“Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat dies and falls into the ground it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
Thoughts from a Christian American Soldier:
This morning I awoke wrecked by anxiety. For a full two hours I could not move. From the moment I opened my eyes all I could think of was failure, contradiction, falsity. For the past week or so I have been writing a script to help chronicle my experiences of war, and so for the past few days I have watched films such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Platoon as a means to help narrate what I experience. After watching films such as these, hearing the first-hand accounts of my forebears’ tales of war, it seems to me as if “war” is not even a term I know how to use to describe my time here in the desert. War is supposed to be the threat of being easily annihilated, not the threat of annihilating with ease.
The sacrifices made by my forebears from the Second World War are hard to comprehend. The beaches of Normandy. The winter journey to Berlin. The jungles of Guadalcanal. The massive force of destruction that they had to endure day in and day out in WWII is something I see now but in fragments in the attempts of an impoverished opposition setting off mortar attacks in one or two-round bursts every other day. One of us is killed for about every 40 of them. Or there are the inter-tribal kidnappings, the ransoms that go to fund the resistance. The chaos is real, but I view it mostly from an ivory tower. The utter contradiction and hopelessness levied against my forebears in Vietnam—well-intending American men walking footpaths each day under orders that came to embody the very barbarism they sought to overthrow—I do not palpably sense or encounter here. I have my own paradoxes of barbarism, but the gravity is altogether different. My job is often grueling and mentally and emotionally exasperating, but I live in a place with bins full of the remains of packages sent from home that simply can’t be consumed by individual soldiers. This cannot be true of everywhere on the battlefield, but in my corner of the world we have buffets with consumer response cards, air conditioning and internet cafes. I have been injured once, but only because I accidentally stabbed myself with a knife while cutting open a footlocker to pack all of the excess things I could not find a place to store in my living quarters. I am more likely to struggle from putting on weight than from losing it, from spending my money unwisely than from fear of not having a use for it, and from wasting my free time in entertainment than from waiting anxiously for the few times I am afforded it. Even the Eucharist sometimes feels like a product I am given, a thing consumed for the maintenance of morale. This experience of “war” is confusing at best.
Before I became a cadet at West Point, I read a quote of a military statesman who wrote, “I study politics and war, so that my sons may study mathematics and music.” This was written hundreds of years ago, but I read it on a brochure for an academy I was then to attend in the coming months. Long before I ever decided to leave the Academy I remember thinking it ironic that I too would be going on to study, yet again, politics and war. Would it be in the hope that one day my children might gain the opportunity to study mathematics and music? For then one must ask, “When will that day come?”
I recently made a man cry. I told him in Arabic that he was not a criminal and not a terrorist. He later told me that he had cried because it was the first time in many months an American soldier, or anyone for that matter, had told him that he was not an evil man. The next day I thundered away at a different man who sat blankly calm with the knowledge that his lies could possibly put the man who had the previous day cried openly in front of me in prison for the greater portion of his life. And now I am faced with the decision of having to abandon their cases altogether, because my job as an interrogator is not the enforcement of justice in criminal investigations, but merely obtaining intelligence relevant to the war-fighting efforts of US Forces.
The other day, one of my superiors talked to my interrogation team prior to a session. He told me, “These are the agents of Satan, gentlemen, they would rather slit your throat and die trying than spend the rest of their lives with the virgin they married the first time around—their wives.” It was now my turn to be the blank, expressionless one. This was a Christian man telling me this, obviously trying to impress upon me the reality of a Jihadist’s belief in a paradise with 70 virgins and the like. But believing that evil is real does not mean that it is okay to believe that there are those who can completely be its embodiment. When the President stood in the National Cathedral and spoke about the moral dimensions of the war on terrorism,
it was not a moment for Christians to show solidarity in the “identification of evil,” but a moment for Christians to repent in their having objectified it in the bodies of men. To believe that there are evil men only to be destroyed is to utterly disbelieve in the power of the Resurrection. Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
To the legalist-extremist Muslim, evil is something that can be eliminated by eliminating the “evil-doer.” If a woman is perceived as indecent, kill her. If a man commits apostasy, kill him. I fear that the West has also adopted this view in certain of its policies to attempt to “rid the world of terror.” Evil cannot be destroyed by the destruction of things or persons, it can only be redeemed by those willing to lay down themselves for others. Evil has no existence of itself, it is simply the consequence of an amnesiac and bereft people. Goodness forgotten is goodness perverted. We must be that much more fervent in remembering and reiterating God’s initial words over His creation: “It is Good.” When we know not what we do, God grant us the grace to forgive, so that we might in turn remember how we, too, once were forgiven.
Every day I talk with the enemy. But, I do not see an embodiment of “he who opposes goodness.” If we approach the war on terrorism with the fervor of a Christian Jihad against Islam, our battle is already lost, for we have become what we opposed and we are now the fundamentalists. Our battle is not one of flesh
and blood, but against the spiritual powers and principalities which rule this present darkness. We cannot allow ourselves to be caught up in “war mode” against a fleshly enemy, or the true enemy is already within us, and we have failed to believe in the power of a redemption which (we say) we believe has saved us. As James has told us, “faith without works is dead.”
Orwell once said that we sleep comfortably in our beds because violent men are willing to conduct violence on our behalf. Uncomfortably I have known this to be true, yet I am also quite guilty of having fallen in step with the pathology of a blood-purchased liberty and self-sanctification. My comfort and liberty must not be won by the sacrifices of a new and foreign poor now paying the price for our moral failings of diplomacy, economy and statesmanship, turning our Republic into an Empire. The memory of those who willingly died in WWII is tarnished every time we resurrect them as an analogy to our alleged “war against terror and tyranny.”
A fallen world demands the imposition of justice and the rule of law, but evil cannot be destroyed, it can only be redeemed.