December 31, 2016

World War III: "The Present" by Kathryn Morgan-Ryan

The Present
"He held out his own revolver to Reid. 'It is a little present to you from the Russians.'" Illustration by Louis S. Glanzman, Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, p. 46
In 1951, Collier's magazine published a special issue entitled "Preview of the War We Do Not Want" speculating about a hypothetical World War III and what it might look like. The war begins in 1952 and ends in 1955 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by a UN occupation of Russia. A number of notable figures contributed fictional reports about the war and its history, including Edward R. Murrow, Hal Boyle, Walter Reuther, Marguerite Higgins, Walter Winchell, and Arthur Koestler.

This short story by writer Kathryn Morgan-Ryan tells of two opposing commanders, Soviet General Druzhinin and American Lieutenant General Reid, who met previously at the end of World War II and are now battling each other during World War III.

From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, p. 46:
The Present

By Kathryn Morgan-Ryan

The commanding general of the Third Army stood before the situation map in his war room. In front of him the intelligence officer's pointer swept over the red and black unit markers.

"The Fourth Armored has just about encircled General Druzhinin's division, sir. They've left this two-mile gap open. The Reds are pouring through it and our artillery is slaughtering them."

The general nodded and turned to his aide. "The Fourth seems to be starting some sort of tradition," he said. "They met Druzhinin's men in the last war. Only then they had a party together."

"I remember hearing something about it, sir."

The general nodded. "I heard something about it myself," he said. He looked over at his chief of staff. "How soon will the first elements of the Fourth reach Druzhinin's headquarters?"

"At the rate they're going, sir, in about an hour."

The general felt for a moment that it was a war ago and that he was carrying on a conversation with G-2 in Normandy. He had been a divisional commander then, and he remembered driving into Nazi headquarters after it was encircled by his troops. He had not been so detached from the actual fighting in that war and he remembered it briefly with a certain nostalgia.

The general was known to be a sentimental man, and he was also known to be crisp, courteous and unruffled. In his military career he had acquired a polish which rendered him quite unrecognizable from that raw young man from Wyoming who had received his gold lieutenant's bars at West Point thirty-six years before. Just for a minute, as he looked about him at the faces of his officers—several of them pulled from civilian life a few years before—the general felt a great temptation to say how much he wished they could return to being civilians again. He fervently wanted a peace for all the civilians of the world, including those he now fought against. In the meantime, he had to fight his small part of the war to the best of his ability, ruthlessly and hard.

He wondered how Druzhinin was bearing up under the retreat of his armies. He guessed defeat would be hard for Druzhinin to swallow, for his fame in this war was nearly equal to Rommel's in World War II. It ought to be particularly embarrassing for Druzhinin, the general decided, in view of the fact that a war ago Druzhinin had given a party for the Fourth Armored.

Motioning his aide to follow, the general led the way outside to his trailer caravan. There he pulled a battered foot-locker from under his cot, opened it, took out a leather shoulder holster and slowly buckled it on. "Let's get out there, Jim," he said to his aide. "I want to go in with the first elements to reach Druzhinin headquarters." . . .

The old house which General Druzhinin used as headquarters was quiet now. In the room upstairs with the massive fieldstone fireplace, he heard only the crackling of the fire.

He moved over to the fire, feeling the warmth of it begin to spread through his tunic, and threw a paper back among the logs. It was the last of his war maps and he observed with satisfaction that the room was empty of anything the Americans would find of interest, except, of course, himself.

Druzhinin thought about that for a minute, and his eyes held the same bleak, remote look he had seen on the faces of his soldiers in the past twenty days of the Fourth Armored bombardment. He thought briefly of his troops, who were running now, streaming through a gap left open by the Fourth Armored, a gap he felt sure would be covered by artillery and machine guns. Some of his troops would get out, but the bulk of them would be cut down. Druzhinin thought that if he had been in command of the Americans, he would have planned it that way.

When the third World War began, Druzhinin had gone into it with his usual confidence. The Politburo had foreseen a sweeping victory and the troops were seasoned and hard. Then came a few retreats, a falling back here and there, a sabotaged train, a partisan attack, and then the bombs and atomic artillery. Druzhinin had seen the handwriting on the walls. He thought he could have stood it if the victors had been any but the Americans.

He turned quickly in the quiet room, not wanting to think about it any more, and brought a chair up to the fire. He pulled out the .38 Colt automatic from its holster, sat down in the chair, and saw the light from the fire play over the surface of the gun. With a fresh pleasure he ran his thumb over the beautifully balanced butt and he thought of a girl at an embassy reception once who had touched the gun and asked, "And this, General, where did you get this?" "From the Americans," he replied, as though it were an unvalued thing. "That was given me by the Americans." He made it sound as if the gun were awarded him at some military presentation, but it had not happened in quite that way.

Druzhinin had met the Fourth Armored before—under happier circumstances—in Austria at the end of World War II. He had halted his division at the edge of a river, and on the far side the Fourth Armored had also stopped. Druzhinin decided to give a dinner for the Americans to celebrate the link-up of their two units. On the day of the reception he lined his personal troops on the road leading to his headquarters villa. Each Russian carried a tommy gun and they formed an arch for the cavalcade of American vehicles all the way to the villa. As the Americans entered the arch, Druzhinin's men began firing. He grinned now as he recalled the sudden burst of noise which caused the American drivers to swerve their wheels.

At the meal, he gave them seventeen courses, with vodka. The Americans could not take the pace, and most of them stopped drinking after the fifth course. Only the Fourth's one-star brigadier general, a West Pointer named Reid, continued to drink with Druzhinin. The affair built up quietly into a contest between the two generals. In the end, it was Druzhinin who won.

A week earlier, his interpreter had showed him a copy of Stars and Stripes which carried a photograph of the American general receiving a special .38 Colt automatic with mother-of-pearl stars on either side of the handle. At the meal, as Druzhinin sat beside the American, he had difficulty keeping his eyes from the gun. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and as the tension of the drinking contest increased, Druzhinin sought to hit back at this American who dared down drink for drink with him. He waited, biding his time, making small talk, and then suddenly, with a great display of largess, he pulled his own revolver from his holster and held it out to Reid. "It is a little present to you from the Russians," he said.

Along the tables, talk suddenly ceased. Druzhinin was aware that the Americans had turned in their chairs, that American and Russian faces alike wore looks of excitement. Reid put down his glass and took Druzhinin's gun. For an instant there was bewilderment on his face, and then suddenly he understood. He looked like a man on whom a joke has just been played, who is determined, in deference to good manners, to smile at himself. Then slowly he drew the Colt from his own shoulder holster and gave it to Druzhinin. "This, General, I give you in exchange." He spoke out so that everyone in the room could hear. "I would like to present it on behalf of all the Americans here."

When it was all over, Druzhinin remembered, he sat for a long time alone, thinking over the little scene. He did not see Reid again after the dinner, but he knew that for as long as they lived, two men would always remember the Austrian party.

He stared now at the dying fire. This time, he thought, when the Fourth Armored arrived it would not be for a party. However, he had no fears about the forthcoming meeting. He looked once more at the Colt. The star in the butt glinted in the firelight. Without hesitation, he raised the gun to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

When, only a short time later, they came through the door, the American general and his aide moved quickly up to Druzhinin. A staff sergeant bent over the body. "The medics won't earn any money here," he said.

Lieutenant General Reid, commander of the Third Army, reached out and took the gun from Druzhinin's clenched fingers. "Let's just call this a little present from the Russians," he said to his aide, and slipped the gun into his holster. — THE END