During my time in Burma, I stayed in the home of Saw Rai, a quiet, genuinely nice guy. He had a kind face and a witty, playful spirit. He was happy to have me string up my hammock in his bamboo home, run interviews on his porch, and let me tag along as he treated his many patients.
After years of medical training in the jungle, Saw Rai was as medically competent as a physician, when it came to jungle type care anyway. At least, that’s what the American doctor I was with told me. The Karen medic had extensive experience with malaria, tropical diseases, delivering babies in the middle of the jungle, and other things you would never see in the US. What the doctor didn’t tell me about was Saw Rai’s combat experience as a foot soldier in the civil war, long before his medical pursuits.
We were walking from one village to the next, as we often did out in the jungle. After some short conversation, we began swapping war stories. He mostly liked to talk about the things that made him laugh, but soon enough we were exchanging the heavier sides of our experiences in our respective wars.
I told him about my deployments to Afghanistan, the firefights here and there. He asked me in-depth about a particularly bad fight I was in, that he had heard about from someone else. I told him that we didn’t have to charge hills or fight off a literal army like the Karen did.
He told me about his last intense firefight. He was on a ridge and they were creeping up, about to flank some enemy forces. He was quite young back then, and while he had some experience, he didn’t have much training to fall back on, and certainly wasn’t confident in his tactical abilities. But still, like so many kids in so many wars, he gripped his rifle and crept higher toward the crest of the ridge.
The jungle is thick there; it’s not like many forests here. In most places you can’t run freely between the trees, the underbrush is too thick. He was losing sight of the guys to his left and right, and though they were probably less than a stone’s throw away, he said he felt alone. The density of the jungle also makes it difficult to track enemy movement, so he wasn’t even sure what he would find on the other side of the ridge.
He heard a noise behind him, and whirled around to find a Burmese soldier who had wandered behind their lines. The soldier was even younger than he was, and he was shaking. He said they both just sort of stared at each other for a long second, and the Burmese soldier just put his rifle down. He said he was tired of fighting, then he left.
Saw Rai sat for a moment and laughed to himself. The kid could have easily chosen to kill him. Then he got up, turned around and went on to fight the Burmese Army on the other side of the ridge.
My initial reaction would have been to shoot the armed soldier immediately, but I’m sort of glad Saw Rai didn’t. He had shot his fair share of people, and I understood what he meant by tired.
While I don’t particularly love sharing war stories, this random Karen medic on the other side of the world understood the essence of every story I told him, beyond simple English. He knew a different conflict, different method of fighting, different intensities of combat, and yet I felt like I was just chatting with another Ranger about our deployments.
I found that war is the same, wherever you go. And so are the warriors.
Later I would talk to a former Marine sniper who was deployed during the invasion of Iraq. He would tell me that the fighting in northern Burma was by far the heaviest fighting he had ever seen. They’ve been doing that for seventy years.