Culture

November 12 2012
47

 

The radio crackled to life as we sat in our guard tower, bored out of our minds. The callsigns they were using weren’t ours, so at first, we just ignored it.  We had heard the explosion off in the distance, but explosions off in the distance at night were not uncommon in this part of Iraq in 2004. We hadn’t been in country long, but we’d been there long enough to avoid the kind of hyper-sensitivity that comes along with being the new guys in country. It wasn’t until we heard those three letters cut through the static that we started to pay attention,

“KIA!”

“We have multiple KIA and even more wounded!”

Our guard shift was just ending as they brought the casualties back. The common area of an old bombed out building had been transformed into a triage station. It reeked of blood and bile and shit and sounded like what I used to imagine when I’d hear a fire and brimstone preacher really bringing his best stuff. The screams and sobs, the calls for God and long-dead loved ones, and the pleas for medicine to dull the pain all seemed to weave themselves together into a deafening chorus whose only song was that of the most exquisite agony.

What I remember most, though, are his eyes.

He was dead, and the medics knew it. There were others they could save, and they had dutifully moved on to help where they could. In the confusion, no one had closed his eyes or covered him up, and from where I was standing frozen in stunned silence, he seemed to be looking right through me. His eyes were somehow a more piercing blue in death than they had been in life, somehow more engaging than they’d been in the tent the night before, when we’d joked about being woefully unprepared for how downright cold it was in the desert. The absurd serenity on his face stood in stark contrast to the chaotic scene unfolding around him. I am haunted by those eyes.

He was 24. His wife was 21. Their baby boy was 6 months old.

I was slated to be on that mission, and was pulled at the last minute.

—–

A couple of years later, I found myself sitting in a field hospital in Afghanistan, getting a checkup for the nagging injuries from that last trip to Iraq that still dogged me. The phone rang. The conversation was terse and coded, but from what I could gather, it seemed serious. Like an animal stirred from a deep sleep, the field hospital sprang to life and seemed to be operating solely on instinct. I heard the field ambulance pull up and slide to a stop in the gravel, and I could hear her screams before they even opened the door.  When they brought her in, she was naked. Burns and lacerations covered what seemed to me to be most of her body. Tears and saliva mixed with the blood on her face, with little pink drops releasing and falling to the table each time her little body shuddered in pain and terror.

The sorry excuse for a divider separating the check-up portion of the hospital from the emergency area did little to shield me from the carnage on the other side. Through the gap, her eyes met mine, perhaps because I was the only person standing still. They were big and bright, a deep brown and glistening with tears. We didn’t speak the same language, and we didn’t need to.  I knew the question her eyes were screaming without her saying anything,

“Why?”

Perhaps it was just the fact that someone was actually seeing her, but she seemed to calm down somewhat. The sobs gave way to cringes, whines and sniffles and the doctors were able to tend to her wounds which actually turned out to be considerably less serious than they looked.

Then, they brought in her parents.

She was 6. Her mother was already dead. Her father would die minutes later as she watched, screaming.

I will never forget her screams.

It was my work that provided the justification for the artillery barrage that killed her parents.

—–

We tend to speak of war in abstract terms. Honestly, I think it’s just easier that way. We speak in generalities because if we try to tie it to the concrete, it is never as black and white as we would like it to be. One of our most important tools of abstractions is the way we dehumanize all parties involved. The heroes are invincible superman and the enemies are evildoers deserving of whatever fate awaits them, but it’s just never that simple.

We are not all invincible.

They are not all expendable.

War has a human face. You can see it in the orphaned Afghan girl whose fate without her parents is unimaginably grim. You can see it in the baby boy who was left behind and celebrated his 9th birthday this year without the father he never knew. You can see it in the generation of young men and women who have come home from these wars broken – physically, emotionally and spiritually – and are desperately searching to rediscover their humanity.

No matter which side of the line you fall on in the debate over whether Christians should support war or not, there is one simple, undeniable fact:

War is an awful, evil reality.

If war is truly necessary then it is a necessary evil, and it is still evil. I fear that in the United States (and unfortunately it seems for our closest military allies in the UK, Canada and Australia as well), we have accepted the necessity of war and forgotten the evil of it. Instead of war being the last resort in the face of conflict, it has become our first impulse. Violence and aggression have become in many ways our default mode of interaction with one another, and the Church was been swept up in the frenzy all the same. 

If ever there were a time for the Bride to step into her role as peacemaker, perhaps that time is now.

So why do I tell these stories? Why do I say these things about war? Why bother sharing my experiences at all?  For some, it may seem that I’m sullying this most sacred of days by trying to grind an axe, but I assure you, that is not the case.  On this day, we ask what it means to remember, to honor, and to support those who have served. I have struggled much, and still do, with the meaning and purpose behind my service. I’m still working on making peace with myself and my experiences, but there is one thing that I am certain of this Veterans Day:

From my perspective as a veteran, the greatest honor you could ever pay me would be standing in solidarity with me as we fulfill our calling to be peacemakers and children of God. The most meaningful support you could ever give would be working tirelessly for the cause of peace, so that the “blessed” in “blessed are the peacemakers” might mean that our sons and daughters never have to experience the horrors my comrades and I have.

 “Lord, bid war’s trumpets cease; fold the whole earth in peace.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

(The photo is of my homecoming from Afghanistan circa 2006)

47 comments

  1. Emily

    Thank-you for this. Veteran’s Day is hard for me. Yesterday my Facebook feed was full of people thanking veterans for their service. At church, the veterans were asked to stand so we could clap for them. A day to honor veterans, but I don’t see the honor at all. I don’t see what’s honorable about asking men (and women) to risk their lives for ours. I don’t see what’s honorable about asking our fellow countrymen to kill (oftentimes civilians, sometimes, as you said, 6-year-old girls) and destroy. How is that honorable? We send them away to “serve their country” and they come home with physical, mental, and emotional wounds that will never heal, if they come home at all. Where is the honor in that? I don’t want to disrespect the men and women who serve, but how can I hold them up on a pedestal for doing something that I’m just not sure I can support? Sometimes I think as long as we continue to honor our veterans and hold them up as heroes, a culture that glorifies war will continue to be perpetuated. Maybe the best way to honor our veterans is to work for peace.

    Reply
    • Ali

      Maybe, then you should take your stand with those that send them, and not with the ones that have no choice but to go. Maybe focus your efforts there…and continue to honor the veterans and hold them up as heroes. I can’t imagine Veterans Day is as hard for you as it is for those who are actually Veterans.

      Reply
      • Ali

        By the way…Luke, this was amazing. Thank you for the putting a perspective on it that most civilians do not see. Lord, help us to be the peacemakers, and to know when it is “a time for war, a time for peace.” Help us to better be able to discern those seasons.

        Reply
        • Luke

          I’m just silly enough to believe that the time for war has come to an end.

          Reply
      • Emily

        Of course Veteran’s Day is not as hard for me as for veterans; I never meant to imply that it is. But how can I hold someone up as a hero who engages in something that I believe is wrong?

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        • Luke

          This is an important question, but I think we can tease apart the notions of hold someone up as a hero and simply affirming their humanity. We can do the latter without doing the former.

          Reply
    • Luke

      Emily,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I certainly empathize with how uncomfortable Veteran’s Day can be, especially in church. I tend to avoid going to church on those days, just so I can avoid the inevitable elbow-jab from my wife that comes when I balk at standing up when the pastor asks us all to be recognized. :)

      The notion of honor is a complicated one, especially in this context. I tend to agree with you on the point that glorifying war perpetuates a culture of violence, but what I would offer is that I think there’s a way that we can both honor those who have responded to a call to service (regardless of whether or not we agree with their choice), and condemn the way in which we, as a nation, take that service for granted, and turn the notion of a War that is Just into just another war. That take involvement, it takes activism, and it is inherently honoring of those who serve by affirming their humanity instead of dismissing it, as we so often do.

      But maybe honor isn’t the right word. Maybe we needn’t go any further than love. If we are militant pacifists, then we might see service members and veterans as “enemies” in a certain sense. In that case, our mandate is clear: love our enemies. If we are supportive of war in any way, then perhaps we just see service members and veterans as our neighbors. In that case as well, our mandate is clear: love our neighbors. In either case, there are plenty of things we can do to love these people who, right or wrong, have sacrificed much.

      When veteran homelessness, suicide and joblessness are at record highs, then there is ample room for the Church to step into her role as peacemaker in another way: helping these generations of people who are damaged make peace with themselves, by loving and living in genuine community with them.

      Reply
  2. Thank you so much for this post looking at both sided: at those remembered and those who are not remembered but just die; at war as a terrible, sometimes inevitable evil. Your perspective is so needed, so important. I grew up in Pakistan and spent a fair amount of time in both Afghanistan and Iran. With that perspective I’m constantly defending a part of the world that most know only through biased media and war. I love most your paragraph that emphasizes that war has a human face I thank you for using your words to give us a picture of that human face, of using your words for peace.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Marilyn,

      Thanks for you comment. I too am frustrated by how that part of the world is portrayed in the media. When you’ve broken bread with these people, heard their stories, and seen the pain in the faces of grieving loved ones, the dehumanizing narratives that we so often hear tend to lose all meaning.

      Reply
  3. This brought tears to my eyes. You were the perfect person to bring this message today. Thanking you for everything–your service, your commitment to peace, your courage in truth telling. This is exactly what I needed to read today.

    Reply
  4. Powerful words from someone who has been there, if only our ‘leaders’ could go for a day and witness some of that perhaps we would end the wars, tomorrow.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Honestly Sharon, I’m not convinced anything would change even if they did. If there is to be any kind of cultural shift that seeks peace first above all else, it will have to start at the grass roots level, and you know what? The Church actually has a quasi-positive track-record with that kind of social change, so that seems as good a place as any to start. :)

      Reply
  5. John

    To Luke: It is truly tragic that your story is all too common among war veterans. I don’t think people were intended to be able to witness death and not be affected negatively; much less so when directly involved. If the best way to honor you is to promote peace, then that is how you should be honored. You deserve that and so much more.

    To Emily: Honor the veterans. The whole role of the military member is to give up their personal right to choose their course for four years, to follow what the politicians say this country needs. They do this because they believe that a few years of doing someone else’s will is worth what they are preserving for their loved ones. If you want to take up arms, take up arms against the politicians who wield the military might.

    To America: As a current military member who is living the choice to defend this country, I don’t need your honor. It feels nice, but I don’t need it.
    What I need is to not be attacked for your choices.
    You, America, are choosing to send me to war.
    You, America, are telling me to kill the ones who disagree.
    You, America, are pulling the trigger and pushing the button that causes stories like Luke’s.
    If you don’t like your choices, you need to take responsibility, vote the politicians out of office who are sending us to war, and vote in people who will embrace peace. But don’t expect me to break my vow to follow your representative’s orders because you aren’t doing your part.
    War is a political tool used to achieve political gain, nothing more. It is an ugly, abhorrent tool. If you don’t want it used, vote in leaders who won’t use it.

    Reply
    • Luke

      John,

      You are absolutely right as to where the responsibility lies, but that is the hard work of peacemaking, and we avoid it for that very reason: because it’s hard. Also, I think we as Christians tend to take a much more fatalistic attitude toward war than most. We say things like “it’s human nature” and “it’s just the way things have always been” and perhaps most egregious, “God is in control.”

      Honestly, most times it just feels like a cop-out.

      Reply
    • Whoa, John. I want to stand and give a slow-clap to that. Well said.

      Reply
  6. If I could like and share this more times, I would.

    Reply
    • Luke

      *fist bump*

      Reply
  7. Megan

    So thankful for these brave, powerful words, Luke. I identify with Sarah Bessey’s label of “uneasy pacifist” because it’s hard for to me to separate the call to peacemaking with the realities of this world. Thanks for inviting us to be okay with that tension while pressing ever forward to the call of peace.

    Reply
    • Luke

      I love that post of Sarah’s. It’s a fitting label, because the reality is that peacemaking is never easy.

      Reply
  8. Lord have mercy.

    Reply
    • Luke

      And Lord, may we be instruments of that mercy in this world.
      May we be subjects in a Kingdom whose Prince is Peace.

      Lord, hear our prayer.

      Reply
  9. Aaron

    Sobbed pretty hard reading this and I didn’t expect to do that on this day. If we really confronted the realities of a veteran’s life we might all be in tears on Veteran’s Day.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Aaron,

      I can’t help but wonder if you would have reacted the same way had we just still been bundles of electrons on the internet to one another. Had you not stayed in my home, played with my boys, sat at our table (and eaten our pancakes!), and put a human face to the story, do you think it would have had the same effect? I’m not sure, but I think it speaks to the power of hospitality and community in humanizing what might otherwise be abstract and disconnected.

      Reply
      • Aaron

        It’s not the first time something like this has suddenly found me crying, this is a weighty matter for me, but I think you are right, certainly had something to do with it and am thankful for that.

        Reply
  10. You capture the tension for sure. This made me cry, cry for the injustice of it all.

    Reply
  11. Powerfully written, Luke. Thank you for your service, thank you for sharing these stories, and thank you for this call to peace. I stand with you.

    Reply
    • Luke

      That last part? That’s all the thanks I need. :)

      Reply
  12. Ed

    Thank for you going to these difficult places in your story so we can better understand what you’re writing about. I’m often struck by the number of veterans I meet who are committed pacifists now. Reading these stories, I can certainly understand why.

    And by the way, you were in the Airborne? That sounds pretty intense! Gosh.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Ed,

      I hear that sentiment often, that folks are surprised at many veterans’ attitudes toward war. The difference though, I think, is that not all veterans are as open about their experiences, and about *why* they feel the way they do. To be honest, I don’t like talking about it either, but I see how it effects people, and if my story can be a catalyst in bringing about this conversation that so desperately needs to be had, then I’m willing to be a little uncomfortable, I suppose.

      And we were way more intense in our own minds than in real life. :)

      Reply
  13. Wow what a thought provoking post. I can’t stop thinking about it actually. We need to be praying about how we can support our veterans upon their arrival home. Leaving the physical location of a battlefield is only the first step toward ending the war and healing.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Julia,

      Yes, we absolutely do need to support veterans in the healing process, but if I might take it one step further, I think there’s also much work to be done in ensuring we have fewer veterans with stories like mine to begin with.

      Reply
  14. Michele

    As usual, you have provided such a wonderful perspective for me to think about. Thank you, Luke. Thank you for it all. I’m standing with you Brother in peace.

    Reply
  15. Thank you for your courage and honesty in sharing these stories–must have been very hard to do

    Reply
    • Luke

      Hard, yes, but necessary, I think. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  16. you are one of the very few who can speak from experience… both of military/war and the Kingdom. thanks for being that voice today brother…

    Reply
    • Luke

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Brandon. I appreciate all of your help and encouragement as I continue to find my voice in all of this.

      Reply
  17. Michael Norton

    Luke,
    you speak from horrible experience, you speak from raw memories, and I’m sure that to speak of those things is painful. Your words, however, are prophetic and desperately necessary. Grace and peace to you, brother.

    Reply
    • Luke

      Perhaps in some sense, the notions of duty and loyalty that were drilled into me in the military are ironically at play here. Yes, it does suck to reopen some of these old wounds, but when I survey the landscape of discussion of topics like these, I just feel like there’s nobody out there telling these stories, and countering the narratives we hear day in and day out, and I feel like somebody needs to. Someone has to speak, and while I’m not silly enough to think that my one little blog post is going to change the world, I’m damn sure of one thing: not saying anything means not changing anything.

      Reply
  18. Michael Moore

    Thank you, Luke, for your heart-wrenching story. I am a Pastor who retired after 26 years as a US Air Force Chaplain and saw much of what you described in various forms throughout my my time. Interestingly enough, the Gospel reading for Sunday was about the poor widow’s offering… All gave some at the temple treasury, she gave all… While I did not focus exclusively on the secular holiday, I did tie in the concept of sacrifice and lessons learned during my own time and the time of other members of my church. There were no patriotic flag-waving hymns… The focus was simply on what do we give to God in Christ.

    I have journeyed from being a part of the “machine” as a Staff Chaplain at AF Special Operations Command for my last assignment to being a Christ follower who leans towards being a pacifist. I have seen and experienced too much… And even in uniform I questioned the legitimacy of Iraq and the failed policies that left so many Soldiers and Marines dead for no reason as the enemy went right back into the cleared and “safe” villages after our forces left. Becoming increasingly uncomfortable with exactly what Emily expressed… The blood of so many shed for failed policies and flawed or non-existent strategies.

    Thank you, again, for being bold enough to share you story and I wish you peace in your journey as you heal.

    Grace and Peace, Michael

    Reply
    • Luke

      A very wise little orange creature with a giant mustache (the Lorax, in case you’re unfamiliar) once said that a tree falls the way it leans. So, I think your pacifist leanings have you headed in the right direction. :)

      I hear you on the policy side of the house, I really do, but at some point, I think we have to move past questioning, and toward something more…kinetic, and voices like yours are vitally important. Keep speaking up, and speaking out. Don’t give in to the apathy that too often accompanies disillusionment. There’s a distinction here to made as well between people and policies, but the two are also inextricably linked: we advocate for policies of peace so that we may save people.

      Keep the faith, brother!

      Reply
  19. Jon

    Thank you for writing this. I am also a veteran of the Iraq War, and I agree with you. I have always felt awkward when someone thanks me or honors me in some way for my service. On the one hand I am grateful that people recognize my sacrifice, but I do not feel that my actions in combat are worthy of honor. There is no honor in war.

    I was overwhelmed by the suffering I witnessed in everyone involved or affected by the war in Iraq. I kept asking God, “where is there any hope in the face of such madness?” I was wondering if it would not be better for the entire human race to die rather than have more people born to suffer from war.

    About 2 years after I returned to the US, God reminded me of the cross. “Remember the cross. If I thought like people, I would have killed Adam and Eve, without mercy, the instant they rebelled against me. However, I do not think like a human, so I came up with a different plan. I decided to take the form of a man and allow men to torture me to death, so that everyone, even the people torturing me, could be with me. No human would do that. My plan and power are so brilliant that I broke the power of death and rose from the grave. This is hope. It’s me. It’s my power and the way I think. Come be with me and be a part of hope.”

    Reply
  20. Nanci

    I almost didn’t read this because I abhor war, and while I appreciate and honor veterans in my heart (my father was a WWII vet) I do not want any part in glorifying a culture of war and imperialsm. I’m so glad I did read it though, and I shared it on facebook. God bless you, you are an inspiration.

    Reply
    • Luke

      I’m glad you did too. That was honestly one of my concerns with writing (and titling) this post, that those were already averse to to our familiarity with war would be turned off and tune out. Thanks for sticking it out and reading. :)

      Reply
  21. Thank you, Luke, for your bravery and your skill in writing this out. It will take talented, thoughtful, experienced people like you to lead the change that is needed. My husband, having grown up in a historic peace church, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnamese war and we were ‘drafted’ into alternate service – teaching school in Zambia for two years. Would that the draft looked like that for everyone! I never cease to be amazed at the dichotomous mindset that will defend the rights of the unborn but not the born – it makes no sense to me. If we are pro-life, how can we also be pro-war?? War is evil, destructive and life-sucking as well as life-taking – and it is a scourge across human history. May your tribe increase – those who’ve been there and lived through it and who now tell the hard truth wherever and however they can. There are instances where war may indeed be inevitable – but oh! might that unfortunate truth become less and less true. As long as there are those who wear the uniform of this country, I will salute them for their service, but disagree with their need to do so, most especially when they must endure the kinds of things you have described here. Thank you for all of it – the service and the writing. I’ll stand with you in favor of peace any day of the week.

    Reply
  22. Gary

    Luke and John: Your observations are elegant and detail the bitter side of Service to Country in War. My brothers and I are ex-military and served during the 60’s. America was an unsettled person not sure what to do with the men and women in service.
    Thank you for your service and your compassion for the innocents.

    Reply

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