I’VE TRAVELED FOR WORK, leisure, and adventure. I’ve come to love the unknown inherent in travel. Who am I going to meet, from where, and why?
Travel takes me deeper into humanity. New people and new cultures affect the way I perceive life back home. I become unhinged. Mostly in a good way.
Other times, even if I refuse to admit it, I travel to escape heartaches and tragedies. But this time I wasn’t running from a girl who’d bruised my heart, or trying to find another that potentially could. I craved a slower pace than my rock ’n’ roll life afforded me.
I wanted to relax and be awake to the beauty of the natural world around me. Having just completed ten months of globetrotting as the drummer for Australian pop star, Ben Lee, I was happy to trade the air-conditioned life of hotel rooms, tour buses, and venues for some Costa Rican heat and ego-humbling surf.
It was a different story for the 22 year-old Marine I met at a secret river-mouth surf spot on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.
After catching my last wave of the afternoon I retreated to the beach and rested against a sun-bleached log, exhausted but content. My sun-bathing tranquility was interrupted by my travel companion, Dawson, who emerged from the jungle with Pete. They stood around my log, casting shadows, chatting about kayaking.
Pete introduced himself, said he was from Vermont. Dawson told me that Pete was a Marine fresh from Iraq.
I was astonished. “You?” I asked. “No disrespect, but you sure don’t look like a Marine.”
“I get that a lot,” Pete said.
He was tall, slim and pale, his arms full of tribal tattoos. His shoulder-length brown hair and short, scruffy beard seemed more appropriate for a hippie. Certainly not a Marine. I motioned for Pete and Dawson to sit and join me.
I asked Pete if he’d come from a family of soldiers.
“No, not at all. Quite the opposite,” he assured me. “I simply wanted to do something, make an important decision for myself for once. One morning my cell phone rang. It was a Marine Recruiter. I don’t know how he got my number, but I took it as a sign.”
“The army called you? Shit, that would never happen in Canada,” I said.
I told Pete that being raised in Canada — in a three hundred year old community of pacifist Russian exiles known as the Doukhobors — war was as distant a reality as Hollywood and its glorification of it in movies. So it was for this coupling of reasons — spiritual taboo and American cultural glorification — that I always had a keen interest in the ways of the warrior.
Pacifism, I explained, although making perfect sense to me as a boy, was just too uneventful for me.
Meeting a Marine in such an unlikely and peaceful setting caused my curiosity surrounding war and warriors to resurface. Because of this, and my insatiable curiosity regarding the human condition, I felt it was as good a time as any then to ask blunt political and personal questions. Questions that might be perceived by some as disrespectful.
“Amongst other things Marines are trained to kill,” I said to Pete. “Forgive my ignorance but how do you turn this off after your tour of duty is over?”
“Well, we’re trained to defend ourselves and kill if we have to. We’re not brainwashed to kill. It’s a very different Army these days, there’s no denying the humanitarian components. In fact, our unit’s Commander was very Zen-like in his approach to leadership. He was a karate instructor who didn’t tolerate any buffoonery or blood-lust.”
“If only every Marine unit was run by that same Commander,” I replied.
Including “humanitarian components” seems to be part of a more comprehensive U.S. military strategy today, where public demands for military transparency have resulted in tactics such as the embedding of journalists, the rebuilding of schools and infrastructure, or providing food aid — regardless of whether these strategies work or not (or, whether these strategies are welcomed by the invaded country). Basically, people still remember Vietnam and they don’t want a repeat.
“Do you have any regrets about joining the Marines?” I continued.
“Not for a second, it was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. And I feel at peace with everything that happened there.”
Pete’s answer seemed stiff and rehearsed to me. I pressed him.
“Were you a proud American fighting for your country’s honour?”
“Maybe at first, but in the end I was fighting for me, my unit, and the Iraqi people. I became a warrior there.”
In the 2006 documentary The War Tapes, in which a number of soldiers fighting in Iraq are asked to film their experiences, 24 year-old Lebanese-American Sgt. Zack Bazzi echoes Pete’s sentiment. He says, “[there is a misconception that a soldier is] this patriotic, selfless guy, just doing it to help save a way of life. But ultimately the average soldier is just…like damn, I got the call. Yeah it sucks, do I really wanna go? Probably not.”
It would appear, from Sgt. Bazzi’s comment, that having a paid army enables a country’s soldiers the option to fight wars even if they morally oppose them. But an Army, like any society, has its cultural and ethical spectrums.
“Do you think there’s a clear division in the minds of the soldiers between your country’s oil agenda and the liberation of the Iraqi people?” I asked Pete.
“Absolutely,” he answered. “Or else not one of those soldiers would be there, absolutely. Most of us aren’t there fighting for our country, we’re not fools. I became a warrior there, helping people who clearly needed help.”
If only Pete was speaking for the majority of soldiers simply on the basis that he was there. Specialist Mike Moriarty, another soldier featured in The War Tapes, presented himself as a foul-mouthed and resolute patriot who joined the Marines in order to help preserve the American way of life.
He showed no interest in helping the Iraqi people, and once back home with his family posed the question, “If [the invasion of Iraq] were for the oil, would that not be enough reason to go to Iraq? You bet your ass it would be! If you took oil away from this country what do you think would happen to this country? It would be…it would be…devastating.”
I felt it was time to ask the one question I’d been burning to ask a soldier since I was a boy. I looked down at my fingers sifting through warm sand and tried to figure out how. But then I just asked it.
“Pete…did you…did you have to kill anyone?”
Without skipping a beat, as if answering a lie-detector question, he replied, “Yes, yes I did.”
We fell silent for a moment. I tried to fathom what it would mean to me to take someone’s life. I didn’t expect Pete to reply “no” to the question; that would be naive on my part. The statistics speak for themselves. In Chris Hedges’ unsettling account of his 15-plus years as a war correspondent — War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning — he offers this: In the wars of the 20th century, not less than 105 million people (including military personnel) have perished. In the 1990s alone this number stands at nearly 6 million.
“What was it like to kill someone?” I asked.
“Well, I can only describe it as…like…”
“…like playing a video game?” I finished for him.
“Yes, exactly. Have you ever played Doom or Halo? That’s the best way to describe it.”
Pete could have changed subjects at any time but he didn’t. The only time Pete stammered slightly or had to take some time to answer with deeper insight was when I asked if there was much killing.
“Yeah…yes…I was there during the Battle for Fallujah,” he said. “Our unit was one of the first units in. But it was strange, it was like an arranged after-school fight. Like two gangs squaring off.”
“Do you think your country should still be in Iraq or Afghanistan?” I asked.
“I think we need to get out now. But it’s hard because I’ve seen the humanitarian benefits of what we did in Iraq too. Without us they’ll plunge into a bloody civil war.”
“In Fallujah then, for instance, you believe the civilians were helped by the American presence?”
“We tried our hardest to get the citizens out. They’d come to us saying the Iraqi insurgents were not allowing their children access to school, they weren’t allowing food through. My impression was the people wanted us there to help restore order. So a date was set, the civilians knew, we chartered buses for them from Kuwait, dropped pamphlets weeks before and when the date came we squared off with the insurgents in the centre of town.”
“Was it close contact combat?”
“Yeah, we were an elite urban guerilla warfare unit, very close contact.”
“Was the killing gory?”
“Yes and no. It was more gory, the stuff that went down beside me. That…I haven’t dealt with yet. At times it wants to surface…but I push it down.”
I sensed we were in slightly uncomfortable territory. Pete broke eye contact, shifted around in the sand.
“How does it feel now, having gone through that, having taken lives?” I asked.
“It’s hard to say, there’s an anxiety and tension that manifests, threatens but never fully surfaces. Sometimes I’ll just find myself zoning out in it. I suppose I’ll have to deal with it sometime,” Pete said, looking away.
In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges’ own post-war stress parallels what Pete appeared to be burdened with. He writes,
I have seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried and untouched most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.
Sensing Pete had had enough of my line of questioning I suggested we go for a swim.
“Definitely, because this beach we’re on here and now is what life’s about, right? At least it’s what it should be about.”
“You know,” he continued, “I only bought my ticket for here a couple days ago.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“My friend was on his final mission in Iraq when his Humvee was blown up. He was killed. I was supposed to fly to his hometown for the funeral but missed my flight by a few minutes. They wouldn’t re-open the gate for me. So right there I bought a ticket to a country with a jungle. And you know? Since I was 12 years old I’ve wanted to come to the jungle. It’s something I’ve needed to do.”
In the cool river, standing waist-deep and shivering, Pete pointed to his right forearm, said aloud his dead comrades’ names memorialized in black tattoo. After the swim we walked along the jungle path toward our respective campgrounds. Pete expressed an interest in my career as a musician. Evidently he’d had enough talk of war, politics, and dead friends.
He made it out of a war zone alive. He told me of his genuine desire to assist a people who may never have wanted it in the first place. The hour I spent with Pete made me more thankful than ever that I grew up in a community that fosters peace above all else, and in a country whose military is known more for UN peace-keeping missions than imperialist agendas.
“I want to become a guitar-maker when I get back from Costa Rica,” Pete said as we hopped over roots and brushed aside foliage.
“Good idea,” I said. “May not get you rich, but it wont get you killed either.”
For some after-effects of war, see: