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Of Mice and Marines

In 1990 I was a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. I was deployed in Saudi Arabia and just days away from going into Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm. We had spent the past 6 months moving around the country training and getting set up for the ground battle that would force Iraq out of Kuwait.

mouseMy “partner in crime” was my bunk mate, ditch digger and radio operator. Some of the closest relationships that develops between Marines is the one between the officers and the radio operators, as they are literally inseparable during war time. The radio operators main function is to ensure that all communications operate seamlessly, and the officers main job is to always keep the higher ups posted and up to date about what is taking place.

Given that war is a 24 hour job, my radio operator and I would always have to split turns at night listening to the radio. Over a 6 month period it gets exhausting as neither of you is able to get a full nights sleep. When I would have to go to meetings to discuss battle plans, troop movements, etc.. my radio operator was responsible for making sure our hole (where we lived ) was dug down deep enough and properly reinforced. Marine holes can be quite creative and complex as they become your new home.

During this time it was not uncommon to dig a hole 6 feet deep and 4 feet wide to protect ourselves from air attacks… as well as have enough space for all the gear we had to carry around.The living arrangement was quite nice as it allowed us to have a fold out for our cots and provide a way for us to get some sleep. Because these holes were warm and protected, the small animal population found refuge in them as well. Snakes, mice and scorpions always found their way in to our “homes” and it was not unusual to hear shrieks from the Marines when they suddenly encountered these uninvited guests

The day before a battle, a tiny field mouse had found its way into our hole and literately scared the two of us half to death. Our panic made this creature get a bit crazy as he (or she) proceeded to run over our legs and though our sleeping bags! In the process of getting the mouse out of our hole we ended up killing it. Upon seeing the dead field mouse, I felt really bad for this little creature. When I turned to say something to my radio operator I could tell by the look on his face he felt the same way. The scene was ironic and bizarre in so many ways. We were about to go to war and here I was feeling a sense of sadness over the death of a tiny field mouse in Saudi Arabia.

Two days later, in the midst of a battle, I saw an Iraqi solider on the battlefield holding his intestines in as they spilled over onto the sand yet I felt no sorrow, pain or remorse. Then, shortly thereafter, I was in the city of Kuwait and saw a plethora of dead Kuwaiti women lying all around Kuwait City They had been executed when the Iraqi’s rolled into town.  My conscience turned itself upside down and I was able to justify in my mind why I felt no remorse for the Iraqi solider I had seen a few days earlier. He had clearly “gotten what he deserved.” After all, look what he and his cohorts had done to the women of Kuwait City.

Yet, after the war, I  learned that the Iraqi military was a mixed bag of conscripts and it was the elite troops that had raped and plundered Kuwait City and had tried to escape with all the riches once they knew the battle was lost. Many of those elite troops saw no action in the main war.  To the contrary, many of the Iraqi’s that I saw on the battlefield were supposedly dragged from their homes and forced to fight a war they had no desire to fight against an enemy they did not want to face.

Which brought me back to the poor Iraqi solider lying on the battlefield. What must he have been thinking as he lay dying in such a terrible way for nothing. Iraq was routed in 100 hours and this poor man’s life was tossed away by the leaders of Iraq.

To this day the death of that little field mouse and the juxtaposition of the Iraqis soldier’s death has been something I’ve never been able to reconcile.  Why would the death of a tiny animal bother me more than the fate of the poor Iraqi who died in the desert of Kuwait for no reason.  Yet I know this odd feeling was not mine alone, but that of  my radio operator as well.

So it all reminds me of the story of Richard Branson tells about him witnessed the slaughter of a dolphin and the pangs it gave him.  Paradoxically, and inexplicably, he has also said he felt no remorse aborting of one of his own offspring.

We seem to be hardwired to have extraordinary compassion for animals; they seem to be so at the mercy of we humans. But looking deeper, we find that like the Iraqi soldier, the women of Kuwait, or Richard Branson’s offspring…we are all at the mercy of we humans. Maybe there was something to John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” after all.  Maybe it’s the importance of respecting and honoring all life, regardless of its size, gender, stage of development or even it species.

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