Josh and Conor - Home from war in Iraq
L to R: Conor Curran; Fred Ptucha, Vietnam War veteran from Santa
Rosa; and Josh Stieber - all members of Veterans For Peace.
Stand up and repeat these words in marching cadence:
"I went down to the market
Where all the people shop
I pulled out my machete
And I began to chop
I went down to the park
Where all the children play
I took out my machine gun
And I began to spray"
This is a chant our young are taught to march to in our military today, and this is how two young veterans of the Iraq War begin their presentations to groups across the country.
Late last fall, Josh Stieber and Conor Curran spoke to a gathering of Veterans For Peace and civilian peace activists in San Francisco, as part of their six months of walking and biking from the East Coast to the West to engage in dialogue about war and to become involved in community service along the way.
Both young men are from small American heartland towns - Josh from Maryland and Conor from Ohio. They did not know each other until after they got themselves out of the military. They spoke of their motivations for joining the Marines, their experiences in Iraq and the turning points that made them reject violence.
The two called their cross-country odyssey, "The Contagious Love Experiment" - certainly a retro, ‘60s "Hippie Haight-Ashbury" moniker to more mature ears. The tag is both innocent and naive, but on a deeper level, it is their counterbalance to the brutality and disillusionment they experienced. Their story and reasoning are worth listening to.
Josh, a tall, blond, "all-American-type" in his early 20s, was in junior high school in Maryland when September 11th happened. His determination to, as he saw it, protect his country was initiated when his parents took him to see the damage at the Pentagon, and so he joined the Marines straight out of high school. Raised as a devout Christian, he pushed aside doubts while in basic training and forced himself to answer "yes" when asked, "Will you kill a ‘hostile' even if lots of civilians are around who will get hurt?"
Conor, thin and tall with black curly hair, also became a Marine, but spoke more of being alienated during and after high school, wanting to fit in and be accepted, using "lots of drugs," getting into debt, and not having a skill or education to direct him. So at 20 years old, "The Few and The Proud" seemed to give him all the answers.
At the time, he said, being in the Marines helped him to change his values and gave him a "mission accomplished" feeling. He became a good soldier. But Conor's second tour was when ‘it got heavy.'
Josh spoke frequently of his Christian upbringing that taught him principles in complete opposition to the killing, fear and hatred he learned in Iraq. (To say nothing of the disconnect of being told that America was "liberating Iraq and bringing Freedom and Democracy" and the "chop and spray" chant!)
He said fear of and hatred for the Iraqi people would build up in the troops to the point where ripping apart homes, wrecking gardens and property, and arresting and abusing prisoners became commonplace. On the street, going out of the way to run a truck through mud to spray old people, or, during house searches, taking the dolls of little girls, twisting their heads off then giving them back became acceptable behavior. "Why do we make the locals fear the U.S. military more than the insurgents?" he wanted to know. "We out-terrorized the terrorists!"
Josh vividly recalled pulling guard duty on a prisoner with another young American soldier right after coming from a church service. Josh thought of the moral and religious lessons he learned at home in Maryland: "blessed are the peace makers;" "turn the other cheek;" and "love thine enemy," as his buddy talked of how he was going to brutalize the prisoner. "Jesus wouldn't let himself get punked around," was his friend's reply when Josh objected on Christian principles.
The insanity of war gradually became apparent to Josh during his 14-month tour of duty, as when he and his squad detained a man with ample evidence that the Iraqi had been involved in attacks on American soldiers. This man turned out to be the mayor of the town, and U.S. military authorities' regular "payments" of school supplies and cash ensured a halt in attacks on Josh and his men, at least in that part of town. So much for "we will not negotiate with terrorists," he thought.
These revelations led this idealistic youth into a "bleak" period, he said, with feelings of hopelessness, "always looking over my shoulder," and the realization that he'd always let others tell him how to think and how to live up to their expectations.
Neither young man spoke of killing anyone, and no one from the audience asked. But each spoke of turning points when they decided they could not continue as soldiers. For Josh this was a gradual process, but for Conor it came during his second tour while conducting random searches with his squad for weapons caches in Ramadi, without adequate intelligence. They set upon a home with an exceptionally beautiful garden and proceeded to tear it apart and dig it up. "Then the man of the house came out with a tray and served us all tea!" said Conor. "He spoke English and wanted to be our friend. He showed love to us and we were terrorizing him."
Thus the seed for "The Contagious Love Experiment" was planted.
Conor and Josh had many encounters along the roads of America since the spring, but the one that stood out for them was meeting a Vietnam War veteran who told them, "Instead of uniting against a common enemy, we should unite for a common goal - peace."