Q. Can you tell us first a bit about your military service and your deployment to Iraq?
A. I am an Infantry Captain in the U.S. Army and have been stationed with the 10th Mountain Division of the XVIII Airborne Corps for the past three years. Before that, I spent approximately eight months at Ft. Benning, Georgia, for my Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School. Prior to that, I was a cadet at the University of Colorado for four years on an ROTC Scholarship, and at the very beginning of my military sojourn, I was an enlisted National Guardsman in my adopted home state of Tennessee when I was 17 years old.
This November (2007) I came home from a 15-month deployment to Iraq where I was stationed to the southwest of Baghdad in what is known among the media as “The Triangle of Death.”
I found Iraq to be a dangerous place, but not in the same way I imagine Vietnam or Okinawa or Antietam was in the past. It was a surreal environment where the greater portion of time was spent talking to locals and attempting to help fix the problems of their economy, government, etc. Behind the scenes, however, there were groups of people posturing and moving in the hopes of killing one another. Ambushes were set; Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) were primed and buried; men were taken from their homes at night to be tortured and executed; bribes were offered and services were rendered. I found it difficult to maintain vigilance in a place where more often than not all things maintained the appearance of normality. In contrast to the continuous strain of combat in other wars, Operation Iraqi Freedom (post-invasion) continues to be fought in the blinding seconds where vehicles and bodies are torn apart; ambushes are sprung; and single, well-aimed shots are fired.
It is also important to note the complexity of the ongoing occupation. In the absence of any type of law and order following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 during the initial invasion, groups of like-minded young men formed insurgencies to fight the American forces as well as competing local militias. Soon Al-Qaeda operatives made their way into the country and aligned several of these insurgent groups with the terrorist cells under Osama Bin Laden to fight the American occupation. Due to ongoing political tensions and an immense history of conflict, many of the Sunni and Shiite groups fought each other as well as the Kurds in the north, all in addition to fighting the Coalition forces on the ground.
To make matters even more complicated, the pool of applicants for both the Iraqi Army (which was originally disbanded in 2003) and the Iraqi Police were filled with individuals harboring ties to some of these anti-coalition groups. What we found on our arrival in the sector was an overwhelming mix of allegiances and disputes between sub-tribes and families of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish groups, with the occasional Al-Qaeda operative thrown in for good measure.
Q. And you had a Quaker background? Can you tell us about that?
A. My mother’s parents raised their family outside Philadelphia near Valley Forge in what is still one of the strongest Quaker areas of the country, and they continue to be active in the Religious Society of Friends today. My parents met at Earlham College in Indiana: my mother went there because of her Quaker background, and my father went after attending Westtown School, where he was encouraged by the Quaker faculty to move forward in a similar institution. My elder brother and I were raised in the Religious Society of Friends in the same area of Pennsylvania up until the ages of 9 and 7 when our mother felt called by God to become an Episcopalian Priest. She was accepted to Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she completed her theological education before being ordained. My parents divorced during this time, and my father raised us from that point on without any particular religious affiliation.
Q. While you were in Iraq, something led you to explore this earlier background. Can you tell us about that?
A. When I deployed I quickly became disillusioned with my job and supposed mission. I could not see what we were accomplishing in Iraq except getting more and more people killed or hurt. I was not able to reconcile the loss of life and the pain we were causing countless families with any greater sense of mission espoused by the chain-of-command. Our presence, instead of bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, served as the rallying point for all anti-western, anti-Christian insurgencies devoted to ending the foreign occupation through violence and (in the case of Al-Qaeda) terror. To be fair, we provided some much-needed services and did our best to jumpstart the agriculturally based economy, but I never considered these positives to be equal to the loss of life on all sides of the conflict.
My connection with the Religious Society of Friends began to redevelop as I searched for meaning through religious texts. I somehow discovered one of Howard Thurman’s wonderful books and through this was led to Rufus Jones, the well-known Quaker mystic of Haverford fame, under whom Thurman studied for some duration. Jones, in turn, led me to other Quaker authors: Thomas Kelly, John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Fell, George Fox, John Woolman, Isaac Penington, and many more.
The turning point for me was most likely after I read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, and Jonathan Dymond’s Inquiry into The Accordancy of War; both of which gave voice to my thoughts on the barbaric and evil nature of warfare. It took a scrupulous analysis of the mechanisms of war, such as these two works provide, for me to finally consider myself on the wrong side of the argument.
Two personal events helped me along the way. My company lost a fine soldier and NCO on Christmas Day, 2006 to a dismounted IED right outside our Patrol Base. He was a beloved comrade for many, and I was not alone in mourning his loss. Less than two months later, a fellow officer and friend who I went through all of my Ft. Benning training with was killed nearby with an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile) while traveling in his armored vehicle. These deaths pushed me beyond the lingering romantic ideal of warfare I held since boyhood, to a place where it was no longer acceptable for people to be killed in meaninglessness conflict, no matter the “glory” or “honor” which came with this ultimate betrayal of humanity.
Q. What books or readings have helped you in making this inward transition?
A. I’ve focused my efforts on inward development as a means to change the course of my life, and so have been reading several of the Devotional Classics: St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life, and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; to be exact. I also found Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to be rewarding, and I continue to make my way through contemporary works by authors such as Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Niebuhr, Tillich, C.S. Lewis, and others. I find it important to read authors willing to be open and honest about the difficulties found in a life devoted to the true Light of Christ. I don’t think the level of discipline and sacrifice for such an endeavor can be easily overemphasized.
Q. What else can you say about your experiences?
A. I would say to those considering a life in the military, there is both a positive and negative aspect of being a soldier. There is a sense of camaraderie, discipline, and pride unmatched by any other modern institution. At the same time, you need to understand the dangers of combat service in the military. There is the obvious physical danger and the real possibility of losing your life, but there are also subtler dangers: mental and spiritual harms done to your mind and soul and which cannot be easily overcome. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder plagues many combat veterans. So can a sense of guilt, bewilderment, and meaninglessness. Your sense of empathy and your overall humanity may be severely impoverished. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the military as a career choice.
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