“I’ll tell you the truth, Sheriff. We charged across Iraq and killed everything in our goddamn path, we left a trail of burning vehicles and broken bodies hundreds of miles long. If it moved, then it was the enemy, and we killed our fair share of civilians too. And you people sat back here and cheered us on and waved the goddamn flag and didn’t ask questions and that blood is on your hands just as much as mine. I say fuck you, and fuck your goddamn parades and fuck your country. I didn’t deserve a welcome home parade. I deserved a prison cell. You people made us into monsters. Do you hear me? You made me into a monster, and I look in the goddamn mirror now and all I can see is blood, all I can see is the blood of the lives I took.”
The above quote is from one of the pivotal scenes in Prayer at Rumayla, the novel I wrote in 1992-93, shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War. If you haven’t read the novel, the basic run down is this: Chet Brown, an Army private, returns home from the war pretty screwed up. He already thinks of himself as a killer, and when his fiancé runs off with his best friend, he falls off an emotional cliff. To be honest, it’s a real downer of a book. But then, I was in a pretty downer of a state when I wrote it.
It’s no secret that Chet was an analogue for me, and my emotions about the war. In 1992, I was just way too close to the war to even begin to think or write about it coherently. Because, the fact was, Chet was a killer, and Chet was me, and I was a killer, and the one thing I absolutely could not do was forgive myself for that.
The question is, can I now? I’ve been thinking about it today in large part thanks to a fantastic blog entry by Jenny Bones over at upyourimpactfactor.com. Jenny makes a powerful and emotional case for forgiveness, citing the Amish community who suffered from the brutal murders of children in 2006. She goes on to write about her own experience forgiving her own rapist. Powerful and deeply personal stuff. If you don’t follow her blog, I’d highly recommend it. Jenny is both a breath of fresh air, and truly inspiring.
The question I’ve dealt with for two decades, however, isn’t whether or not I can forgive someone else. Instead, it is this: can I forgive myself?
Somewhere in Iraq there is a mother. She might be in her sixties now, or even dead and gone. I don’t know her name, or where she lives, or what she looks like. I don’t know if she is Christian or Sunni or Shi’a. What I do know is this: in February 1991 the life of her son was taken in the middle of the night. And I know that I was the one who pulled the trigger and ended that life.
In my life, I’ve only seriously considered suicide once. That was just a few nights after the first time I killed someone. I didn’t do it, for a multitude of reasons, none of which I ever really pinned down. But I didn’t return home to the United States in one piece either. I was obsessed with guilt. I dreamed about the night when the trucks blew through our position and we killed everyone in them. I closed my eyes and I could see it, the 24th Infantry Division in Iraq, the biggest mechanized firing squad in history.
I was angry… incredibly angry. I was angry with myself, for that moment of unbridled bloodlust when I killed for the first time. I walked away from a potentially promising military career because I couldn’t deal with it, and for a while I did a significant amount of drinking, then moved on to other, worse addictions. None of that really made much of a difference.
So the question is, what did?
Witnessing, in the Christian sense, is when folks go out and share their faith in Christ with whatever random passerby’s they can find. It’s a fundamental part of faith, and of great importance in Christian spiritual development.
Problem is, God and I parted ways in February of 1991. Prior to the war I was nondenominational, but Christian. Sometime a couple weeks after the cease fire, my diary has an entry written near Basra in Southern Iraq with only two words in it: “Fuck God.”
Although I calmed down in the years since then, the fact is that God and I are pretty much on the outs and have been ever since. I’m agnostic, so when I talk about witnessing, I’m talking about a similar process, but a nonreligious one.
In the last twenty years I’ve written a lot about war and its emotional and spiritual impact. From 2003 until 2007, I spoke at 100 or more events around the country: classes, churches, colleges, communities. I spoke about war, about killing, and about what it all means. And what I found was that this work, this witnessing, had a genuine healing impact. Over time, it gave me perspective on the events that occurred in 1991 and make sense of them in a way I never could before.
Much of the difference between 22 and 42 is perspective. The fact is, back then, I was a scared shitless nineteen-year-old soldier. There’s a reason we don’t let people drink until they are 21. It’s because teenagers are impulsive, stupid and sometimes crazy. We don’t let them drink, but we do hand them guns and send them to foreign countries.
The other piece of perspective I have now is a little more practical and reality based. It’s the realization that placed in the same situation today, on a battlefield, with enemy trucks barreling into our position in the dead of night; I’d do the same thing all over again. I’d pull that trigger again, because while what we did was an abomination, it was also a military necessity. The men in my crew, the other men in my platoon and company—their lives depended on my ability to act. We all mutually depended on each other, and under those circumstances there’s no time to stop and reflect and think about the humanity of the situation.
So, have I done it? Do I have a magical formula for forgiving yourself for murder?
Nope. But I did eventually find freedom from it. Freedom from the guilt and rage and shame. Talking about it, understanding it better, and above all, spending much of my adult life working to help other people through various nonprofits has reshaped who I am, and who I am is no longer that scared nineteen year old kid.
Above all, what has changed is my capacity for compassion for others. Compassion was something I kinda sorta intellectually got once upon a time, but the fact was, I used to be one hell of a snobbish ass. The last twenty years has taught me nothing if not this: we’re all human. We all have failings. We all have problems. I’ve had periods in my life where I was incredibly blessed, and periods where I struggled just to stay afloat. And the last thing I ever want to do is judge someone else. As a certain wise man I’m not on speaking terms with once said, take care of the beam in your own eye before trying to cast out the speck of dust in your neighbors.