World News

05.03.14

War Nostalgia Is Leading Veterans to Places Like Syria. One Went Missing There.

A Marine combat veteran, Austin Tice was in law school when he went to Syria and disappeared. Like Tice, a group of veterans has returned to the Middle East drawn by nostalgia for war.

His mother counts the Tuesdays. Her total creeps toward 100 since she last heard from him. To mark the weeks, she posts photos of her son online. The final message before his Twitter feed went silent came on a Sunday: “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.”

Achievement always marked his path: Eagle Scout, then Marine Corps—Iraq and Afghanistan—then Georgetown Law. Then Syria. He’d decided to go there as a freelance journalist between his second and third year of law school. While classmates jockeyed for internships at firms, Austin Tice booked a flight to Istanbul. In May 2012, summer started and Austin packed a bag and a camera, and left.

When he disappeared that August, a flurry of questions followed in the media and among Marines who’d known him, or known of him. At first they were the obvious ones: Who’s holding him? Who saw him last? But then other, larger questions emerged, and eventually they distilled into one: Why’d he go?

***

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, many who fought there have been drawn to a new set of battles in the region. Places like Tahrir, Aleppo, Tunis, and Taksim possess a new and yet familiar allure, promising to replace names we’ve let go: Ramadi, Helmand, Fallujah, and Khost.

As I’ve spent time in southern Turkey, on the periphery of Syria’s civil war, I’ve often come across guys who fought in our wars. When we meet, we talk about the other things we’re doing: field researcher, writer, photojournalist, whatever. Our current “professions” are often described with a shrug of the shoulders and followed by a spell of silence, as if our true profession is the unspoken one—the one we left behind.

When I first meet Vince, a Marine-turned-English teacher in a bar off Istanbul’s Taksim Square, I ask him what type of certificate he needs to teach. He laughs at me. “None.” He leans in close, over the bottle of wine I’m splitting with him and his Cypriot girlfriend. “They’re obsessed with fashion, specifically Victoria’s Secret.” It’s just a whiff of what his all-male students are obsessing over, but the best he can offer at their conservative religious school. “It’s all they want to talk about,” he tells me. “It is a conversation class.”

As an infantryman, Vince fought in Ramadi between 2005 and 2007, some bloody years. I ask when he started coming to the Middle East, and he says, “When I got out of the Marines, the first thing I did was buy a ticket back here.” While we work through another bottle, Vince speaks passionately about his Syrian friends. He’s lost track of many since the war started.

He asks if I’ve ever been to Lebanon. I haven’t, but my old infantry battalion garrisoned the airport in Beirut when Hezbollah detonated a truck bomb at the unit’s barracks, killing 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers, in 1983. It was the Corps’ bloodiest single day since Iwo Jima. Vince nods his head when I tell him. “You were with 1/8,” he says. It feels good to be speaking our common language.

For some of us, the wars have gone on so long that we lack context for life outside them.

He starts another story, about a trip he took to a coastal town in southern Lebanon. “That’s Hezbollah country. And here I am this jarhead walking around bare-chested and pasty white.” He pats his left shoulder. “I have a big Eagle, Globe, and Anchor here.” He lifts his shirt. Inked onto his ribs is a single rifle bayoneted into the dirt with names listed on a scroll—his dead friends. “I can’t remember the last time I felt as proud as I did walking down that beach.”

When we step outside for a smoke, the cool air brings a snap of sobriety. “Why are you here?” I ask him.

He looks back at me, as if I should know—as if he should ask me the same question.

Instead, he tells another story, about how in January 2011 he was back in the States, going to college in Chicago. On a Wednesday, as he came out of class, his Twitter feed exploded with news from friends in Cairo. An enormous protest was planned in Tahrir Square after noon prayers, as part of what would later be known as the Friday of Rage. “This was the Revolution. It was going to be the largest protest in Egypt’s history,” Vince tells me. He bought a flight from O’Hare that night and landed in Cairo on Thursday. By Friday, he was in the square. “I had this idea that I’d live-tweet the entire thing,” says Vince. “Then they shut Twitter down so I was just in it.” In the course of a day, Egyptian security services nearly arrested him for taking pictures, and the Muslim Brotherhood nearly kidnapped him for being an American. “The whole time those guys held me I kept telling them: ‘Egyptian people are good, Egyptian government is bad. American people are good, American government is bad.’” By Saturday, Vince had returned to the airport. He managed to get on an evacuation flight organized by the U.S. government. By Tuesday, he was back in class.

“It made me the coolest guy in my creative-writing seminar,” he says between drags. “But I had no business being there.”

After dinner, we walk through Taksim Square. In front of Galatasaray High School, a congregation point for protesters, the police are out in force. Their plastic riot shields lean against their legs and they wear fiberglass breastplates, similar to those worn by motocross riders. Their batons are slung at their sides.

I ask Vince why he’s settled in Istanbul. He talks a bit about his job, the parts of the city he likes, the parts of other cities he doesn’t like. But in the end he settles on: “To be close to it.”

If I were to describe it, I’d say it’s an experience so large that you shrink to insignificance in its presence. And that’s how you get lost in it.

It’s the same it many of us need to be close to.

This isn’t a cause, although it can be. This isn’t a particular war, but it’s often that too. If I were to describe it, I’d say it’s an experience so large that you shrink to insignificance in its presence. And that’s how you get lost in it.

When Austin Tice was kidnapped, he was about as close as you can get to it.

That so many of us went to war in this part of the world, only to return, seems no surprise. For some of us, the wars have gone on so long that we lack context for life outside them. On a recent morning run with a friend who’s still in the military and deploying, and has been since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we talk about PTSD, and whether we have it or not. He asks if I ever have dreams. I tell him no, but that I sometimes get very sad. An idea, a memory, will suddenly come to mind, stopping me cold. When this happens, life feels like a brutal Hallmark commercial played on a loop. I usually wind up crying.

My friend has dreams. And one keeps repeating.

He’s on a raid. It’s dark—the middle of the night. His team of Marines blows an explosive-charge through the front door of a compound. He’s with the first group, clearing the structure. Suddenly he’s alone. He enters a room, and there’s a guy with an AK-47 in it. The guy levels his rifle. My friend shoots back, but there’s only a hollow click. He’s out of ammo. He reaches into his vest to do a speed reload. He goes for a magazine, but he pulls out a ham sandwich instead. He reaches into another magazine pouch. Another ham sandwich.

We laugh when he tells me this.

Then he looks over at me and says, “I wake up and I’m fucking scared.”

Neither of us talks for a bit. Then, at the top of a hill, I tell him that I miss the war.

He nods.

“You know, Ack, the melancholy of it all is that we grew up there.”

***

I never knew Austin. I’m sure he went to Syria for many complex reasons. But I imagine he missed war the way I do. The way Vince does. I imagine it’s never far from his mind, the way it is with the friend I run with. The road home from battle has always been fraught. When Odysseus journeyed back from Troy, his men tied him to the mast of his ship when the Sirens tempted him to leave it. The goddess Circe warned Odysseus about these sea nymphs:

… whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air—
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him.

Odysseus ordered his men to stuff their ears with beeswax as they rowed by. He didn’t, though. He wanted to hear the Sirens. Lashed down, he listened. It wasn’t their honeyed voices or looks that made him strain against the mast. It was what they sang of: war, and man’s glory in war.

Aside from a brief YouTube video released in September 2012, nothing’s been seen or heard of Austin Tice. Drifting around southern Turkey and the Syrian border, I’ve often pulled up his dormant Twitter feed on my phone, thumbing through tweets like@kenentreprenuer No, unless you count Facebook ranting about my time in Iraq/Afghanistan. I’m a total rookie; a law student on summer vacay,” or “FSA company commander: ‘Is that a joke? Of course we don’t care about the Olympics.’”

It sounds like he was living out a dream—bearing witness to a cause he believed in. A part of me admires him for it, despite where it led.

Then I’ll scroll to his profile. Beneath “#USMC infantry vet, #Georgetown Law stdnt, freelance #journalist. Currently in #Syria” are these words, written like a prayer:

Gaze into the abyss,
the abyss gazes also into you.