With the possibility of my actually returning overseas as an embed journalist becoming increasingly probable, I have recently fielded a number of good questions about it that, in all fairness, deserve an answer. Mainly, people are incredulous that, after three tours of varying degrees of danger, chaos, and stress, I want to go BACK over there, and this time not even carrying a gun. Or they inquire why I can’t write about the troops from the safety (and relative ease) of the United States. There are, after all, FAR more veterans here than overseas. While my immediate answer is a very inarticulate, “because I can,” these queries do warrant a more thorough answer. Not only do they merit a more complete response, but these are also matters that I, too, need to understand for myself.
In Normal McClean’s novella, “A River Runs Through It,” he concludes the story with the following paragraph:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
And the movies ends as the camera pans away from an old man who having years ago outlived his wife and children, still returns to the stirring waters of a Montana river to fly fish, reflect on his life, and remember the time he spent as a boy and young man – fishing with his father and brother. Neither his brother nor his father lived terribly happy lives, and his brother died tragically well before his time – bludgeoned to death with a pistol in an alley beside a bar. For Norman McClean, the waters are a painful reminder to his brother’s absence, but also to some of his most memorable experiences as a boy and young man.
To me, the desert is just the same: a haunting reminder to not only the most exciting and adventurous days of my life, but also the most profoundly tragic, where friends’ lives were quickly snuffed out and units expected to carry on unaffected by their absence. I was changed there. It brings back good memories, and a full assortment of unpleasant ones. In some ways, it is a reopening of an only poorly-healed wound. But, just as McClean was drawn to the very thing that deeply pained him, so also am I. The desert calls to me strongly – and powerfully so.
This sentiment is nothing new, however. The Vietnam War saw a number of US troops similarly drawn back to the jungle. A few moved there, many married Vietnamese women, and a number simply fell in love with the culture, the art, and the simple way of living. Granted, a number still find it odious to this day, but a large group found it alluring.
I don’t profess a great love of Iraqi Arab culture, and nor do I have any intention of returning to Iraq to find an Iraqi wife, but I do find the country interesting. Just as Vietnamese culture is dramatically different from ours, so also is Iraqi Arab culture. Each have a few enticing aspects – the architecture, an agrarian lifestyle (along the Euphrates and Tigris), and a remarkable amount of greenery that is the product of generations of careful irrigation, cultivation, and an ingenious canal system. Portions of some aqueducts are still remaining from Roman times. The entire country is steeped in history, archaeology, and a culture irrevocably intertwined with Islam since the mid-600s. Some of the cities in Iraq are even mentioned in the Bible. The place is old, beautiful in its own way, and exotic. I also like the desert heat.
But these are all personal reasons that don’t hold much weight for returning to an undeniably unstable and dangerous country. More than a fascination of Iraq, I have a fondness for the Americans currently serving over there.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,“ as the expression goes, and there’s some truth to that. It wasn’t just a job or a brief stint in the service. More than that, it was the total adoption of a lifestyle, a sub-culture, and an ideology that persists long after my few short years of enlistment. I’m not officially a Marine, but I still think like one, and probably will forever. And I get along with other branches, too, aside from the obligatory needling about their military branch versus mine. While infantry Marines may be my brothers like no other group, the military as whole is my family – and I want to follow them.
More specifically, I am drawn to the men and women of the armed forces. Now that my own service is behind me, I see more clearly the sacrifice that the military requires of the individual and his or her family. I see the nobility in the conviction that one’s own life is completely secondary not only to the lives of one’s comrades, but also to the successful completion of the mission. There are few overt exhibitions of such character in this world, yet among these warriors, it is common – if not universal. I relish the notion of being in their company. I admire them, I admire their service, their sacrifice, and their dedication. Though many are too young to fully understand the true depth of their commitment and service, it is there nevertheless, and perhaps all the more pure because they don’t take the time to ponder it. It’s just what they do. It is Christ-like.
In addition to being simply drawn to the desert and to the military, I have further purpose for my return (should it even happen). Though I did not intend it when I began writing, and while certainly only a portion of my writing pertains to the issue, I find myself increasingly devoted to bridging the gap between military and civilian. As it stands, the two poorly understand each other, with civilians grasping little of the minutiae of a deployment, combat zones, and the high-paced, high-stress lifestyle of the United States Armed Forces. My intent is to explain it to them as best I can. This is best done by simply telling the servicemembers’ or veterans’ stories. I could do this in the states, I suppose, but memories fade with time. If I want to be able to write about life in a combat zone, I need to be in one, and interview people in it also.
But this is not purposed to simply satisfy a civilian curiosity about the military. Such a pursuit would be pandering to an audience with no higher calling. This is not the case. Above all else, I wish for military and combat life to be better understood for this reason: so that the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan return to a welcoming, understanding, and receptive country that is readied to open its arms to them. The more the country understands these men and women, the more able they are to accept them. High substance abuse, suicides and unemployment in the veteran community prove that there is a pronounced disconnect with veterans that extends well beyond their time in the military. I want this to change, for the sake of the vets, for my own sake, and for the healing it will bring to this nation. Veterans need the nation’s help, yet the nation must know how best to do that. Perhaps telling their stories will narrow the divide between the two groups.
While these may be decidedly lofty goals, I must start somewhere. I do not consider it defeat if only a few people read what I write, because it’s better than none at all. If I can somehow help to improve a single veteran’s return to the states, then my time will have been well spent.
I have no particular desire to relive “the glory days.” My time as a Marine, while memorable, is now relegated to just that – a memory. This is not a last ditch effort to sidle up to the military and feel like I am among their ranks again. I was at one time, and remember it fondly, but I am no longer. It is drawing, but it’s over. My war, or at least my small role in it, has ended. Now I am concerned with those that are still fighting it, lest I forget, and lest we as a nation forget the hundreds of thousands that will come home changed, shaken, grieved, or simply adrift. THEY are my pursuit, not entertaining myself with a grand adventure. Adventures are nice, but they often need redemption.
There are undeniable risks to this, yes, and I will not claim to be comfortable with the idea of being in a harrowing situation with no weapon with which to defend myself or those around me (my uniformed family). In fact, I imagine I will abhor the feeling of total helplessness. But my discomfort is secondary to the mission of improving the welcome these men and women receive upon return to the United States. I don’t want to get blown up over there, yet nor did anybody else. Knowing the risks, they willingly have done their duty – and at times paid dearly for it. They have my deepest admiration and the utmost of my support. And I want to know them better. I want to more thoroughly understand the huge-hearted, yet fierce warriors who give so much, ask so little, and will spend a lifetime awkwardly reliving a few short moments that changed them forever. We all know the desert, and like me, it haunts them.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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