I think there are things in war that are primeval, but also so ubiquitous to combat that a part of the human brain is hard-wired to know what they are–even if they haven’t yet been experienced. One of those is the smell of burned and decaying human flesh. It’s a vile scent, and you know in a heartbeat what it is. But you don’t know how you know. Once you’ve smelled it though, and fully reconciled what it is, it never leaves your nose. It lingers there forever like an evil specter.
North and west of Kyiv are three picturesque towns. Three slices of Ukrainian, middle class suburbia, one called Bucha. Or it was called Bucha. Now it’s a pile of mess. I’m with two friends, I’ll call them S. and T. We’re going to visit S’s friend, an orthodontist who buried his dad in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden. S. says the Ortho was very specific as to where his dad was buried ‘in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden.’ On the ride over, my friend S. speculates that the Ortho is worried something might happen to him and then no one would know where his dad was buried.
Regardless, S. says the Ortho won’t leave his dad for fear someone will dig him up and bury him in the cemetery with the mass graves and he’ll never find him again. So my friend S. agreed to come over and talk with him a while before the medical team from Kyiv arrives to remove the man’s father for a proper burial. We went with him. Because sharing the burdens of misery is what real friends do.
I recall all this just so you understand the mood in the car. Somber doesn’t cut it. We drive past wrecked vehicles, a blown-to-shreds middle school, over a mostly collapsed bridge and through places where terrible local legends have already formed.
“Hey, this is that location where that couple was trying to escape, and they gunned them down. Did you see the video?”
“Yeah, I saw it.” I say and look out the window with a frown.
We drive past the spot, each man staring at the big greasy burn mark and metal debris where freedom and hope tried to drive out from under evil’s onslaught and were savagely obliterated by Russian gunfire. You can go see the video if you like – because unlike past wars, this one is going to leave graphic legacies of human suffering as never before.
“There’s another tank. Let’s stop and look at this one.” says S.
“It’s not theirs. That’s one of ours.” I say. Already a theirs and an ours has formed in my mind even though I’m not Ukrainian. Spend ten minutes here and you’ll have no problems taking sides either. This is the lowest form of inhumanity. This is the full combat power of a nation set loose on a public like uncaged hyenas in a zoo. No one deserves this and truly war is hell.
“How do you know?” asks T.
I don’t know, I just do.
“We fought the Soviets in all my military schools, and I have them all memorized. Mostly all.” I add, because I thought I’d forgotten those things or in case I’m wrong. “It has the hull and turret markings of a T-64. I think the Russian’s only had T-72s in this part of their advance.”
S. slows up the vehicle and so do our friends in the car behind. Everyone looks. Everyone gets out. Reluctantly, I do too. It’s clear to me how and why this tank was killed. I know why, because too many other times I’ve been the guy inside the armored vehicle who thinks he’s found a lucky spot. I explain it all to S. and T. In this case, the T-64 was rolling back and forward, covering both axes of this intersection. I look down the road. A knocked out BTR and a T-72 tank hull with its turret popped confirms my instinct. The T-64 scored some good shots, made some kills and thought he had the magic, lucky spot. But that only works a few times. Then you have to move on. And these guys didn’t. They stayed in the lucky spot a little too long. Because, you see, in combat luck is everything, but you can curse your own luck by thinking you’re invincible. Because you are not.
I smelled it as soon as we were ten feet from the tank. Burned, dead and rotting human flesh. Lord knows, I’ve seen enough dead bodies to last a lifetime. Times ten. But it’s different when it’s your own guys. You realize they’re dead and a million thoughts cross your mind at once. And you realize that if you don’t do your job, it just as well could be your buddies or you next. That’s usually how most veterans lose the first layer of the ‘invincibility’ armor. Eventually it all goes away and it’s just you and some asshole trying to kill you. And you’re not going to be the one dying, and neither will your buddies, or your unit, or your tribe… so you kill the son-of-a-bitch first.
One of our friends from the vehicle behind hasn’t gotten the word and goes to a corner next to the tank to take a whiz. Everyone halts him loudly and explains. His face goes from ‘wtf’ to ‘oh shit.’ Then everyone parades solemnly past, like an open air casket in a funeral parlor and stares at the dead T-64. We peer inside. Torn, burnt, twisted, seared, melted nothingness. There’s no form to most of what’s there. Maybe a few things catch my eye as some familiar military item, but really, it’s just burned beyond all recognition.
“How did it happen?” asks T.
“Missile hit here.” I point to a penetration mark. “It went through this side of the turret and ignited the ammunition storage rack on the other side.” The turret had popped off in the resultant explosion and landed nearly perfectly back on the hull. From afar it still looked intact.
A neighbor comes over to ask who we are. The guys explain about the father buried in the yard and the man makes the sign of the cross and proceeds to tell them about the T-64. People trade stories about suffering here. We all have a simultaneous and unintendedly synchronous moment of silence and then get back in our cars.
“What did the guy say?” I ask.
“He said what you said.” says T.
S. starts in, “He said there were seven-
“Eight.” interrupts T.
“Ya, eight guys were riding on the top of the tank. He’d been watching them out his window. He stayed here during the fight.” S. doesn’t finish the story and goes silent.
“Then they got hit.” I finish. More of a statement than a question.
“Yeah,” says T, “He’s been picking up the pieces for the past two days. He’s waiting for the medical team to come and collect their parts. He has them mostly collected over there in garbage bags but warned us he didn’t think he’d found everything.”
“Yeah, no shit.” I say under my breath. No shit.
We drive onward to where the Orthodontist’s dad is waiting for us, in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden.
None of this needed to happen.
And there’s the smell, back again.
Author’s Note: I have pictures of this T-64, but I won’t show them. Probably should just delete them, though I know I won’t. Besides hiding my friend’s names, I also altered the Orthodontist’s profession to preserve his dignity. He is battling some alcohol problems right now and doesn’t need the scrutiny.