rack in the middle, with the squealing pig, was slightly higher up the hill than the others to either side.

‘Golgatha,’ I said.

Hiitola didn’t turn to look at me, he didn’t react at all. With his back turned, I could see he had started to cry.

Once again the doctors began examining the wounds. The officers measured the size of the bullet holes, checked the pressure probe readings, and noted the results in their papers. Photographs were taken, though hardly the kind they would show their children when they got home. The pigs were losing blood from their wounds. Their trotters were red, dripping blood on to the moss beneath, which silently sucked it up.

The officers brought the pigs down from their racks.

‘Medical officers!’ someone shouted. ‘There are men here in need of attention.’

One of the majors had noticed Hiitola crying.

‘What are you blubbering about, man?’ he said. ‘No room for pity in war. Soldiers should use violence without flinching, without sparing blood.’

‘Do you feel sorry for them?’ asked the medical officer.

‘Yes,’ Hiitola replied as he wiped his face.

‘Pull yourself together,’ said the officer. ‘This brutality may be unpleasant, but you must consider the nature of conflict. In war, kindness causes mistakes. Soldiers have to learn to deal with brutality.’

‘That’s right,’ said the major. ‘Confronting your own conscience and moral dangers is what requires the most bravery. We have to dare to kill the enemy, otherwise the enemy will kill us.’

‘War is about interaction,’ added the medical officer.

‘What have those animals done?’ asked Hiitola.

‘Nothing. They’re test animals. We have to learn how the newest firearm technology works. There are many other types of test shoots using far higher calibre weapons. I would invite you to acquaint yourself, but they are classified. I can however assure you that that’s the game where men are made.’

We rushed the boars down the hill. The operating theatres were still occupied with the previous victims. The pigs were left outside the hospital to wait. They did receive the necessary first aid: the patients were put on a drip, their wounds were bandaged and they were wrapped in blankets….

One after another the other pigs were shot in various different ways: in their front and back limbs, in the eyes, the lungs, through the testicles into the chest and goodness knows where else. Some received a shot to the snout and a flesh wound, others were shot in the liver and the throat.

‘Multiple wound patients,’ said one of the doctors. ‘We get many of these in war nowadays. And these are what we have to produce here.’

A long queue of patients formed outside the hospital. The most urgent cases were taken straight into the operating theatre, while the others were forced to wait their turn covered in blankets. Some had a plastic tube inserted into their sides so that excess blood and fluids could drain away from the lungs, or was it the stomach cavity?

A single crow was pecking at the blood-soaked moss. It hopped away, feet together, as the doctors walked past, but soon calmly returned to the dining table, waddling steadily. It wasn’t greedy.

Six pigs had already died of their wounds. They were lying further back, blankets draw over their heads.

‘Some patients will die waiting, even though their wounds could be easily treated,’ said the doctor. ‘Things like this happen in war.’

‘Things like this happen in civilian life, too,’ said another.

We only stopped to eat once all the pigs had been carried into the queue at the hospital. We walked up to the food queue….

There was lots of fish in the salmon soup, probably because most of those eating were officers. Even we were given a bowl, we didn’t have to fetch our lunch boxes. Major Tuppervaara approached us carrying his bowl. He placed his black gloves on the stump and sat on them. I could smell the leather beneath his backside.

‘An interesting assignment,’ he said. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘Yes, it is,’ replied Äyräpää.

Hiitola remained silent, quietly spooning up his soup. His eyes had become fixed. His face, stained with sweat and grime, still showed traces of tears. His sandy blond hair stuck out from beneath his cap like wood shavings.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ enquired Tuppervaara. ‘Taking its toll, is it?’

Hiitola didn’t reply. With his spoon, he cut a chunk of potato into two unequal sized pieces and raised the smaller of them to his mouth.

‘He’s religious,’ explained Äyräpää.

‘We’re all religious,’ said Tuppervaara. ‘But there’s no place for a priest in this exercise. This is a two-part exercise: we shoot them, then we treat them.’

‘What’s the third phase?’

‘Guess.’

We all looked at each other, all except Hiitola, who wasn’t looking anywhere.

‘We don’t know,’ I said.

‘Taking care of the dead,’ Tuppervaara replied.

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means moving those killed in action away from the battlefield and that includes everything. This is the very core of the army, its most beautiful aspect: logistics. It is the mobilisation of troops, only it works the other way round. It is the cold fist of authority, which runs through the levels of the army like a cockroach along the wallpaper, it knows every man, it knows all the companies and battalions, the institutions of every frigate and the army corps evacuation centre where casualties are relieved of their duties. Even there it knows how to proceed, it knows every distribution route and centre, the train timetables and all connections, every road, street and address. It knows everything necessary to get the package to the client at the right time and place. Do you see what a bloody marvellous infrastructure the armed forces represent?’

‘No,’ said Äyräpää. ‘Not yet, anyway.’

‘Taking care of casualties puts a terrible strain on the capabilities of such logistics. Production very rarely meets the customers’ expectations, if you see my point.’

‘Sorry?’

‘You can never predict the number of casualties. Of course people do make predictions, but war is full of surprises, just like love perhaps. But discrepancies in such predictions must not lead to discrepancies in delivery time. You understand, we can’t keep them stockpiled, a casualty is a fresh product, something that will quickly go off.’

Major Tuppervaara began eating his soup unnaturally quickly. Perhaps he was afraid it would go cold. He left his peas uneaten. I didn’t know what they were doing in salmon soup either. Once he had finished eating, Tuppervaara put his plate down by his shoe and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

‘We cover the whole country,’ he said.

‘Excuse me?’

‘In caring for the casualties. I’m still referring to that. The size of coverage is not a problem. Long distances can in fact be highly cost-effective if there is a large number of deliveries, but unfortunately it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes we end up having to ship a single package to the back of beyond. And it’s expensive, when you consider that, to ensure the quality of the product, we’ve got to work according to normal daily delivery routines. We end up having to make a lot of direct deliveries, even with only a small number at a time. Using intermediaries and midway storage would reduce our expenses, but it’s not really good enough when we’re talking about a human body.’

Tuppervaara looked at us, then stood up and put on his gloves.

‘Customer satisfaction,’ he said. ‘That’s the key. In this respect we have to be strong, even if it costs a bit more. We’ve got a fast and reliable delivery channel to physically move the product, and we’ve got a marketing group that’s been organised by professionals for hundreds of years. Any idea what it is?’

We didn’t guess, we just sat there quietly staring at Tuppervaara. The answer was bursting behind his smile, as if he had some glorious news.

‘We don’t know,’ said Äyräpää.

‘The church,’ Tuppervaara declared. ‘There’s a strategic alliance between us and the church. In its own indefatigable way the church functions as a means of informing the people and takes care of marketing support. It’s like a retailer for us, someone with direct access to the customers. We’re the wholesalers. We deliver the goods. The product itself depends largely on the enemy, we can only affect things in certain ways.’

‘Who’s the customer, then?’ I asked.

‘The relatives.’

‘Do they order the goods?’

‘This market has nothing to do with orders. No one orders their son home in a coffin. Customer interaction only begins when a soldier dies.’

‘I doubt the customers are very happy about it,’ I said.

‘Of course they grieve for their lost son. But this doesn’t affect our military action. Grief is an emotion. It can’t be accounted for in a logistical schema. A casualty is just another casualty. It’s stuff. When you move it a metre to the right, it moves a metre to the right. A casualty doesn’t make anyone happy, but it is what it says it is. They don’t come with factory flaws.’

‘I think I get it,’ said Äyräpää.

‘What should we do when all the pigs have been shot?’ I asked.

‘Go back to the tent and rest,’ Tuppervaara replied. ‘Or go to sleep. You’ll be on nightwatch at the field hospital, one at a time. It’s easy: keep the rooms warm and alert the doctors if the patients need attention. Take the patients’ temperature too. Divide the shifts amongst yourselves.’

Translated by David Hackston

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