A U.S. marine watches children play in Ramadi, in Iraq's Anbar province. (AP Photo/Todd Pitman)
Are there atheists in foxholes? How do we justify our participation in wars that kill civilians, often children? At The American Scholar, veteran and author of RedeploymentPhil Klay turns his writer’s eye on himself in this essay on war, faith, and fatherhood, and reckons with his own complicity.
I was in a different position. My job in the Marine Corps meant that I was generally a spectator rather than an actor in the war. I was never faced with the responsibility of leading men in combat, never responsible for the direct act of killing, never faced with what Marlantes has described as “a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite.” Instead, I had the images of those children in my head, and for a young man, fervently believing in the mission and in the potential for the Marine Corps to turn around Anbar Province, they confirmed me in all I believed. A Special Forces veteran later told me why, for him, killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than killing people in Afghanistan. “Iraq may have been a giant clusterfuck,” he said, “but al-Qaeda did always make it easy.” In other words, al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you could not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.
So rather than challenging my Christian faith or provoking deep questions about who I was as a man, what kind of war I was in, and what sort of country I was a citizen of, the children made me feel like I didn’t have to justify myself at all. When I got home, those children were a useful tool for propping up my image of myself as a decent human being. Confronted with a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”
PJ Harvey performs at Alexandra Palace, London. Photo by joeri-c via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory. Read more…
And in the middle of this tumult, I came back to the relative calm of my hotel room in the Hotel Palestine. There was no electricity. Sunlight slanted horizontally into the dusty, dim corridors and I saw at the end of the passage, outside my room, two figures silhouetted against the white glare of the sun. As I approached I saw that they were soldiers, their uniforms stained with the mud of the Tigris valley, Americans, for they were cradling US Army assault rifles in their arms.
They were an intimidating presence. Until they spoke. “Sir,” one of them said, and there was a quiet, shy deference in his voice. I saw that they were young, achingly young, perhaps 19 years old, lettuce-fresh faces above long, lean, loose-limbed frames – no more than boys in the grown-up garb of desert camouflage. “Sir,” he went on, “we heard that there was a satellite phone in this room. We haven’t been able to call home in four months.”
They were the first in a little trickle of young US servicemen who would come to my room for this purpose in the weeks that lay ahead. What struck me with great poignancy was this – that almost always they phoned their mothers. From the other side of the room you would hear the phone sound in some far place in Kentucky or Idaho. The boy would say “Hi Mom!” and then you would hear the excited, disbelieving scream of delight echoing down the line.