I grow up with a mother that brought us to large demonstrations against American and Russian aggression. There were posters with peace signs on the wall and I remember that she told us, when we were young and in the early eighties, that if “the bomb” would fall we would go to the big city, so we would die quickly. There was a real scare that time for an atomic war and all because of that dumb actor and his war loving buddies in America that thought it was smart to taunt a dying bear. So, it’s clear that I didn’t grew up in a militaristic family, but me and my brother still choose to join the military. I was drafted, and I could have refused but I wasn’t sure why I was against war.
I joined the Dutch Marines in September 1992. I was one of the last that got drafted in military service. Rather than serving the mandatory 12 moths with the army I applied for the Dutch marines or “het Korps Mariniers”. After a rigorous selection of 2 days, only 2 were left of the more than 100 that started the selection. You can understand that I felt some pride to be found physically and mentally fit for the Marines. The Dutch Marines is the oldest branch of the armed forces in the Netherlands and among the oldest in the world. It was founded in 1665 and has a long history with soldiers on board ships and across the different Dutch colonies. When I joined in 1992 the Soviet Union was just dissolved but a big part of our training was still focused on a potential war with that country. After the basic training of six months you normally train in the mountains and the snow of Norway because that is the part of the NATO territory we supposed to defend from the Russians. Besides the silliness of that the training was really good for me and I can recommend it to everyone.
There is a lot of physical training, but you quickly find out that strong and bulky muscles are not what gets you through the day. After days with almost no sleep, constant movement, and harassments and specially the hunger you are so tired that no physical strength is strong enough to let you put your feet before the other till you are home. You have to find a way around all the pain in your own head and convince yourself to go on and ignore the pain. Experiences like that stay valuable for the rest of your life. Every time I encounter some setback I can use these skills I learned during that half year. It was extra valuable because the punishment was voluntary. I was drafted but joining the Marines was voluntary. Our sergeant was constantly reminding us that we could quit at any moment and hop in the warm car. Because of this voluntary suffering you need to motivate yourself to go on, it’s not a random circumstance that threw you in a situation where you had no choice to go on.
It wasn’t easy going back to civilian life after 3 years. People often say that they could never last in a hierarchical, militaristic system, but it has its advantages if everybody knows what their roll is at the workplace. I’ve worked in enough places, since I left, where everybody is a so called equal and you have to untangle the whole messed up social structure to find out who is really in charge and is pulling the strings behind the curtain. If my sergeant told me to do something I did it, maybe I didn’t like it but that’s not important, it was clear from who it came from and who ordered him. In civilian life you have to gift-wrap every order to a subordinate because you could offend someone. Don’t get me wrong, there were enough problems within this military system, communication between 2 or more people is difficult no matter what system you have.
The biggest difference I noticed was that within the marines you could tell someone that you didn’t like him, you can have disagreements, but if it was necessary, everybody did their job and you would do yours even for the person you didn’t like. One reason why you do that is because you all have been through the same experiences and that binds you. Colleagues in civilian life have not necessarily experienced that kind of bond besides the that you have the same job. Because of the lack of a common ground it’s easier to…how shall I say it…get lied to in your face. If you want to draw a chart of all the relations between coworkers in a normal workplace, with all the likes, dislike, lies, and so on, you end up with an incomprehensible mess. That’s the world where we live in and that’s why I sometimes miss the military system.
Another reason is that in the military there is normally a clear and common goal. For example, guard duties, you have to rely on each other. In civilian life you also have to rely on each other but the cost are most of the time not as high if one slacks, and one slacks often.
I never been in situation like so many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was in Cambodia for 5 months and besides the threat of driving over a mine and the occasional whistle of a bullet, probably from a hunter, there was not much danger. There were a couple of moment when our colleagues from mine demolition forgot to tell us that they would blow up some mines and we thus thought that hell broke loose or when the Cambodians started shooting at each other outside our camp and it would take us a while to assess the situation. we also encountered some hardened soldiers, probably Khmer rouge or of one of the many private armies, that could stare at you with eyes that looked like they had killed. At the end it was our job, we did our routines and duties, endured the heat, meager accommodations and third-world sanitation. There were some casualties in our battalion and that’s never easy but statistically they would also have occurred when we would stayed at home. But the people that lost their buddies in a firefight or are under direct fire go to a whole different experience and a group like that will bond even stronger than my colleagues and I did over our shared experiences in Cambodia. That’s why so many veterans have problems adjusting to society, as if a part of their communication is in another language, one that the people back home will never understand. Their experiences are not only unimaginable for others but their way of communicating has also changed.
The experiences that my colleagues and I went thru will have a permanent place in our mind. Most of us have dealt with our individual experiences during that time and have adjusted to normal life. But there are many soldiers like us that have gone thru so much more that I can understand the hardship they have to go thru while returning to civil society. Not all of these soldiers have problems but for the ones that have we need to support them with everything we have. In western Europe and America there are problems enough with handling these people, it’s easier to send someone to war than to take care of them when they return. But there are also millions of soldiers around the world that never had a choice, that are thrown into wars for reasons that they have no knowledge of. Whole generations will grow up with the scars of these wars, because the pain is often past on.