Editor’s Note: I first met Leah Larson while covering an antiwar protest in fall of 2003. While most of the crowd around her screamed and chanted, she spoke quietly of her love for her brother, a young Marine, and of her deep sense of dread over what the newly launched Iraq War would do to him. She was as concerned that he would lose his soul as his life and that their relationship would be shattered forever. When I spoke with Leah again this fall, her brother had just returned from a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq and her worst nightmares had been confirmed. Her reflections on what has happened to her family are a reminder that the calamity of war extends far beyond the battlefield. —John Tarleton
Two days after he came home from Iraq, my older brother showed me some pictures. “I just bombed that building,” he said. In the photo, children in Fallujah are clustered beside their broken school.
During his first two weeks back, my brother, the demolitions expert, plied me with photos of the carnage and mayhem wreaked by his platoon. Fifteen memory cards worth of bizarre and disturbing photos – half-naked soldiers dancing in the desert, a severed goat’s head in a noose, Marines dressed in traditional women’s clothing found following a house raid.
I wanted to hit him, banish him, to create a giant dent in his soul. But he wouldn’t care, wouldn’t budge. This is what the Marines have trained him to do – warp, destroy and believe it is for good.
My brother can be as sweet as sugarcane with a laugh that pours loudly into your ears. He has a clumsy way of affection, like when he comes home drunk and knocks on my window to tell how much he loves his little sister. He remembers my lopsided pigtails, chicken pox, first kiss, my love for manatees and my favorite vegetarian food. Scarcely two years apart, our experiences are parallel and echo one another, even our experience of war.
We used to play war together. He would dress me as a soldier, paint my face in the colors of Earth and hunt me down before dinnertime. While we are both part Cherokee, our mother says our warrior spirits have gone in different directions. My brother first became my enemy, my pain and my conflict when he enlisted in the military while struggling in his high school’s Special Ed program, where teachers thought him a slow, hopeless, uncontrollable idiot. He often fought with other students who would make fun of his facial features with taunts like “bubba lip don’t trip.”
When recruiters came to take my brother, I howled, groped, twisted, shivered, barely escaping the horrible separation from him. At a young age, long before I recognized politics, my spirit understood many things. I knew that if he joined the military, somehow our kinship would be severed, and it has been. It saddens me when I am unable to hug him because he cannot tolerate affection. Our mother likes to tell stories of when my brother could only be comforted by his GI Joe toys. Lying in the top bunk, while I slept on the bottom, my brother would watch a sky of little green men dangle from the ropes he tied to the ceiling.
Now, instead of green men, my brother keeps metal, wood and crystal beaded crosses in his room. Some hang over pictures of friends killed in the war. Others occupy the bare spaces left on the wall, which are few. Next to a particularly large cross, a picture of the atomic bomb blast in Japan unfurls next to his video games. He goes to the mall, the gym, eats grandma’s meatballs and goes out drinking with friends. He seems to think nothing of his crimes as he makes plans to go to church, as he prepares for his 25th birthday, as he has sex with a woman for the first time in nine months.
Sometimes I stare at the pictures I stole from his sneaker box, the ones that he didn’t want me to see, including one of a man he killed. It is not tears that come but the impossible question of forgiveness. Brains and blood were once safe and alive in this being. My brother blew open the back of his head and took a picture of the gore coming out. He believes there is a ghost in his room. Sometimes he feels a breath touching on his shoulders and back. I know it is the spirits of those he killed, and helped to kill, following him, reaching for him, asking him their own silent questions. Perhaps he surrounds himself with crosses because he knew they would come.
It is only when he is drunk that his guilt emerges from under the amber smog of Jack Daniels. “Sis,” he asked one night, “would you rather have me do whatever I needed to do to come home, or die because I couldn’t do what I needed to do to come home?” In his question lay a plea for forgiveness. Sitting across from him in my room, I didn’t know how to answer. If he had been killed, would that make me support this war? How would I feel toward Iraqis?
My brother’s possible death demented our family. I prepared for it every day, imagining what his funeral would be like and what I would tell my future children about their uncle. It became impossible to live with my parents. My mother’s changing moods left us isolated from each other. My father’s blustering support of the war (“I hope we level that whole damn country of ragheads”) was infuriating.
A BIRTHDAY TO REMEMBER
My brother’s recent 25th birthday celebration was a breaking point for me. On that night, a bunch of his old friends joined him to mark the occasion. I wanted to be close with everyone, sharing in the celebrations and camaraderie. Before we left for a bar in the city, we clustered into my brother’s room. He began to do his usual flaunting of pictures and videos much to the enjoyment of his friends. I sat farthest from his computer, turning my eyes away from the country he helped destroy. My brother’s friends eventually fell into an awful silence. Moving from my seat, I wanted to see what they were watching.
A young man, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was centered in my brother’s computer screen. The man was blindfolded and sobbing as his head rested on his own knee. Heavy metal music filled the speakers as my brother forced headphones onto his ears. You could hear him laughing while saying, “you’re gonna die,” as my brother pushed the camera into the young man’s face with his left hand and slapped him hard with his right hand. I watched tears of agony escape from the prisoner’s cheeks and fall onto his pants. He was heaving from the suffering. Arabic was pouring out from his mouth. No one understood the words, but I knew he was begging for his life.
I did not stay to see what had happened. My brother’s room remained silent. There was no “Yo, this shit is awesome!” or “You gotta e-mail me this!” I am almost certain the young prisoner was killed, although I did not watch the rest of the video. All these years of trying to balance my hatred for war and the love for my brother immediately tipped to one side. I did not want to be near him anymore. I did not want to go out for his birthday. How could I? The family of the young prisoner likely mourns while I get to party with his abuser. After finishing the video, my brother yelled upstairs to see if his birthday cake was ready.
A few days ago, I asked a mutual childhood friend, who was in my brother’s room that night watching the video, what had happened in the end. His response was, “Who are you with right now? Why are you asking me this? There is no need for an answer so you should forget about it.” I continually wonder why our friends and family protect my brother from the truth of his actions. In this way, he will never consciously recognize the horror of what he has done or begin to heal himself. My brother came home shortly after our childhood friend notified him that I was asking strange questions. He said, “Listen, I don’t want you in my room. I know you’re a protester or whatever but I don’t want no phone calls from any newspapers and crap.” Someday I’ll find the strength to finish watching the video, but torture or murder, I haven’t yet forgiven my brother for either.
*Leah Larson is a pseudonym. She currently teaches troubled teens at a Brooklyn high school.