Fiction: They are Few
By John Yohe
Mainstream media talks about muslims becoming radicalized, but those wars—those invasions—radicalized americans too. My brother Josh was an all-american boy from Traverse City, Michigan. We weren't rich, or even middle-class once my father self-destructed and left. We grew up in a small town called Empire about 45 minutes west of Traverse, on the coast of Lake Michigan, but when my parents divorced, my mom moved us into town, just in time to take my brother away from his friends and start high school, where he joined the varsity soccer team. By the time I got to high school two years later he was team captain and star center-forward. I made the team too, left midfield, and the local papers loved us.
Holly was in my grade—I had her in some of my classes—but she and my brother became a thing his senior year. She grew up in a small community too, first on the Isabella Reservation down by Mt. Pleasant—she was half-Chippewa—then in Elk Rapids, before moving in with her white grandparents in Traverse. She was way smarter than either of us—she took Physics her sophomore year and got an A, and actually understood Chemistry and Math. Plus she was on the girls varsity soccer team—left forward—but was the team star of the girls basketball team.
None of us was part of the popular cliques. My brother maybe could have been if he'd tried, or wanted to. But Holly was considered 'rough'—she did not tolerate a white girl being rude to her—even a teammate. Josh loved that.
My brother made my life easy—all I had to do was follow him—through school, through sports, and when he got a part-time job at Bob's Country Store down the road he got me a job there too. Some of my favorite saturday nights were working with him at the store, just the two of us, hopped up on Mountain Dew, making fun of the crazies and the regulars (and the crazy regulars) who came in for beer and gas and porn. But the other favorite nights were when we were with Holly. My brother mostly always asked me along—we usually hung out at somebody's house, in somebody's basement, or apartment. My brother never had more than a couple beers, so neither did I. Holly was the drinker—she toned it down under my brother's influence but still sometimes got a little crazy, which he mostly loved, unless he had to break up a fight. But I liked more the nights of riding home—or just riding around—with the two of them in my brother's ole Fucking-150—Holly in the middle, her warm thigh against mine, joking with the both of them about schoolmates or neighbors or customers, venting and listening to Johnny Cash or Gillian Welch or John Prine, singing Daddy won't you take me back to Mulenburg County / down by the Green River where Paradise lay!
He went to Michigan State University on a soccer scholarship, was already down there, when 9/11 happened. Our classes were cancelled and I went home and my mom was there watching the tv.
—Dude, what the fuck is going on?
He was angry, like most people. I was just scared. He quit his job and enlisted. Our hippie mom cried and cried. He told me he was going to do it, but I didn't want to believe him. I asked why, but the why was all around us—people putting american flags up everywhere. War. Pearl Harbor. Defending freedom. Holly said what I was trying to think: —It's really revenge. America wants revenge and calls it justice. We weren't even attacked by a country.
She was not happy with Josh. I told him she was coming to school looking like she'd been crying all night, but that was kind of the first time he didn't tell me everything. Or anything. He just set his jaw and said:
—Dude, I have to do this.
So he did. He joined the Army, went to basic training down in Georgia, then, ever the elite athlete, he signed up for the Army Rangers. We didn't hear much from him through this time—he was never a big writer, but he would call me and Holly sometimes, and we compared notes at school. The Rangers are the guys who parachute out of planes and sometimes, I guess, do reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. Which he never ended up doing, because there weren't really enemy lines with the enemy everywhere and nowhere.
In the meantime, America invaded Iraq. By then I was paying attention to our foreign policy and it was obvious Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, yet somehow our government, and the media, convinced most americans that going to war there too was our patriotic duty. I lost friends over this, and quit the soccer team after our coach gave a speech parroting the President's 'you're either with us or against us' speech. (Josh was not happy with me about that. In fact, it was the first time I'd disappointed him.) Holly was the only one I could talk to. As she put it:
—There are almost no people of color for this war besides the rich ones like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. It's just another bullshit white-man war.
For oil. And, say, a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, which american companies were more than happy to build. My brother was ready to die for that bullshit.
He was deployed to Iraq. Holly and I had talked to him enough to know that he didn't agree that america had any business there, so I think that was the start. Or maybe just being in the military was the start. More than once he had told me it fucking sucked. Yet he had volunteered for the Rangers. I think he liked the physical, and mental, challenge—he was probably more in shape than most guys. He'd shot guns before, even if he never owned one (my mother would have disowned us if we'd bought any).
His first real mission was to rescue an american woman, a truck driver in an Army Reserve convoy, from an Iraqi hospital. This was on the news., I had heard about it before I even knew he'd been a part of it. He called me a week later from a FOBs and told me what really happened—the longest we'd talked in a while—the way the mainstream media spun it (parroting what the military told them) that the woman was being held prisoner in the hospital, which already sounded odd, but my brother said that the Iraqis were taking care of her—they'd saved her life—and that when his squad arrived, there weren't any Iraqi soldiers anywhere. But what made my brother bitter, and what the Army withheld from the media and the public, was that the woman's convoy had gotten lost and ended up north of where it should have been, and been bombed by american warplanes mistakenly thinking they were Iraqi vehicles. She had been the only survivor.
I waited for the real story to come out, and later asked my brother why it never did. He laughed:
—Dude, it's a shitshow here. That's not even the worst thing going on. This is a fucking massacre. It's like what we fucking did to the indians.
After nine months, his company rotated back to the States for a break. He came back to Traverse for two weeks on leave. He showed up at our house in full uniform, and my mom burst out crying, and not for happiness. He changed out of it and didn't put it back on until he left. But all of us—Holly was there too—hugged him. He was bigger. Bigger arms and bigger shoulders. His neck thicker. His hair buzzed, that was the biggest change. He'd always had a floppy mop down around his ears.
My mom had made dinner. I had all kinds of questions. I knew Holly did too, but we deferred to my mom, who asked mostly about base life—where he slept, what he ate. I'd told her about the 'rescue', but she didn't mention it. After dinner he and Holly took off, to fuck like rabbits probably.
He and I spent the first Saturday together, driving out to Empire to take a long walk on the beach, barefoot like we always did, where he told me everything, his doubts, his fears, his guilt.
—Dude, I've shot people. I've been shot at.
—Is it scary?
—It's scary and exciting. It's more scary afterwards. While it happens it's like... survival. Even when it's a turkey shoot.
He saw me tilt my head.
—We'll ambush them. They don't have night vision. They don't even know we're there. Our squad leader will mark one of them with an ultraviolet laser point, so it doesn't show up in the dark. He'll mark that one guy, give the signal, and we just shoot the rest. They don't have fucking body armor or any of that shit.
—Why do you mark one of them?
—So he survives and goes back and tells his buddies how scary we are. So they're more afraid of us. The bullshit is we're protecting oil pipelines. Protecting contractors for oil companies that come in and take over the refineries and shit.
I confessed to him that, despite everything I'd learned and knew, that I still fantasized about joining the Army after I graduated too, being a Ranger like my brother, with my brother, with visions of us being on the same squad, on patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan, hunting in caves for Osama bin Laden (although that former US ally was probably in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan by then). Really, I meant that I missed him and wanted to follow him into adventures and life, just like I'd always done.
But he turned and poked me in my chest.
—Do not join the fucking Army. If you do I will fucking kick your ass. Haven't you been fucking listening to me? Go to fucking college.
But he went back. This time to Afghanistan.
I did go to college. Even with my grades, I made it into Michigan State University. On the application, at that time, you listed choices for a major and that department accepted you in, or not. I knew I wasn't going to do science or math, and I sure as hell wasn't going to read poetry. I liked to read some stuff, Catcher In The Rye or science-fiction like Dune, or comic books like The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but hearing my brother's behind-the-scenes stories of what was really going on, and reading the news and looking for the stuff behind the news and finding out just how much america has fucked with other countries, especially in the mideast, made me wonder if I could do that in college, read about that. So I chose History. I was hoping it wouldn't just be the memorizing of dates like my high school History classes. And it wasn't. As one professor put it, History is the study of why. She had us read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and I started to see that america has always been about rich white men controlling the rest of us, and any and every war is always a business proposition.
With my brother gone, I didn't feel right asking Holly to do anything, even though he asked me to look after her. Which was ridiculous. She could've kicked my ass or anyone else’s. Or if I was supposed to keep her from going with other guys, that was ridiculous too because how the hell would I stop her from doing anything she wanted?
I just didn't trust myself. I had dated other girls—Holly even set me up with a couple of her friends. But nothing ever lasted. After I quit soccer, I mostly just picked up more hours at Bob's, trying to save money for college. I took long walks at night around town after I closed up the store. But I still talked to her at school. The last semester we had Geometry together, and French. And she even asked me:
—How come we never hang out anymore?
—Because you're my brother's girlfriend. I don't want people thinking I'm messing around when he's gone.
—That's fucking lame, dude. Why do you care what other people think? We don't have to go on a date. Just hang out and party.
She quit soccer too, to concentrate on basketball she said, though she'd gotten in fights—was red-carded one game. But also her grandparents wanted her to work more—they were charging her rent. She worked at Avanti's, a rich people's restaurant downtown. But we both had one Saturday night off, and some friends were going to hang out at the Chalet, a big house a bunch of guys rented. They were older, in their early twenties, and though it was fun to go there and be around older kids, I also saw what I did not want to do with my life, which was to drop out of college, or not even go, and work at Meijers full-time and just drink a lot of beer and never leave town or do anything. But two of the guys were in a cool band and they played in bars sometimes—not rock, but bluegrass-americana stuff. They called themselves stoner-bluegrass. On more mellow nights it could be just some dudes sitting on the back porch jamming guitars and mandolins.
I picked up Holly in the Fucking-150, which Josh had given me. Her grandparents were superconservative baptists who would have thought she was going to hell if she hadn't been so good at basketball. Plus they loved my brother, especially when he enlisted. They kept an american flag hanging off the front porch, which Holly said felt like a punch to the stomach every time she saw it.
—After what they did to my people, it'd be like if your mom kept a nazi flag out front of your house.
She looked good that night. She always looked good. Tight jeans, Converse High-Tops, a ripped Misfits t-shirt, black bra-strap showing, though she'd come out of the house covered in a floppy flannel shirt, which she took off in the truck.
Some of her friends were at the Chalet, but they left early, and then some older guys showed up, staring at the girls and talking creepy. Holly and I took off. She didn't want to go home and neither did I, so we went to the lake and walked in the dark. Autumn, cool/cold. Stars out, clear night, no wind, the lake flat and still, crescent moon reflecting on it. We talked about Josh, what each of us had heard from him, and what we'd heard in the news, which wasn't ever good, even if white-washed by the military or the pro-war press at home. Seemed amazing that a president who couldn't even make a complete sentence was in charge and got us in that mess.
—Do you feel angry, Danny? I feel angry all the time.
—I feel... helpless. Like Josh is over there in danger because smerica wants revenge. Which we're not even really getting. But we've killed a lot of innocent people.
—And nobody seems to care.
—I know. It's like after 9/11, we all just went back to normal and nobody wants to talk about what the fuck we're doing over there.
—Or it's my grandparents just thinking Josh is serving his country and protecting democracy and protecting them, personally. I'm not even sure we have a democracy.
We walked on the beach along Traverse Bay, lined with mansions. Madonna owned one somewhere up there. I turned and stood in front of her and put my hands around her hips and leaned in and kissed her. Warm and soft, especially her lips. She kissed back. Briefly. Then pulled her head back, though not her body, left eyebrow raised.
—Wow. I'm shocked.
I leaned in to kiss her again but she turned her head and I got her cheek.
She turned around, pulling my arms around her. I held her and put my face in her hair
—I love you.
—No you don't. You can't.
—Josh would be really hurt.
We stood like that. I didn't know what else to say.
She turned around in my arms and looked at me.
—You can't ever tell anyone about this. I'm serious. Like, never. Ok?
After that we didn't hang out. She stopped going out of her way to talk to me. Which I guess was fair—that's what I'd been doing to her. She always smiled and said hello in class but sat with other people. When basketball season started I'd go to home games if I wasn't working and didn't tell my brother any of this, not even—especially not even—when I saw her kiss one of her teammates in the parking lot after a game. He asked one time over the hiss of long distance if she and I were hanging out much and I said no.
Our last semester in high school Holly and I didn't have any classes together and the last time we really talked, after school one day in the spring, we compared notes on colleges. She hadn't received any offers for basketball scholarships, which basically limited her options, or option, to NMC in Traverse, a glorified community college, since she couldn't afford any of the four-years. Neither could I, really, but I was just going to get student loans and work my ass off. She didn't see it that way, didn't want to go into debt. I wonder now if she just didn't even apply, was waiting for a magic offer from a college to smooth the way. I worked two jobs over the summer, the store and a tourist restaurant on weekends, to save as much as I could. When I started at MSU, I got a job first-thing, working at a bar called the Landshark four nights a week.
That autumn, my brother came back for good. Alive. I didn't see him until Winter break, when he picked me up from the Greyhound station in Traverse with the Fucking-150 and we drove around all night. Too cold to go for a beach walk but the roads were clear enough that driving was ok. We had talked briefly on the phone before, but I was crammed in with two other guys in one dorm room (the university loaded us up because they knew some of us would drop out first semester) and with my work schedule and on free days I went to the library to read and study at night. Plus I was actually being social and joined an anti-war group and had friends in the dorm that liked to talk philosophy and politics while we drank beer and I had even gone out with some girls.
Josh was letting his hair grow back out and had a beard going. He had gotten his old job—my old job—back at Bob's, staying at our house, though scaring our mom sometimes with either his nightmares and/or his drinking, and he said he was taking some kind of anti-depressant. He didn't look good—older, his eyes sunken in, though still big, his arms huge. He was haunted by an incident in Afghanistan: his squad and another squad had split up on patrol down two different canyons. They had afghan soldiers with them, for training. His squad turned their vehicles around after the road ended in a landslide and followed the other squad's route, but couldn't reach them on the radio. They exchanged gunfire with some locals, but continued on up the canyon. The other squad, seeing and hearing the fight, thought a hostile group might be coming behind them, stopped their vehicles and deployed up one of the top edges of the canyon, including some of the afghanis. But when they saw it was Josh's squad, they stood up to greet them. My brother, in the back of the lead Humvee, along with others, saw their silhouettes and, having just been shot at, and seeing what looked like (and were) afghani soldiers, opened fire, killing two afghanis and one of their own.
—We couldn't have shot better, in daylight, if we'd tried. His face was gone.
No charges, no investigation even. The incident just quietly put away and the dead american soldier's family told that he died in combat in the line of duty. Purple Heart included. What haunted Josh more was how quickly that soldier was forgotten—never mentioned again by his supposed friends.
—They tell us how we're each a valuable, 'no I in team' and all that bullshit, but we're not. We're expendable. That could have been me. You and mom would've never known.
He asked me about college and was really interested in my history classes, and A People's History of the United States, which I'd bought for him. We also talked about my Islam class and compared what I'd read in books with what he'd seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
—It's just like christians, man. Most of them are just trying to live. Most are really good people and a small group of assholes uses the religion as an excuse to be assholes.
He and Holly were dating again. She hadn't even gone to NMC. She went back to the Isabella Reservation for a while, but he'd gone down to pick her up and she was living with her white grandparents again. She and Josh were planning to move up to the UP. She had family up there and he wanted to get away from Traverse and civilization.
—Just get a cabin out in the woods and live, man.
We all got together again, the three of us, and rode in the Fucking-150 to some parties and get-togethers, when none of us was working. (I worked at Bob's a little over the holidays.) Just like before, Holly's warm thigh against mine. Her hair even longer. She didn't laugh as much, though still sometimes, especially listening to my brother. She didn't ask me about college, and was vague about what she'd been up to.
—Oh, you know, working.
Something happened with her grandparents soon after I got back though, and she ended up staying at our house. Which my mom was fine with. She was just happy to have Josh back. Nothing else mattered, and I even saw her smile and tear up when she looked at the two of them joking in the kitchen doing dishes. She caught me looking at her and motioned her head at them.
—You need a girl like that.
Some nights I'd wake up, hearing them fucking in the next room, right on the other side of the wall. Her voice, and the things she said to him. But all three of us would get animated on our snowy night rides to nowhere, just driving, none of us had friends in Traverse anymore, or that's how we felt—no desire to go to get-togethers of people back from college, or of those who never left. We'd talk about anarchy, the real kind, about small groups of people governing themselves, like—as Holly pointed out—what native americans had been doing for thousands of years before white people. Or socialism and how the main purpose of government should be to protect people from corporations, and how useless all the anti-war protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq had been (and none for the invasion of Afghanistan at all). How no great change in america had ever happened by voting—politicians only did things when they were scared. Of the people. By the people. And peaceful protests don't scare them. Not with the mega-rich donors controlling them. It was Holly who actually said, —It's the fucking rich people. They control the government so the government does what rich people want. To make them richer.
My brother was just as animated, explaining, or trying to explain, trying to even think about how afghan villages were essentially anarchist communes too—though village leaders weren't elected, just the eldest men, and when Holly and I pushed, he admited that women in those villages had no rights, like at all. Which had been used as an argument for the invasion with/for liberals, as if the US government really cared about liberating all women everywhere. But that didn't matter. Or, it didn't matter at the moment. What mattered was that we were all back together, changed, but still talking and exchanging ideas. And Josh was the one who had us raise our beers in the truck and yell:
—Fuck the rich!
So I was surprised when later, finishing up my first year of college‚ my brother and Holly already moved up to the UP, that Josh got a job at Tyrannus Ranch, a privately-owned 100,000 acre resort about forty-five minutes southwest of Houghton, where mega-rich men from all over the country—from all over the world—came to hunt and drink, without their wives. They hired Josh as a private guide, taking small groups to hunt deer and elk and moose, and imported animals like ibex and the fucking scimitar-horned oryx. According to my brother, all the rich guys loved him—an american war hero who had fought to defend democracy and their right to pillage third world countries. His job was basically to make sure they didn't shoot themselves, or each other, and make killing an ibex as easy as possible. If they got a kill, he said, they'd sometimes tip him a hundred dollars.
—They have rolls of hundreds they just carry around with them!
I came back to Traverse for the summer, working my old jobs, though I borrowed my mom's car on two free days to drive up and see him and Holly, who had also gotten a job at T-Ranch (as the locals called it). I was able to come on the property and meet him at the end of his day and hang with him in the bar while Holly finished working the dinner rush.
All the guys, even the foreign ones—the japanese and germans, the small group of israelis— were wearing the awful cliché brand-new LL Bean flannel shirts and boots, or whatever the brand for rich people above LL Bean is. My brother pointed out the prostitutes—not hard to see—from Houghton—college-age (some maybe even attending college) to older. My grandfather the hunter would have spit on the floor seeing all those overweight guys doing the Great White Hunter brags.
But my brother and Holly really did have a little cabin in the woods outside Houghton. Rented. Which took up most of their income. I wondered how they'd survive the winter when they got laid off, though they didn't seem worried. In fact, they seemed happy. So I was happy for them. I guess.
I had just gotten back to MSU, end of summer, when I learned what my brother had done. He wasn't identified until I think two days later, on air, but the act itself made national headlines.
He set Tyrannus Ranch on fire and made it a killing field.
According to survivors, he first evacuated the employees (and the prostitutes, though that wasn't mentioned on-air) while the main hall was already burning. Then the explosions: IEDs at the compound gate under a company car parked blocking it, and out at the main gate, which delayed law enforcement from getting in.
In the meantime, he shot all the rich men he could find, with an MK-16 in some cases, or execution-style with a Beretta in the back of the head. Not all—some escaped into the woods or joined the employees out in the parking lot. If law enforcement hadn't finally arrived, I'm not sure my brother wouldn't have gone after them too.
Most of the other buildings, the small cabins and lodges‚ but not the employee quarters—burned. On three of the buildings left, someone, maybe Holly, spray painted in huge red letters:THEY ARE FEW.
I knew. As soon as I saw it was Tyrannus Ranch. And when reports said that there were multiple "terrorists," I knew Holly had been there too. She probably lit the fires and blew the IEDs. I don't know if she shot anybody.
My brother was identified. He had made no attempt to hide his face that night, probably so he could get the employees out easier. My mom knew too. She called me, hysterical, crying and I caught a bus back up as soon as I could, but by then there were cop cars outside the house, the BBC was calling for an interview, and the FBI handcuffed me and took me to the police station. All captured on film and shown on the local and national news. In the footage, my face looks angry—it was, I was—and therefore guilty to people.
I was held 48 hours, without charge. I said nothing. He was still my brother, and I didn't know what was going on. The police made sure I saw all the coverage of the shootout in Duluth though. Josh and Holly were spotted in a grocery store. When police drove into the parking lot, they ran for their (stolen) car. My brother was shot in the leg, and that's when Holly shot and killed two officers with the Beretta. My brother grabbed his bag of weapons and they made it back into the store, where my brother had everyone leave—it was not a hostage situation, though it was reported that way. The place was too big for two people to defend. They stayed up front for a while, pinning down everyone in the parking lot, which was probably a mistake, allowing more reinforcements to arrive. My theory is they eventually decided to make for the loading dock in back, but they only made it down the chips and pop aisle before every law enforcement officer in town—local and fed—was shooting through those big front windows (before even knowing if there were in fact no more civilians inside). There were five more injuries, and my brother killed one ATF agent when they stormed the store. News reports said Josh and Holly were shot, but I read the police reports: they were both wounded when my brother shot Holly in the head, then himself. He had again written: THEY ARE FEW on the floor, in their blood, but that one wasn't ever reported.
The incident was of course used by the government to pass even harsher "anti-terrorist" laws, which are now used against even peaceful protestors. And it was used as the argument for more surveillance and data collection of all americans. Tyrannus Ranch was rebuilt, is still in business, with a private company (i.e. mercenaries) handling security, though it's not turning the profit it used to, and there's talk of the Nature Conservancy buying it. None of the so-called "wars" of the American Empire have ended. But every now and then, in pictures and videos of protests all over the world, I see hand-drawn signs saying: THEY ARE FEW, and sometimes on anonymous sites in political threads the phrase pops up, usually with multiple exclamation points. The original images from Tyrannus Ranch circulate on the internet. Never discussed, never questioned, is whether it was only two people who had caused all that carnage. Neither my brother nor Holly were into poetry at all, but the quote is from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Masque of Anarchy." It's the last stanza:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
John Yohe was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in northwestern Colorado. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. In addition he is also a Best of the Net nominee and has appeared on the Notable Essay List for Best American Essays 2021.