At Home in Combat

I’ve heard a number of times that combat veterans sometimes feel more at home in combat than back at home in safety. Maybe you’ve heard it too, in movies like The Hurt Locker and In The Valley of Elah (Private Diaz mentions, toward the end, that despite the horrors he witnessed, all he wants “to do is go back.”). This is a problem; nobody in their right mind should want to return to the hell of war. Families and communities wonder how it could be possible for someone to actually desire to deploy again and again. Maybe an illustration could help to at least put some color to it all.

Imagine you are a beautiful piece of fine China. You sit on the shelf with the other pieces; cups and plates, salad forks and butter knives. People admire you as they walk by. Life on the shelf is interrupted only briefly by special dinners for important guests. You are a part of a set, and all the pieces of China are all relied on for particular qualities you all share, you know what your place is, what specific quality you possess and therefor offer.

But then one day you are accidentally dropped, breaking into a thousand dangerously sharp shards. In the bustle, you are swept under the rug so the guests don’t have to see you. After dinner is over, you’re brought out from under the rug. Some of your smaller pieces can’t be found, but you get glued back together as carefully as possible. You bear visible scars, but you are also fundamentally weakened. Questions plague your mind; will the glue hold? can I still be stacked with the rest of the China? will I ever be admired again?

No matter how skilled the craftsman who put you back together, regardless of how much money was put into your repair, you know that you will never be the same as you once were. Do you want to be put back on the shelf at all, or do you just want to be put back on the floor? You care so much for the other pieces of China that you don’t particularly want to be put back on the shelf, you don’t want to sully the aesthetic uniformity. The trash can looks more appealing than the shelf; after all, you just wouldn’t fit in on the shelf you once called home…

Church is that place where we don’t hide our scars, where some are China but others handcrafted pottery. All have scars, so none are out of place. We are admired not for our perfection but because we are products of the Owner’s hand.

When people are deployed repeatedly and come home to awkward glances and uncomfortable silences, can we blame them for only wanting to return to combat instead of coming (all the way) home? It is not merely an addiction, it is a fundamental shift in identity – soldiers can feel the difference in their very souls. In these circumstances, we at home need not only to remind them that they are still valuable and “normal,” we also need to be honest about ways in which we are all scarred and shattered.

Confession must take on a whole new meaning, not just for those who have killed in combat, but those of us who instinctively think that they are not even indirectly a part of that violence. Heschel said that in a representative democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible. We all need to confess, we all need to acknowledge the collective nature of the responsibility for war we all share. We are all damaged goods, all touched by the horrors of war. If we can convey that reality, maybe then the rest of the broken plates and cups would feel more at home with us than they do in the shattering chaos of war.

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