Fake Soldiers

Posted on: August 22, 2013

With fake soldiers in fake armies, we fought over fake boundaries, rivers, mountains, and countries. Our fake generals led men on fake horses into fake battle, and the roll of the digital dice decided who stayed alive and who died on the electronic battlefield made up, at its core, of ones and zeros. On December 31st, 1999, my older brother and I, in our mid twenties, played RISK, the game of world dominance, on my Playstation 2. We retreated to our cabin at the edge of Yellowstone Park on the Idaho and Wyoming border with enough wine, beer, and potato chips to make it through the apocalypse. It was the eve of the Y2K disaster, when the world’s computers would send nuclear missiles into the air, where the World Bank and credit history of all the world’s people would crumble, and where fires would spark from the fingertips of civilized people thrown back into savagery without computers. Walls of snow, stacked five to six feet tall, surrounded the little cabin. The tops of baby trees peeked out from the snow, their lives too short to stand above the wintery ground like their elders that stretched up to the blue sky and, during the day, sliced the snow with their shadows. The sun dropped down behind the mountains before five p.m., and clouds drizzled more snow onto the already thick base that covered the ground. It was cold outside, but inside, the fire burned.

Two cigars sat on the end table near the sliding glass doors that opened up to the deck. They would be saved for midnight.

In the mid 1980s, my brother beat me at everything. It didn’t matter what we played, he had the upper hand, and as most older brothers do, he played the upper hand with a lot of weight. He bankrupted me in Monopoly — I went for the fat pigs on Wall Street -- Park Place and Boardwalk -- while he became the slumlord of the Avenues (Baltic, Mediterranean, Oriental, etc.), stacked up hotels, and made the district right after “GO” a money pit for my flying shoe. He outwitted me at UNO. He knew when to back things up, when to keep things going, and when to turn one of the wild cards I had saved up all game into my own demise.

One day, sitting on the floor of his bedroom, bored in the late days of summer when the 103-degree heat finally pushed us indoors, my brother laid RISK out on the floor. I was sick of losing, so earlier that year I vowed to never place another soldier in harm’s way. Hadn’t I killed enough men? Hadn’t I waged pointless battles on imaginary borders that never ended in peace? Countless lives of men thrown to the ground on the whims of their leaders who looked down on them from the comfort of a carpeted room in the middle of summer. Hadn’t I learned my lesson? No matter how much I fought, I would always lose it all, eventually being pushed into exile with no capital or government or land to call my own.

“Let’s play RISK,” he said. His eyebrows and lips turned upward with the vision of another imminent victory and the slaughter of my men.

“No,” I said. “I’m not playing again. I always lose.”

“Come on. What else are you going to do?” he asked. At the time, he was right. “I’ll even spot you Australia.”

My greed welled up inside of me. I could own a continent right from the start. I would own all its extra armies. I could demolish Indonesia and its people with two turns.

“I’m in,” I said, thinking he had sealed his own fate.

I owned Australia, and with much bravado, I pushed forward into Indonesia and Thailand before his Asian forces punished me on the Indian mountains and forced my troops backward. Then the onslaught came in full force, and within two turns, he had vanquished my armies, rolling the dice and his forces across the globe, pushing me out of Kansas and Ontario, cornering and conquering me on the Sahara, and, one army by one army, killing my Australian stronghold until I had one guy standing on Cape Pasley, begging for mercy. I had enough, and instead of waving my white flag with honor, I flipped the entire board upside down, tossing armies across the room, into the AC vent, onto piles of dirty clothes, and beneath my brother’s bed. I was done losing. If I couldn’t conquer the world, I couldn’t handle the thought of anyone else doing it. It was supposed to be mine, all mine.

“You cheated!” I yelled, the world upside down at my feet.

“I can’t cheat,” he said calmly, which made me even angrier. “The dice do what they do. I’m just better.”

“You cheated,” I yelled. Then I stormed out of the room and vowed to never play him again.

In 1999, some people far away from our secluded cabin partied, some sang along with Prince, some prayed, some hid in shelters, and others slept without worries — midnight in 1999 had finally come. We held our controllers in our hands and watched our armies fight on the screen. Our brains floated in a bath of wine, and our game of RISK had yet to be completed. We knew the game could stretch out for many more hours, so my brother grabbed the cigars from the table, and we walked out onto the snow-covered deck and beneath the moon. The cold surrounded us. It was quiet, very quiet, like there-wasn’t-another-soul-for-miles quiet. My brother looked at his watch and counted down to the end of the millennium, a slow methodical count that added to the feeling of seclusion. We knew that if things really did go to hell that night that we would be together out there in the wilderness.

“It’s time,” he said.

“Let’s do this,” I said. I wish I would have said something less cheesy, but none of us really believed in Y2K.

He handed me one of the cigars, lit his own in his mouth, and then handed me the lighter. I clumsily lit mine and inhaled the rich smoke into my lungs. It warmed my gut. We stood in silence for a few minutes. Snow flickered on its descent. At the end of my cigar, I saw the bright red flame that circled the cigar edges like the sun burning at the edges of a solar eclipse, bright reds sparking out from behind the curved edge, but beyond the cigar, no fires burned, no sirens screamed, and no missiles cut through the sky. We stood in the snow until the cigars burned down to the edges of our index fingers and thumbs. Then we walked back into the cabin to play a game between brothers.

Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: Kase Johnstun

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