Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tree Hugger Goes to the Gulf War

After hearing Marcus Eriksen speak at Santa Monica College's excellent literary series, I just read his marvelous book: Marcus Eriksen’s My River Home a Journey from the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico. His book adds to the growing list of Gulf War and Iraq War soldier memoirs. Eriksen’s book, published in 2007, interweaves two stories:his1990 service in the Marines in the Gulf War and his 2003 trip down the whole course of the Mississippi River on a raft he made out of soda pop bottles. Yes, he made a raft out of soda pop bottles! He endangered his life on the Mississippi in order to regain humanity he felt he had lost in the Gulf War

Early on in his service Eriksen’s Marine buddies call him “tree hugger” for making comments about the environment. He grew up near New Orleans in a blue collar family, exploring with his friends the Louisiana swamps, playing with dangerous snakes and collecting snakes and reptiles. He joined the Marines because he was inculcated with dreams of being a warrior—the book is very good how these media fantasies shape teenager blue collar boys—and also because he wanted the G.I. education benefits. He shows how the military used the boys’ idealism to do good to recruit them.

What’s fascinating is that of Eriksen’s two journeys, the raft trip down the Mississippi was more dangerous, took more bravery and more persistence. Eriksen and his Marine friends never saw combat in the Gulf War; Eriksen conveys the landscape of polluted hell in Kuwait: “Black clouds suffocate the sky. Specks of oil rain down on us and make us filthy.” He and the other Marines had to survive the filth, the boredom, the heat, and the loss of innocence. They spent their time looting corpses and collecting souvenirs. He interweaves the Gulf War stories with stories of rafting down the Mississippi, pulling the raft around logs when the river at first is a tiny stream, often feeling defeated by the slow moving river in Minnesota, almost getting run over by barges numerous times.

With the eye of a naturalist he later developed getting a Ph.D. in science education at USC, Eriksen notes that Iraqi soldiers often had the same equipment made by U.S. and British arms manufacturers and sometimes even better equipment for desert fighting. The boy who once was amazed by the bounty of nature and who once collected reptiles now collects machine guns and other weapons in Kuwait. What offends his warrior pride is his country’s arms manufactures were selling to both sides, endangering himself and his buddies. What begins to restore Eriksen’s spirit in his country is meeting with so much generosity on the river from Boy Scouts, river rats, fisherman, and townspeople from the towns he docks nearby.

What affects Eriksen the most is his four visits of the Highway to Death, the road from Kuwait to Basra, Iraq, where 500 vehicles of fleeing Iraq soldiers were killed by the U.S. Air Force. The landscape full of dead bodies would “resurface in our dreams of Kuwait and to thwart our search for reason and the return of humanity to our hearts.” After the war Eriksen felt used, manipulated, so he isolated and cut himself off from others, buried himself alive in books. He writes with the mature perspective of someone who looks back at his younger selves able to be critical and humble.

What begins to restore his spirit is going down the river, hanging out with generous people on the river in their homes or at bars, revisiting his country’s history in museums and tours of historical sights in St. Louis or Memphis or or Vicksburg or a host of towns. He gains a feeling of confidence that he can master the river and a sense of belonging to his country and seeing once again the goodness of his county people. He becomes a man with a heart not in the Gulf War but on the Mississippi. The stories of the Mississippi are wonderful, updating Mark Twain's view of the river. Eriksen has written a fine tale of going home to the river of his childhood to find redemption.

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