What follows are my thoughts for Memorial Day, generated in no small part from extended conversation and correspondence with a family member of mine this weekend. Jon (not his real name) is a veteran of the Iraq war. He served as a Counterintelligence Agent in the US Army. He has retired from military service, but deployed to Iraq in February 2003, returning a year later. He was raised LDS, graduated from BYU, and served a full-time mission. He and his wife have 5 children, number four of which was born during his deployment. He is currently active in the Church, serving as a counselor in the ward’s bishopric.
Jon has been back from the war, where he suffered no serious physical injuries, for more than four years. His deployment was a difficult trial for him and for his family, as was the transition to “normal” life following his return home. Yet they also look upon that period—for many reasons, some of which are discussed below—as a time of what he describes as “intense spiritual growth.” At times, it became apparent even to those of us who only saw Jon and his family sporadically, that Jon struggled internally with emotional and psychological baggage carried over from his wartime service. One moment in particular stands out in my memory. During a Christmas party a couple years ago with extended family, several of us stood around a piano singing carols. Jon stood up and walked into the next room. His mother followed. A moment later, my wife walked by and heard Jon tearfully tell his mom, “I just still feel broken.”
I asked him about “broken” this weekend. He had a difficult time putting it into words. “There are times I’m taken back, ‘flashback’ if you will, where I feel ‘broken’—I feel stressed, worried, and very sad.” I asked him if the frequency and/or intensity of such feelings had subsided at all with time. I was fascinated to learn that they come and go with a kind of punctuated rhythm: “It comes in yearly cycles. I’ve heard it’s common in many soldiers,” he told me. “About one year after returning, they get very anxious.” Jon experienced this himself roughly a year after returning and described other members of his team experiencing the same thing. “I called the National Guard office and talked with a person who was available to talk…. I don’t know if he was certified or accredited but it was good to just talk, and have someone listen.” He tried speaking with his wife, but talking with the person at the NG office “was more beneficial for some reason.” “That makes sense, I think,” was my awkward reply. “I don’t know if this stuff gets to make sense,” was his response—“I don’t fully understand why I feel the way I do at times. The one year anniversary of coming home was the hardest,” though he added that recent years have been less difficult.
I asked him to characterize, to the best of his ability (or willingness), the source of the “brokenness” he felt after his return, to connect it to his experience in Iraq. He recounted an extraordinary story, which I asked him to put down in writing and send me. I’ve excerpted portions of his account below:
My unit made its way through several cities as we progressed north. The Third Infantry Division had already made its way to Baghdad and our job was clean up any resistance that they blew by on the rush to the capital city. There were times that fighting was intense. The infantrymen I was with applied their skills with the utmost professionalism. I have respect and reverence for infantrymen and the job they must do.
It is not natural to kill another human being. That is why the Army dehumanizes the enemy with names and caricatures like Krauts, Japs, Charlie, Skinnies, and in this case Haji. One can think they are ready to pull the trigger, but until the situation presents itself one can never be sure if they really can. The lamentations of prophets having to kill the Lamanites weighed heavily in my mind. The spectrum of how young infantrymen coped with what their duties entailed was intriguing.
Once the fighting was coming to an end, we were allowed to interrogate anyone the infantry captured and try to glean any information we could. We usually started with localized intelligence gathering, such as “What can our soldiers expect around the next block?”, then moving to higher and broader intelligence requirements. My favorite concluding question was always, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” This always produced a look of dazed confusion on the interrogated person’s face.
I interrogated a variety of souls. Some were defiant. Some were scared. Some were crazy. Some were normal. All were frustrating to me as I wanted to know things that none of them could, or would, tell me. I would say most of the men I interrogated did not know anything of value which frustrated me because I could not give my commanders information they needed. I believe a few knew things, but they had been trained to evade interrogation techniques and required more time than I was allotted to break them.
The frustration of useless interrogations built over many cities and many weeks. I was determined to get some useful information.
One day, we entered another city and captured dozens of men. My team went to work interrogating each of them. These men all had a collaborated story. Each man that came in told the same story and stuck to it. It was maddening to hear the same thing over and over and over. One man broke the mold.
He entered the room with his hands cuffed behind his back like are the others, but there was a look of sheer terror in his eyes. The look was much different than the blank or defiant stares I was used to receiving. He winced at my questions. He shuddered at my presence. He feared me. It was intoxicating. I felt I had complete power over this person. I found myself wanting to infuse more fear into this person. All the darkness and rage from the chaotic atmosphere was churning in my soul.
Before I did anything stupid or illegal, some lines from my patriarchal blessing came to me. They are too personal to share, but I will say they were for this moment in my life. I calmed down and stopped the interrogation. I had received an insight to my soul and some eternal truths that I will never forget.
One eternal truth is this: Satan is real. He seeks to dominate the souls of men with chaos, darkness, and terror. He loves despots that use fear to dominate millions, or a single, handcuffed soul that sits before him. I’m sure Satan uses war to callous many people to grievous sins against each other.
He talked about believing that the dark feelings—the hate, the frustration, and the desire to dominate—were Satan’s, used in an effort to place him “under his power.” I commented that anything we ever do in contravention of the commitments we make in the temple places us under his power. That’s a high bar, perhaps no more so than for young soldiers asked to extract vital information from enemies they have been trained to kill. Jon had seen Abu Ghraib, and knew what otherwise good people under Satan’s influence were capable of: “That’s the difference between me and the AG soldiers…I knew how to overcome those feelings, they didn’t.” I suggested that part of what made such circumstances so tragic and morally dangerous was the fact that most soldiers do not have access to the power available in temple covenants. “The light of Christ should be enough to let you know that humiliating another human is horrible,” he replied. Still, he knew that victimization and hate and power can be seductive enough to crowd out the light of Christ: “I had more faith in my temple garments than my body armor.” Not in some sentimental, garments-stopping-bullets sense, but because he relied on the promises they represent to protect him, not from physical death, but from spiritual death.
Choosing to reject the “intoxicating” power he glimpsed as an interrogator with a vulnerable subject was a pivotal moment in Jon’s spiritual and emotional life. “I’ve reflected on this moment many times since it happened. I wonder if the soldiers who committed the crimes at Abu Ghraib felt the same feelings I had, but failed to recognize it and stop. Another interrogator I knew killed an Iraqi general with illegal interrogation techniques. I wonder if he succumbed to similar feelings I had [link furnished by Jon].” He reflected on the power Satan is given when men give into their desire to take human life for strategic purposes: “The chaos of war is the perfect environment for Satan to work. Rules and responsibility are often set aside for the ‘law of the jungle’ or the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality. Lawlessness and unaccountability abound; two things that are in direct contradiction to the order and agency in the gospel.”
I am often asked by those who learn of my lack of interest in ever becoming a soldier why I am not willing to die for the things I value or believe in. I have a tremendous respect for the sacrifices soldiers on all sides of conflicts make, sacrifices they sometimes willingly assume and sacrifices that are sometimes forced upon them by others. Yet to me, the question misses an important point: it’s not about what I’m willing to die for, it’s about what I’m willing to kill for. As Jon pointed out, in this day and age of technological warfare, “American soldiers, if they are smart, will take many lives before they lose theirs.”
This war, like many of recent memory, has produced comparatively few casualties for US forces. Yet it has exacted an enormous cost on those not listed as casualties, killed or injured. The Rand Corporation just released a study estimating that roughly 300,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe depression. That’s one in five vets (Jon was surprised that the number was so low). And the head of the VA’s mental health division recently authored a memo acknowledging that “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities.” One Iraq-war vet recently commit suicide believing that he was being haunted by the ghost of an Iraqi man he killed. In 2003, an LDS Army Specialist named Alyssa Peterson was killed in what the military initially ruled an accident—a “non-combat weapons discharge.” Later, (due mostly to intrepid investigation by a reporter in her hometown) it was revealed that Alyssa commit suicide, after becoming severely psychologically distressed from working in an interrogation unit known as “the cage.”
These disturbing statistics and anecdotes, of course, have no bearing whatsoever on the goodness, justness, or wisdom of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. But they remind us of the costs of war—costs, in the absence of a national draft, increasingly and uniformly born by soldiers and their families. Typically we talk about casualties and ultimate sacrifices—those who died or lost a limb or suffered a TBI. But thinking about the cost of war should not be limited to that. We should think as much or more about the cost of asking young men and women to kill in the gravest and most confusing of circumstances, about the long-term consequences of it, about the possibility of breaking an entire generation of soldiers (and their families) who didn’t die or lose a limb but lost something else. Whatever that something else is, it’s an important part of who we are and, especially on a day for remembering the costs our soldiers bore and bear, we should not treat it lightly or forget about it when we talk of the benefits or costs of war—any war. To the extent that Jon’s LDS background and the resources at his disposal as an active Mormon were important factors in his slow, steady un-breaking, his story points to the seriousness of these questions when only a small fraction of soldiers are equipped with the Armor of God.
My discussion with Jon concluded on a positive note. He testified that his experience had taught him that God loves him and is aware of him and his family. “During the depressing times,” he wrote, “I just remember His tender mercies and I can’t help but be peaceful.”