Return to the Middle East

By Douglas (Jeff) Hsu (MBA '10, '00) | Summer 2010

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I never expected to enter another home in the Middle East. But there I was last December drinking tea with Samer Akl and his sister in their Beirut apartment. I went to Lebanon with other Notre Dame MBAs for a course examining how societies can rebuild economically after conflict. Samer is a logistics specialist who drove us around, and on the last day, he invited me over.

As we talked, Samer led me out to the balcony. His voice deepened as he spoke about the Lebanese Civil War, some 20 years earlier. As we stood under cloudy skies, he pointed out landmarks: “Well, a bomb fell on that building and killed a family there. And a couple of bombs fell on that building, and there was heavy fighting in that Sunni neighborhood down the street.”

While some of the buildings he pointed to had been rebuilt, many of them still bore the bullet holes and other scars of the conflict that had divided neighbors and destroyed so much of the city.

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Everything looked strangely familiar. The streets resembled those in Ramadi, Iraq, where I led a platoon of Marines four years ago. Same dusty stone buildings, sort of a tannish brown. A stone is a stone.

As Samer talked, my thoughts flashed back to the war in Ramadi, as it so often does. Fighting was intense; it was a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency.

Whenever I entered a house, a family’s home, it was behind the barrel of an M-16 rifle, loaded down in 70 pounds of body armor, with 39 Marines behind me.

We were in a firefight almost every single day during our eight-month tour. I would never know where the next attack would come from—a sniper on a rooftop, a homemade bomb lobbed from an alley, or just random gunfire. When civilians would all of a sudden disappear from the streets, we would brace for an impending ambush. 

I told my 39 men that we had only one guiding principle in this conflict: Teamwork is everything. Our platoon of brave young men, most of them around 19 or 20 years old, would learn to work as a unit and watch each other’s back. In my two tours in Iraq, only one of my Marines was seriously injured. He was hit with an explosive, and shrapnel pierced his head. To have to hold his bloodied helmet in my hands and then apolo¬gize to his mother for not being able to bring him home in one piece was the worst experience I have had to go through. He’s had a lot of recovery problems, but he’s starting to learn to talk again.

It is the nature of war to create walls and barriers between people. When I was in Iraq, I was never able to feel any sense of commonality with the people. Even while I defended Iraqi civilians and secured their elections, I had to be ready to attack at any moment. Where we were, and what we had to do, what we have seen in this war, will be carried with me and my men for the rest of our lives.

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It was not until I got to ride with Samer, and he invited me into his home to meet his family and see the world from his eyes, that I was able to break down my own walls of segregation.

For the first time in my life, I did not view everyone in the Middle East as a Muslim fundamentalist. I did not see these people as so different from me that I could never learn to relate to them.

Calling for healing after the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

On that balcony, we talked for nearly three hours, Samer and me. And I finally told him about my time in Iraq. Sharing the experience of war with him, I was able to shed the burdens of my history and lessen some of the scars I have had to carry.