The Americans scattered like camouflaged ants as the gray Cambodia sky began spewing swaths of rain. The local villagers slowly disbursed, some of them taking up shelter under umbrellas or awnings with the Marines and sailors. As we stood there waiting for Mother Nature to finish flexing, we stared out at the Islamic Center’s large, grass square, now transforming into many mighty lakes and rivers. In the center stood a scrawny boy, about nine, wearing a pair of oversized shorts and nothing else. He had walked out from the shelter of the mosque across from the classrooms’ overhangs, under which most of us were standing, and centered himself like a stage performer where the biggest puddle was quickly forming. He stood there for a moment treelike, absorbing all nature’s aggression with a smile. I was so fascinated by him I almost forgot to pick up the camera around my neck and make some pictures of what I was seeing. The water poured over him as he slowly knelt, prostrating in a way resembling the Islamic prayer posture. He sat on his feet, leaning forward, head hanging down and hands flat on the ground beneath about four inches of water. It was like he was worshiping the water and every feeling it elicited in him. He stood up and began dancing and flailing around, kicking and splashing like a city kid around a summer fire hydrant. Finally, two other children joined him, and the game began. They chased and hurled water at each other with sweeping kicks at the endless puddles beneath them. This went on as long as the heavy rain did, which was for some time.
It was the last day of a two-week civil assistance mission in Cambodia’s remote southern farmlands. A Marine correspondent, I deployed there with a detachment from the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force. We were there to complete several renovations at a local Islamic center while our Navy brethren provided medical and dental care to the villagers. The mission’s purpose was to extend America’s hand of charity to the Cham people – Cambodia’s small, ethnic-minority Muslim population. It was no coincidence that our gesture of brotherly love was directed at this rather obscure group of poor Cambodians. America’s “Long War” was in full step, and we were there to win Cham hearts and minds before any radical Islamists could. The U.S. State Department had recently ramped up its spending in Cambodia, and I couldn’t help but notice that the rise seemed to coincide with the country’s newfound oil wealth.
In my relatively modest travels as a member of the American military, there is always one constant: The people we encounter on our missions – be it combat, peacekeeping or humanitarian operations – have far less than we do. In fact, most of them subsist at a standard of living that’s unfathomable to average Americans. Why shouldn’t it be after all? As a child, my world constituted a southern California suburban landscape, timed sprinkler systems coming alive every day to replenish each household’s rectangular lot in a mechanical, ordered fashion. Our most prized crop was grass. On hot days, my friends and I would play in the sprinklers, just like the Cambodian kids in the rain. Sometimes, my parents would turn the sprinklers on just for us to run around in them. But when it rained we always stayed inside, often pouting and wishing it would stop. Water flowed at our behest from faucets and plastic sprouts in the ground. When it came from the sky, it was a nuisance.
Indoors, there was always a television with its constant strobe of advertisements, reminding us that food came in a wide variety of colorful boxes that lay just on the other side of a successful nagging fit at the grocery store. It was there in middle-class suburbia that my American constant was born: The need for more. More toys. More Fruit Loops. More new clothes. More iPods. More money. More cars. More gas. Just more – always more.
I grew up in the 80s when Cambodia was a country trying to claw its way out of ruin. The Cambodian people had suffered some of the most despicable atrocities of the 20th century under the savage persecution of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. It’s estimated that the regime was responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million Cambodians, about one fifth of the population. One of the regime’s mottoes was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” They stayed true to that belief, torturing, executing, starving, and enslaving Cambodians on a massive scale in the name of agrarian communism. When I was sent there in August 2007, I saw a wholly different Cambodia than the war-torn country I had heard about in films and television news. Everywhere I went, the people smiled. In the city or in the country, they seemed to be grateful for the relative peace that had finally settled there.
I spent a day on a photo expedition with the two human-intelligence Marines from the detachment. We visited the local markets and explored the countryside and its endless rice paddies. I rolled my $120 jeans up to my knees before stepping into one of the paddies. As I was stepping in, one of the intel Marines was stepping out of the foot or so of muddy water. He had been in there for about two minutes, and he discovered a leech on his leg upon exiting. Our interpreter explained that leeches were common in the paddies. I was very uncomfortable with the thought of one of the alien parasites latching itself to my leg. Nevertheless, the best shots were out in the middle of the paddy, and I had to get them. I thought about all those brilliant National Geographic photos and the pain and discomfort the photographers had to brave to deliver them to my pristine world. On top of that, I was a U.S. Marine. How could I fear a measly little leech? After all, Cambodian men and women spent whole days in the paddies harvesting rice, completely unfazed. I had to go. As I approached with my camera, the farmers smiled and went on toiling in the humid afternoon sun. I spent about ten minutes getting the shots. Then, having avoided contact with the paddy’s ghastly little unseen beasts, I hurried back to comfort.
We stayed in rather ironic accommodations while we were there. Our Cambodian base was a five-star beach resort on the Gulf of Thailand about thirty miles west of the Islamic center and the country villagers we were there to help. How a detachment of U.S. Marines ended up with such opulent billeting in a poor, foreign country is beyond me. The benefits of a Republican administration, I suppose.
We made the 45-minute bus ride from the resort to the Islamic center every morning, and every day, we joked and cracked wise to each other about something pertaining to the local villagers’ unfamiliar way of life: the ragged clothes they wore, the broken-down shanties they lived in, the flimsy sandals that did little to protect their feet from the mud and feces left by the gaunt livestock that grazed in the center’s square.
It probably seems insensitive to make light of the situation in places like Cambodia, but it’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the deep sadness of it all. After all, that’s how most of us in America live our lives every day, constantly averting our eyes and redirecting our focus inward. Our leeches live in the world’s muddy waters, and we dare not tread there. America’s clear water comes from faucets and plastic sprouts in the ground. That’s why on a warm, rainy day in America, you’re not likely to find any children outside in the downpour, worshipping the rain.
This essay was published in Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans.