Hans Gregory had enlisted to fight the Enemy. He had not enlisted to die. Every day he spent cowering from mortar shells flying overhead, and every day he hurled a few grenades over no-man’s land. He never saw the Enemy, not the faces of its soldiers at least. For Hans, the faces of the Enemy were the mauled faces of his comrades. He would have liked to turn his comrades into proper friends, but every time he tried to sit down and have a cup of tea with someone and chat about sports, the Enemy inevitably joined in.
He and his fellow rank-and-file soldiers wondered why they were fighting the Enemy in the first place, but no one really wanted to question their hate. Besides, it was always renewed with some new volley of bullets. If their own compassionate leaders couldn’t arrange peace — and their leaders certainly assured the public that they were compassionate — then it must be the Enemy who was at fault. So it was that he spent his first tour of duty — muddy, bloody, and jaded.
When Hans Gregory went home, he found a letter in his mailbox. It told him he was promoted, due to the importance of some obscure scrap of the Front he had suffered over, and also due to the fact that everyone who had played a bigger role was dead. Also, he was needed immediately. Without even making it to his front door, he turned right round and reported for duty. The Enemy was the enemy after all, and the Enemy never slept.
Through a series of unfortunate events — for other people at least — Hans became an army general. He got to have tea with all the other generals, in a little wooden room far away from the Front, and they sat in fine leather chairs and chatted about sports. Every once in a while a man of lower rank would ask politely for some battle plans, and the tea would get cold while they furrowed their brows over maps and enemy communiques. Then the man of lower rank would scurry off with some orders, and the generals would order themselves more tea.
During one such occasion, while they waited in nervous silence for the kettle, Hans decided to ask his comrades why they were fighting the Enemy. He got a series of dark looks, and someone started spouting propaganda quite excitedly. Another someone said, “You don’t… sympathize with them, do you?”
“No, of course not! I hate them as much as you. I can’t count how many soldiers I saw blown to bits by the Enemy. And I can’t count how many of them that I’ve ordered blown up. There’s not much we can do stop this exchange, anyway, I suppose. It’s up to the higher-ups. I just want to know how we started this whole bloody mess.”
“You mean how they started it, don’t you?”
Hans nodded at their hardened faces. He stopped going to the little wooden room after that. Instead he spent more time looking over maps and enemy communiques, and as a consequence he won many battles he never properly fought. And when he finally got leave to go back home, he was a national hero. In fact, he hardly got to his doorstep when a half dozen men in black suits and equally black sunglasses drove up in long cars of a similar hue.
As it turned out, Hans was such a national hero that he had won the election for Prime Minister without even running a campaign. He couldn’t help wondering why he was so popular considering that they were no nearer peace now than they ever had been in the past. When the Front advanced under his command, it just retreated somewhere else.
The black suited men took him to a serious-looking room in an impressive building, where there was a high-backed chair and a heavy oak desk and a polished red telephone. When Hans asked what the telephone was for, they told him it would put him in touch with the Enemy Prime Minister. It took him several days of signing papers and giving interviews before he worked up the courage to pick up the receiver.
“Good day, Prime Minister. How are you?”
“Er… Well. Thank you. Were you this friendly with my predecessor?”
“Yes, actually. We got along splendidly!”
“You mean you didn’t threaten one another, or boast about new military technology, or call each other pig-dogs?”
“Heavens no! Nothing of the sort. Mainly we complained about the weather and exchanged cookie recipes.”
“Yes, I have a rather good one for gingersnaps.”
“But if you didn’t hate each other, why didn’t you call for peace?”
“None of our generals would believe us! We tried being subtle about it and made some foolhardy orders, but that just ended up getting more soldiers killed. The people of both our nations hate each other, Prime Minister, and there’s nothing we can do but let them play war.”
“And if we ordered them to stop?”
“My own predecessor tried that. It resulted in a military coup.”
“There’s no point being Prime Minister, is there. There’s no power in the job at all.”
“You’re catching on! We’re enemies, after all, and there’s no use losing sleep over it. Now, how about those gingersnaps?”
Hans hung up the phone. He was a little annoyed. Was there really no end to the bloodshed? He was far away from the shelling at the Front, but he had not forgotten it. He spent the days watching military plans come and go from his desk, and it dawned on him that no one was really planning the war at all. He let those in the field figure out the strategy for their little patch of ground, and they in turn rarely collaborated with one another.
So Hans began tracking the Front. It was not long before he detected a pattern.
Instead of a random series of advances and retreats, there seemed to be deliberate sequences. Some of these repeated at regular intervals, but when he questioned the generals in charge he got a different rational every time. And when he picked up the red phone, he found the Enemy to be just as clueless. This was a strange thing — there seemed to be an intelligence behind the shifting Front, yet the brain behind it was nowhere to be found.
Hans transcribed the patterns into analogue charts, and handed them to the head of his Cryptography Department. He told her they were radio signals picked up from enemy territory, and he wanted to confirm they were just noise.
Two days later, she returned. Her face was full of disappointment. “Well, it certainly wasn’t noise. It took some trouble to decode, but I believe you will find the message just as disappointing as if it really were noise.”
Hans was stunned. A message? There was a language there, even communication? But who was speaking, he had no idea. Someone was using the army as a voice. Yet it was no one he could identify. No human was sending the message, and no human was receiving it. He realized, turning quite pale, that the only ones that could be talking to each other were the nations themselves. Somehow two collections of people had become two sentient beings, and the citizens were just the cells.
Hans realized that the head of his Cryptography Department was still moving her mouth. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I was just saying,” she repeated, rolling her eyes this time around, “that the message said: WHAT NICE WEATHER WE’RE HAVING.”
Hans instinctively looked out the window. He wondered what kind of weather nations considered to be nice.