You break out of that dark wood Dante spoke of and into a clearing. You sense at once that this is a hallowed place. Something sacral has happened here. Sometimes smoke will hang in the air that you can see. Or the odor of it in any event that you can smell. Or the taste, even, owing to the complicity of the olefactory and gustatory. But mostly how you know that men have fought here, that lives have been wagered here—won, maybe, for a while; lost, maybe, for always—is that you feel underfoot the expended casings that litter the jungle floor.
Expended casing. An empty shell, once potent. A core now expended. A detonation has animated inert matter, impelled it, set it in motion. Whether an objective has been reached, a target struck no one can say from the shell casing. Only that its quiescence is an afterstate, proof of energy once stored, now released and irretrievable. And from the casing alone—its priming gone, its power depleted, its one and only one trajectory launched into that unknown—you have to deduce what’s gone on here, what the struggle was about here, what victory was won or ceded here.
Sometimes you find expended casings in a pile. Frenetic passion let loose. Desperation at play. Terror. Ferocity. Exhilaration, even. Someone has fired a whole magazine. Several, maybe. Into a green void, into the darkness, in somber dread of the Unknown and in the futile hope that this Unknown is of a sort to dispel with nitrated cupro-plumbum. Other times, though, you’ll find only two or three… perhaps a single expended casing. Mystery. One shot, one kill? And whose shot? And whose kill? Who spotted who first? Who expended that casing? With what effect? And who dragged who off in the end… bloody, bleeding, bled.
The mute witness to these convulsions is a slender tube of still-gleaming brass, its insides scorched, black, empty. A soldier will peer, wordless, at a pile of expended casings. Stare idly for the longest time as if to reconstruct in his mind how and why these things came to be this way. He will nudge, ever so gently, the sad little heap of metal with the toe of a scuffed combat boot. He will think. He will remember. He will wonder. Think… how this fight must have come off, what rage emptied these casings, deposed them here. Remember… how he himself has scattered burning brass in clearings, in brakes, in fragrant soil just like this here. Wonder… if like these hollow shells of burnished alloy he has not emptied himself of power, of force, of prime… of hope and of dream and of spirit, to become in the end and for all time, nothing but an expended casing.
Alan Farrell fought alongside Hmong strikers on the Ho Chi Minh trail 1968-70 as a sergeant in the Studies and Observations Group, United States Army Special Forces. Photos and text copyright (c) Alan Farrell 1968-2017 all rights reserved.