Jun 01, 2009
The crisis faced by combat veterans
returning from war is not simply a profound struggle with trauma and
alienation. It is often, for those who can slice through the suffering
to self-awareness, an existential crisis. War exposes the lies we tell
ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions
and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned
something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed
home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us
above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor
noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those
Those who return to speak this truth, such as members of Iraq Veterans Against the War,
are our contemporary prophets. But like all prophets they are condemned
and ignored for their courage. They struggle, in a culture awash in
lies, to tell what few have the fortitude to digest. They know that
what we are taught in school, in worship, by the press, through the
entertainment industry and at home, that the melding of the state's
rhetoric with the rhetoric of religion, is empty and false.
The words these prophets speak are
painful. We, as a nation, prefer to listen to those who speak from the
patriotic script. We prefer to hear ourselves exalted. If veterans
speak of terrible wounds visible and invisible, of lies told to make
them kill, of evil committed in our name, we fill our ears with wax.
Not our boys, we say, not them, bred in our homes, endowed with
goodness and decency. For if it is easy for them to murder, what about
us? And so it is simpler and more comfortable not to hear. We do not
listen to the angry words that cascade forth from their lips, wishing
only that they would calm down, be reasonable, get some help, and go
away. We, the deformed, brand our prophets as madmen. We cast them into
the desert. And this is why so many veterans are estranged and enraged.
This is why so many succumb to suicide or addictions.
War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans,
calls for sacrifice, honor and heroism and promises of glory. It comes
wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful
nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged
to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War
is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out
what they are made of. War, from a distance, seems noble. It gives us
comrades and power and a chance to play a small bit in the great drama
of history. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot,
as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to
wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.
But up close war is a soulless void. War
is about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death.
Human decency and tenderness are crushed. Those who make war work
overtime to reduce love to smut, and all human beings become objects,
pawns to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of
eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded, all
combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral
void, naively blessed by secular and religious institutions at home,
the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral
precepts, come unglued. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip
away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish
obsessions that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is
The Rev. William P. Mahedy,
who was a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, tells of a soldier, a former
altar boy, in his book "Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of
Vietnam Vets," who says to him: "Hey, Chaplain ... how come it's a sin
to hop into bed with a mama-san but it's okay to blow away gooks out in the bush?"
"Consider the question that he and I were
forced to confront on that day in a jungle clearing," Mahedy writes.
"How is it that a Christian can, with a clear conscience, spend a year
in a war zone killing people and yet place his soul in jeopardy by
spending a few minutes with a prostitute? If the New Testament
prohibitions of sexual misconduct are to be stringently interpreted,
why, then, are Jesus' injunctions against violence not binding in the
same way? In other words, what does the commandment 'Thou shalt not
kill' really mean?"
Military chaplains, a majority of whom are
evangelical Christians, defend the life of the unborn, tout America as
a Christian nation and eagerly bless the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
as holy crusades. The hollowness of their morality, the staggering
disconnect between the values they claim to promote, is ripped open in
There is a difference between killing
someone who is trying to kill you and taking the life of someone who
does not have the power to harm you. The first is killing. The second
is murder. But in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy is
elusive and rarely seen, murder occurs far more often than killing.
Families are massacred in airstrikes. Children are gunned down in
blistering suppressing fire laid down in neighborhoods after an
improvised explosive device goes off near a convoy. Artillery shells
obliterate homes. And no one stops to look. The dead and maimed are
The utter failure of nearly all our
religious institutions-whose texts are unequivocal about murder-to
address the essence of war has rendered them useless. These
institutions have little or nothing to say in wartime because the god
they worship is a false god, one that promises victory to those who
obey the law and believe in the manifest destiny of the nation.
We all have the capacity to commit evil.
It takes little to unleash it. For those of us who have been to war
this is the awful knowledge that is hardest to digest, the knowledge
that the line between the victims and the victimizers is razor-thin,
that human beings find a perverse delight in destruction and death, and
that few can resist the pull. At best, most of us become silent
Wars may have to be fought to ensure
survival, but they are always tragic. They always bring to the surface
the worst elements of any society, those who have a penchant for
violence and a lust for absolute power. They turn the moral order
upside down. It was the criminal class that first organized the defense
of Sarajevo. When these goons were not manning roadblocks to hold off
the besieging Bosnian Serb army they were looting, raping and killing
the Serb residents in the city. And those politicians who speak of war
as an instrument of power, those who wage war but do not know its
reality, those powerful statesmen-the Henry Kissingers, Robert
McNamaras, Donald Rumsfelds, the Dick Cheneys-those who treat war as
part of the great game of nations, are as amoral as the religious
stooges who assist them. And when the wars are over what they have to
say to us in their thick memoirs about war is also hollow, vacant and
"In theological terms, war is sin," writes
Mahedy. "This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is
justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier's war were right
or wrong. The point is that war as a human enterprise is a matter of
sin. It is a form of hatred for one's fellow human beings. It produces
alienation from others and nihilism, and it ultimately represents a
turning away from God."
The young soldiers and Marines do not plan
or organize the war. They do not seek to justify it or explain its
causes. They are taught to believe. The symbols of the nation and
religion are interwoven. The will of God becomes the will of the
nation. This trust is forever shattered for many in war. Soldiers in
combat see the myth used to send them to war implode. They see that war
is not clean or neat or noble, but venal and frightening. They see into
war's essence, which is death.
War is always about betrayal. It is about
betrayal of the young by the old, of cynics by idealists, and of
soldiers and Marines by politicians. Society's institutions, including
our religious institutions, which mold us into compliant citizens, are
unmasked. This betrayal is so deep that many never find their way back
to faith in the nation or in any god. They nurse a self-destructive
anger and resentment, understandable and justified, but also crippling.
Ask a combat veteran struggling to piece his or her life together about
God and watch the raw vitriol and pain pour out. They have seen into
the corrupt heart of America, into the emptiness of its most sacred
institutions, into our staggering hypocrisy, and those of us who refuse
to heed their words become complicit in the evil they denounce.
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