Phil Klay’s Redeployment was recommended to me by my aunt, who told me that after hearing him talk about war, she was struck by how similar he was to me. I will take that as an immense and somewhat inappropriate compliment, because Klay is a veteran and a tremendous writer. But I take from my aunt’s reflection that there is something of a resonance between my Christian pacifism, which never imagines that war is unnecessary and Klay’s refusal to allow his collection of portraits to collapse into a moralistic tome that declares simplistically that war-is-bad-ok.
My favourite story is called “Prayer in the Furnace”, charting the difficulties of a chaplain in Iraq. Caught between confessions that allude to war crimes and a hierarchy intent on denying any such possibility, he finds himself preaching one Sunday – after receiving advice from his mentor, a Jesuit priest – this glorious homily:
“Who here thinks.” I asked the small group of Marines who’d gathered for Sunday mass, “that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?”
A few hands went up.
“I had a parishioner whose six-month-old son developed a brain tumor. He watched his child go through intense suffering, chemotherapy, and finally a brutal, ungraceful death. Who would rather go through that than be in Ramadi?”
I could see confusion on the faces of the Marines in the audience. That was good. I didn’t intend this to be a normal homily.
“I spoke to an Iraqi man the other day,” I said. ”A civilian, who lives out there in that city I’ve heard Marines say should be razed. Should be burned, with everyone in it perishing in the flames.”
I had their attention.
“This Iraqi man’s little daughter had been injured. A cooking accident. Hot oil spilled off the stove, all over the girl. And what did this man do? He ran, with her in his arms, to find help. And he found a Marine squad. At first, they thought he was carrying a bomb. He faced down the rifles aimed at his head, and he gave his desperately injured daughter, this tiny, tiny girl, to a very surprised, very burly corporal. And that corporal
brought him to Charlie Medical, where the doctors saved his daughter’s life.
“That’s where I met this Iraqi man. This man of Ramadi. This father. I spoke to him there, and I asked him if he felt grateful to the Americans for what we’d done. Do you know what he told me?”
I held the question in the air for a moment.
“‘No.’ That’s what he said. ‘No.’ He had come to the Americans because they had the best doctors, the only safe doctors, not because he liked us. He’d already lost a son, he told me, to the violence that came after the invasion. He blamed us for that. He blames us for the fact that he can’t walk down the street without fear of being killed for no reason. He blames us for his relatives in Baghdad who were tortured to death. And he particularly blames us for the time he was watching TV with his wife and a group of Americans kicked down his door, dragged his wife out by the hair, beat him in his own living room. They stuck rifles in his face. They kicked him in the side. They screamed at him in a language he did not understand. And they beat him when he could not answer their questions. Now, here’s the question I have for you, Marines: Who would trade their seven-month deployment to Ramadi for that man’s life, living here?”
No one raised a hand. Some Marines looked uncomfortable. Some looked angry. Some looked furious.
“Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man supported the insurgency. The translator said the man was a bad guy. An ‘ali baba.’ But clearly, this man has suffered. And if this man, this father, does support the insurgency, it’s because he thinks his suffering justifies making you suffer. If his story about his beating is true, it means the Marines who beat him think their suffering justifies making him suffer. But as Paul reminds us, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’ All of us suffer. We can either feel isolated, and alone, and lash out at others, or we can realize we’re part of a community. A church. That father in my parish felt as if no one could understand him and it wasn’t worth the effort to make them try. Maybe you don’t think it’s worth trying to understand the suffering of that Iraqi father. But being Christian means we can never look at another human being and say, ‘He is not my brother.’
“I don’t know if any of you know Wilfred Owen. He was a soldier who died in the First World War, a war that killed soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. Owen was a strange sort. A poet. A warrior. A homosexual. And as tough a man as any Marine
I’ve ever met. In World War One, Owen was gassed. He was blown in the air by a mortar and lived. He spent days in one position, under fire, next to the scattered remains of a fellow officer. He received the Military Cross for killing enemy soldiers with a captured enemy machine gun and rallying his company after the death of his commander. And this is what he wrote about training soldiers for the trenches. These are, by the
way, new soldiers. They hadn’t seen combat yet. Not like he had.
“Owen writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”‘
I looked up from my sermon and looked hard at the audience, which was looking hard back at me.
“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”
I felt flushed, triumphant, but my sermon hadn’t gone over well. A number of Marines didn’t come up for Communion. Afterward, as I was gathering the leftover Eucharist, my RP turned to me and said, “Whoa, Chaps. That got a bit real.”
Your Correspondent, His hands aren’t sweaty, he was just holding a fish