Chris Jeon: War Tourist Extraordinaire

The story of the UCLA undergrad, Chris Jeon, who allegedly traveled to visit the rebel faction in Libya has ran the circuit dry at this rate. There are plenty of reasons to explain and describe why his actions were stupid at this rate. For one, he voluntarily decided to stroll into a battleground with what could barely pass as a travel itinerary in the back of his head. That’s not the reason why my blood boils at the mere thought of this his actions. It’s the principle of his stupidity that weighs heavily on my judgment and it’s representative of other college students out there.

NAFSA estimates that 260,327 students have studied abroad during the 2008/2009 academic year. While it’s cute that thousands of undergrads are showing a keen interest in the world, I’m skeptical of their intentions. However people may try to phrase it, they’re traveling out of their own self-interest. For example, numerous student volunteers fly to Africa, India, or another developing countries to deliver aid. Yet, they feel the need to set photographs of themselves with the native children they’re supporting. They appear more preoccupied with showing the world their experiences than the actual service at hand.

This is far from altruistic and is nothing short of self-promotional at best. Joshua E. Keating of Foreign Policy Magazine doubts that Jeon did this for attention under the insistence that he didn’t want his parents to know. I disagree. I went to college and had several friends who studied abroad or traveled to foreign countries. Everyone at that age travels in part because they want a story to tell.

It’s this very reason that Chris Jeon is a tourist of the worst kind. Sociologists and quasi-critical theorists would correctly label him as an “ethnic tourist.” The specific definition for that term is murky and varies from critic to critic. What it comes down to is that it’s a damnation of exploitive tourism around the world. Jeon may not be funding the diamond trade, sweatshops, human trafficking, or other seedy third-world networks, but he’s certainly getting in the way. He’s more or less like that annoying tourist who hovers around natives and takes snap shots while they’re busy trying to go about their lives. The main difference is that this is a warzone and not a Native American reservation.

But hey, it’s all for the sake of self-discovery and enlightenment, right? Let’s forget for a moment that Jeon came startlingly close to breaking the law and potentially committing an act of treason. He claimed that he joined the rebels because he “thought it would be cool” and this is essentially the kind of behavior that college students engage in all the time. It’s cool hunting of the most ridiculous sort. that valorizes travel under the veneer of-self-discovery, enlightenment, and other new age hokum.  This process is praiseworthy, but to any objective observer it’s nothing short of narcissistic. The important distinction is that Chris Jeon finally put a more practical use to his keffiyeh than the other hipsters out there.

I’m sure that Jeon cracked a smile when the Libyans claimed him as one of their own as Bradley Hope reported. In his head, he likely even fancies himself as Laurence of Arabia or Tom Cruise’s character from The Last Samurai. The latter is the archetype that I previously wrote about. After the battle, Cruise’s character somehow avoids treason. The film never offers an explanation, but it’s the inadvertently classic example of someone from the first world retreating from danger amidst a foreign crisis.

To be moderately fair to Jeon, people in the West have carried this tradition for a long time. Eugene Collache is such an example along with the aforementioned T.E. Lawrence and even George Orwell wrote of his own experiences as a “war tourist” during the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia. Like these writers, it’s undeniable that Jeon will capitalize on his experiences when he returns. The Daily Bruin will undoubtedly conduct an interview once the Fall quarter commences and fellow students will buy him drinks as he brags about his escapades. The main difference is that each of these writers actually engaged in hard combat and merely escaped when the going got tough. The Libyans, sadly, don’t have the same privilege.