More than Sentinels Wait for the Dawn

A Soldier Ponders the Wounds of War and the Absence of God

I’ve had it, Chaplain. My right leg still hurts like hell from the shrapnel, and God only knows when the drugs will kick in. But physical pain is one thing; thinking about the insurgents I killed in that firefight last deployment bothers me even more, and I think about it all the time. I can’t sleep without a pill—or a few drinks. I tried not to burden my wife by talking about it, but she thought I was “hiding” something from her: which is why she left me. I can’t find any joy in what I used to: the kids, my friends, sports, music, sex. … You mention “God”? Don’t even go there, Chappy. Some idiot in a collar got up in the pulpit last Sunday to preach about the war, and he quoted the Bible: “Thou shalt not kill.” End of discussion. On top of everything else, I’m told I’m nothing more than a murderer, a thug. So church is out. Instead, I’ve gone hiking and fishing just to have some peace and quiet, but I don’t find solace there either. Friends tell me, “God is near.” Well, I don’t feel it: at all. Every bit of sweetness has gone out of life. Kind of like an endless day in Iraq: no color, just gray everywhere.

Comments like these are familiar to chaplains who deal with soldiers coming back from deployment. It is worth noting that most of these individuals are hardly unstable or suicidal. 1 For the most part, they continue to be productive in their jobs and responsible for their families. They function quite well. Far from delusional, they present a realistic—indeed, disturbingly accurate—picture of the battlefield, and their appraisal of the emotional situation in which they find themselves is very rational. At the same time, their physical torment is but the most obvious expression of deeper suffering. Intellectually, they sense a loss of meaning; morally, a lack of direction; spiritually, the apparent absence of God.

Most people feel compassion toward those who suffer in this way, but they must be careful to avoid well-intentioned words that trivialize soldiers’ experiences. Individuals in pain have little tolerance for what they consider “easy” solutions or spiritual bromides that diminish or distract from the magnitude of evil they have witnessed firsthand. Moreover, if there is one lesson the Book of Job teaches, it is the danger of presuming to know the inscrutable mind of God. Sometimes, it is preferable to admit honestly that one cannot explain the reason why evil, whether physical or moral, happens. That, and genuine kindness, can go a long way in giving hope to a suffering soldier.

But is there nothing else one can do?  By a strange paradox, soldiers may prove to be the experts at confronting the mystery of evil by doing what comes most naturally to them: not “combatives” (hand-to-hand combat training), or land navigation, or map reading, or marksmanship. What distinguishes them as soldiers is a much more basic habit: they know, better than most, how to stand at attention. The ability to pay attention enables armies to move as a unified organism. Moving beyond the small world they once inhabited, now shattered by evil, to a larger domain that reflects a deeper understanding of the human condition is an attribute of healthy individuals. Still, because the period between the initial trauma and ultimate peace is often marked by extreme vulnerability, chaplains do well not to minimize soldiers’ distress or impose spiritual panaceas before discovering what exactly the source of their pain is. In the words of a famous passage from Death of a Salesman: “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such people. …”2 Likewise, the soldier only finds peace by standing at attention, allowing the source of wisdom and healing to reveal itself in its own time, on its own terms.

The responsibility of the military chaplain is threefold: nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. While the latter tasks are fairly straightforward, the former entails establishing a relationship with soldiers and their families that eludes easy description. With commanders, one must give competent advice concerning the ethical and religious dimensions of war; with families, one must offer temporal support, spiritual comfort, and marital counsel. When dealing with soldiers themselves, perhaps the greatest contribution a chaplain makes is to listen to their stories and acknowledge the torment and guilt they experience at the loss of human life, even when they have acted honorably.

This essay will address three areas in which soldiers struggle with the evil they have witnessed in war, and what, to all appearances, is the absence of God. It will consider how soldiers stand at attention—intellectually, morally, and spiritually—to await the reassurance that, indeed, God has been with them throughout their ordeal, carving out for himself a larger place in their mind, heart, and soul.

I. The Intellect Standing at Attention

Attention is what, above all, distinguishes men from animals. … The mind does not choose the thoughts it wants to have, but shuts out the thoughts it wants to shut out.3

A theoretical discussion of war and killing is in order, though not with any expectation that it will comfort a soldier who has been in combat. It will not. Rather, the discussion is necessary inasmuch as the rational clarity of the individual home from war may be clouded by the emotional distress that goes hand in hand with even justified killing. Admittedly, a theoretical framework for understanding war cannot assuage guilt or console the heart, but it can help clear away the clutter masquerading as “principle” that exacerbates an almost overwhelming anguish. The mind can reassure the heart that there is indeed “reason to hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

Only a naïve reading of the Scriptures holds that any, and all, killing is sinful. The context of Exodus 20:13 (the Fifth Commandment), and the force of the Hebrew word ratsach, indicate that the Mosaic prohibition is not against killing as such, but killing wrongly, that is to say, murder. Clearly, the Bible depicts numerous examples of justified killing that do not qualify as murder.4 There are, of course, thoughtful proponents of Christian pacifism like Stanley Hauerwas, who argue—compellingly—that all too often, “just war” language can be misused as a pretext for disproportionate violence. Conversely, they argue, genuine pacifism should not be equated with “passivism,” as many consider it.  The refusal to fight or kill does not so much typify the true pacifist, as the commitment to actively discover peaceful resolutions to war, and prevent the conditions that bring about war in the first place.5

Yet the soldier’s reply to principled pacifism is more convincing, for it holds that a nation’s use of force can be morally legitimate. The wholesale condemnation of a state’s prerogative to wage war is irresponsible in several respects. First, it misunderstands the nation’s primary obligation: the defense of its citizens and its own autonomy. Moreover, pacifism fails to appreciate the coercive power of human (in contrast to natural or divine) law, which always carries with it a threat (whether implicit or explicit) of punishment, without which society degenerates into a jungle. Finally, pacifism misconstrues the certain principles of Christian teaching. For one thing, it is notable that the New Testament nowhere states that the military profession is incompatible with Christian faith. More significantly, the pacifist view paints a largely sentimental picture of Christianity that may garner initial respect, but ultimately fails to guide conscientious individuals who must deal with the aftermath of heinous crimes against human beings. The danger is that such people ultimately dismiss Christianity as a lovely idea, but an “impracticable” one.6

By contrast, genuine Christianity must be willing to get its hands dirty and deal with real evil. To wit: just as a man does not try to “reason” with a criminal who attacks his family but uses force to subdue him, so too a responsible nation does not remain impotent (or write a strong letter to the U.N.) while an enemy attacks its borders or citizens, but uses force to stop the attacker. In both cases, the intention behind the use of deadly force is not killing, strictly speaking, but the removal of a threat to the innocent, whether on the local level (a father defending his family) or the international (an army defending the nation).7

Those engaged in professions involving the controlled use of force (military, law enforcement) do well to question the attempt by pacifists to set the terms of the debate on war and killing. Failure to distinguish between murder and killing that is otherwise sanctioned by law irresponsibly increases the anguish of the guardians of a nation who honorably defend its citizens. Moreover, one should not presume that pacifism is the moral stance of Christ or Christianity with regard to killing in war.

Of course, this argument does little to console a soldier in the throes of anguish. It does, however, demonstrate that the show of force—under the appropriate circumstances, for the right purpose, and with the proper authority—can be reasonable, indeed, more reasonable than a simplistic form of pacifism in flight from reality. Within the soldier, the mind can encourage the heart to “hold on,” to stand at attention until a deeper source of healing presents itself.

II. The Heart Standing at Attention

One dark night,
Fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled.
(John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” opening lines)

As the comments at the beginning of this essay indicate, soldiers may return from combat, but (from the perspective of their emotions) fail to leave the war “behind” them. The capacity by which they once derived a certain joie de vivre from people, activities, and things now seems deadened. Just as a medication anaesthetizes their pain, so too a pervasive numbness—an unwillingness or inability to feel—prevents their finding both pleasure (in the realm of the senses) and purpose (in the heart).

On the one hand, the inclination to put aside feelings can be invaluable, at least during war. Certainly, indulging one’s appetites—sexual intimacy, for example—is inappropriate in a combat zone because it distracts one’s attention from potential dangers, and renders one vulnerable. Furthermore, were soldiers to react emotionally at danger or the loss of life on the battlefield, they might literally let down their guard and unwittingly increase the likelihood of even more deaths. Indeed, soldiers deliberately train to shelve emotions for extended periods of time, say, a year or more, for the accomplishment of greater goods: mission, safety, and order.

This lifesaving practice, however, can become problematic once soldiers remove themselves from the context of physical danger; they often find it difficult, if not impossible, to return to their previous mode of emotional engagement with the world. Their experience of returning home is comparable to a driver turning off an interstate highway into a residential zone. Just as he finds it difficult to adjust to a safer, more relaxed pace after negotiating the dangers of high-speed travel for so long, the soldier finds it hard to adjust emotionally; his heart is still “racing.” This explains why, for example, a redeployed soldier “hits the deck” when a car backfires, or fails to react spontaneously in a social situation, or even (especially?) finds it difficult to be sexually intimate with his spouse. He is constantly in “defense mode.”

Once again, it is essential that a chaplain not pressure the soldier in pain to “snap out of it” or, worse still, deny his feelings of emptiness, confusion, and anger. On the contrary, he does well by encouraging the soldier to allow negative emotions to surface from the depths of his heart, to identify them, and, finally, to pay attention to them: all without judgment. Admittedly, doing so invites a kind of pain that can be all the more excruciating for the simple fact that the individual has no idea beforehand how long it will take for the bigger picture—the resolution of the problem—to come into view.8

All the same, it is necessary—indeed salutary—to embrace for oneself the experience of emotional desolation. This ability to feel even exquisite pain is the other side of another sublime human capacity, namely, to feel joy and delight. Whether these positive responses arise from the experience of beauty (the realm of aesthetics) or moral goodness (that of ethics), in both cases, the individual’s heart (or “will”) is oriented toward something desirable. Jacques Maritain writes: “Moral experience, in which man deliberating about himself chooses the moral good … (and) artistic creation, which engenders in beauty … are existential approaches; they plunge (man) into real existence.”9 By contrast, the horror one feels toward war is actually an affirmation, albeit a tragic one, of the heart’s fundamental inclination toward the beauty and goodness of existence. Whether joy or sorrow, pleasure or revulsion, human feeling—the expression of the heart’s desire for the good—cannot, by definition, be shared by two wills, the way a thought can be shared by two minds. Feeling, after all, is radically personal. Yet when the heart resists the temptation to dull (“an-aesthetize”) the pain it feels, and faces the full moral and emotional impact of evil, it arrives at a state that makes possible a deeper enjoyment of the goodness of creation (and ultimately, its Creator) that only those who have suffered can truly appreciate.

III. The Soul Standing at Attention

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Psalm 22:2)

To a great extent, the spiritual development of the soul is analogous to moral education. According to the “principle of habituation,” teachers educate the young, “steer(ing) them by the rudders of pleasure and pain.”10 For instance, a child learns to share, or behave, or do his chores, because he knows he will be rewarded for doing well, or punished for failing. Over the course of time, a “taste” for good behavior impresses itself within the individual; virtue becomes its own reward. The mature person no longer seeks an “external” incentive for good behavior. Likewise, those who are new to the spiritual life initially experience profound sweetness and consolation through prayer, the practice of holiness, spiritual conversation, etc. Over the course of time, they continue in these holy practices, whether or not they are accompanied by an obvious spiritual feeling, or “consolation.” The very assurance that they remain faithful to the responsibility of prayer suffices.

But how should suffering people interpret the experience, not of mere “dryness” or lack of affirmation, but of intense spiritual agitation, or even the prospect that they have lost their friendship with God? After all, the spiritual consolation they once presumed, pointed beyond itself to God as the “ground” of their hope. Now, it is as though the guarantor of their spiritual well-being has vanished. With good reason, the crucified Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his own way, the suffering soldier, whether or not he is a particularly devout individual, also experiences this utter abandonment and desolation. Unlike the mind and heart at attention, which trust that immediate appearances will give way to a happy resolution, there is no such assurance in what St. John of the Cross describes as the “dark night of the soul.” The individual plunges into an all-encompassing, existential crisis that includes, but goes far beyond, mere physical pain. Simone Weil, the philosopher/mystic whose faith was awakened during the Holocaust, refers to this state as affliction. She describes it thusly: “Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death. … There is not real affliction unless the event that has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical.”11 In short, affliction is a spiritual/bodily state of siege. Under normal circumstances, the mind can be baffled by an enigma, the body distressed by a broken bone, or the heart wounded by a shattered relationship, and the individual still carries on because the suffering he experiences is local, circumscribed. Not so with affliction; it permeates every aspect of human existence.

The difference, however, between affliction and, say, actual despair, is not the intensity of anguish one feels, but rather the response it elicits from the individual. According to Weil, one has a choice. She writes:

A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence, there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love. … Then, one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving, it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.12

Terrible as the subjective experience of affliction may be, potentially, it reveals a unique path to spiritual maturity. Inasmuch as the individual has been schooled in the ways of love and wisdom and goodness throughout his life, affliction challenges him to make the “counterintuitive” judgment that they are continually valuable, even when all he sees—if he sees anything at all—is hateful and absurd and evil.

Soldiers are familiar with this spiritual landscape, and tread it at a remarkably young age. Ultimately, no one can prepare them for it, spare them from it, or, strictly speaking, share it with them. Even the chaplain, because of his age or level of experience may, with the best of intentions, be unprepared to advise them. Of course, he can remember what he heard from the Gospels: the agony in the garden, in which Jesus asks his disciples not to do anything, but simply to sit and wait for him (Matthew 26:36); or at the cross, where Mary and the Beloved Disciple stand at attention at the feet of Jesus, continuing to love amidst their own affliction (John 19:26). Just so, the compassionate chaplain might pay attention to the suffering soldier, encouraging him to love in the midst of darkness, and “wait for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn” (Psalm 130:6). Both chaplain and soldier hope that God will make his return, in his own way, at his own time.

Addendum

It was noted at the beginning of this essay, that most soldiers suffering the consequences of war are not unstable or suicidal. There are, of course, individuals whose wounds are so traumatic as to paralyze the mind as well as the body. Such people deserve compassion as well as the necessary assistance—whether medical or psychiatric—to regain control over their lives.

Still, terrible evil and its effects on human beings beg a series of questions: What constitutes mental health? What are the criteria for “insanity”? And who determines how soldiers ought to respond emotionally to unspeakable evil?

These are no idle questions. The 20th-century musician and entertainer Oscar Levant once quipped: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Likewise, in ancient times, individuals of uncommon perception, depth of feeling, and originality of insight were thought to be touched by madness, but this quality of madness (mantike) was deemed “divine,” in contrast to mere delusion (manike).13 Such are geniuses in the realms of philosophy, religion, art, and love.

Then again, exceptional astuteness may also be the product of education or experience. Aeschylus (in a passage famously adapted by Robert F. Kennedy when reporting the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968) reflects upon the paradoxical benefit of those willing to learn from suffering:

Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
comes wisdom,
by the awful grace of God.14

Certain individuals, whether through rare giftedness or the lessons learned through suffering, can see deeply into human experience, be it wonderful or terrible. Yet precisely because these capacities are extraordinary, their possessors are sometimes thought abnormal, and therefore to be feared as extreme, or radical, or even dangerous. Are they? Some critics have questioned what they consider a penchant within modern psychiatry for labeling and penalizing “deviant” conduct. A psychiatric social worker argues compellingly: “I think that drugs like Haldol and Symexa and the old Thorazine are dispensed with alarming frequency to adults because of society’s desire to control behavior. Moderate behavior is the god of our mental health system. To me this is chilling.”15

The point here is not to condemn psychiatry, nor, for that matter, to argue that the soldier with a strong revulsion against the evil he experiences in war is, for that reason, the Platonic genius who possesses superior moral insight. What is special about the soldier is the devastating ordeal thrust upon him. This may compel him to address in a deeply personal way the existential issues of life, death, and justice: an endeavor that, however noble, is nevertheless painful, and not to be allayed by medication or “treatment.” Perhaps the redemptive value of the soldier’s struggle, his agonia, is a deeper appreciation of God’s gift of human life, or that others might learn from his firsthand experience of evil without having constantly to replicate it.

 

Bibliography

Anscombe, Elizabeth. “War and Murder.” Nuclear Weapons: a Catholic Response. New York:

Sheed and Ward, 1961.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.

Hamilton, Edith. Three Greek Plays: Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, The Trojan Women. New             York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1937.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Pacifism: Some Philosophical Considerations.” Faith and Philosophy 2,

no. 2, April (1985): 99-104.

Maritain, Jacques. Man’s Approach to God. Latrobe: Pennsylvania, 1960.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Compass Books, 1964.

Phillips, Christopher. Socrates Café. New York: Norton, 2001.

Plato, Phaedrus. Trans. H.N. Fowler. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Weil, Simone. Lectures on Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Price. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1978.

________. Waiting for God. Trans. Emma Craufurd. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

  1. Please note the Addendum on the subject of sanity at the end of this essay.
  2. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (New York: Compass Books, 1964), Act 1.
  3. Simone Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, trans. Hugh Price (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 205.
  4. Daniel 13:61 recounts that the elders who falsely accused Susanna of the capital crime of adultery, are condemned to the same sentence. Likewise, in Esther 7:10, the death of Haman who wickedly sought the life of Mordecai is subjected to the same end. Finally, the beautiful widow Judith acts with the authority of God when beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes who sought to destroy the people of Israel (Judith 13: 7-8).
  5. Stanley Hauerwas, “Pacifism: Some Philosophical Considerations,” Faith and Philosophy 2, no. 2. (1985): 99-104.
  6. Elizabeth Anscombe, “War and Murder,” Nuclear Weapons: a Catholic Response (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 45-62.
  7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 40, Art. 1. “For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet ‘be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention.’”
  8. Weil, Simone, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 118.
  9. Jacques Maritain, Man’s Approach to God (Latrobe: Pennsylvania: 1960), 20.
  10. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book X, 1172.
  11. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 117, 119.
  12. Ibid, 120-121.
  13. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. H.N. Fowler (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1953), 265b.
  14. Aeschylus, Agamemnon, trans. Edith Hamilton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1937), lines 179-183.
  15. Christopher Phillips, Socrates Café (New York: Norton, 2001), 4.
Fr. Timothy Shea Valentine About Fr. Timothy Shea Valentine

Father Timothy Shea Valentine is a parish priest from the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island. Fr. Valentine holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University, and has taught high school through doctoral level students. His great honor was to serve as an Army Chaplain during two deployments to Iraq.

Comments

  1. J. E. Sigler says:

    What an outstandingly insightful article. Deeply moving and human. I imagine you must be a wonderful chaplain. You are certainly a wonderful writer.
    Thank you for publishing these ideas!

  2. Tim Kelly says:

    Dear Father Valentine,
    Thank you for your insight and explanation to what evil soldiers see in combat and how they cope with the return to society. Your article should be mandatory reading in all training for medical personnel in the mental health field. It would go a long way in helping returning veterans get proper treatment and reduce the number of suicides our brave soldiers face.
    Thank you for your service. The soldiers you served during your 2 tours in Iraq and many years of counsel will not forget how you were there for them.
    God bless you!
    Tim Kelly

  3. Truly profound article of rare spiritual depth and compassion Illuminating in all senses of the word. Should be shared around the world.