rub of the green, purple hearts, garden centre, snakepit, gravel, red scarf, computer literate, £10,000, bingo, sore feet
"No sane person actually relishes conflict, but it does have its compensations, by which I don't mean these," said General Austin Winkler indicating the Purple Heart on his olive green lapel accompanied by two Oak Leaf Clusters. These medals of valour were gained during 13 years in the front line. Had it not been for the expertise of a British medic, his second Oak Leaf Cluster would have been awarded posthumously when his tank encountered a landmine during Desert Storm. The incident had however cost him the hearing in his left ear and £10,000 - the amount of the bet he had made with the medic that he would never walk again, a bet he was glad to have lost.
But his days of active service were now long gone. Today he was addressing two young university students in his cramped command centre in Missouri. This was the 73rd day of NATO flying missions over Yugoslavia - over 2000 sorties flown to date. Their regularity had made his days become almost dull which was why he had agreed to this little public relations exercise.
For the last week the General had been entertaining the students of the local university in a spirit of openness. Today's pair majored in computer science and psychology respectively. Judging by the red scarf tied around her head, the knapsack slung over her shoulder and the anti-establishment attitude that she wore with pride, the General thought he knew which of the two was the aspiring psychologist.
"Conflict allows us to test out our newest technology, technology that allows us to meet our objectives with the utmost efficiency," the General continued.
"By which you mean to murder as many people as possible in the shortest possible time," said Cat sneeringly.
"Not at all. I mean to expedite a resolution without permanently injuring or wasting the lives of the incidental participants."
"You mean bombing the crap out of anonymous Serbs."
"No, I do not mean 'bombing the crap' out of anyone," replied the General crossly, tiring of this troublesome undergraduate. "Let me demonstrate my point using tonight's mission as an example. Our objective is the destruction of the communications room of the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP). With that facility out of commission, Milosevic's control of events outside of Belgrade, including those taking place in his death camps, will be severely hampered and the opportunity for a speedy end to this skirmish will be there for the taking.
"We will be using street maps, satellite co-ordinates, the architect's drawings of our target building and the world's most accurate weapon of all time: the JDAM flying bomb. This state-of-the-art missile has four adjustable fins that control its position by continual references to seven separate satellites. In the next few minutes it will be launched from the $44 billion B2 airplane that took off from our airstrip just a few hours ago and we will be able to detonate it within two metres of our chosen target."
"How did you get your hands on the architect's drawings of the FDSP building?" asked Angela in wonderment.
"Well that's where Carl comes in," said the General sounding slightly disappointed that she was more interested in information gathering techniques than the latest and greatest in military hardware. He pointed with his cane towards a tall figure sitting in front of a computer monitor at the back of the room. He was dressed in a white, crisply pressed shirt and black tie with the jacket of his charcoal suit draped over the back of his chair. "Agent Black is with the CIA; his team have spent the last three weeks analysing all data available to select and identify the appropriate target. Perhaps the more computer literate of the two of you might like to look over the satellite data that Agent Black and his team have been reviewing."
General Winkler was not surprised that it was Angela who took up the chance eagerly whilst Cat seemed contented for the moment to pour over the architect's drawings. The general limped over to the far side of the room and sat down next to the radio operator glad to take the weight of his sore feet for a few minutes. His feet and legs had ached ever since his final battle, particularly in cold weather; but he was not bitter, that was just the rub of the green.
From where he was sitting he had an excellent view of the satellite pictures that displayed the buildings in Belgrade with almost breath-taking clarity. He motioned for Cat to watch the missile find its target.
"Bingo," said the pilot of the B2 over the radio. "Mission accomplished."
The north end of the building had been reduced to rubble. More incredible was the view of the south end of the building - it was unscathed. Even the cars parked outside had not moved.
"So what do you think Cat? Take a look at the satellite pictures now - one bomb, one room in one building taken out - hardly 'bombing the crap' out of anyone is it?"
"Er General," said Angela from the computer at the back of the room before Cat had a chance to respond. "I've just been comparing the overhead pictures, the co-ordinates entered in the B2's missile computer and the 1999 street map of Belgrade. According to my calculations you just blew up number 3 Cherry Blossom Boulevard."
"3 Cherry what?"
"3 Cherry Blossom Boulevard, it's the Chinese Embassy."
"What do you mean?" demanded the General.
"I think she means that you have just used the most expensive plane in the world, armed with the most sensitive guided missiles in the world, guided by the most accurate spy satellites in the world to blow up the right room but in the wrong building," said Cat triumphantly. "Unless of course the Chinese were your real targets."
"Where's Agent Black?" Asked the General, no longer sounding his usual confident self.
"He hurried out about 10 minutes ago with his jacket on," replied Angela. "I've got the feeling he wasn't planning on returning."
General Winkler slumped into the chair vacated by the disappearing Agent Black. Could the Chinese have been Black's real target? It certainly seemed too well executed a plan to be an unfortunate accident. If it was not an accident, the CIA must have been using him as scapegoat. Who would ever believe that with all the sophisticated equipment in his command room that they had made their plans with an out-of-date street map?
His career was over for sure. No one would remember his glory days in Guam, Grenada or Baghdad, suffering snake pits, crawling across gravel paths and burning in the hot midday desert sun; they would just remember his last command in which he allowed the destruction of the embassy of his country's most sensitive adversary. He could already see himself forced to taking a job in a garden centre to replace his military pension that would be taken from him after his inevitable court marshal.