The dull peals of defeat

“Thirty seconds,” someone shouted urgently, amidst the scuffle of groundsheets against the parade square, the slap of ziplock bags being thrown into field-packs, the screech of zips and velcro secured hastily, and the silent sibilance of field-packs being dragged into position.
 
Twenty seconds later, another voice started counting down from twenty. The obnoxious countdown irritated William to no end, as he scrambled to zip up his field-pack, pausing only to spare a fleeting thought for the shimmering, sculpted ziplock bags of army equipment in his field pack, which in his frenzy would likely have been punctured or infected with an inexplicable bloom of fine, cloudy powder. A few seconds behind his peers now, he raced to align his field-pack in a file, throw his integrated load bearing vest (iLBV) over his field pack, and arrange his helmet on top of this precarious pile. Finally done, he waved away his friends who had been floundering by his side, helplessly wanting to help, for they had been punished before for not helping others once they were done with packing their own field-packs.
 
“Eh stop moving! Stop moving! Time’s up!”
 
Instantly, William straightened up, and heaved with relief and admiration. In a mere 90 seconds, a scrambled confusion of army items laid out for inspection had been packed up. It was a serene, surreal scene, the air damp and heavy. Rows upon rows of soldiers stood quietly in the chill of the night, waiting. A few tense moments passed.
 
In that reverent stillness, William’s field-pack began to creak and surrender. It leaned forward slowly, and William stared at his field-pack impotently, first with horror, then with indignation, as he saw that his boots were a full half metre from his field-pack, and that nothing could have agitated this betrayal. A hollow, reverberant, and deeply satisfying thud echoed through the parade square, as his helmet was unseated from atop the field-pack and knocked happily against the parade square. His field-pack lay prostrate, peacefully at rest.
 
William’s friends stared at him murderously. “Who is that!” Sergeant Pav thundered, and swivelled around angrily. “Who dropped their helmet! Eh you must care for your equipment! Your helmet is to protect your head, not to hit against the floor,” Sergeant Pav continued, but then, realising that he had exhausted all explanations for why helmets should not be dropped, and unsure of how to continue his forceful diatribe, he paused for a moment. 
 
“Never mind,” he sighed, “knock it down.”
 
A flurry of movement followed, as rifles were hurriedly unslung and everyone groped for the floor. Between neat roles of field-packs – save for William’s fallen field-pack and displaced helmet – a mass of soldiers trembled in push-in position. “Down!” Sergeant Pav barked. 
 
Twenty push-ups later, on Sergeant Pav’s order, everyone scrambled back on their feet and gathered in front in of him. In the past minute, he had thought of how to resume his spiel against fallen helmets, and he paced around impatiently for everyone to get settled down. “I told you before right? You must take care of your helmet. You know ah, in war, your helmet will save your life! If your helmet spoil, how you fight war? How you protect your loved ones and defend Singapore?” Sergeant Pav glowered, but inwardly he glowed with satisfaction at having made a compelling connection to the heroism of defending one’s country. 
 
“Come, I show you how to prevent your helmet from falling!” Pav grabbed a nearby field pack, seized it by its sides and slammed it riotously on the ground, with such force that William, exhilarated by the fury and sprezzatura on display, forgot momentarily about the pedantic remarks to care for one’s equipment. The base of the field-pack now flattened against the floor, it gained an impressive stability, and shouldered the helmet proudly. “Ok now you know how to prevent your helmet from falling! I don’t want to hear any more sounds of helmets falling,” Sergeant Pav concluded, and dismissed the crowd, sending everyone scurrying off in a mad race for the showers.
 
From then on, the resonant thud of helmets against the floor was a sound that drew universal irritation and hatred – even more so than the shrill shrieks of metal utensils against the metal mess-tins, or the unabashed scream of velcro being torn apart on iLBVs. This came as the punishments for a dropped helmet grew steadily. What was initially twenty push-ups rose to thirty, then forty, then the command to “everything out”. One evening, Sergeant Pav had finished inspecting the items in everyone’s field-pack, and all the field-packs had been packed up. The company of soldiers brimmed with anticipation. The time was 2105, leaving them with over an hour of free time before lights out. It was unprecedented. William danced lightly on his toes, mentally rehearsing the most efficient way of carrying his field-pack, iLBV, and helmet up to his bunk, then taking off his boots, then running for the shower. Sergeant Pav was talking to Lieutenant Zheng to get approval to dismiss everyone when, without warning, the unmistakable bright echo of a fallen helmet rang out, like a gunshot to William’s hopes of having time for a long bath, a leisurely meal of cup noodles, and an unhurried expanse of doing nothing, absolutely nothing. 
 
“Everything out!” Sergeant Pav yelled. A stunned silence. “Eh I said everything out!” Only then did people sink to their knees and start unpacking their field-packs, laying out every item on the parade square once more. Forgetting that he too had committed the same mistake a week ago, William cursed the faceless culprit in the crowd bitterly, overwhelmed with cynicism about human incompetence. After two more rounds of “everything out” and “everything in”, the time was 2145.
 
The crusade against fallen helmets was a keen obsession for William and his army buddies. The sheer evilness of dropping one’s helmet had been so thoroughly ingrained in their minds that even when Sergeant Pav was nowhere to be seen, the sound of a dropped helmet still elicited a rancorous chorus of angry utterances and a spasm of nervous twitches as people checked if any instructor had heard the sound. It was beyond question – the sound of helmets upon the ground was a great embarrassment and taboo. 
 
***
 
William crouched uncomfortably in the fire trench as bullets whistled overhead. His helmet was askew, and camouflage cream dripped into his eyes, triggering a mucous secretion that flooded his eyes and reduced his vision to washed-out splotches. This all felt like a training exercise, albeit a long and unpleasant one, and the reality of fighting in a war had yet to sink in. He shifted around nervously, adjusting his ear plugs. He wondered vaguely if he would be able to hear instructions from his commanders over the cacophony of the battlefield.
 
On a hill behind William, a scout looked through binoculars at the enemy forces rushing to take their positions in trenches. He made a note of the number of command posts, infantry sections, medics, armoured vehicles, and radar systems. Squinting, he tried to identify the model and make of the radar system, then realised, curiously, that it was strange for a radar system to be placed so near the front-lines. It was a huge oval criss-crossed with grilles, and with wheels underneath for it to be towed. An enemy soldier rushed to connect thick wires from the base of the oval to a nondescript truck parked beside. There were eight of such ovals spread across the front-lines, arranged in a concave pattern. 
 
Before he could take further notes on those weird ovals, the scout’s attention was drawn to his friendly troops, who were beginning to climb over their trenches and advance towards the enemy. Their advance seemed unexpectedly cautious; barely had they moved a few metres before they halted in their courageous charge, and looked around nervously. Then the scout heard the sound, a faint thump like the beating of war drums.


At the front-lines, William and his section mates were seized by a paroxysm of distress. Rifles hung loosely around their necks, they crouched down and their eyes darted around, looking for the source of that infernal noise. Pounding persistently, drowning out the petty squabbles of gunfire, was a loud, sonorous, all-too-familiar ‘tock’, mocking William and his friends with the dull peals of defeat.

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