If I could serve our country without being expected to kill people, I would never have been a conscientious objector. I had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000, two months after my 18th birthday, to be a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. After the Twin Towers fell, I learned that my unit would not be sent to "fight terrorists" until after my contract expired. So I re-enlisted for four more years. In January 2004 I was deployed from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For 14 months, I went on innumerable combat patrols through civilian population centers. In all that time, I never listened to my conscience.
There is nothing like the pain that comes with the realization that you are capable of killing another human being without question for people you have never met and have no reason to trust. What kind of person did that make me?
When I came to that realization, I had been on the battlefield for 11 months and had seen my share of intense combat. I had smelled death, tasted the acrid carbon powder of the gun smoke, and heard the cries of mothers outliving their children. Sitting outside a hospital in Sammarra in October 2004, little did those mothers know that I wept with them, safely hidden from my platoon members who would have seen the raw emotion as a liability. I’d seen bodies outnumber available bags. They were draped over one another in an exterior storage room.
To be human is to be fully capable of the most awful acts of evil and the most audacious acts of charity. I both found and lost my humanity while I wore the uniform of a United States soldier. As painful as that has been, I would not trade the experience for anything. I would not be the man I am today had I not learned the lessons I did wearing the uniform of our country.
On Feb. 12, 2005, I was welcomed home with banners in the Dallas airport thanking me for my service. Just days prior, I’d been in a heavy fire-fight in Mosul (Nineveh, to biblical historians). I was defending a polling station in the oldest section of the city. An Iraqi national guardsman landed on a grenade someone tossed toward my platoon. The insurgents took a few of our bullets too. Standing by the Iraqi soldier's feet, I watched his blood get swept up with that of the insurgents as it puddled in the street. 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.
Six years after I enlisted, I came to what the military regulations call my "crystallization of conscience." I wanted to serve my country, but I would not kill people. Facing a second deployment in April 2006, I applied for conscientious objector status. I decided not to seek discharge but to request being returned to Iraq unarmed. I couldn’t leave my brothers in my unit. However, Christ bid me to drop my weapon, and I had no choice but to respond.
My conscientious objector application was an attempt to reconcile my principles with my patriotism. I was not convinced that leaving the military would absolve me of my fair measure of responsibility to prevent or end the wars fought in our name. Would I be any less complicit as a tax-paying civilian? Or could I seek alternatives to violence in the midst of war?
After my commander berated me as a coward and insisted I was somehow aiding the enemies of America by asking to return to Iraq unarmed, I was forcibly reassigned to a detachment that would not deploy. One of the most tumultuous days of my life was spent watching my unit leave for combat without me. Ten members of my unit did not return from that combat tour.
In 2008, after being honorably discharged, I co-founded Centurion's Guild, a peer support network for military veterans who wrestle with their loyalties to God and country. We are sometimes referred to as an "alternative chaplaincy." U.S. military chaplains sometimes take ambiguous theological stances on the separation of church and state, confusing the power of the sword with the authority of Jesus' cross. Centurion’s Guild serves as a reminder that to be under God is to subordinate our pledges and allegiances to our baptism; sometimes picking up our cross means laying down our swords.
When people first started calling the guild, I thought they would want to talk about conflict with their military commanders, who have an understandable aversion to those who question their involvement with the military. However, callers usually were more offended by the atmosphere in their churches and the comments made by pastors, who sometimes accuse them of cowardice or question their commitment to justice. It was rare that we would get inquiries from the press or other organizations, but all that changed when Centurion’s Guild was invited to co-sponsor the nation’s first Truth Commission on Conscience in War, held in March 2010 at Riverside Church in New York City.
The genesis of the commission was intertwined with the release of Soldiers of Conscience, a 2007 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. 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?"
The filmmakers thought that organizing around the theological and ethical questions raised in the film would enrich the volatile conversations around war in the church. That was also the basis for the truth commission process.
I was among several veterans who testified at the first commission. In nearly every other truth commission model — from South Africa to Greensboro, N.C. — the testifier was a victim. Rarely did a perpetrator testify. However, the Conscience in War commission was built on the concept that in some cases armed combatants, or perpetrators, might be more nuanced in their reasoning than the rhetoric of heroism suggests. In truth, many of us wrestle deeply with the moral ramifications of our involvement with the armed forces. Embracing ambiguity, living forever with shades of guilt and doubt, is an unanticipated part of our sacrifice. If this is startling, it’s only because too many have not been listening to the veterans among us. Our churches have failed to create 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. But how many churches are actually teaching the moral discernment implicit in these traditions? When we fail to take responsibility for our own teachings, we condemn Christians involved in situations of violence and war to disquieting and injurious moral ambiguity.
"War inflicts terrible, tragic consequences on all touched by it," says retired Army chaplain Herman Keizer. "Moral conscience should not be one of its casualties."
In 2007, CBS published its groundbreaking study on veteran suicide rates. The departments of vital statistics from 45 states provided data that showed that 6,256 veterans had killed themselves in 2005. Veterans — both male and female — were twice as likely as civilians to commit suicide. Veterans ages 20 to 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.
Suicide is not an issue just for veterans. In 2009, records of active-duty soldier suicides were shattered month after month. And in January 2010, the number of soldiers who committed suicide exceeded the number of soldiers killed by enemy fire in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The complexity of conscience in war is as deep as the ocean, and nearly as unexplored. Commission organizers 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. Members of the military and veterans have been burying their humanity beneath the rhetoric of heroism at the cost of their health and their lives.
When my own internal walls came crashing down, I did not endure a physical trauma. My brain was not exposed to concussive waves or direct impact. My injury was neither exclusively physical nor mental. It was a "moral injury."
Moral injury is an important term in the medical field. In a 2009 article in the Clinical Psychology Review, seven Department of Veterans Affairs 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."
Unlike predominantly mental injuries, such as 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).
The first step toward healing for those affected morally by war fighting is always to listen. The article in Clinical Psychology Review says that "to promote healing, concealment needs to be avoided at all costs." For nearly eight months the Truth Commission listened to veterans and compiled an official report with recommendations for political and religious leaders.
The second step in healing is to share the knowledge. On Veterans Day 2010, I gathered with veterans, religious leaders, academics, chaplains, and clinicians for the second Truth Commission on Conscience in War. At National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., we released the commission’s official report during an interfaith service. The report called for a "revision of current U.S. military regulations governing conscientious objection to assure greater protection for religious freedom and moral conscience in war through the right to object to a particular war." Additionally, the commission called on religious leaders to educate their communities “about criteria governing the moral conduct of war, about the needs of veterans and their families, including healing moral injury, and about the importance of moral conscience in war.”
Excessive expression of gratitude, such as the sea of banners in the Dallas airport that greeted me when I returned home, may work to inhibit the otherwise very natural and healthy guilt response. Soldiers are in a tenuous emotional/spiritual position as they grapple with the moral culpability of killing other human beings. It is an utter illusion to think that ending another human life leaves one unchanged. The act of killing fundamentally alters a person's moral makeup.
On the other hand, unwarranted vilification does at least as much damage, if not more, to the spiritual coherence of people personally involved in war. 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, simply did not engage in enough critical assessment of our actions.
When Jesus interceded on the cross for the centurions who flogged him, he included the statement that "they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). That should not surprise us. While ignorance is certainly no defense, it should not be too easily cast aside as an explanation. Most of the men I was in the military with were virtuous and well intentioned.
Guilt, however, is requisite to grace. To bury guilt with gratitude is to deny one's God-given conscience. To bludgeon someone 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.