I had a conversation with an ex-soldier who served in Iraq at my local coffee shop last week. I saw a sticker on his laptop, which said “Iraq Veterans Against The War” and struck up a conversation.
The first thing that hit me was his suspicion about why I was asking. It took a while to establish that I am a caffeine-addicted blogger and not an undercover MP or a reporter, despite wearing a necktie (I did score points for it being a Jerry Garcia tie). A number of times throughout the conversation I needed to confirm that I would not reveal his name or anything that might identify who he is. At first I felt he was being a trifle paranoid, but by the end, I found I have checked this article a number of times to see if I possibly left a trail.
I do not know this person, his views, experiences or anything else about him. He told me that, like so many of his peers, he saw the army as a porthole to learning a profession or getting a degree, an alternative more attractive than flipping burgers. But there was more that attracted him – a sense of belonging and pride and the opportunity to make a close group of friends. ‘I felt it would make me a better person as well – more confident, more perspective, more worldly.’
I asked him why he had the sticker and he shared two points. The first is that he felt America is dabbling in a region and culture that we have no connection to or understanding of. The people there generally don’t want us there and feel that our presence is just an obstruction to their country standing up on its own feet. I asked him if all Iraqis that he met felt this way and he replied no. There are many who see the US army as the only things standing against religious extremism.
But it is the second reason that he mentioned that has stayed with me: the feeling that the reason the US was so involved in Iraq had to do with oil. He mentioned other countries that are suffering from violence and oppressive regimes to whom we are giving little more than lip service. Guarding the interests of those who make fortunes from an energy source that is destroying the world is no reason to employ the US army, he told me.
While these are his thoughts and beliefs written in my words, he spoke calmly and intelligently. I felt considerable respect for this young man.
Where are the boundaries of war? Having read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ I feel justified ‘freeing’ the Afghan people from Taliban oppression. I want a world where people have the freedom to choose their government, their religion, and to express their political beliefs without fear. I believe in freedom and desire to eradicate its antonym: oppression. I believe our perfect world cannot evolve without the use of force when oppressive powers refuse to listen to the needs of their people. But this is a far cry from justifying military actions to protect energy sources.
One more thing that this young war vet wanted me to make clear: He is a patriotic and proud American and would have no hesitation donning his uniform again to defend our freedom.
I believe him. He is just another Accidental Activist.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).