A Testimony on the Effects of Combat from a United States Army Officer

I cannot tell you much about the Peace Testimony of Friends; I have only read about it in books. I have not witnessed it in action—I was not in Germany after the World Wars, I was not in Africa anytime in the past two decades, I was not on Nantucket during the Revolution, and I have not been in any of the countless other places where Quaker witness has proved so indispensable, so vital, in the process of healing those wounds opened by violent conflict. I can say something about warfare, however, and I can speak to the violence in our culture as a young man whose perspective on both humanity and society was shaped by the false gods of my youth. That is perhaps a unique perspective for a professed Quaker to hold, but it was this witness that led me back to the quiet embrace of the Friends; to the white walls and polished, dark benches where I sat as a child and listened to the breeze.

I spent 15 months in Iraq as an Infantry officer in the United States Army from August 2006 to November 2007. I was exposed to dangers and experienced a share of the trials that accompany wartime service. I knew and was friends with several men who were killed or severely wounded, but the majority of my unit trudged through the affair unscathed, at least on the surface. Now, sitting at home in comfort and safety, I feel the impact of war beneath that surface between the light of my inner being and the posturing, fragile state of my outward self. I am far too inexperienced in the contemplative life to pin this feeling down, to demand from it the answers I so badly want to find. I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend this sense of brokenness, but perhaps it is a good thing to have inside; its weight may ground me when my head starts to scrape the clouds.

Combat has a double-edged nature. It expands the human perspective on life, but thrashes the individual humanity of those who experience it. For the first, it helps me to imagine the individual’s perspective on life as a slide rule with notched markings to be moved back and forth, depending on the variety of experience, and the resulting insight gathered. Up to the point when I entered military service, my slide rule was moved only a few notches in either direction. Making friends, playing sports, finding romance, learning algorithms and the dates of the Civil War, and the flight times of sparrows, etc.—all of these gave me a somewhat varied, but ultimately limited perspective on our nature and world.

Everything was experienced within the protective confines of U.S. life and nestled in the well-worn layers of what I will call the trifecta of assumptions (security, sustenance, and superiority).

Military experience pushed me out of this protective cocoon, into a world full of jagged edges, harsh words, and cold calculation. Suddenly I was surrounded by very angry, very grown men calling me names of the rare and exclusively military variety. Later I was introduced to sleep deprivation and starvation, overt stress and physical exhaustion, extreme discomfort, and mental anguish—all a good indication of things to come in Iraq. My time overseas pushed the slide rule of my life even further beyond its previous limit as I saw and experienced events beyond my inchoate reality: siblings beating one another for pieces of candy thrown from our vehicle; children cold and blue with impending death on the medical stretcher in our patrol base; arms and legs pulverized into a red mash by IED explosions; executed locals stuck underwater in canal drains; a suicide bomber’s face lying flat on the road like a mask, with no head or body attached. These images and many more pushed me beyond what I previously thought of as “the world.”

I am grateful for this bewildering, painful expansion of my horizons.

If the experience gained from overseas service was a pool of possibility and growth, however, then the repercussions of those experiences—the damaging memories, resulting emotions, and harmful actions—compose the dark drain plugs swirling and sucking the potential for growth out with wrathful delight. In retrospect I am amazed at how much combat broke me—or if I was already broken, then how clear my brokenness seemed in the aftermath of my experiences. I sometimes feel like a butterfly on a pin board: dead and lost and insignificant, but morbidly, strangely beautiful in my brokenness. I can see the parallel between the split (albeit lopsided) nature of combat, and my own torn soul; one part of me has grown dark, angry, and vicious, while the other part of me has seen the former and recoiled in opposition, becoming noble, upright, and worthy. It is a clearer distinction in my soul than in combat itself, where even the “good” is rarely something in which to rejoice.

Compassion seems to be the most hard-struck of the virtues in my own person, which is a terrible turn of fate when you consider it as an amalgamation, a wonderfully spun web of all the best in life: beauty, love, empathy, and kindness. War historians and other military admirers glorify the bond formed between combatants as they rely on one another to perform and survive. The truth is, war divides you from your fellow beings by drawing some close and pushing others away. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, but it seems the powerful nations of the world insist on doing the opposite, and we are no exception. Our soldiers come to view whole cultures and peoples as useless, dangerous entities to be dealt with at a distance—or not at all. It is a result of the services we perform; emotional involvement on any level will only make it harder to do the job in the end. People cease to be human, or if they are still human in thought, they cease to be worthy of the life granted them.

I will recount an experience of mine as an example. One day I walked as an observer with one of the squads in my company. We arrived at a mud-brick home lining a typical dirt path in our part of the country, where waterways and reed lines were more pervasive than desert and sand. As the soldiers cleared the house I went behind to check the back escape. I found two mentally handicapped children, perhaps five to six years old, chained and naked on the ground. They were caked in their own feces and exposed to the elements in the 130-degree heat of Iraq. I felt a tinge of disgust and helplessness, but nothing more. I was unable to conjure the surge of righteous indignation I felt was somehow expected of me as an upright U.S. citizen presented with injustice. My soldiers were the same, if not worse. Some of them laughed. I ordered the children cut loose, and we moved on. There were people trying to kill us, and people we were trying to kill. The plight of those children did not register in our stark environment; they were gray matter in a black and white world. The most beautiful aspect of compassion is that it does not deal in black and white, but in the messy and incomprehensible world of grayness in between. There was room for compassion on that day, with those children, but the demands of a real enemy forced a callous hand to blanket the situation and the opportunity for compromise. This is all too common in the realm of combat.

War can also strip us of our moral integrity. The Army lays down “values” as guidelines for soldierly conduct. These values are a machination to justify the actions of men and women in combat, a way to make soldiers take life and give up their own lives in the name of higher ideals with labels such as “Courage,” “Valor,” “Honor,” and “Selfless Service.” The generals or politicians who came up with this idea, I feel safe to assume, thought the Seven Army Values were a proper guideline to be used by soldiers when faced with situations demanding the taking of life, which, coincidentally, is a violation of true Christian principle. To this superimposed, artificial dogma I say these “ideals” are non-existent on the battlefield, a thin vapor of word and thought with no spiritual or mindful backing, which evaporate as soon as rounds are fired or explosions erupt. Soldiers lucky enough to hold deep convictions may rely on their belief system, but many, many more act out of their immediate and natural desire to live to see the next day. They are forced into action because inaction means bodily harm; rote mechanism takes over, and soldiers perform as trained. This means countless young men and women, who hold some semblance of God or humanity in the highest reaches of their minds—but have not solidified these beliefs into any lasting and permanent structure—betray those fledgling ideals either by
taking life or acting below their God-given humanity. This is my concept of an integrity violated—not the human-made orthodoxy espoused by the military chain of command, but a very real, very painful divide from our Creator through our own actions. Integrity—real integrity—is not under the jurisdiction of the military chain of command nor the political leaders in Washington. It rests on the weary backs of the individual soldiers, often young and inexperienced, who will bear the burden of their actions for the rest of their lives no matter what the justification.

For myself, I remember having my finger on the trigger of my weapon when I realized with disturbing lucidity that taking life was inherently against human nature and wrong—yet my finger did not move from its position, and my eye did not stop scanning the reed line in front of me or the palm grove down the road. I had neither the fortitude of the saints in dropping my weapon and walking away, nor the luxury of normal people in normal places of declaring profound statements of peace while they do not face the choice of taking lives or giving up their own. It is a humbling, soul-damaging experience. It is worsened by knowing the majority of service members thrown into such impossible circumstances are far too young to handle the raw emotion—the disgust and helplessness—that accompanies such a pivotal moment. Little or no aid is given to men and women in terms of surviving the trauma of combat emotionally and spiritually. What happens after the shooting stops, when some lie in graves and others live in guilt over their actions, has not been answered effectively by any component of the military of which I am aware.

That is my experience of war. It broadens experience, but destroys lives. Once the physical destruction is done—the dead stowed away in their graves, the mutilated shunned to the side, the abandoned and destitute left to their devices—the real horror unfolds in the minds and souls of those left behind. There is a reason why more than twice as many Vietnam vets have died on the streets from substance abuse and suicide than were killed overseas in the Mekong Delta, the highland jungles, Khe Sanh, Hue City, and Saigon. To those who are left, and to the veterans of my own generation: I urge you to look for that small sliver of self that has grown amid the destruction and hold fast to its goodness, hope, and Light.

We are the first generation to be enamored of, and seduced by, violence in all its variety and horror through television, movies, and video games. Even this perversion of our society, however, cannot prepare individuals for experiencing warfare. It is altogether a different reality, one full of boredom and discomfort, terror and revulsion, and anger and guilt and sorrow. You cannot reset a lifeless human body full of metal and glass and silence, like you can reset a Nintendo game. You cannot hit the mute button to stop the endless chatter in your mind as your conscience strains to find meaning in the randomness and insanity of it all. You cannot flip the channel and see your lost friends speak and talk and laugh again. You can only think of their memory, and wish for days past.

David Gosling

Captain D.R. Gosling, United States Army, Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, was raised in Sewanee, Tenn. He received his BA from University of Colorado at Boulder in 2004. He is a graduate of U.S. Army Ranger School, Airborne School, and Air Assault School, and spent 15 months in Sadr Al Yusifiyah, Iraq, approximately six miles southwest of Baghdad in the so-called "Triangle of Death." He has been a sporadic attender of West Hartford (Conn.) Meeting for the past two years when he has been able to get there. He will be attending Earlham School of Religion in the fall 2008. He plans to pursue a career in either prison ministry or religious writing.