That night was my turn to guard his ragged body. My only defense was an M9 pistol, but that would be enough because his legs and feet were decaying. His hands had been amputated. Still, none of the other soldiers felt sorry for him, and I did not blame them.

The day before, the Afghan bomb-maker had been squatting over and assembling an IED when it prematurely exploded. The insurgent was rushed to our base to be treated by the same soldiers he planned to kill.

I was one of those soldiers. Until that moment, I prided myself in having never made an enemy, but here was a boy I did not know who literally wanted to see my body in pieces. As the smell of festering wounds lingered in my nostrils, I could not hate the shrapnel-torn casualty who lay before me—no matter how hard I tried.

He was only 16 years old. I wanted to know his mother, to meet his friends. I wondered if he was in love and what made him laugh—or cry. What did he tell God when he prayed? I knew nothing about the boy, yet I was trained to kill him. If only I had gotten to know him, I thought. If only he could’ve known me.

I used to swell with courage and authority when I wore my uniform, but in that moment it felt like a straitjacket. There was a spirit of dominance woven throughout its fibers, but it was not bestowing control to its wearer. It was exerting control over me. While I watched the boy’s chest rise and fall, I suddenly felt caught.

I used to feel safe because my base’s thick walls, barbed wire, and armed towers kept the world out. But in that moment, I felt like I was being kept in—away from the world. I wanted to run away and kiss my mother’s forehead. I wanted to smile shamelessly at beauty, to softly touch some girl I had not fallen in love with yet. I wanted to be afraid again when mortars crashed around me. And I wanted to cry again. I wanted to gently lay my weapon upon the dirt, bury my hands in my pockets, and casually walk out—not to escape, but to regain freedom, life and happiness: The American Trinity.

I used to believe that war was a necessary offspring of realism until I came close to dying for an idea, and worse, killing for an idea—true idealism. If you want to know what reality is, ask a child. Children have the most sophisticated imaginations, but they always know the difference between real life and playing pretend. And they have not been told yet that they are American or Afghan, Christian or Muslim. If only this boy had been 6 and not 16, he would have had enough fingers to express his age. Instead, he had just enough to grip my conscience.

Brock McIntosh served in Afghanistan’s Paktika and Khost Provinces between 2008 and 2009 with the Army National Guard. Since returning home, he has been certified as a Kingian nonviolence trainer and is an applicant for conscientious objector status. Brock is finishing degrees in history and sociology at the University of Maryland. He lives in Washington, D.C.