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,
“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,
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)