Unnecessary evil is the best way to describe Guillermo Longoria, one of the protagonists of Héctor Tobar's debut novel The Tattooed Soldier. Tobar tells a story of two Guatemalan men, who are connected through tragedy and where one is the aggressor, and the other is the victim of the aggression. Their images, however, are not simple but rather multidimensional ones. The plot covers the story of Antonio Bernal’s revenge for the death of his wife and son killed by Longoria, a sergeant of the death squad in San Cristobal who used to kidnap Communists, and thus intimidate the population with the squad’s violence. Tobar portrays both men convincingly and gives their backgrounds revealing that both men have a mentality of little people, who are afraid of many things and are reluctant to act but the different environment of the protagonists results in different personal outcomes. Unlike Bernal, who was shielded from the influence of the world by his wife, who was even aggressive in her manner of tackling life obstacles, the life put Longoria in such a position that he had to change and adapt to the environment and, as a result, he turned into an effective killing machine, so Longoria embodies the most cruel evil because he justified violence and took pride in the meticulousness of his killings.
Early on in the novel, Tobar gives dimension to Longoria revealing that the army was not his own choice. Aged 17, Longoria was drafted involuntarily when he was at the cinema watching an American thriller. A group of soldiers occupied the building and made all the young people join the army. As a young and mild person, Longoria allowed to the army to shape him into a perfect soldier. Before the army Longoria was a kind of blank slate. He lived a life of hard toil with his mother but otherwise was mild and compliant. The army molded him into discipline- and cleanliness-freak. Outside the army Longoria continues the same routine of waking up early, exercising, cleaning his room, and going to work. He even meets his woman on a schedule. Apart from giving his life a structure the army formed Longoria’s worldview. He quickly realized that in order to survive in the army he had to accept his lot and accept what it does. Otherwise, he would break down and “go crazy … or out of control. Longoria had seen this happen to men, to good soldiers, the blood and life disappearing from them like water going down a drain. It was because they didn’t believe”. Therefore, Longoria began accepting everything going on in the army as something necessary and inevitable. It was his way to deal with stress. He had a night when officers made the rookies dance with each other. It was humiliating for Longoria to dance with a guy, but he obeyed and believed that it was a necessary ritual. The fact that he did not question orders let him keep his sanity. Longoria’s background shows that inherently he is not evil but he caved in to circumstances and chose the way of an obedient soldier.
Longoria’s rationale is as follows: even if a man has to do awful and horrible things in the army, it is because they should be done. Longoria accepted the view that those people, communists, were like cancer and they had to be removed from the face of the Earth: “He absorbed the twisted logic that justified the massacre of an entire village to drive out the “infection” of communism”. He believed that communists ruined their country and poisoned young people. Longoria fervently believed that “The parents passed the virus [of Communism] along to their children. It made you want to kill the parents again and again, even after they were dead, because if it wasn’t for fucking parents you wouldn’t have to kill the children”. However, the trick here is that it is enough to accuse someone in being a communist and people like Longoria are ready to kill them. Longoria initially was not a ruthless criminal keen on killing someone, especially children, but the top officers presented information in such a way to dehumanize victims and make soldiers believe that they were doing the right thing. Longoria became a soldier of war who is obedient to commands and does them without much consideration. Therefore, when people pleaded him for mercy and life, Longoria’s heart remained unmoved, because he saw enemies in them.
As a soldier Longoria was not expected to question the orders he received. He was on the death squad that committed many kidnappings and killings of the people who were suspected in the loyalty to Communism. Even if Longoria completely accepted the justification of killings, he could not help but notice that it was a wrongful action. For example, an order to wear civilian clothes was revealing. Longoria became aware that they were doing something abominable now that the government was willing to hide the fact that the death squad were working for them: “These tasks were so despicable you couldn’t wear your uniform when you did them”. Yet even this revelation did not prompt Longoria to question the orders and his actions. The description of the attack on Antonio Bernal’s family shows that Longoria did not go into detail about whom and for what reasons he is commissioned to attack: “The addresses and the faces were the only things he cared about. He was getting tired and didn’t care”. His job is to memorize the necessary information and interrogate or kill those who were assigned to him; the rest was not his business. Therefore, he stays indifferent to the anger of the old lady whose son he allegedly killed or the sudden attack of Bernal.
Even though the author shows different dimensions of Longoria, the reader does not feel inclined to feel compassion to him. Indeed, he was kidnapped as a seventeen-year old guy and made into a soldier, but anyway he had a choice to flee from the army somehow later, or to sabotage unlawful orders, or to find another way to disagree with the army’s policy. Nonetheless, Longoria came to view the army as his salvation. The author explains, “The army had saved him from desperate poverty, and now they were showing him the world, showing him things he never imagined, educating him, expanding his mind”. As a peasant, Longoria had had a life of hard labor ahead of him and poverty, whereas the army gave him respect among people and the ability to provide for himself. Having heard provincial lilt in Longoria’s voice, Bernal also for a moment feels pity towards the poor peasant who had to become a soldier, and he thinks that Longoria must have gone through tortures so he cannot judge him. But short afterwards Bernal remembers about the tattoo of a jaguar and realizes that a campecino would have never done a tattoo symbolic of violence. It means that Longoria has changed and his background cannot justify his later deeds and atrocities. The evilness of Longoria lies in the fact that he took pride in his violent and cruel actions. Serving in the army Longoria eventually sees that he does the orders well and he is put in charge of some operations. He started to be proud of his orderliness and meticulousness. The pride exceeded his taking pictures where he poses together with his victims. He cannot see anything morally wrong in the fact that he has a photograph of himself taken next to a killed child.
In conclusion, providing the reader with the story of revenge between a soldier and his victim, Tobar may seem to offer a black and white narrative of the good and evil, but close attention to details reveals that it would be a wrong impression and the protagonists are much more controversial. The author depicts multidimensional protagonists where the aggressor has mitigating circumstances (at least, at the beginning of his lifetime journey). Being a creature of free will, Longoria adapts to the environment and finally fits in. As a result, he just goes with the flow not trying to change something in his circumstances. The reader sees Longoria as a perfect soldier who learned to kill innocent men, women, and children without wincing. He accepts everything the army offers, despite its moral implications. The lack of struggle for the good and the acceptance of their lot make both protagonists equally evil in their acts. However, Longoria is a true embodiment of the evil, because he readily embraces the role given to him and even takes pride in his evil accomplishments. It is important to understand the character of Longoria to see that the evil can stem from good-natured people, who just try to do their job well without thinking about moral issues. Unfortunately, the lack of considerations makes them the very embodiment of evil. A reluctance to think and judge allowed Longoria to participate in atrocities and be held accountable for them.