The old commander

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The elderly military man lay on a cot in the military hospital most of the day. He had been forcibly retired due to the age limit. However, everyone knew by now that the real reason was another: almost all of his subordinates had not yet had any chance of leadership, although they were beginning to show the first signs of senescence.

“He has the dumb luck not to die. He gets increasingly thin and tired, but he won’t give up. Not even in the hospital does he resign himself to nature…” was rumored in the dormitories and among officers awaiting operational placement.

Meanwhile, the old man, between IVs and enemas, kept listening to a bulletin twice a day, very often the same one, written and read by a condescending nurse (who, however, assured him that it came from the military authorities). Immediately afterward, grim and stern at the same time, mechanically and with a trembling hand, he wrote “essential” tactical notes to be delivered to his ex-subordinates engaged at the front.

“They won’t make it, he kept repeating while shaking his head. “Without experience, they will end up getting slaughtered like pigs at the slaughterhouse.”

Then, shelling out his rosary of bullets in his mind, he would begin to silently swear at those who had deemed him now too old for that role: “Young people!” he would say in a huff. “That they will never become adults!” And he always concluded by cursing the whole world.

The nurse, also the wife of a front-line colonel, regarded her job as a real mission and read the “bulletins” to the commander even with grotesque gravity. In the end, as if it were part of the cure, he was in charge of carefully checking the notes written by that uncertain hand and filtering their contents to not further rattle the military already under the stress of bombs and fighting.

Senior military, an old commander

Mostly, the old general limited himself to fanciful weather information. However, the poor woman, crushed on both sides, had on more than one occasion pointed out to him that the committed contingent was now more than five hundred miles away and that his observations through the hospital window were perhaps not so essential.

However, after each attempt that initially seemed to have its effect, the old man, hard as a rock, tightened his mouth muscles and turned his gaze elsewhere. The next time, as if nothing had happened, he repeated the exact directions to the woman. He refused to turn around for the injection unless she immediately telegraphed his valuable advice.

One day in October, after a strategy meeting held in the city, a major engaged in battles decided to visit the man who had been his direct superior for a few years before his final retirement.

“How are you, commander?” greeted him with polite rigor. “Do you receive good care in this hospital?”

“They forced me to stay there!” the old man apologetically exclaimed. “How do you think I might feel? Bad, I’d say… Knowing, moreover, that at the front, soldiers trudge along.”

The major, in charge of a battalion in total health, abandoned charitable intentions and began to get nervous: “Not so, he replied dryly. “Our men are vigorous, and just yesterday, a major enemy outpost was conquered!”

“Mah…” sighed the sick man, uncovering an arm full of bruises from the IV. “It doesn’t sound like it to me.”

“I mean,” blurted out the major, who had turned red in the face, “you want to tell me that you know better than I do what’s going on at the front?”

The old commander made a gesture with his hand as if he wanted to simultaneously chase away both the question and the possible embarrassment of having to give a reasonable answer. Without even saying a word, the major, offended and upset at that behavior, gave him a listless military salute, turned on his heel, and left the room.

In the hallway was a huddle of doctors and nurses. He approached and, noticing his superior’s wife in the field, touched his head with his finger and asked, “She is no longer herself, is she?”

A perpetually distracted-looking doctor, annoyed at that gratuitous remark, reposted to him with a laconic technicality, “He doesn’t manifest any symptoms of dementia if that’s what you mean to know.”

On the other hand, the woman, realizing what behaviors the officer was referring to, took him under her arm and broke away with him from the small group, “The visit was short-lived!” she exclaimed, winking.

“I dare! In a while, he would have even questioned my name. I told him about yesterday’s excellent result, and he said he was unconvinced. Absurd!”

“The truth,” the woman added, “is that he does not accept his new role and still prefers to feel like a protagonist, a commander, a final decision-maker.”

“But by doing so,” said the now calmer man, “no one will come to visit him anymore. Do you know what they say at the front and barracks?”

“I can imagine,” replied the woman calmly.

“Of course. With your husband, it is not at all difficult for you… After all, the colonel was a ‘victim’ of the old man. It is improbable that he will receive any more operational assignments after this. And mind you, I’m not telling you a rumor — he repeats it daily.”

“And every night, too,” the nurse urged him, smiling with complicity.

The primary caught sight of a light shining in the dreamy depths of those sea-green eyes, “Exactly!” he exclaimed, brushing, without realizing what he was doing, the woman’s soft hair.

“And think what a burden it is for me to have to deal with the old man and then, when my husband comes home from time to time, also with his complaints,” she said, shaking her head.

“But why don’t you ask that they change your department?”

The nurse looked at the tips of her white shoes, slowly looked up again, and replied. I am the only paramedic qualified to care for the inpatients on this ward. Secondly…” He paused to weigh the words, “You may not believe it, but without me, that man would be doomed.”

The major furrowed his brow as if he did not quite understand what he had just been told, “Why should he be a goner? Did you hear from the doctor just now? They found no dementia and therefore would treat him exactly like the other inpatients.”

“That’s precisely the problem!” the woman replied, sighing as her shoulders creaked with fatigue. “The commander is neither crazy nor demented, but to treat him with indifference, with the detachment of one who does not know him, would make him a dying vegetable.”

“So you are telling me that this is all a sham? That she enjoys acting this way?”

“No, no, major, don’t get me wrong,” replied the nurse patiently. “My experience has taught me that, in such cases, the person constantly experiences a drama of splitting. You see,” he said, taking the interlocutor’s arm, “we know how to mark the difference between the imaginary and the real, and, above all, we are aware that all our communication is based on a pre-established convention. I am ‘forced’ to believe you – with the appropriate reservations, of course – if you tell me the events that happened at the front because we are both aware that I cannot be as well informed as you, who are directly engaged on the front lines.”

“I do not doubt it,” exclaimed the military man as if what he had just heard was trivially evident.

“Good,” the woman continued. “For the commander, it is different. He lives in an imaginary place of memories, ideas, actions, decisions, and so on… Unfortunately, however, when he talks to people, he can no longer move into that real sphere that allows for sharing. He remains alone in his little world, just like a soldier lost in battle, a soldier who screams while realizing that the din of bombs makes all his efforts futile. For this, I pity him. And I also endure his hateful character.”

The major grimaced: he was used to obeying his superiors, and that woman, as a colonel’s wife, represented an unquestionable voice for him. He replied, “That may be… But I just can’t pity him,” and took his leave, forcibly returning the interlocutor’s sunny smile. As she started down the stairs, the nurse, in an all too squeaky tone, exclaimed, “See you soon!” and disappeared into her ward.

A few days later, the old man was struck by a heart attack and died without the comfort of family or friends. The nurse noticed this in the morning while preparing the medication to be administered to him; the doctor, the same one who had affirmed the commander’s perfect sanity, declared that death had occurred no more than two hours earlier from natural causes.

Varied rumors circulated in the following days: some military personnel said the man was found with his fists clenched to the sheets as if he wanted to stay alive at all costs. Others, however, said without mincing words that his pride had pushed him toward a gradual decay, a sunset that would prevent him from having to endure his inner suffering any longer.

On the other hand, the elder, suspicious by nature and disinclined to fantasies, went to see the nurse again. He found her in the room previously occupied by the old man, giving an injection to a newly ill person.

“Now you have one less inpatient to pity,” the military man told her, shaking her hand.

“Maybe,” the woman replied, readjusting a brown lock that swayed just before her right eye. “And maybe she just found one instead…”

The major stared at her, puzzled, “What do you mean? I don’t understand her.”

“Oh, beautiful!” exclaimed the nurse, making her eyes sparkle like a teenager’s. “Now she is the one who wants to live in her imaginary paradise!”

“Imaginary heaven? What are you talking about?” suddenly exclaimed the major, unnerved by such impractical arithmetic. “I come from a war outpost, ma’am, and as your husband will certainly tell you, ours is anything but a paradise!

The woman winked and brushed her tapering fingers over the military man’s hairy face, “Don’t tell me you won’t come to see me again now that I’ve also fulfilled your wish,” and immediately, like lightning creeping through the clouds, disappeared into another patient dormitory.

The young military man, dumbfounded, rearranged his beret, froze petrified in front of the door of the room once occupied by the old commander, gave a military salute, and then, slow as an elderly inpatient, walked out of the hospital, staring in silence at the green tiles on the floor.

A little less than a month later, his battalion, exhausted by an exhausting wait, was caught by surprise by an enemy attack, and several soldiers lost their lives.

The major, commander of the squad, was found the next day, lying on the ground with his chest pierced by two bullets, holding the dried-up trunk of an old oleander like a rifle.

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