Who is Right and Who is Left?

An orange sun set hastily behind the horizon. It left behind a bleak, scarred landscape. The region’s picturesque foothills and luscious natural scenery had been beaten into a bruised, barren, blood-soaked terrain. The earth shook with the sounds of trucks rattling along dirt roads. Distant gunfire drowned out the few remaining songbirds and the constant droning sound of machinery whirring and sputtering insured that silence was rare and truly appreciated by all. A loud horn rose above all of this, and soldiers swarmed a large tent. As each received their rations, they were seated on rows upon rows of long, wooden tables. A grizzled, experienced soldier made his way towards a rear table. Private Adam Reed stood a little over six feet, his dark eyes were focused, and he moved with intent. There was little joy to be found in his facial expressions, though no sadness either. On his plate, there were beans, some meat and bread. Not the most appetizing of meals but it was still an agreeable gift for his empty stomach.

“Brooks.” he greeted his friend, nodding as he sat down. A microphone screeched to life, quickly quieting the crowded soldiers. They looked over to a makeshift wooden stage where a short, stocky man stood in a dark uniform, better tailored than each of their own. He began to speak with a strong, sharp tone.

“Men, I know you are tired. I know you long to go home. Long to hold your wives and play with your children. They are why we fight. We must protect them. Keep them safe. Only once their safety is insured can we rest.”   

The rest of the country was not always perfectly peaceful, but no city had seen violence quite like theirs had. The two sides had been in conflict for the soldiers’ whole lives. All they had known was unstable peace and stable war.  

“But do not fear, for you will return soon. Once the war is won. Once victory is ours and peace falls upon our homeland. You will return home as heroes. Hailed as great gladiators of freedom. This whole nation backs us, people in every city are sending us weapons. God backs us. This is our land, our city, and with this divine support, we cannot lose.” The war-weary fighters roared in approval. Their confidence in the cause unshaken by their long months of fighting. As each returned to the barracks and surrendered to sleep, he dreamt of the victory and valiant return the Commander had spoken of. 

The darkness was a welcome sight for many within the city. It hid the horrors of hourly bombings. A silent silhouette crept carefully through the night.  Squeezing through holes in fences and scurrying through the debris. Like a ghost, the boy moved through the shadows, the sound of his footsteps hidden by the eerie creaking of metal and settling of rubble. Behind what used to be a bakery, he disappeared. He maneuvered carefully around to the back. There he stopped and with a flashlight as he searched through the baker’s old garden. Some rotting fruit and dying vegetable plants were all that remained. He sat there for a minute, devouring the salvageable remnants of the small green oasis. As his flashlight darted across the ground, it landed finally on a half a loaf of bread. The boy silently celebrated his good fortune, pointed gratefully to the sky and withdrew back into the shadows. 

As soon as he opened the front door Idris could hear his mother crying. She had cried most nights over the past few months. Since her husband’s death she hadn’t been the same. She was there but she wasn’t there. Idris would often return home to find her crying or mourning. She tried not to let him see, tried to put on a strong face, but he could tell how much she was hurting. He put the bread down on the table and went to comfort her. His mother was on her knees in prayer, facing away from him. He stood there in the doorway for a brief moment unsure of what to say. Before he could come up with the courage to speak, she saw him. She gestured for him to come over to her. She spoke quietly as tears continued to pool in the corners of her eyes. Spilling over into the creases on her wrinkled face.

“Idris, come here we must pray. Only He can protect us. Only He can bring peace into our lives.” Then they cried together. 

Miles and miles away, across the country in the town of Meadowbrook, birds’ vocal warmups alerted the groggy townsfolk to the start of a new day. Dogs barked and church bells chimed. Front yards were christened with the shimmering morning dew. The young sun’s rays began to peek through the bedroom window of a girl. They inched across the walls and eventually reached her eyes, pulling her from her sleep. By appearance, she couldn’t have been more than 15, though it had always annoyed Layla how young she looked for her age. Within thirty minutes, she was dressed, fed and on her way to the market. Layla enjoyed the walk. The canopy of leaves provided pops of color along her route. The warm sun and shy gusts of wind complemented each other wonderfully and made for a beautiful day. 

At the point where Main Street dead-ended into the town square, the Market in all its bustling glory was already filled with hungry families and excited customers. Rows of stands selling all types of food and materials met Layla’s eyes. Their owners’ voices rose collectively as one unified call. Each trying to convince the market’s patrons of the quality of their products and the uniqueness of their prices. A man seated on one sidewalk was using buckets as drums to entertain the shoppers. The market was quite colorful, an artist’s dream. Stands were painted all shades of brown and beige. The food changing hands was yellow and green and red. Purple and maroon and orange. As she walked along, Layla did her best to recall her mother’s shopping list. Some citrus fruits from Mrs. Longoria’s stand, Cornbread from Mr. Bailey’s. To one side of the market, a man was speaking to a crowd passionately. He was gesturing wildly as beads of sweat collected across his shirt. As she got closer, his sharp words became clearer. He was speaking about atrocities committed in the fighting in a city on the other side of the country. He was begging his audience to support one side of the conflict. Though it had seemed to her that his audience had been agreeing with him, another man stepped out of the crowd to confront him.  

“How could you defend those monsters?!  They’re terrorists!” he exclaimed.  

“They have been oppressed for decades. Their land has been stolen. Their homes have been bombed. Even hospitals have been levelled.” 

“Stolen! It was their land first. And don’t try to paint them as some evil oppressors. All they’re doing is defending themselves. Would you not protect your family if you were in their shoes?” 

“Protection?! They’re killing innocent civilians!” 

“Like the hundreds of their own children who have died in the last year.” 

“You’d have to be stupid to support them!” 

“Nope you’re just brainwashed.” 

“Moron.” 

“Idiot.” 

Once each had grown tired of the idle debate, they returned to their day. None having succeeded in changing the minds of their opponents. Layla too turned away. She was unsure of how she felt. Angry? Scared? Confused? She retraced her steps from earlier in the morning in silence. 

That evening, she sat with her mother and father at the table. Their plates were packed with fruits from Layla’s trip to the market and dishes dreamt up by her mother’s pots and pans. They talked about their jobs, Layla’s basketball team and gossiped about their neighbors. The debate had completely slipped Layla’s mind as her fork meticulously cleared her plate. 

Clouds covered the sky empowering the sharp, bitter gusts of wind. All of the men rose from their thin cots, rubbed the sleep from their eyes and rushed out to breakfast. Zombies, they staggered one by one across the camp. A new shipment of weapons and ammunition had arrived that morning, drawing some excitement out of the fatigued fighters.

“It’s about time!” Brooks exclaimed “I could end all this in an instant if I got my hands on something with a bit more firepower.” The men laughed. “Y’all think I’m lying. But I could take out 10 times more of those roaches with one of these babies.” He pointed at a shiny, silver machine gun laying in the mountain of metallic weapons. The men joked and bragged as they unloaded the new supplies.  

In the mirror, Adam caught the image of his dulled, tired face. He couldn’t help but wonder if he had chosen the wrong life. Of course, he would give anything to see his side prevail, to finally find peace and safety through victory. But it had been so long since he had hugged his wife. So long since he had held his daughter. Sometimes, in his sleep, Adam dreamed that he was a farmer. His life with his family was peaceful. No fighting, no worries, no distance between them. Just a safe, simple life. Of course, he could never reveal his doubts about his commitment to combat. He could never abandon his fellow soldiers. Stop protecting his family. Betray everything he believed in. And even if he did try talking to someone, they would simply rebuff his concerns. They would reassure him that this was the right path. That they were fighting a holy war. That he was just doing what had to be done to ensure prosperity and protection. 

Idris’s Uncle Leo oversaw a small unit of fighters, just like his father had. His mother worried constantly for her younger brother, but there was no doubt in his mind. Uncle Leo had always been passionate and proud of the cause. He would fight to his last breath. When they arrived at his apartment, Idris and his mother sat quietly in the back. There was a group of them sitting around a small table, talking angrily. 

“For our whole lives, we have had to defend our homes.” 

“Then, they call us terrorists for defending ourselves.” 

Their declarations overlapped. Agreeing with each other and adding on. 

“They have not seen our sorrow. They have not suffered our sacrifice. They have not lost what we have lost.” 

“We must fight for peace. We must fight to survive.” For minutes on end, they emotionally discussed what had happened, what was being said and what should be done. 

“If ever you feel doubt, think of those who have died, warriors in battle, innocent children in their homes.” 

“We must all sacrifice for this great cause.” 

They concluded the meeting with a prayer. An abrupt change of pace that caught Idris’s attention. As Uncle Leo and his mother spoke quietly in the kitchen, Idris made his way to the door. Two steps from the door, he was stopped by a man’s voice.

“Kid! Hey!” Idris turned around to face Samir, a close comrade of his uncle’s. “How old are ya?”

“Well – uh – I’ll be 17 in October.” Idris stammered.

“That’s about how old I was when I started fighting. I know it’s scary, in times like this, but ya gotta forget about yourself. Ya gotta fight for your family and ya gotta fight for your faith. Understand?” Idris nodded and turned to leave once more, this time successfully finding his way out the door and down the flight of stairs. 

Layla’s school was no more than a quarter mile from her front door. Though she enjoyed seeing her friends, she had always disliked school. Learning things she was sure she would never cross paths with out in the real world. From a young age, she would stare out of the window for hours on end, her mind trying to escape from the uninteresting imprisonment her body had placed it in. That day, when she arrived home, her parents were in the back room arguing. Their frustrated voices shocked at the ignorance and idiocy of the other’s take on the conflict. Mimicking the talking points of those men in the market. They heard the front door slam closed and immediately abandoned their intense disputatio. They greeted Layla, asked her about her day at school and resumed their lives as if nothing in the nation needed solving. Layla climbed the creaky stairs to her room and put her backpack down with a sigh. It was punishment enough to spend seven hours in a seat, but now that cruel sentence extended into her evening. She wondered what the nation’s children had done to deserve this. 

About an hour later there was a knock at her door. Her father entered and sat on her bed. He exhaled.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into your mother. She’s been brainwashed by her friends, I guess.” His tone concerned Layla. It was rare for him to be so upset and tight wound. “I just don’t understand how she could believe those things. I mean, how many innocent people must die, before we stand up for them. It’s just inhumane. They’ve been oppressed for decades and now they’re under attack again. In the past, we have always advocated for peace and wondered why they wouldn’t just stop. We gotta send them supplies and weapons. We’ve gotta help some way. I can’t continue to just sit here and talk. I know what I’ll do. I’m gonna give some money to one of those collections down at the market. Then, I can finally do some good. Help those poor folks fight for their freedom.” He hugged Layla and left quietly, his therapeutic sermon complete.

Layla couldn’t help but find herself agreeing with him. His airtight argument made sense to Layla. She began to wonder why her mother disagreed and thought that maybe she could convince her mother of this side of the argument. Layla picked up a green apple from her desk. She bit into the crisp, juicy fruit as she stared silently out the window. A few houses down, she could see two kids playing in their front yard. Their laughter rose above the noise of cars and lawnmowers. She was jealous of them. They were care-free. Their joy not yet stolen. Ignorant bliss was all they knew. 

Adam made the two-minute trek to visit the army’s makeshift hospital that evening. An encounter with a bush had left a three-inch red line across his left calf. It was an injury so minor he wouldn’t have thought twice about it had his wife’s wise voice in his head not forced him to go see a nurse to ensure it avoided infection. The hospital was on the very edge of the camp. Out of the way of the healthy soldiers. Out of sight, out of mind, the commanders had hoped. Inside the tent, dozens of injured men cried, and amputees’ faces were firm with thousand-yard stares. Adam kept his head down and tried to avoid the scary sights all around him. It took only two minutes for a nurse to clean his leg, stitch him up and send him on his way.  

Adam returned to dinner to find his fellow soldiers in a joyous mood. Men were singing and laughing. It had been a day of victory and although little ground had been gained, they felt like they had brought the war one step closer to its conclusion. He sat in his usual place and listened to those around him excitedly explain what awaited them back at home. That night, Commander Blackwood spoke to the men. He praised their intensity and persistence on the battlefield. He talked highly of the commanders’ strategies which had led the men to victory. Then, he announced a blockade. They had been gaining ground slowly and it was time to try something different. Breaking their spirit. If they could starve the opposition, the fight could end sooner. The city would be theirs. The men could return to their families. 

On his way out of the tent, Adam was stopped by Brooks. He wanted them to take a walk together. As they walked along the edge of the camp, Brooks’ proud, strong demeanor fell away, and he became much more stoic and serious. Suddenly he stopped walking and turned to his longtime friend.

“Adam, I just don’t know about this. I mean all these years, I’ve been so sure. So sure that we were in the right. So sure that we were fighting a holy war for our rightful land. But now, I just don’t know. I mean, sometimes we’re fighting kids out there. And now we’re gonna try to starve them. It’s tough to believe that we’re the good guys. I mean Blackwood’s never gone out and seen what we’ve seen. He doesn’t have to look the enemy in the eye. He just sends us out to kill while he sits there and talks.” Brooks sighed. The men talked for a while about the new sadistic strategy. Ultimately, they decided it was just a part of war. They hoped that it would get the war over with sooner so they could return to their lives. 

Idris’ mother called him to the dining room. There, he found Uncle Leo, Samir and his mother sitting around an empty table. His mother was holding back tears.

“Sit down, Idris” his uncle said, straight-faced.

“Good to see ya again, kid” Samir added. Samir nudged Leo and whispered to him. Uncle Leo sighed and gave his sister a look of apology. Then, he turned back to Idris and looked him up and down.

“Your mother and I have talked, and, well, Samir and I, we’ve got an idea. With your permission of course.” He paused and took a deep breath. Then, he laid out the plan to Idris. 

Idris felt his heart start to pound. His mind started to race. He looked at his mother. Saw how sad she was. How much she missed her husband. He knew what he had to do. Those men who took his father from him. Who had put that hole in his mother’s heart. He had to get revenge. For his father. For his mother. For himself. Idris knew that he couldn’t bring his father back, but that didn’t stop his pent-up anger from begging him for a chance at revenge.

“C’mon kid” Samir urged. 

Finally, Idris spoke, his voice shaky.

“I’m ready.” 

After a few minutes the kids’ mother had called them inside for dinner. And the afternoon’s soundtrack began to fade. The sunset’s bright, fluorescent colors were hidden by a few ominous onrushing dark gray clouds. Not long after her father had closed the door, her mother opened it. She hugged Layla. Her face tight with emotion.

“Your father won’t even listen” she began. “He’s so sure of his opinions that he can’t even imagine that he is wrong. I’m sorry I don’t want to drag you into this it’s just that I need you to hear the truth. For centuries, they have been persecuted and pulled down by hate. We have stood by as they have been attacked. Their homeland taken. Their ancestral home captured. It’s just crazy. They’re painted as an aggressive army attacking innocent women and children. When in reality, they are just defending their families. I can’t even imagine the pain of sons who have lost their fathers and wives who have lost their husbands. Even women and children have died in their homes. Victims of rockets and fireworks and machine guns. Are they just supposed to let their land be stolen, let their neighborhoods be ransacked. And do nothing. All we can do is help. Send them supplies, so that they can achieve peace as soon as possible. The sooner the fighting is over, the sooner they can be safe, and their communities can be rebuilt.” She paused for a while, breathing deeply. “I don’t want to just vent to you. Here, how about you go watch TV and your father and I will get dinner started.”

Layla sat there for a moment confused. Her mother had made sense too. A break, she decided, would do her mind some good, so she went downstairs, past the kitchen where her mother and father were talking kindly as they made dinner, and sat on their old, tattered couch. Layla flipped through the channels. Looking for something to watch. Old films and nature documentaries briefly flashed across the screen. For a few minutes she watched a rerun of an old sitcom. She chuckled at the jokes she had heard before. At its conclusion, she again began scanning for something interesting. Before she could flip past it, a newscast caught her eye. Images of the destruction supported the pandering of pundits. They gave their own opinions on the conflict as blurred versions of graphic images were shown. After a moment she reached once more for the remote. She couldn’t take anymore depressing conversation of the conflict. After all, she was watching TV to be entertained, to escape the nation’s problems, not to hear more about them. Eventually, she settled on a soap opera. The overdramatic soundtrack and exaggerated acting made it the perfect easy distraction. She mindlessly consumed the storyline and tried to predict the inevitable twist ending.  

The three of them sat down to eat as a fire raged in the fireplace. It cast flailing shadows across the dining room. They danced and jumped around the blue-gray drywall. It all gave the room a pleasant, cozy feel. Warming their faces and their food. 

A projector whirred and the opening frame of a video spread across the wall of the tent. A grand bookshelf held an incalculable number of books. It shared the background of the image with a few stone statues and decadent patterns which adorned the wall. As the video began Governor Mitchell sat in the foreground. His flawlessly combed and gelled silver hair and impeccable posture gave off an aura of importance. His finely steamed coal-black suit jacket spoke confidently of his wealth. His voice projected powerfully as he spoke strongly.

“Men, thank you for your service. Your bravery is inspiring. Your initiative is bold. Great warriors of freedom, know that I stand with you. I am doing everything I can to support you. Your sacrifice will be rewarded. Every man, woman and child back home awaits your glorious return. They honor you. They praise you. They respect you. And we are all, every day, praying for you. God bless.”

The men whooped and yelled. Orders were given. Strategy was shared. And so, they set out in search of glory. The orders were simple. Nothing unusual. There were five of them together. Adam, Brooks, and others from their platoon marched towards the war-torn city. They could hear gunfire and explosions far away, but they remained fiercely focused. Their primal excitement grew with the noise.

Suddenly, gunshots erupted all around them. The men dove for cover. It was so chaotic. So crazy. Dust kicked up off the ground and rose to form a thick haze around the action. They did their best to defend themselves, Brooks fired off a few perfectly accurate rounds and the hurricane of bullets suddenly stopped. Retreating gunshots rang out from just down the road. Brooks and Adam rushed towards them. Sprinting towards glory. Brooks reached the corner first. He let his gun lead the way. As he turned the corner, he tripped over a wire.

Time slowed and Adam screamed. He managed one more step forward before a rush of simmering hot air leveled him. From where he lay, Adam could see a boy emerge from behind some rubble. The boy seemed shocked by the explosion. He was stunned, just standing there. Adam rose back to his feet, prepared to fight and they locked eyes. For an eternal moment, the two just stared at each other. The boy looked scared, frozen in place, just holding his weapon. Then, Adam looked back at his friend, lying there, his corpse barely recognizable. The remnants of his uniform intertwined with metal scraps and sparks of fire. Rage filled him. Revenge was all he could think of. He turned back to the boy, raised his gun, and shot.  

Pow! Pow! The sound of gunshots shook the street. Rattling and echoing off the ground and the buildings. Before the echoes had even faded, bodies hit the ground. 

Idris prayed with his mother for an hour after breakfast. She barely spoke. Just whispering her prayers for his safety.

Once they had finished, she turned to him and said, “Go make your father and I proud.”

Then he, his uncle and Samir stepped outside. Three great warriors on a mission for revenge. They crept quietly past abandoned homes and bombed buildings. When the rumbling of gunfire had become a roar, they stepped inside what used to be a hotel.

His Uncle Leo looked at him and said, “Do you remember what to do.”

Idris, proudly responded “Of course.”

“You come right back here okay. No need to make your mother worry.”

Idris nodded. Though he had hoped for a more glorious role, this would have to do. He took the grenade and string from Samir, hid them in his pockets and ducked through a hole in the wall back outside. Now was his moment. No more crying. No more mourning. Now was his time for revenge.

As he snuck towards the action, his heart was pounding, though it was drowned out completely by the symphony of gunfire which crescendoed around him. He chose a spot between two houses in a tight alley. There he knelt down and set the trap just as instructed. Once his fingers had stopped shaking. He took his gun, released a few shots into the air and ran to hide behind a large pile of rubble. From there he prayed for a moment. Prayed that it would work. Prayed that he could get revenge for his father. Prayed that he could help turn the tides of the war.

Then, he heard voices approaching, yelling. He waited. For a moment he just sat there, covering his ears, like a child at a rock concert. He began to wonder if he had failed. Then BOOM! The ground shook. The buildings rattled. After a few seconds, he stood up to see two soldiers lying on the ground. He wanted to run but he couldn’t. He was stunned. His legs locked and his shoulders shook. All he could do was stare at the gory scene in front of him. Then, one of the men struggled to his feet. And they locked eyes. The man was in shock. Idris was still frozen in place. His mind ordering an escape, but his legs refusing anyways. The man looked at the other soldier for a moment, before turning back to Idris, his face now filled with fiery rage. In a flash Idris raised his gun and shot. 

Pow! Pow! The sound of gunshots shook the street. Rattling and echoing off the ground and buildings. Before the echoes had even faded, bodies hit the ground. 

Sidewalks and driveways were still darkened by the previous night’s drizzle. The air still held onto the sweet smell of rain. Worms were scattered about, having emerged to soak in the hydrating shower. Birds chirped sharply, perhaps even they had a strong, unmovable opinion on the issue.

As she walked, Layla was sure of how she felt. She was excited and angry, sad and confused. She briskly walked to the market. She went over and sat where she had seen people arguing and speaking so many times before. She had to take a stand. She had to say something. So, she took a deep breath in, stood up and began to speak. Her voice shook as she projected outwards. She shared sad stories she had heard of starving children. She gave statistics of the total number of people who had passed in just the last weeks. A ceasefire, her speech decided, was the way to go. Then, they could send humanitarian aid. Give food to the children on both sides. Care for the dying and the wounded. Perhaps even negotiate for long-term peace. 

Surely, both sides would agree to this.  

Surely, their leaders weren’t as bloodhungry as they seemed.  

Surely, they valued the lives of their people more than dominance of the land they were sending them to fight for.  

Surely, they could oust violent radical groups from power and work together towards peace. 

Surely, the rest of the nation would see that their military support was resulting in even more death and that they too had blood on their hands.  

Surely, they would see that their constant bickering and fruitless arguing did nothing but stir up hate.  

Surely, they would stop sending weapons and ammunition. 

Surely, not one city would veto a resolution for a ceasefire. 

Surely, they would have an ounce of compassion. 

Layla sat down, exhausted and out of breath. Her heart racing. Her body shaking. She looked up to the small crowd in front of her to see their reaction. A few smiled. A few shook their heads. A few applauded. A few mumbled under their breath. But after a moment, they had all turned away, back to their own echo chambers, back to their own everyday lives. Back to their homes. Back to their families. Though it was all a bit anticlimactic, as she walked home, Layla couldn’t help but feel proud of herself. She had stood up, spoken her mind, and contributed to the discourse. She had done her part. Some day she could save the world, but for tonight, she had stood up for what is right. 

That afternoon, Layla went out to eat with some friends. As they ate, they laughed and joked. They talked about boys in their classes, their families, and their plans for the next weekend. The breeze pushed their hair from side to side and shook the trees which lined the restaurant patio. Chipmunks chased each other up a tree. Fallen leaves crinkled as some rabbits searched for the perfect piece of grass to be their dinner. The group asked for the check, paid, and tipped the waiter. Then, they walked over to an ice cream shop which was in the same shopping center. A bell softly rang to alert the workers when they opened the door. The tile walls were painted with pastel colors. Soft pinks and light blues welcomed them to the friendly confines. The ice cream was delicious. Its sweet flavors melted on their tongues. It was cold and creamy. Their sweet teeth satisfied, they all said their goodbyes and climbed in their cars to head home. 

An orange sun set hastily behind the horizon. It left behind a bleak, scarred landscape. The region’s picturesque foothills and luscious natural scenery had been beaten into a bruised, barren, blood-soaked topography. The earth shook with the sounds of trucks rattling along dirt roads. Distant gunfire drowned out the few remaining songbirds and the constant droning sound of machinery whirring and sputtering insured that silence was rare and truly appreciated by all. The darkness was a welcome sight for many within the city. It hid the horrors of hourly bombings. Silent silhouettes crept carefully through the night. Squeezing through holes in fences and scurrying through the debris and rubble. Like ghosts, they moved through the shadows, the sound of their footsteps hidden by the eerie creaking of metal and settling of rubble. Miles and miles away, across the country in the town of Meadowbrook, birds’ vocal warmups alerted the groggy townsfolk to the start of a new day. Dogs barked and church bells chimed. Front yards were christened with the shimmering morning dew. 


Wilson von Bohlen is a first-year student studying Data Science. Wilson took inspiration from a quote from Bertrand Russell: “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”


University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Recollection Wisconsin. https://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/CYBXJP5ZENEIW8R.