"We'll never win. Even when we think we do, they just get more young men, more young fools seeking to fight and to die a martyr, and they come back. They are scared of nothing." His voice was resigned. He was tired. His sons had gone to fight other father's sons as it seemed was the role for young men in this world. So few sons would ever return. A bleak future was in front of him, in front of them all.
"No" a quiet voice responded from the crowd.
His head lifted and his eyes searched. "But yes, it is true. I have been there. I have seen their passion. I have seen their total lack of fear. They fight. They kill. We fight and kill. But more come, then more. More young males sent to kill and to die. They care little if they die. They think it means paradise. We can't scare them. We can't win against that."
But the quiet voice again said "no". She stood then. Only slight, small. Dainty even. She was dressed modestly but we could see her face. Bruised and hurt. "I too have been there. I know them. I know what they hope ...and I know what they fear."
It is obvious that she has suffered. Had she been over in that war torn and bloody place? Had that been her home? Had she been a young girl over there, living with her family? She has no one close beside her now - no brothers, no father, no cousins to protect her. Had she has lost her family like so many others. Was she alone too when over there?
She stands now a little taller. "I have looked into the eyes of the soldiers who raped me. I know what they fear." A deep breath, a look around the room to note everybody was straining to hear. "They fear those like me. They fear women."
Oh, but what did we expect? Of course she wanted revenge. Of course she had dreams of being the agent of that revenge. But they didn't even know she existed. They rape girls. They kidnap girls. They banish girls to dark rooms and dark places and dark veils. They think little of girls. Surely, they did not fear girls or even women.
"I can see your eyes, your faces, your thoughtless compassion. Humour her you think. She has been through a lot. You think you should be kind. And yet you do not truly think...
"It is true that they do not let women be seen; that they rape women; that they go out of their way to humiliate women. Even the paradise they offer their martyrs include women as nothing more than slaves and playthings - virgins even, with no experience, no life ...and no threat.
"After they beat me, after they raped, they left me broken in what used to be my garden. I lay there, face pressed into the sand, unable to move, unable to think or to care. After some time I became aware of insects crawling just in front of my eyes. An ant and a bug. Run away little ant I wept, as surely that big bug will eat you up. But the ant didn't seem to care. Those two ran their paths and when those paths intersected, the ant just ran over the bug and kept going. Ran over it without a care. Ran over it as if it wasn't there. Neither the bug nor the ant was hurt. Neither even inconvenienced. And I thought..." She looked again at those around her.
"...I thought, why didn't those soldiers, so keen on martyrdom, so keen to kill other boys, just run past me as if I wasn't there. Why did they have to stop to break me? It was then that I realised..." a deep breath. "It was then when I realised that if that bug had been a threat then the ant would not have ignored it."
She paused. We waited. "I was only a little girl. I had no gun. No rocks. No longer even brothers or cousins. I had nothing. Nothing that would be considered to be a weapon. There was just me. If they were afraid, if they saw a threat, then I myself must have been the threat." She scanned her audience. We all looked away, unable to look into those eyes that had seen so much. "I will live up to that. They were right to fear me." Her voice faded and she sat.
Our original speaker too looked around the crowd. He looked at this beaten little girl who considered herself a threat to an entire army of martyrs. "But what could you do?" He asked quietly. "The Americans have spent millions. The Americans spent their missiles and their smart bombs. The Americans sent in their advisors and their trainers. They sent their super modern fighting tools and their western efficiencies at killing." His voice rises. "To no avail. The more the Americans and their allies kill, the more the new recruits flock in to replace those who die a martyr. The more foot soldiers killed for the holy cause, the more young males decide that this holy war is what is needed and the more they are willing to kill and to die for the martyr's paradise." His voice fades again. "Will you recruit an army of girls for them to defeat? They will defeat you. Why would your army do better than the Americans? I am sorry, but it is hopeless." He looks back down at the girl and asks again. "What could you do?"
She stands again. Defiant. "I shall take away their paradise."
"It is unnatural."
"It must be a punishment from heaven!"
"A false beard is an abomination."
"We will not accept orders from such a half person."
I waited. It seemed I waited a long time since that meeting. A very long time. The young boys desperate to be men, desperate to be noticed, continued to run away from home to join the army of martyrs. But the change did come. It came slowly and at first I feared it was a change for the worse. Those who were preaching the need to expand their empire and kill the outsiders continued to glorify in their successes, increasing their appearances on video clips, and posturing full of energy - they were looking younger and more vibrant than ever. And then the first whisper started - is he dying his beard
Suddenly the senior leaders were not seen in the regular propaganda video clips. Oh, they continued their successful propaganda with videos of troops moving into towns and defeating those who used to live there, but increasingly these videos repeated earlier victories and atrocities. Then the rumours began. The leader is sick some said. The generals are fighting for supremacy in a power vacuum others elaborated. But no, the believers cried, our leader has gone on retreat to talk to the heavens. No they are all sick. Someone using mustard gas got them all!
The unstoppable arm of martyrs hesitated. For the first time in a long war their morale suffered a slight shiver - is paradise still assured if the leader has been deposed?
But the leader did return to the videos: a two hour message about the holiness of their quest to destroy the outsiders and unbelievers. Every epithet ever thrown and every justification for killing under heaven was repeated. The climax was a major call to all who believed to punish the Americans for their unholy attack.
Media analysts and blog posters went wild! "What unholy attack specifically?" they asked and answered in numerous ways. "Had the attack been almost successful? Is that why the senior leaders dropped out of sight?" Government agencies covering military, intelligence and even immigration were questioned over the attack, but they all claimed the need for secrecy. I think they didn't know. The feeling on the chat shows and social media was that no one could even work out which country might have been responsible for any given unholy attack, yet alone what the attack had been.
But the question that raised most interest was - "is he wearing a fake beard?"
The entire world seemed to have heard the broadcast. Surely a propaganda success! But no one was raising their security levels in response. Stock market indices did not plummet, and in fact, showed slight increases in their closing prices. For the first time, the leader did not appear indefeatable. Somebody, or something, had got close. Somebody, or something, had sent him into hiding at least for a while. Maybe somebody could do it again. Maybe something even better. Maybe we could win.
That fake beard story just would not go away. Medical sites explored a range of illnesses and diseases which could cause the luxuriant beard of the leader to be lost and necessitate a fake. Images from the videos were forensically examined for evidence of scaring - maybe his face had been burnt in that "unholy attack" and he was too ashamed to go around clean shaven. Talk show hosts interviewed studio make up artists about beards and how hard it was to make good examples. Image analysts zoomed, filtered and enhanced to pin point failings in the leader's beard. Almost overnight, the man responsible for sending an army of martyrs to kill and conquer, the man who was feared and hated around the world, was reduced to being something like a low grade movie star in need of beauty and make up advice.
New rumours surfaced - the leader was dead and the fake beard was on a fake leader! But the sound engineers quickly squashed that rumour using comprehensive voice analysis to confirm voice patterns. But these same engineers launched a whole new set of rumours when noting that the leader's voice had changed pitch slightly ...and so had others who had spoken during the video.
These rumours were not sufficient to demoralise the hard core fighting men on the front lines. They continued to hold their winnings. But those who were not actually fighting hard on the front lines did have time to worry about the rumours. And worry they began to do.
Again the leader made a rallying video message to his troops and his people waiting in those far off lands ready to strike at the hearts of the unbeliever. This time his beard looked better and his voice was strong and firm - but little of his message got through as the sound engineers, encouraged by their recent fame, once again dissected the video during daytime television. The audio tracks had definitely been manipulated to create that firm voice. The analysts cared little about what he said, only that he didn't naturally say it in the voice associated with a commanding male. What was being hidden behind these images and words?
And for the first time, the front line martyrs faulted. They did not push an advance.
And the leader raved! The infidels had resorted to biological warfare; the great unbelievers were polluting the very bodies of the faithful. Now was the time for all the faithful to rise up and kill - this was the Great War. But there were no new atrocities that the leader could call for - they had all been called for already. But biological warfare! Had some one poisoned the leader? Who, and with what?
Again the media latched on to the issues of the moment. No one cared that the leader was once again calling for martyrs to rise up or that the wicked would be punished. After all, that was old news now. Now, the pundits wrote and talked and YouTubed about biological weapons. The US and her allies stridently denied the use of biological weapons. People demanded proof of use, or proof of non-use, or proof that such weapons didn't exist at all, or proof that the stockpiles had not changed. Experts arose to broadcast and dissect biological weapons of mass destruction. They helpfully provided detailed descriptions of the effects of mustard gas, and anthrax, and Ebola, and anything which might cause a man to loose his beard.
And then the first giggle was heard: a man would not posses a beard if he wasn't really a man. Boys, pretending to be men, might play dress ups with a fake beard. Might a man return to his own beardless boyhood? The leader's images were once again subjected to the utmost scrutiny and those who had dissected the make up attempts on his beard were joined by those who specialised in hair care. Yes, they concluded, his hair did appear more lush and luxuriant than previously. His face was in deed more youthful, which the make up artists initially attributed to superior foundation powder previously unknown to the Western world, but which now they admitted was miraculously good. Footage of others in the senior group were examined in detail unavailable to the best spy agencies in the world, and TV artists concluded that either make up skills in that corner of the world had all spontaneously improved dramatically, or that some one had discovered the fountain of youth. The West almost forgot about the war.
The martyrs almost forgot about the war too. The front lines stabilised. The indiscriminate killings slowed. The world waited. Was this a sign that the leader was right, that he and his top advisors were blessed by the heavens? Was this their reward - not only the promise of a thousand virgins in the afterlife, but more youthfulness in this life?
"No" a quiet sound responded from the crowded internet. That same slight, small, dainty girl. Still dressed modestly, still showing the faded signs of hurt, but still able to command attention. "No, not youths. Not boys" she said. "No one could ever give those ones back the innocence of youth. The innocence of young boys." She sounded just as I remembered her - resigned but certain. I do not know how she commanded the attention, but through the airwaves and the digital highways we listened. "No, we could not give them innocence, just as we could not give life back to those they took it from. So instead, we were forced to take.
"We took their manhood.
"We took away their feelings of superiority with their long beards.
"We took away their excuse to look down on women simply because women can grow long hair but not long beards.
"We took away their ability to blame women for causing them to act as animals. We took away their ability to rape.
"Most importantly, we took away their martyr's heaven. Now, as they die, they will not see a thousand virgins ready to be their playthings. They will only see a thousand mature and powerful women laughing at them. Laughing at their shrunken manhood and their squeaky voices, and their fear."
And the girl giggled. The giggle that changed the world. Suddenly the ether was full of images of little boys playing at being fighters, of the regimes leaders dressed in nappies, of children pretending to be important. They tried, but it was childishness and the girls giggled at their seriousness.
When boys wanted to stand tall and say they were men fighting for their religion, for their beliefs, for their manhood, the audience no longer listened. But they did look. The eyes of the audience was focused on their very manhood. Is he really a man? Is there anything "there"? And that giggle could be heard.