“Wrestling with Demons” remix

**This is the first draft I completed for a feature article for Sojourners Magazine (February, 2011 issue).  If you read both, you will see that there are some big differences.  Thank God for the editorial process  🙂


The first time I traveled to Washington D.C. it was to speak in the National Cathedral for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq on March 16th, 2007.  I had been asked to read the words of a fellow Iraq veteran and conscientious objector, Joshua Casteel.  It was a whirlwind kind of event for me, being in such a big city speaking before a crowd at a national landmark.  Believe it or not, nerves were the last thing on my mind.

Joshua had been an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, met a Muslim insurgent who challenged his faith, and had a miraculous conversion experience.  He and I were in the country during overlapping periods; I had been “in-country” about five months by the time he got there in June 2004.  He remembers one day leaving the prison he was stationed at and feeling deep repulsion when the crosshairs on his rifle fell upon a young boy just outside the wire.  This was the memory I was to recount for the audience at the National Cathedral that snowy March evening in 2007.  Our experiences were similar, but they also had devastatingly painful differences.

Moments before the lectors and presenters gathered to begin the procession into the sanctuary, I stole away to pray.  I had nearly told the organizers that I could not read the words assigned to me.  The task before me made my hands shake and my chest pound, but it was not from fear of public speaking.  I was being asked to read the words of another young man not unlike myself who, by the grace of God, had recognized, instantaneously, the deep inner defilement caused by pointing his weapon at an eight year old boy.   I went on innumerable combat patrols through several population centers for over a year in Iraq.  For fourteen months, I never had the sense to listen to my conscience.  What kind of person did that make me?


I had enlisted in the US Army in 2000, two months after my 18th birthday, to be a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.  After the towers fell, I reenlisted for four more years after I found out that my unit would not be able to fight terrorists in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan until after my contract expired.  I finally got my wish in January 2004, when I deployed overseas in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii as a young Specialist (E-4).

On February 12th, 2005, I was welcomed home by banners in Dallas Airport thanking me for my service.  Just days prior, I was in a heavy fire fight in Mosul, defending a polling station in the oldest section of the city (Nineveh to Biblical historians).  An Iraqi National Guardsman took a grenade for my platoon.  Insurgents had taken a few bullets of ours too.  Standing by the Iraqi soldier’s feet, I watched his own blood get swept up with that of the insurgent as it hurried down the street.  Why does God makes his sun shine on the wicked and the righteous, that in war the blood of innocents get swept up with the blood of the guilty?  On the battlefield, there was no easy line between friend and foe.  Sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was the liberator or the oppressor.  Maybe I was both.


What was I being thanked for in Dallas?  I needed to grieve and I was being venerated as a hero.  Being a hero meant that I was not allowed to process the cruel reality of war and the consequences those experiences would have on me for years to come.  Every veteran has stories like mine, and probably many more, since I only did one long tour.  I hear from veterans consistently as co-founder of Centurions Guild, a small community group that has committed to protecting and defending prospective, current, and former service members while bearing true faith and allegiance to God.

Centurion’s Guild has amassed a small following of veterans and service members trying to serve God and country (in that order).  Sometimes people with family in the Armed Forces will contact us to ask how to support their loved one while opposing the war in which they serve.  Other times, we get contacted by service members themselves, wrestling between their loyalty to the state and their faith in God.  They talk about how they do not know if there is anyone they can talk to about their doubts about the rightness or wrongness of armed service, they are just expected to shut up and do what they are told.

When people first started calling, I used to think they were talking about their military commanders, who have an understandable aversion to questioning national service.  They usually are more offended by the atmosphere in their churches and the comments made by pastors, sometimes accusing them of cowardice or questioning their commitment to justice.   It is rare that we will get inquiries from the press or other organizations, but that changed when we became a co-sponsor of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War (TCCW).


The genesis of the TCCW is intertwined with Soldiers of Conscience, a 2007 Emmy Award winning documentary about the quintessential question of combat; to kill or not to kill?  The film follows eight Army soldiers, four who object to war in any form and four who do not.  It is a heart-wrenching depiction of the struggle of moral conscience in war; two of the objectors profiled served time in prison for their beliefs.

It is one of God’s mysteries, then, that the filmmakers happened live one floor above Gabriella Lettini, a professor of theological ethics in Berkeley, California. At the time, Gabriella was teaching religion and film at the Starr King School for the Ministry.  She connected with Rita Nakashima Brock, a prominent Christian author and theologian, to discuss ways to reach faith communities with the stories told in Soldiers of Conscience.

The political neutrality of the film itself (which received full cooperation and an official endorsement from the United States Army) was compelling, leaving the viewer to draw conclusions from the questions raised about conscience in war.  Organizing around the theological and ethical questions raised in the film, they thought, would enrich the volatile conversations around war in the Church.  They had each been anti-war activists during Vietnam, but felt that that most of the media in those circles continue to lack religious nuance.  In Soldiers of Conscience, however, most of the objectors explicitly identified as people of faith, some using language directly reminiscent of Church doctrine and the Bible.  Kevin Benderman, who was on trial for desertion at the time of production, asks poignantly, “Why am I carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden?”

These are questions that Christian service members wrestle with each and every day, and the Church failed to respond or, in some cases, shuts down opportunity for dialogue.  This moral impotence has ruinous effects on Christians serving in the military.  The organizers’ meeting with Gary and Catherine occurred in 2005, the same year CBS published their groundbreaking study on veteran suicide rates.  The departments of vital statistics from 45 states provided data that showed 6,256 veterans had killed themselves that year.  Female and male veterans alike were twice as likely as civilians to commit suicide.  Veterans aged 20-24 were up to four times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts.  I was 23 years old when this study was conducted.  This is my generation.

Don’t think that this is just a post-service issue that only affects service members after they are discharged; last year records of soldier suicides were shattered month after month.  By the end of the summer, the rate of suicide for members of the armed forces in that year exceeded the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Organizers of the TCCW felt that the best way to exorcise the demons veterans wrestle with was to use the model of a truth commission.  Truth commissions are a unique opportunity to empower a community that otherwise has been silenced or overlooked.  Our service members and veterans have been burying their humanity beneath the rhetoric of heroism, and it is costing them their lives.


Embedded in the same email inviting Centurion’s Guild to be a co-sponsor of the TCCW was another invitation to provide a testifier at a public hearing to be held on March 21st, 2010 at the Riverside Church in New York City. The testimony shared would provide the building blocks for addressing the inadequacies of the current conscientious objection policies as well as shine light upon the unique problem of moral injury.

Moral injury[1] is a new term to the medical field, having been introduced in July 2009 in the academic journal Clinical Psychology Review in an article written by numerous Veterans Administration Medical practitioners throughout the United States.  Unlike predominantly mental injuries, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or physical injuries such as Traumatic Brain Injury, Moral Injury has to do with the ethical framework we assign to war.  It is the “lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (emphasis added).

Moral beliefs vary from person to person, but not all that significantly.  It would be hard to find someone to deny that war is horrible and should be avoided at all cost.  Where there is variance is the conversation on precisely when and why we should use such force.  The TCCW’s strength is in its diversity; it has brought to the table people of vast theological diversity.  My own experience in combat has proven a strong catalyst for pacifism, but I was in the minority.  Rita, one of the organizers, is not nearly as purist; “I don’t have an eschatological view of [war and peace].  There will always be need for forms of organized protection.  But I’d like to see a society in which those who want to join the military don’t have their souls destroyed.”

Behind all this is the possibly divisive idea that soldiers might be victims. This is a difficult assumption to swallow, because we are either used to either venerating or villainizing our veterans.  Some of us are rightfully upset that the military fails to be the force for good that some suggest, and others struggle to see a victim in our nation’s heroic defenders.  Both of these predispositions are dangerous for the veteran, however.

To succumb to the polemics that insist U.S. military service, in our day and age, is either an all-encompassing evil or God’s gift to the world is misleading and theologically counterproductive.  Furthermore, speaking as a veteran myself, it is insulting and demeaning.  It assumes we are either more or less than human, and that is deeply problematic since it either grants us universal immunity or assigns us unwarranted guilt (each of which are undeserved).

We’re human, nothing more and nothing less.  We try our best, but we make mistakes. One of the major differences between military service and civilian life is that when we make mistakes, it costs lives.  Sometimes innocent life. Jesus’ word to about the Roman centurions who had flogged him and cast lots for his clothes gives me strength; “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”   Is it any surprise that the prayer of St. Martin of Tours, patron of soldiers and chaplains, is one for perseverance:  “Lord, if your people still have need of my services, I will not avoid the toil.  …I will never beg to be excused from failing strength”

Excessive gratitude, like the sea of banners in the Dallas Airport that greeted me upon my return home, work to inhibit the otherwise very natural and healthy guilt response.  Soldiers are in a tenuous emotional/spiritual position because they come the closest of any in our society to moral culpability in killing other human beings. Whether we agree with it or not, our society legitimizes the use of lethal force in certain circumstances.  But to think that ending another human beings life leaves one totally unchanged and indistinguishable from those who have not is an illusion.  Killing fundamentally alters the moral make up of a person.  I know because I have been inextricably changed by my own moral proximity to killing on the battlefield.   Fourteen months in an Army infantry platoon is about as proximate as one can get.

In the other hand, unwarranted villainization does at least as much, if not more, damage to the spiritual coherence of individuals personally involved in warfare.  In my six years on active duty, I never heard another soldier express anything that could be construed as bloodlust or blatant interest in killing or destruction.  At worst, I heard plenty of inadvertent ignorance and xenophobia.  Many of my compatriots (and I would include myself in this appraisal) simply did not engage in enough critical assessment of the actions in which we participated.

It should not surprise us that Jesus’ intercession on the cross for the centurions who flogged and mocked him was qualified by the statement that “they [knew] not what they do.”[2] While ignorance is certainly no defense, it should not be too easily cast aside.  Most men I served alongside were virtuous and well intentioned.

Guilt, however, is requisite of grace.  To bury guilt with gratitude is to deny one’s God-given conscience.  To bludgeon one with guilt is to be party to their own spiritual suicide. The Church certainly must not be afraid to name the hell of war, since it is nothing but.  However, we need to recognize that when men and women descend to that place, demons have a way of becoming spiritual stowaways.  It is time we recognize that soldiers can indeed be victims of the violence they themselves perpetrate on our behalf.


In New York City last March, several veterans testified about their struggle with conscience in war.  In just about every other truth commission, the role of testifier was that of victim.  It was rare that a perpetrator would testify.  The TCCW is made possible by the assumption that service members might be more nuanced than the rhetoric of heroism suggests.  We wrestle deeply with the moral ramifications of our armed service.  Part of our sacrifice is that ambiguity, it is to live forever with shades of guilt and doubt.

If this startles churches, it is only because we have not been listening to those who serve in our own midst.  We have failed in creating safe atmospheres for congregants, military or otherwise, to respond in faith to our own core principles regarding war and peace. Historically, the Christian tradition has taught pacifism, Just War theology, and crusades. With the end of Christian theocracies, crusading is no longer an accepted teaching. However, pacifism and the doctrine of Just War are part of Christian principles. When we fail to take responsibility for our own teachings, we condemn Christians serving in situations of violence and war to disquieting and injurious moral ambiguity.

After my honorable discharge in November 2006, went to Hebron, Palestine, with Christian Peacemaker Teams. We watched as an Israeli Defense Force unit patrolled the area around the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  I was filled with contempt immediately.  I told myself I was incensed by their lackadaisical attitude, at the loose and undisciplined behavior in the middle of a contested area.  When my group returned to the Christian Peacemaker Team apartment, we held our nightly check-in.  When it came my turn, words escaped my mouth before they had formed in my head, I said “I saw myself in them.”[3]

The gravity of that statement hit me as quickly as the words had escaped my mouth, and I excused myself to the roof.  I felt naked and exposed, but not to the others in the apartment.  God had torn away the fig leaves I had adorned myself in, I realized painfully that I had not forgiven myself for the things I had done and left undone in Iraq.  I pounded out a raw, emotional journal entry concluding that I would never again hate someone else for being somebody I was.  Furthermore, I recognized that somehow I had muted my conscience; I had been conditioned to allow someone else to do my moral discernment for me.

The complexity of conscience in war is as deep as the ocean, and nearly as unexplored.  The TCCW is but the first step toward a more informed understanding of the profound consequences that combat has on the psyche and on the soul.  The centrality of moral injury to the discussion of conscience in war cannot be understated.  When my own internal walls came crashing down, I did not endure some trauma, nor was my brain exposed to concussive waves or direct impact; my injury was neither exclusively physical nor mental.

The Veterans Administration (VA) is implementing programs to explore and diagnose moral injury, but it is still in an incubator phase.  The TCCW is working with a number of clinicians and VA medical practitioners to refine the definition and ramifications of moral injury.  In a 2009 article in the Clinical Psychology Review, seven VA clinicians observed that those “who work with service members and veterans focus most of their attention on the impact of life-threat trauma, failing to pay sufficient attention to the impact of events with moral and ethical implications.”

The first step is always to listen to those who may have been affected morally by war fighting.  The article continues by saying that “in order to promote healing, concealment needs to be avoided at all costs.”  In New York City last March, near the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the TCCW listened to the testimony of six combat veterans, including myself.

True to truth commission format, commissioners and witnesses at the Riverside Church in March dutifully, and, at times, painfully, shared the burden by listening to the stories we veterans shared.  For nearly eight months thereafter, commissioners worked to compile an official report with recommendations for political and religious leaders, as well as communities of faith.  This past Veterans Day, we gathered again, this time in Washington D.C. to release the official report during an interfaith service honor conscience and heal moral injury.


Last Veterans Day, I returned to Washington D.C. to be a part of that interfaith service.  I had been asked to share a short prayer right before the plenary address by Rev. James Forbes in the National City Christian Church.  Memories of the National Cathedral flooded my head, especially those moments I stole to be alone in prayer before the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, seeking the strength to read the words of Joshua Casteel, a soldier with immeasurably more sense than me.  I had found a small chapel with a mosaic of Jesus emerging from the tomb.  Looking upon him were two Roman centurions.  Their presence angered me as much as had the IDF patrol in Hebron.  I burned with anger that I was unable to escape the ever-present military imagery, that I could not free myself from the morally indicting reminders of my transgressions.

There before the mosaic, illuminated by prayer candles upon the shrine where I found myself, I demanded that I be freed from my past, to be excused from my mistakes.  I hated who I had become, this person that allowed himself to come and go when told, to do only what he is ordered; as the soldiers had done for the centurion in Matthew 8.  What I failed to grasp is that forgiveness is right where you fall, that my vocation would spring from the ashes of my burning conscience.

My prayer for Veterans Day was that of St. Martin of Tours, a conscientious objector the Roman Catholic Church celebrates on November 11th.  His is a prayer for perseverance.  I may not have been able to persevere without the work of the TCCW.  “At the heart of all of this,” Joshua shared in March at the Riverside Church, “is a need to realize that what we believe on the inside can never be removed from what we do on the outside.  There is no private conscience.”  May the Church be the place our service members are morally equipped for the task with which they are entrusted.  By so doing, I pray, may we prevent moral injury and honor those few who courageously live sacrificial lives so that many may sleep soundly in their beds every night.

You can watch TCCW veteran testimony and read the final report at www.conscienceinwar.org.

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