Friday, September 26, 2008

Making Peace With God

Note: I first posted this piece almost two years ago, but I'm reposting it, because I think the issues it discusses are increasingly urgent. I know not everyone will agree with my opinions, but I hope you'll at least find food for thought.

Thank you for reading.


Quite a while ago now, one of my hospital patients, an older gentleman, looked up at me from his gurney and laughed when I told him I was a volunteer chaplain. "Young lady, I made my peace with God before you were born."

"Good for you," I said. "How did you do that?"

So he told me.

He'd worked for the OSS in WWII. He got dropped behind enemy lines to assassinate people. "I was very young. The work sounded exciting before I started. I had no idea what it would do to me. You can't imagine what it's like to kill another human being, until you've done it.

"When I came home, I made a vow to God that I would never again intentionally hurt another person. And I never have."

Last spring, Gary and I went to Maui with friends. I'd read about breadfruit and wanted to try it, so one day we stopped at a fruit stand. The man who ran the place had long hair, lots of hemp jewelry, and a dreamy look in his eyes. He looked like a walking stereotype of a New Age flower child.

I admired a wooden cross he was wearing. He smiled and said, "Thank you. One of my patients gave it to me. It's from Africa."

"One of your patients? Are you a doctor or nurse?"

"I'm a spiritual healer," he told us. And then he told us that a long time ago, he'd been Special Forces, until he became disillusioned with the work and started to question what he was doing, and why. His loss of faith in the U.S. government was so profound that he left the country for a while, living in exile. When he came back home, it was to work as a healer.

When we went back to the car with our breadfruit, I said, "Special Forces? Aren't they the people who learn, like, seven ways to kill somebody with one finger?"

"Yeah," Gary said, and shook his head. "That guy went from being a spiritual killer to being a spiritual healer."

I thought immediately of my OSS patient. Both of these men made their peace with God by making peace with other people. I wonder how many other former military personnel have done the same thing.

I've met a lot of scarred veterans at the hospital, and other places. They're haunted by what they've seen and by what they've done, even when they did those things for reasons they believed were just. I think a lot of us don't want to think about what we ask of our military when we ask them to kill for us. We don't want to acknowledge the cost. We want to believe that if someone deems a death necessary, that death won't hurt the person charged with making it happen.

Some of us also want to believe that people who've killed for reasons we don't consider just can't be forgiven, can't change, can't be redeemed. These people, many of us believe, deserve to die: but the people charged with making those deaths happen must, of course, be exempt from any ill effects, because their actions are just.

Here's a New Yorker article about the trauma experienced by soldiers in Iraq who've taken lives. Here's a link to "Witness to an Execution," an NPR story about the prison employees who work on Death Row in Huntsville, Texas. These people believe in what they're doing. It still takes a toll on them.

"You can't imagine what it's like to kill another human being, until you've done it." The good news is that people who've killed can heal, and heal others: they can get better. They can make their peace with God. At least two of them have.

Surely others can, too. But surely our military and prison personnel would be better off if they didn't have to. And surely our death-row inmates -- and the prison staff who care for them -- would be better off if we acknowledged that at least some of them, too, can change.

I'm not quite able to label myself a pacifist; I'm a reluctant adherant of just-war theory. (I also believe that very few conflicts meet the stringent definition of a just war.) I imagine that my OSS patient and the Special-Forces spiritual healer might be, too, although we didn't discuss it. Returning combat veterans need our love and support and prayers. They need our help as they seek healing.

We can begin to help them by making our own vow: a promise never to forget the magnitude of what we've asked of them.


  1. Anonymous11:04 AM

    Thanks,two great tales of two Men who saw the Light---

  2. Those who serve pay a price whether they fire a weapon in combat or not.

  3. JSD -- Yes, they do. I didn't mean to imply that they didn't.

  4. I know a man -- I think you know him too, Susan -- who was a Navy Seal in Central America, and has been for the last several years an emergency medical tech.

  5. I've personally known three killers - not military killers, just people who, for one reason or another, killed other people. They were just ordinary people who couldn't handle the circumstances that led to the homicides. God forgives them. What choice have I? There, but for the grace . . .

    One thing history tells us is that anyone who has been involved in battle doesn't want to go there again, and very often because of what their acts do to them. All our servicemen (in the UK) are volunteers. I consider it the highest duty on our elected representatives to ensure that those volunteers are not sent into hell unless there is absolutely no alternative.

    Conundrum. How to make real the horror of war to someone without subjecting them to those horrors.

  6. Hi, Martyn! Yes, that's a conundrum indeed. Too many artistic or literary depictions of war glamorize it, even unintentionally. In Michael Herr's DISPATCHES, his book about Vietnam, he has a riff about young servicemen getting killed because they were following the scripts of war movies instead of responding to what was actually happening.

  7. And how that reminds me of my father's step-father who my sister and I called Uncle Fred. He'd helped liberate a concentration camp in World War II, and had, I always felt, all the violence burned out of his soul. Patient, loving, and gentle--with my high spirited grandmother, and my nosiy self.

  8. I just read your reply...I think my post came out wrong - it was originally much longer but slightly off what I sent was the 5 second condensed version. I'm sorry if I came across upset, I was trying to say that it's too easy to forget the Doctors and Nurses and Support personnel, etc. when all we seem to see/hear in the media is about the infantry.

  9. Hi, JSD! Thanks for the clarification; and yes, of course you're right! But sometimes, actually, I think it's easier for society to acknowledge the trauma of noncombatants than to acknowledge the trauma of the people we've asked to kill in our name.

  10. Very profound and thought provoking.

  11. Thank you for this post. As others have said, it's not just those actively killing who are traumatized by war. My father was in the Navy in WWII. (Actually, both my parents were, but my mother was stationed in California.) He was in the Seabees -- construction, not destruction.

    He suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome until the day he died. They didn't have a name for it in those days, of course. He had a total physical collapse in the service, receiving a medical discharge.

    He and my mother were living in Hawaii when Iniki struck. The hurricane flashed him back to the war so badly, when I saw him again, it looked like he'd aged ten years.

  12. I'm glad you reposted this Susan. I don't think I know anyone who hasn't experienced our country in some state of conflict during their lives. None of those who serve are readily willing to go back and relive it by sharing their memories of that time (Who could blame them for not wanting to relive a nightmare?). And God help the partners of those soldiers who come home changed beyond recognition and wake screaming in the night, or worse, in the day.


  13. Very moving, thanks for posting this.

    My 16 year old wants to enlist, and it scares me unbelievably.

  14. Great post. People tend to forget what happens to servicemen (and women) after returning, particularly if the wounds are emotional and not physical.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.