Our three guests, in different circumstances, may have been firing guns at each other, but after stepping away from violence, these two Iraq War veterans and their Iraqi refugee friend have joined forces to bring a message of peace.
A soldier turned conscientious objector, Stieber, 22, decided that if he believed war created more problems than it solved, he would journey to learn about, promote, and invest his military pay to peaceful alternatives. His journey began in early summer 2009 in Washington D.C. and after 3000 miles; Stieber reached San Francisco by walking and bicycle.
While Stieber was passing through Ohio he met Curran, 26, a former Marine and fellow Iraq War veteran. The two decided to complete the remainder of the trip together. It wasn’t until the last stop of the trip that the two Iraq war veterans met Hassan, an Iraqi refugee, who hosted the men at his house during their stay in San Francisco.
Stieber was a member of the Army unit which made international headlines in the Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” video and has been actively speaking about his experiences. Hassan is able to share the perspective of an Iraqi living under both Saddam’s regime as well as the U.S. occupation. Curran has a journey to share regarding his diagnosis with PTSD and his path to healing. Along the way, these men will be joined from halfway across the world via Skype by Our Journey to Smile, a group of Afghan youth campaigning for peace.
Please welcome our Peace Pilgrims.
Conner Curran, a marine veteran with 2 tours in Iraq, was trained by the military to look at the world as the worst case scenario. One insurgent set off an explosive with a cell phone and, with the worst case scenario training, every Iraqi using a cell phone triggers his fear mechanism. The world becomes the worst possible. Conner was on a house-to-house detail and notices a beautiful lawn and garden in the middle of desolation; and instead of appreciating it; it becomes an object of suspicion. Wouldn’t this lawn and garden be the perfect place to hide weapons? Where did the owner get the money to afford this? Convinced by the dark imaginings of worst case scenario training, Conner and his marines power their way into the house and start turning over everything searching for incriminating evidence. Conner went to the garden and started pulling plants up and poking holes all around to find the weapons of his worst case imagination. And then from this disregard, this disrespect, this violation of privacy something unexpected happens. The owner of the house brings tea to the marines. Conner looks into his eyes and sees only love and compassion. The Iraqi asks about his family, about his parents, his brothers and sisters. Conner realizes that this man is returning kindness for the marines’ aggressive behavior, and thinks how strange. Back at the barracks, the guys talk about it a little and then it was forgotten.
But the training was not forgotten even though Conner left the marines and returned home, the worst case training is still rattling around in his head. The military doesn’t un-train soldiers; they are left to work it out by themselves. His body was walking in downtown USA; but his mind is still war-torn. Then comes one of those pivotal events that can save us. Conner sees this nice looking old lady walking toward him and he’s wondering what threat she poses. The worst case scenario training has gone too far and he realizes that this is part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But at a gut level he realizes he is crazy. Then he flashes back to the Iraqi who served him tea and realizes the difference between returning kindness for aggression and his returning suspicion for the neutral behavior of the lady. And in that instant, Conner realizes that he is the victim of worst case training and decides to stop it and try on the kindness and compassion of the Iraqi. So he experiments with his day-to-day activities and finds that his interaction with people is getting better. His relation with his family is helpful and healing. He tells his family of his experiment in kindness and they start running the experiment too. Conner sees that the lesson in kindness in Iraq has now travelled to his home in Ohio. And this was how Conner’s life was transformed from worse case scenario to kindness makes the world better. His enthusiasm is powered by his success for turning negative situations into opportunities of understanding with kindness, compassion and love; this was his “Journey to Peace”; the one he is sharing across America.
Salam Talip is a refugee from Iraq. He’s running an experiment too. He knows that human beings are not by nature violent. So he wonders how does the American culture build soldiers? His experiment – look at media violence, the whole history, from Tom and Jerry cartoons to Clint Eastwood. After subjecting himself to this, he realized that it is getting more violent. Conclusion: in our media culture heroes are often killers.
Salam is a computer engineer and he sees the same thing happening with video games. So Salam runs an experiment. He has some kids play a bang-bang-shot’m-up video game and they are having an exciting time blowing away the enemies. Salam stops the game and shows them video footage of real people who are shot and in agonizing pain. He invites the kids to return to their game play. But after viewing the more painful outcomes of the violence; they didn’t want to play the game. Conclusion: Violent games are ignoring the suffering of violence.
Salam also told us about another experiment with combat trained GIs. He asked the GI’s if they saw in on an Iraqi street would they shoot him. Short answer: yes. Then Salam talks to the GIs for a half an hour and then asks if they would shoot him. Short answer: no. “Would you shoot any who were surrounding me?” No. “If you were ordered to shoot me, would you? No. Conclusion: it takes about ½ hour to make a friend and you can’t kill a friend.
For Salam American nationalism is a problem that is being protected by an embargo on information that comes to us from Iraq. Iraqis and GI are not allowed to bring videos or pictures from Iraq. The effect is to block the pain of violence from being seen on American media. It also limits our view of the humanity of Iraqis. And it covers up the brutality of hero as killer.
Having lived through Sadam Hussian and the US occupation, Salam calls us to take a look at the violence of our media, the bias of nationalism, and instead take ½ hour to know an Iraqi personally. And this will be A Journey to Peace.
Josh Stieber feels betrayed. After attending a Christian high school where The Faith of George W. Bush was required reading, Josh had faith in our mission of bring democracy and freedom to the backward Iraqis. These ideals motivated Josh to join the Army. During basic training, Josh had an inkling that something was wrong. Some of the cadences that he marched to told them to take a machine gun and spray in the market. His training included videos bombing Iraqis and rock and roll “Die Terrorist Die” (lyrics) by Dope. Warning: these links are so filled with hate, I was shocked and dismayed at the cruelty. I feel that anyone subjected to this combat training, needs an equal amount of training to undo it before returning to civilian life. When Josh told his minister he was encouraged to go along with the training. And he did. When he arrived in Iraq he was became part of the army unit that gained international notoriety when a Wikileaks video, “Collateral Murder”, showed their helicopter gun ship killing Iraqi civilians and 2 Reuters journalists. Stieber does not excuse the behavior, but advises listeners to consider the social and military training that leads to such actions. Josh felt betrayed. His “willingness to sacrifice for good ideals were exploited so that we ended up doing what we were there to prevent. Our mission betrays our ideals. I have more in common with my enemies than with those who told us who our enemies are.” Josh rejected that exploitation and became a conscientious objector. He brings a message from Afghan children to America in his Journey to Peace.