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The War Continues

By Joe Cameron.

“There are two of you,”, she says in a seductive French accent, offering him the opium pipe.  The soldier lies back on white silk sheets, underneath a rose diaphanous canopy.  He is still wearing cammies dirty with Cambodian mud and jungle boots wet from the Nung River.  

“One of you is human, and the other is a god,”, she whispers.  He takes a deep pull on the pipe, inhaling the sweet mist of forgetfulness.  “One of you kills and the other loves.”

And so Martin Sheen drifts off into nothingness, while Roxanne Sarrault dances about the outside of the canopy, her shadow like the flickering flame of a candle. 

I turn the television off and look at the clock.  It’s 3 in the morning and I still can’t sleep.  I haven’t sleep a good night sleep in five days.  I got the news at the beginning of this week that Jason Shoemaker, a kid from my old unit, the 4th Tank Battalion, died in Iraq.  He was shredded to ribbons by a roadside mine.  He was a boy like me, from my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Not all the parts of him were found.  There are still pieces of his flesh and innards buried and mixed with the sand of Al Anbar.

I’m not one of those emotionally shattered, shell-shocked Vets.  I don’t fight a daily struggle to keep the demons of my past from crawling up to the realm of my conscious mind.  When I kiss a girl, I don’t remember the heads of Iraqi soldiers turning into pink mist in my rifle’s sight.  When I trudge down the hot sidewalks of Las Vegas, I don’t remember trudging across the hot sand of Al Muthanna. 

But something about Jason’s death gets to me.  This week I start remembering my eight months in the desert (Iraq).  I start remembering my time in the suck (that’s what us ex-Marines call the Corps). And sometimes I wake up at night crying.

I grew up in rural Oklahoma.  The religion of that way of life is fundamentalist, backwoods Christianity.  I remember going to tent revivals with my mother and father, and watching preachers that looked like used car salesmen waiving their hands over the crowds.  People would fall out of their chairs, knocked out by the power of the Holy Ghost.  I remember when at the age of twelve it was my turn to get baptized by the fire of the Spirit of God, and much to my parent’s approval I emulated those around me and began to babble incoherently in the heavenly language of tongues. 

I’ve met people who’ve been turned into stone cold atheists, people who seem to hate religion of any sort with a passion because of upbringings they experienced similar to mine.  But my childhood seemed to have instilled in me a longing for deeper truth, for a stronger understanding of things of that numinous realm we call the “spiritual.”  And so, as an adult, I turned to Hinduism and Buddhism and the philosophies of eastern religion.  After years of study, and actually living in Sri Lanka and going to Dharma school, I learned that religion is nothing but religion in the end, and that Asian religions have the same trappings as western religions.  But much of the philosophy has stuck with me.  For instance, there is an Upanishad that says the ego and the self dwell in the body as two golden birds perched in the same tree.  The ego eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree, while the self looks on undetached.  As long as you identify with your ego, you will feel both pleasure and pain.  But to identify with the self is to transcend suffering.

This week I can’t seem to not identify with my ego.  Something seems to have built up in me over the past few years, over the rising death count of young boys from Oklahoma, and my heart seems like it’s breaking with sorrow.  But along with the sadness is a deep anger.  I’m pissed as hell that the fighting in Iraq is still going on, and there seems absolutely nothing that I can do about it. 

Throughout the week I try telling people at college or at work about this kid, Jason, dying.  I mention it to a few friends, fellow grad students, and even a few professors.  But no one seems to care.  To the people my age, in their late 20’s and early 30’s, this war is nothing but a part of the reality television genre.  When they tire of it they can change the channel, or they can choose not to watch at all.  And the people older than me still have the loss of Korea or Vietnam.  This war and the last one don’t seem to mean as much to them.  Looking back at Desert Storm, what’s a few months in the desert, with only 293 dead and 467 wounded, compared to eleven years in Vietnam and 58,148 dead?

When I do eventually fall asleep, after a few hours the sound of my own sobbing wakes me up.  And I don’t know if I’m crying for Jason or if I’m crying for myself.

Am I human anymore?  I know that sounds ridiculous and melancholy, but that’s my mood right now.  I remember actually loving the feel of the lightweight stock of the M16-A2 buried in my shoulder, the sights honed in on my enemy, and my finger resting on the trigger.  I loved zeroing in on an enemy tank with the scope of my T.O.W. missile launcher.  I longed to get more kills than my fellow Marines.  Military brainwashing got to me, and I longed to someday come face-to-face with a “towel head” and bury my cabar blade deep into his throat.  I wanted to watch his blood spray out in samurai cinema fashion.

Do I deserve the death penalty?  I’ve probably robbed a child of its father.  I’ve certainly robbed mothers of their sons, or wives of their husbands.  Do I belong scattered in pieces in the sand of Al Abnar, in place of Jason Shoemaker?  If I don’t, then why this guilt?  Why this sadness, and why this anger? 

I talked to my mother on the phone and told her how I’ve been feeling.  She called my Uncle.  He drives out to Vegas this weekend from his retirement home, a ranch house in Needles, California just to take me out drinking.  If anyone knows about the suck, it’s Uncle Mitch.  His back is a connect-the-dots of northern Vietnamese AK47 bullet scars.
Uncle Mitch and I find a hole-in-the-wall bar, way out in the desert, far away from the night time neon lightshow that is Las Vegas.  We drink beer after beer and don’t speak much.  Uncle Mitch doesn’t ever talk about Vietnam, and I don’t talk about the desert.  But when we’re done drinking he drops me off at my apartment he hugs me.  That hug gives me strength to make it through the rest of the weekend.

Sometimes someone will ask me why I joined the suck to begin with.  They ask it with that hint of accusation.  I know I had a choice, but what can I say?  I was too stupid to get a scholarship to college, and my parents were too poor to pay my way.  Having no idea what the repercussions would be, I did what Oklahoma boys do to get out of Oklahoma.  I signed the recruiter’s dotted line.  The Bhagavad Gita teaches that if you born into the warrior caste, then it’s your dharma to go to war.  I guess seventeen year old Oklahoma boys that are too poor and stupid to go to college are the warrior caste of the United States.

And although Hinduism teaches Ahimsa, that we should not desire to harm any living thing, it teaches that it is okay for the warrior caste to kill.  The warrior should not feel sorry for those he has killed, because violence only affects the physical body and not the soul.  Therefore killing is not a fault on the warrior’s half.  Of course, this all ties into the eastern philosophy of life and death being an illusion, and that it’s the spiritual that matters. But I can’t help but wonder if the things I did as a young man shriveled up any spirit that I was born with.  I had no Krishna to guide me through battle, like Prince Arjuna had.  All I had were fellow haters of “towel heads” and Sergeants who were squeezed from their mother’s wombs with the dirtiest mouths and meanest tempers humanly possible.     

At the age of 20 I killed my first Iraqi.  And that night, outside of my squad’s tent, I vomited into the sand.  I think it was at that moment I vomited out anything that made me a good person.   
 
I’ve decided to do the only thing someone like me can do about the war that’s still going on inside me, and the war that’s still going on in Iraq.  I’m going to do some cathartic writing and hope that after I’m done banging this out I’ll be able to sleep better at night.  And maybe someday I’ll even feel human again.  That’s all I really want.

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JC: I wrote this last year before coming to live in Tamil Nadu, India to complete my master’s thesis and to write.  I’ve found some peace here, and I do sleep better at night.  But the war is still going on.  The boys I grew up with are still dying in Iraq, and the innocent civilians of Iraq are still dying as a result of President George W. Bush’s Imperialist aggression.  I don’t know what will make it right again, or what will wrong the wrongs and justify the lives lost, but I know it all has to end as soon as possible.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Cameron is a fiction writer from Las Vegas who currently lives in Thanjavur, India.  In his spare time he swims nude in the Bay of Bengal and helps the farmers of Tamil Nadu and the lower caste people organize for Communist Party India (Marxist).     

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 19th, 2007.