Memorial Day: The Costs of War and Those Who Bear Them

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.”


  1. Thomas Parkin says:

    On a somewhat lighter note.

    The last several months have been really, truly awful for me. I’ve been stressed almost beyond what I can deal with. It has been very tempting to feel sorry for myself.

    But my wife and I were watching Ken Burns’ piece on WWII. Here I’m watching men in a dreadful winter, in a hole, alone, for weeks on end, hungry, watching people they know intimately be maimed and killed all around them, freezing to death, while bombs are being dropped on them. And, you know, I just thought, I may be tired and stressed, but I don’t get to feel sorry for myself.

    Anyway – thanks for sharing this, Brad.

    As time goes on I’m becoming less theoretical about things. I have two friends: both extremely bright, one has a PhD in Philsophy, the other joined the Marines about four years ago. Says my Marine friend to my professor friend, about an argument they were having on some abstract subject or other, “When Philosophy tangles with Life, Life usually kicks Philosophy’s teeth in.” What you’ve written is great reminder that good and evil are something that we learn about as we deal with reality, not so much as we chatter about it without reference to life as it is actually lived. Life and reality are so much uglier, and more beautiful and full or joy, than our ideas about life and reality can contain.


  2. sister blah 2 says:

    Thanks Brad. My 80+ year old Grandma has been dead set against the Iraq War from the beginning. It surprised me, since I have known her to be conservative on most issues. In talking to her about it, she related with great emotion stories of her experiences in, as she calls it, “The War” (WWII). Among other things, she is very bitter about the damage that the war did to her brother. Though they didn’t have a name for it at the time, it seems clear he suffered from PTSD. Nobody in the family has ever heard him say one word about his time in the service. Nothing about the food, the buddies, the good times, the bad times–just won’t talk about it at all.

    With a huge military base nearby, our area has many military families, including many LDS. I’ve helped two close friends in our ward through pregnancies they carried alone while husbands were deployed. Even watching it up close, I can’t imagine how hard it would be. It seems it would almost be harder in the “good” moments–the first ultrasounds, etc–than the “bad” moments, since you would ache for your partner to share those good moments. Tough, really tough.

    Like you say, these stories alone are not a conclusive argument for or against WWII or Iraq. But those of us who can easily go days without being much reminded of the fact that we’re even at war would do well to remember the terrible cost a segment of our society has been singled out to bear.

  3. I recently had the opportunity to interview the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. For preparation he sent me a few articles. The message from Jon you just shared reminded me of something Hauerwas said that stuck with me

    the greatest sacrifice of war is not the sacrifice of life, great as such a sacrifice may be, but rather the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill. That sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill, is why war is at once so morally compelling and morally perverse….Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. No sacrifice is more dramatic than the sacrifice asked of those sent to war, that is, the sacrifice of their unwillingness to kill. Even more cruelly, we expect those that have killed to return to “normality.”

    We often forget that there are victims on all sides. I am haunted to this day with the image of Alyssa Peterson found in a field, dead, with her rifle next to her.

  4. Thanks for posting these sombre, insightful thoughts, Brad. Perhaps the phrase “war is hell” captures a deeper meaning than we generally acknowledge. May God’s blessing rest on all those who return.

  5. Thanks for the comments. That’s an outstanding quote, Josh.

  6. Elouise Bell says:

    Thank you, Brad, for taking the time, effort, and thought to help others gain a small shred of insight into this darkness.

    The lifelong pain, even agony, of veterans is hard for most of us (certainly for me) to comprehend. I think it is only recently, after almost a century, that Americans in particular have come to get some idea of what really happened in World War I–of the emotional and spiritual cripplings that resulted from that “war to end all wars.” (George Tate, at BYU, is writing and publishing some fine material on that topic.)

    Last evening, I watched a PBS documentary about veterans from WWII who had been in German POW camps. These old men, physically frail now, have suffered, for the most part, in silence, explaining that they were filled with shame for being taken prisoner and for surviving. Some were able to form associations with other POW vets, to meet regularly and talk of their feelings, to weep openly. More than fifty years after the fact, pain still sears their souls.

    One semester, I assigned students to do a research paper that in some way related to each person’s particular family. One young man decided to write about POWs during the Korean conflict, his father having spent years in a such a camp. But the father had never spoken to his family about his experiences. He had talked about them at countless church firesides over the years, but never to his own family. After class, the student called his father on the phone, explained the writing assignment, and asked if his father would talk with him. There was a very long silence. Then the father said, in a shaking voice, “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

    When the young man read his completed paper to the class, most of us were in tears. And I have wondered countless times: why could the father NOT talk with his family, even though he could give speeches on his experience? Too painful to have those closest to him to know? Too intimate? Did he want to spare them the knowledge of what his service had cost him? Were there too many unanswered questions in his own mind?

    Thank you again, Brad. We can use all the light we can get, and you have helped us to that end.

  7. I’ve often thought about the emotional affects of war in war torn countries in Africa and Asia etc. What must it do to people?

    My family sponsored a refugee family from Laos in the 80s. The children in the family would laugh when they were in pain. I once accidentally shut my Laotian sister’s finger in a car door and didn’t realize it because she just stood there laughing. They had stories about soldiers in their village, some of them scary. But they’d smile and laugh while talking about it.

    Humans are weird, what we do to each other, and what we do to cope with what we do to each other.

  8. sister blah 2 says:

    Susan, you should watch a documentary I just saw about an elementary school in a Ugandan refugee camp, and the music and dancing group they sent to a nationwide competition. It’s called War/Dance. A boy that looks at most 10 describes how rebels captured him and his brother and forced him at gunpoint to brutally murder a group of farmers (the description is very explicit, I won’t try to give it here). A girl describes how she inadvertently disclosed a lie her mother had told to the rebels, leading to her mother’s murder, for which she feels responsible. Like you mentioned, they sometimes have strange (to us) coping behaviors. Horrifying.

  9. Wow, Brad. Thanks for posting this – and please thank “Jon” for being willing to share it with us. It shines a Gospel light on war that is hard to get in most stories, especially on the reality of evil and the natural man.

  10. Brad,

    I watched over the weekend the WWII era movie “The Best Years of our Lives” about the reentry into normal life for veterans of WWII. The movie, produced in 1946, was a very frank for its time depiction of the darker side of the war, and I was struck with how meaningful it still is today, especially as the burden of war is born by a few, and we don’t have that same sense of shared sacrifice.

    My father in law, a B-25 pilot in Europe during WWII has been an amazing example and role model to me, but even now still deals with the darker side of his experiences, and has not been very communicative about it. Every so often, the emotion still wells up, and he is overcome by what he saw and experienced.

    Most of these veterans loved much of their time in the service, and have fond memories of their friends, and even many wartime experiences. That is all balanced by the loss and sacrifice you describe. Keeping it on the positive side of the scale is extremely difficult for many of them. I am reminded of a phrase attributed to Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, when he said “It is a good thing war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow to love it too much”.

  11. Fascinating account, Brad. Your thoughts and the sharing of “Jon’s” experience are much appreciated.

    “the Army dehumanizes the enemy with names and caricatures like Krauts, Japs, Charlie, Skinnies, and in this case Haji.”

    This dehumanizing is, I think, is a fundamental characteristic of Satan’s constant influence in our lives. I think there are very strong tendencies to generalize and “dehumanize” the enemy. Indeed, by calling whatever it is we are talking about the “enemy” we begin with a generalization not too unlike the army’s epithets.

    I believe that the last thing Satan wants us to feel and truly comprehend is that we are truly all sons and daughters of God. He sneakily does anything he can to convince us on a moment to moment basis that the bum on the corner is not our brother, that the driver who cut us off is undeserving of our love, and that those on the other side of the conflict of war are somehow sons and daughters of another evil being.

    Over the years I have become convinced that one of the phenomenal talents of Jesus was that he was able to maintain in his mind a clear relationship with all those whom he served. He saw potential. He not only recognized everybody as brothers and sisters, but as individuals and as sons and daughters of God endowed with potential beyond our understanding.

    It surprises me (but not that much) that figures from the other side of the war are not more frequently referenced, especially among Latter-Day Saints who I would think would be more sensitive and compassionate than the average American. We bemoan the loss of over 4,000 U.S. soldiers, but how often do we hear that there have likely been over 1,000,000 Iraqi deaths directly due to our invasion? Hundreds of thousands of these deaths are civilians. Hundreds of thousands!!! Yet those on the other side have been conveniently segregated as “others,” “enemies,” or “Haji,” and as a result we forget that they are all sons and daughters of God too. So we hear about our 4,000, again and again and again.

    I will never forget the harrowing footage of an elderly Iraqi woman standing over her recently U.S. bombed house (with much of her family still in it) looking up into the heavens begging God to damn those that did this to her and her family. I think there is a deeply hidden prejudice in all of us (whether we like to admit it or not) in that we believe that God will hear our prayers and not theirs. God is our comrade and not theirs. They are undeserving of answered prayers (most especially if it involves us!).

    This post has been a reminder to myself to never dehumanize anyone. To always remember who I am, and who everyone else is, lest I should unknowingly give in to the evil one and perform utterly heinous acts conveniently disguised as righteous pursuits.

  12. SamR,
    I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding numbers of killed/injured/displaced Iraqis as a result of the invasion. I’d hate for this to devolve into a technical but very venemous debate about the numbers. Surely we can agree that we ought to value the humanity and divine potential and lives (and deaths) of those on the other side as much we value our own or those of our service men and women and that our discussion of the costs of war, among other things, should reflect those values, regardless of the actual numbers compared. Nevertheless, I very much appreciate the overall sentiment expressed in your comment.

  13. Mark N. says:

    My favorite concluding question was always, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”

    Every single one of them should have routinely quoted Rumsfeld back again: “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”

    If it was good enough for Rumsfeld, it should have been good enough for the interrogators.

  14. After truth, the first casualty of war is our humanity. Besides being taught from birth that killing is wrong, there is the “Light of Christ” that teaches us all the same. In war, governments have long faced the problem of training soldiers to ignore this morality and deny the humanity of the proclaimed enemy by killing them. As mentioned previously, racism plays a role in justifying the killing in the soldiers minds. The state must dehumanize the enemy if they want soldiers to be successful killers. The US military has drastically improved on this. Dave Grossman’s book “On Killing” reports that killing ratios (the ratio of front-line soldiers who actually kill) have nearly doubled in a generation–from ~50% in WW2 to ~90% in Vietnam. Grossman’s research reveals that when faced with an enemy not every soldier responds to the order and kills–he may feign killing, for example, by aiming “high”. This “success” comes with a high psychological price. The number of PTSD (or shell shock in WW2 parlance) cases has increased dramatically, in part by this dehumanizing success. I don’t think that the military has realized the magnitude of cost to the soldiers. We as a society owe a large moral debt to these soldiers that we have dehumanized.

  15. Not to thr4ead-jack, but I have a question for Josh Madison. Josh- is the interview you did with Stanley Hauerwas available fo rus to read somewhere online?

  16. Well done, Bradley.

    I think when we go to war we enter the devil’s territory. Even when the causes are just (WWII), the devil’s work is accomplished (Hiroshima).

  17. lamonte says:

    Brad – I can’t thank you enough for sharing this insightful story about the life of a soldier.

    I must, however, somewhat disagree with your statement “These disturbing statistics and anecdotes, of course, have no bearing on the goodness, justness or wisdom of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.” Certainly and unfortunately wars are necessary in course of human history and seemingly unavoidable. But not all of them are. For me linking Iraq and Afghanistan is paradoxical because I have differing feelings about the “justness” of those two interventions. But I also realize that others disagree with me.

    I guess I’m simply trying to make the point that when the leaders of our nation send young men and women into battle it should always be for a just cause because, in my opinion, those leaders are responsible for everything – everything – that those soldiers do in the course of carrying our their duties. Whether it is defending a wall, killing a general during an interrogation or raping and killing a civilian girl, the leaders who sent the soldiers bear as much responsibility as the soldiers. And when those soldiers lose their soul in the course of doing their duty, the leaders are responsible for that as well.

  18. Right, lamonte. All I’m saying is that the anecdotes and stats presented in my piece do not speak to the specific justification (or lack thereof) of our current wars. That’s not to say that those wars are or are not just. I personally have reservations about both wars, though much more so in the case of Iraq. But soldiers are broken in the ways I have described here even in the most just of wars. The relationship between the tragedy of breaking soldiers and their families and the justness of the wars we make them fight in moves in the opposite direction. The personal tragedies do not make the wars more or less just. But unjust wars make the human consequences even more tragic.

  19. Ronin,

    it will be published in the soon to be released 4th edition of The Mormon Worker. Click my name for the link.

  20. About soldier’s being broken, I think another blogger once suggested in Dialogue I believe that the stripling warriors left the land of their parents and perhaps fell away. I dont recall the specific verse, but no matter how just a war there are profound emotional and mental sacrifices made by soldiers. I wonder if in a sense we offer them up in unjust wars as a sacrifice or scapegoat to whatever our God or cause. The great British poet Wilfred Owen once wrote of his training of troops in this manner

    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 thirst till after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were not complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of 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, with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha

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