So this one time I took a ten-month paid vacation to the Middle East. Since this is supposed to be a blog about travel tips, here you go: If you want to see the Middle East, take a time machine, go back ten years and join the army. I promise you’ll get to Iraq.
This other time, eight years later, I took a few hour tour of the city of Belfast, Ireland. Although much time had passed, the first thing that came to my mind when we started driving around the city was my deployment.
In Iraq I remember thinking “My God, why the hell do people stay here?”
I came to realize for many, leaving was just not an option. How can you leave if you have no rights because you are a woman? If you have no opportunities because you are poor? If you have no idea there is anything else because you are uneducated? If other countries won’t take you because you’re the wrong religion or color or speak the wrong language?
In my mind the people left in war-torn countries were only there because they were unfortunate victims of their circumstances. Either that or they were the bad guys. To me, it seemed like Iraq was simply beyond saving so there was no reason anybody in their right mind with the ability to escape would stay.
It really wasn’t that simple though. If it were a conventional war where the US were fighting the Iraqi Army and there were traditional “good” and “bad” guys then my analysis might have been accurate, but the official Iraqi Army was on the same side as the US. The people were fighting were members of various terrorist organizations, crooked Iraqi cops, civilians and others, all of whom were also ceaselessly fighting each other.
The problem in my opinion was that rather than having loyalty to their nation, the people of Iraq first had loyalty to their immediate family, then their clan, then their race, then their sect of Islam, then, maybe, their country. There was no unity, no patriotism, and no national pride. Granted, these things too can and do cause war between countries, but Iraq couldn’t even get it together enough to make a country that would stand on its own for more than a week once the crutch of the US government was taken away, let alone start a formal war against any sovereign nation.
And while all of this was sad, it was not personal for me even when I saw it first-hand because I do have rights and money and a good education and I’m Christian and white and I speak English. To me the people of Iraq lived in a backward culture. Even though they were the same freaking religion and from the same freaking country and they spoke the same freaking language and their skin was the same freaking color, they somehow fabricated things to divide them. In my mind, I was living on another planet and could not picture America as a place with any parallels to that desert country.
I left Iraq, moved around the world with the Army to awesome places like Hawaii and Germany, got married, had kids and Iraq became for me at most a chrysalis where I transformed from a naïve and nervous teenage girl to a strong and self-assured woman and at least a distant memory.
Then Belfast hit me in the face.
Why on Earth would people who led lives so seemingly similar to mine chose to stay in a place where military helicopters hovered overhead, and 20 meter high barbed wire topped walls and hotel bombings were the norm? To be fair, quite a few people did leave. The wealthy, the middle class, the highly educated got out while they could and, unfortunately for the working class people of Belfast, took their talents, skills and money with them.
The people of Belfast, who, just like the Iraqis, were all the same freaking religion and from the same freaking country and they spoke the same freaking language and their skin was the same freaking color, took up arms against each other.
In a nutshell, the thirty or so years that Belfast was a war zone was due to the Protestant majority wanting things to remain as they were (which meant they could legally persecute Catholics by keeping them from applying for jobs, denying them political offices and just generally treating them as second class citizens) and to stay a part of the United Kingdom and the Catholic minority wanting all of Ireland to unite as a nation independent from Brittan and to have the same rights as Protestants.
According to our tour guide who lived through The Troubles (as these times are called in Ireland) as a Catholic, leaders of both sides played up the conflict as a religious one to their advantages. Catholics and Protestants separated themselves, moved to homogenous neighborhoods and built walls between them that remain to this day.
Unlike Iraq, the people of Belfast did have national pride. The Catholics wanted to be an Irish nation. I can relate to wanting independence. The Catholics wanted the same rights and status as Protestants. I can relate to wanting to fight for equality. This did not seem like a foreign planet. It seemed like a culture eerily similar to mine.
If Iraq was ape and the US was man, Northern Ireland was my missing link.
I left with the feeling that war is not a thing reserved for other people, it’s merely one step away. In the case of Northern Ireland, while the war was not entirely religious, by choosing to focus on the differences in their religion the situation went from one that was a potentially manageable political disagreement to one that became a bloody crusade.
From across the Atlantic Ocean I see what is happening in my own country and sense something ominous on the horizon. I see political disagreement, which is nothing new, but rather than focusing on uniting as a country to fix our problems I see people jumping at every opportunity to point out differences in race, gender, religion and economic status.
“Catholics are destroying our Irish culture” seems pretty damn similar to “Gays, Muslims, Refugees, the Black Lives Matter movement, Cops, Liberals, Conservatives are destroying our American Culture”.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have beliefs or speak your mind. I’m just saying be careful. Consider that perhaps, even way back in 1768 when it was published in the Boston Gazette, “united we stand, divided we fall” may just have a grain (or boulder) of truth in it.
I was a teenager when my mother went back to college. She had to fill out applications and in the area of the application in which she was supposed to indicate her race she marked “other” and wrote in “human”. This is the example I strive for. Maybe by the time my children grow up they won’t have to indicate their race on an application form. Maybe their religion can be between them and God and that pact can be respected by others. Maybe they can be different without being ostracized. Maybe they can just be American; nothing more, nothing less.