Some of the news reports from Iraq regarding the conduct of U.S. soldiers have been disturbing these past months. We have heard about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and more recently the alleged mass killing of at least 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005 by a squad of U.S. marines following an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed one of their comrades. How do we as Christians react to such events, especially when the men or women involved return to our homes and churches? Denial and feigned ignorance has generally been the historical reaction during previous wars. Let the former soldiers remember (and suffer) in silence. Let them work it out with God.

Nothing in this article should be seen as justification for war crimes, but Christians need to be informed and transformed as we struggle with the moral, ethical, legal, and spiritual issues raised by these events.

Several years ago, I was teaching at an African university when a Christian student asked to talk with me. She had heard that I had been a soldier. Over several hours, she struggled to share her story with me. At a young age, her family had emigrated from an East African country to the West where she was raised and educated. At age 16 she requested to return to her homeland to see relatives and discover her roots.

While visiting, a war broke out between her country and its neighbor. Because she was a legal citizen and had just turned 17, she was conscripted into the army. The young woman saw horrific combat, but one event disturbed her most. While on patrol, her squad captured eight young enemy soldiers. Since no prisoner of war facility existed in the country that could pass the Geneva Convention mandates, she and her squad were ordered to execute the prisoners. The squad leader went to each member of the squad and handed them one bullet with the instruction to either execute one of the prisoners or use it on themselves. This student took her prisoner into the desert where the young man pleaded for his life. They were close in age, and he showed her pictures of his family and his grade reports from school. With great difficulty she shot him, but two years later she told me about her daily memories and nightmares of her action and its victim.

Thirty-six years ago, I was in Vietnam where my platoon was set up for the night. Near a stream, I had trained two new men how to set an effective booby-trap. We knew the enemy had tracked our long-range patrol throughout the day and had every reason to believe that we could be attacked that night. Just before dusk, the booby-trap exploded followed by a brief silence and then moaning. We feared the sound would serve as a beacon for our enemy to locate us. As the equatorial night closed around us, my platoon leader whispered to me to take some men and "shut them up."

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I was one week from my 20th birthday, a dedicated Christian, and the acting platoon sergeant. As my small patrol of three moved into the high grass, I struggled with what I should do. The man behind me sensed my hesitation, stepped in front of me, and shot the wounded person in the head, killing her. I felt relief as we headed back to our night location. But after talking to the shooter, I learned we killed a young Montanyard woman who had no weapon. She was missing both legs from the explosion.

I felt sick and vowed to God to never put myself is such a situation again. The next morning we discovered a young family of four children and a young woman hiding in some nearby rocks. It seemed likely that the woman we killed was the mother of several of these children and that she was simply looking for water. We fed the family and requested that they be taken out of the field with us by helicopter that afternoon when we were to leave the area. But when the choppers arrived, it became clear that we didn't have enough "lift capacity" to evacuate the troops and the family. As the helicopters departed, I watched artillery rounds envelop the area of our pickup. I believe the family was killed.

Why are these stories important?
We underestimate the role of environmental forces at work in our lives. In combat, you cannot predict with any certainty how you will act when your life is in extreme jeopardy and your friends have been gravely injured and killed. There can be a second's difference between a cowardly or heroic act. If you are in combat more than a few seconds, you will most likely have opportunity to display both.

Most of us cannot imagine ourselves acting in inhumane ways. Scripture refers to such presumption as "self-righteousness." Because we are good, decent, moral, born-again Christians, we think we would never participate in the evils that the battlefield holds. Combat, to many Americans, involves identifiable soldiers killing each other until some side "wins." This is sometimes true, but the reality of warfare is that given enough time in combat, most soldiers will be faced with moral choices that will take a lifetime to untangle.

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Following my return from Vietnam I spent most Sunday mornings in a church pew wondering, "What does this have to do with what I saw and did in Vietnam?" This was especially true on one of many anniversary dates such as June 19 (first time I got shot at), June 23 (longest night), August 16 (two friends killed), November 22 (date I was wounded), etc. Since leaving Vietnam 36 years ago, I have rarely attended a Sunday school or church service where specific questions have been raised, let alone discussed, that addressed the events of my tour. Somehow I believe we Christians do not want to be soiled by the brutality of the battlefield, even though we are forced to confront our own involvement in the war as we pay taxes, vote, watch television, and occasionally have firsthand contact with survivors of combat. There is enough blood for all of our hands.

What are we to do?
It is the political leadership of this country who must ensure that whenever we engage in armed conflict, the "realistic" ends will justify the ugly means. It is the military's job to provide leadership, training, and, when necessary, ensure that soldiers make the best choices in impossible circumstances.

When soldiers finally return from war and we hear their stories, Christians can be more active. We must grasp the emotional and spiritual significance of combat for the veterans we meet. Most will move forward with their lives, but some must deal with their numbness and callousness, others may struggle with survivors' guilt, and some may remember too much, while others will remember too little. Each will be in a different place. Only God knows the actual path each will follow. It is our responsibility as family members, friends, and churches to provide refuge for understanding, reflection, and healing throughout their lives.  

Patrick Stone is a psychology professor at George Fox University. He has worked extensively with Vietnam veterans.

Related Elsewhere:

Stone is author of:

Speaking Out
Post-Traumatic Faith | Understanding the plight of Christians who have killed in combat. (May 9, 2006)

Also posted today is

Beyond Yellow Ribbons | Become a blessing to a military family. A CT editorial
Veteran Ministry | How churches can help soldiers and their families readjust after combat.

More coverage of the war is available from our full coverage area.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs runs the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Iraq War Veterans Organization has links to resources and articles on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.