By William Lay

The year is 2001 and the world watched as we were scarred by those who believe that we are evil, wrong, infidels. The US and its citizens have been called every name under the sun. The truth is we are just different; we are different from those in the Middle East, different from those even next door to us in Canada and Mexico. Differences don't make something wrong; they simply offer diversity. It was these differences that were the impetus for a young man to join the Army, to do what he felt was right in support of his country. In February 2002, this young man joined the Army Infantry, and began the journey that would forever change his life.

After graduating basic training, I returned home just long enough to visit my family and prepare for war. In 2004 I volunteered and was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq to support my fellow soldiers and do what I felt was my part in defense of the country I loved. All my life, I was told that I was too kind, too passive, too gentle; these things were used as ways to criticize me and the idealistic hope and feelings I had that peace was possible. I felt I had to prove them wrong and fight for my country because that is what true patriots do. In my family, patriotism meant blindly following the government and its leaders. It meant to always support American ideals, to follow its military, and to follow its policies. My father raised me with the saying, "no matter how bad we are, we're still better than everybody else." These were the thoughts and ideals I carried with me during my journey and experiences in the Iraq war.

Recently, President Obama refused to blindly go to war with Iran. Not because he didn't want to support our ally, Israel, but because he believes that peace is still possible without war first. President Obama knows the obvious; marching off to a new war would be a mistake from which this country could not recover. This concept is important to me because, having been to war, I know the effects on soldiers, their families, and the innocent people who simply happen to be in the way. I always believed that I was being a patriot, and that I was fighting for freedom because to fight against injustice is a road to peace. I believed that fighting could pave the way for peace to develop. Many of my experiences in Iraq shattered these beliefs. I saw things that can only be described as unjust, immoral, and even evil.

My experiences in Iraq were not completely negative. While stationed in Iraq, I had the chance to befriend some local citizens. These were men and women who worked on our post and with us as translators. I had the privilege of being "adopted" into the family of a local ING (Iraqi National Guardsmen; now known as Iraqi Army or Regulars). The father said that I reminded him of his son who was killed during Saddam's reign. This meant a great deal to me. I learned a great deal from him and came to discover that he was not so different from my own father. He loved his country and believed in peace. One night, we discussed the war in Iraq and I asked him how he felt about the war and US involvement in his country. He told me that he believed that they needed help but he felt that there was another option. He thought that peace was possible if only people could sit down long enough to talk out their differences instead of fighting against each other. This came from a man who served in Saddam's royal guard, a man who never knew peace, and who grew up in a war-torn country. He felt that peace was possible and wanted it so bad he was willing to die for it. He told me one night that "I am tired of war, I am tired of violence, I want my children and grand children to grow up knowing peace. But how can they when all we know is war?" This really struck a nerve with me because
I felt the same way. The US has been involved in so many wars during its recent history; WWI then WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Panama, The Gulf War, Afghanistan and now Iraq. Of the last 100 years of our nation's history, we have been at war most years. How can we find peace?

Peace is possible by means of those who want to see it change. Gandhi, the Dali Llama and many others fight for peace not with a gun, but with words and love. This concept became clearer every day to me during my time in Iraq. In November of 2004, I lost a dear friend and his death haunts me still to this day. I learned that war solves nothing, it only creates sadness, sorrow, and ruin.

We ultimately fixed nothing for the people of Iraq, and certainly not for Americans. We mostly made things worse for both peoples, Iraqis and Americans. Financial deficits, broken families, and distrust of America by most of the world are the legacies of this war, which in fact (as far as Iraq is concerned) was not started on 9.11.01, but by Shock and Awe. I feel that instead of helping my country, I was actually party to its ruin.

Gandhi taught us that we can move mountains and win major struggles by fighting in a different way. We can change minds and create order by just sitting and talking and not cooperating with violence. He proved time and time again that negotiation and nonviolent protests can achieve more than violence. There is an old phrase, "the pen is mightier than the sword." A word can start a war, end a war, and even feed a starving man. Words can create laws and make peace. Ahimsa, the Hindu philosophy of nonviolence, states that it's because of the illusion of duality that we are separated from others and even from our ourselves. It’s not until we are whole within ourselves that we can know peace. I never thought about this until during my own recent struggle to find peace and acceptance from what occurred to me in Iraq and how many were lost. I was in such duality in my time in the Army, especially overseas. I felt that what I was doing was wrong and not helping, but yet I felt that I was doing the right thing. How could I ever be whole with such opposing feelings?

We are made of this duality, and fighting this inherent split in our souls is the only "war" worth fighting. I have been fighting that war ever since I came home and today feel that while the "war" isn't over, I am closer today to being whole than I ever was before. My search for peace has led me on a road I never saw coming. I gave up the arts of violence and traded them in for a new and more creative approach. My soul is a canvas that I could paint and remake into anything I want. I have done things I never thought I would do, and regret much of the life I lived before. Today, I stand on top of the mountain and now I am reflecting on the journey. I feel that if a soldier who returned a broken shell of a man can find inner peace, then so can his country and the world.

To strive for peace is not "weak" as many in this country will have you believe. In fact, the real challenge worthy of a warrior is peace, both for himself and the world around him. In reality, war is the simple solution. Not for the survivors, but in that it is easier to kill a man who is different from you than it is to embrace him. Honor is worthy of those who choose to fight for peace by peaceful means. Real honor eludes those who use war to find it.

My journey for peace has led me to a place in my life that surprises even me. Eight years ago, I was in Iraq fighting for my life and doing what I thought was right in defense of my country. Today I am fighting for my country, but not with a gun. I am fighting with votes, ideas, discussion, and the hope of peace: Peace of mind, peace of soul and peace of heart. Love is more powerful than a gun; love is more powerful the hatred. All we need to do is love each and peace will find a way.

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William Lay, Hillsboro, Oregon, is a Disabled Veteran US Army 2/162 INF (stationed in Baghdad Iraq 2004-2005 1st Cavalry division 39th BCT). This commentary was

distributed by PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute.