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For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:16-18)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
In an increasingly complex and violent world, Christian Churches have come to recognize that working for peace constitutes a primary expression of their responsibility for the life of the world. This responsibility is grounded on the essential goodness of all human beings and of all that God has created, continues to sustain, and desires to redeem and make whole. For Orthodoxy, peace—as gift and vocation—is inextricably related to the notions of justice and the freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Peace and peacemaking as a gift and vocation provide opportunities to connect theology with ethical witness, faith with social transformation. The dynamic nature of peace as gift and vocation does not allow its identification with stagnation or passivity or with the acceptance of injustice.
While the Orthodox Church affirms that peace is an integral and indispensable element of the Christian gospel, it has not sufficiently reflected––in a morally consistent manner––on the nature of peace and peacemaking and what peacemaking requires, in practical terms, of their life and witness to the world. Orthodox theologians have noted that offering simply a theoretical presentation of the Orthodox understanding of peace is not a sufficient expression and witness:
It is not enough for us simply to theologize, to describe and to prescribe regarding the Orthodox vision of justice and peace. We must also mobilize and work together for God’s purpose to defeat injustices and to establish justice wherever possible, as well as to overcome the forces which threaten peace on earth.*
The contextualization of peace and peacemaking and the critical appreciation of the ecclesial actions or inactions for the advancement of peace compel the Orthodox Church to explore different but complementary ways to relate liturgical and spiritual experience and faith with the complex and conflictual issues of the world. Such a move evokes accusations that the Church moves from the spiritual realm to politics, an “activism” that would be alien to Orthodoxy. Commenting on the reluctance of the various Orthodox Churches to address issues of public life, Metropolitan John Zizioulas believes that they are right to give preeminence to those elements of their tradition that refer to the centrality of eschatology but they are wrong to disconnect eschatology from history, theology from ethics, and generally to be indifferent in finding and witnessing God in the historical realm.
Orthodox theologians, because of close association of many Orthodox Churches with the State and their long oppression by totalitarian regimes, have not adequately and critically reflected on either the reflexive relationship of self and society or the Christian imperative of the simultaneous transformation by God’s grace as well as of Christian discipleship of both. Oppressive, unjust, and violent social structures in the past jeopardized the humanity of the oppressed, but now the possibility of just societies is put at risk by unjust, greedy, and self-centered individuals. Fr. Stanley Harakas notes the undeveloped status of social ethics in Eastern Orthodoxy most especially on peace studies:
There are few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided theoretical underpinning for a consistent and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and, worse yet, the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacifism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet.
Despite this lamentable situation, opportunities for Orthodox theologians to reflect on issues of justice and peace have arisen. Among them, the military invasion of Iraq generated among Orthodox in the USA an interesting debate on whether the war was just, and whether judged by the standards of the Orthodox Church, war can ever be “Just,” or may sometimes be considered a “lesser good” or a “lesser evil.” All three views are problematic. Orthodoxy has never conceived a theory of Just War or the notion that any war may be just; further, violence is neither fully legitimized when it is viewed as a lesser good nor unconditionally renounced when it is considered as a lesser evil. Rather, most Orthodox theologians have defended the peaceable nature of the Orthodox Church and at the same time have conceded that the use of force is sometimes an inevitable tool of statecraft, while some evidence exists that the Byzantines at times attempted to place elements of strict and yet meaningful moral restraint on the execution of war. The theological assessment of violence, however, remains an issue of contestation.
Does the eschatological nature of the Christian faith allow us to give a condition-al theological legitimacy to violence? While the eschatological orientation of the gospel teaches us that a fully reachable earthly shalom is unattainable in history, it places the world in a dynamic process of transformation by the Holy Spirit that moves the world closer to the peaceable reign of God. Eschatology is thus a subversive principle questioning every necessity that legitimates violence. As Gregory Baum states:
Replying to the question “Can society exist without violence?” in the negative gives permission for societies to reconcile themselves with the violence they practice. Replying yes to the question, in the name of divine promises, challenges every society to review its practices and reduce its reliance on violence.
Peace, of course, is more than the absence of violence. It does not deny conflict, an intrinsic element of human relationships, but neither does conflict necessitate violence. Violence is not the only way to resolve conflicts. Peacemakers are con-stantly seeking creative applications of peacemaking principles to conflict situations whereby people and communities can resolve their differences without resort to physical violence. Peacemaking is a dynamic process, often without an absolute end point, that either strengthens conditions that prevent violence or introduces new elements that lead toward greater freedom and justice and away from violence.
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, living in a Muslim country and having experience with the cruelties of religion-sanctioned wars and strife, argues that the Church cannot exercise its vocation of peace and peacemaking and hold onto war:
In the church, a vision of inwardness where peace becomes our vocation is plausible only if war can be exorcised….Nothing can be accomplished until the biblical foundations of violence are shattered. For us the error lies not in history but in theology.
Alongside the image of a bloodthirsty God, there arises the image of a merciful God whose voice speaks through prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea and in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah. We are confronted here with two irreconcilably opposed faces of the Lord in the same Scripture.
Metropolitan George argues that these incompatible images of God must be understood through a “kenotic” reading of Scripture and suggests that the “the Cross alone is the locus of divine victory, and the source of the meaning of faith. Anything in the Scripture that does not conform to the mystery of Love is a veil over the Word.” Other Orthodox scholars, risking the accusation of being Marcionites, tend to bypass the violent texts of the Old Testament as earlier stages in under-standing God’s revelation that the New Testament has surpassed. In the Patristic tradition the violent texts of the Scripture have been interpreted through the allegorical method to describe “Spiritual personal struggles against evil and sin.”
However, the renunciation of violence and war as destructive of human lives, unjust, and oppressive becomes a credible expression of the Church’s faith only when it is complemented with ethical practices that point to their prevention. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of conflict and war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment about the legitimacy and rules of conduct of war or even its unconditional renunciation. Peace requires much more than either military action or passive pacifism. If our ethics focus only on when a military action is right or wrong, their scope is limited to the exclusion of preventive actions. A remedy to this limitation is for the Church to develop “just peacemaking” practices that move its ethical discourse from theories that justify or regulate the use of violence to preventive actions that contribute to the building up of a culture of peace.
The Church’s witness may not always prevent war, and Christians may continue to disagree on the justification of a particular war, but it must be possible to work together and reach consensus on what practices of violence prevention and peacemaking the Church should support. Orthodox pacifists have a particular moral obligation to address situations of aggression, injustice, and violent conflicts to contribute to the invention of peaceful means and actions by which justice, peace, and reconciliation are served and not simply to renounce violence and war.
The concern of the Church for peace and its active participation in movements of peace is a testing ground of its faith about the origins, essential goodness, and future of the world. The Church, as the sacrament of God’s peace to the world, must find ways to actively support all human efforts that aim to identify more effective ways of resolving disputes without resorting to violence. The Church’s peacemaking vocation, through prayer and action, is to transform the conditions that breed violence and to help those whom violence and war have put asunder to find wholeness in God’s peace and justice through reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness.
Theological Foundations for a Culture of Peace: The Orthodox Church understands peace and peacemaking as an indispensable aspect of its faith and of its mission to the world. It grounds this faith conviction upon the wholeness of the Biblical tradition as it is properly interpreted through the Church’s liturgical experience and practice. The Eucharist provides the space and the perspective by which one discerns and experiences the fullness of the Christian faith and is the witness of the Church as it bears its mission for the life of the world. Robert F. Taft concludes that since the formation of the Byzantine liturgy, peace had assumed a central importance as a greeting and prayer that expresses the Church’s understanding of God’s Kingdom. The peace of God in the Liturgy is referred to as “peace from on high,” as in the angelic greeting “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men” (Lk. 2:14). In the Liturgy, people receive the peace of God through unity with Christ once they enter, by the Eucharist through the work of the Holy Spirit, into unity with God. Finally, at the end of the liturgy, the people are sent away in peace and as bearers of peace to the world.
Peace in Scripture as well as in the liturgy is a greeting and a dynamic, grace-giving word: God Himself is Peace and peace is His gift; peace is a sign of communion with God, who gives peace to those who serve him; peace grants freedom from fear and is inseparable from righteousness without which there is no real peace—in short, “peace” is practically synonymous with salvation; peace is communion with God and Jesus Christ is our peace since, as the bond of communion, “We live in peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”; peace is granted to the world and to the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God within the world that guides the Church into unity “in one place with one accord” and grants to all peace, justice, love, and joy (Jn. 20:19-21, Jgs. 6:24, Ps. 85:8-13, Rom. 16:20, 1 Thess. 5:23, Eph. 2:14-17, Rom 5:1, Acts 2:1, Rom. 14:14).
Christians, as it is reflected in the liturgy, place primary emphasis on the eschatological peace that God grants to them as a gift of communion with Christ. Yet, they do not ignore the conflicts, power struggles, and violence they presently experience in the world. Although the early Christian Church of the first three centuries was primarily pacifist, grounding its attitudes on the Sermon of the Mount, the Fathers of the Church later––without abandoning the pacifist attitude of the early Church––justified defensive wars without developing theories of Just War or giving theological legitimacy to violence. Still, the Orthodox Church gave far more attention to the question of how to establish and maintain peaceful and just societies than it did to justify, or even tolerate, any instance of war. It remains that the Church has a dynamic commitment to the praxis of peace.
In every dimension of life, the Church invites us to embody the way of Christ as fully as we can in the circumstances that we face: to forgive enemies; to work for the reconciliation of those who have become estranged; to overcome the divisions of race, nationality, and class; to care for the poor; to live in harmony with others; to protect creation and to use the created goods of the world for the benefit of all. Advocacy for peace must not stop with praying the litanies of the Liturgy. We can pray these petitions with integrity only if we also move beyond prayer and offer ourselves as instruments for God’s peace in the world, ready to live the petitions out in relation to the challenges to peace that exist among peoples and nations, believing that God has destined the world to live in peace. As St. Nicholas Cabasilas states: “Christians, as disciples of Christ who made all things for peace, are to be ‘craftsmen of peace.’ They are called a peaceable race, since ‘nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace.’” The Third Pre-Conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference (1986) exhorts Orthodox Christians to be active peacemakers grounded in their faith:
We, Orthodox Christians, have—by reason of the fact that we have had access to the meaning of salvation—a duty to fight against disease, misfortune, fear; because we have had access to the experience of peace we cannot remain indifferent to its absence from society today; because we have benefited from God’s justice, we are fighting for further justice in the world and for the elimination of all oppression; because we daily experience God’s mercy, we are fighting all fanaticism and intoler-ance between persons and nations; because we continually proclaim the incarnation of God and the divinization of man we defend human rights for all individuals and all peoples; because we live God’s gift of liberty, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, we can announce more completely its universal value for all individuals and peoples; because, nourished by the body and blood of our Lord in the holy Eucharist, we experience the need to share God’s gifts with our brothers and sisters, we have a better understanding of hunger and privation and fight for their abolition; because we expect a new earth and new heaven where absolute justice will reign, we fight here and now for the rebirth and renewal of the human being and society.
There remains, then, a need to learn practical ways, develop pastoral projects, and create opportunities that allow Orthodox people and the Church to participate in movements of social transformation and contribute to a culture of peace. For, as the Christian understanding of peace and how it is advanced in the life of the world is guided by the eschatological peace that God grants to the world––the reality of being with God and participating in the glory of His reign––it remains primarily a gift and a vocation, a pattern of life. It discloses the life of those who have been reconciled and united with God. It is primarily this unity that enables Christians to embrace in love all human beings because of the active presence of God’s spirit in them. Since peace is constitutive of the Christian Gospel, Christian believers are involved in a permanent process of becoming more conscious of their responsibility to incarnate the message of peace and justice in the world as a witness of the authenticity of their faith. This is clearly stated by St. Basil: “Christ is our peace,” and hence “he who seeks peace seeks Christ…without love for others, without an attitude of peace towards all men, no one can be called a true servant of Christ.”
The Orthodox Church insists that the root cause for violence, injustice and oppression in the world reflects the pervasive presence and impact of the still active operation of the “principalities and powers” of the fallen world. Evil, violence, injustice, and oppression reflect the disrupted communion of human beings with God, the fallible nature of our human actions, and the failure to discern and do the will of God in the midst of the ambiguities of history. Violence has multiple manifestations: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity between individuals and groups of every organizational type. In the midst of violence and injustice, Christian faith recognizes the active presence of God’s Spirit, the subversive reality that enables the world, and in particular the suffering victims of injustice, aggression and oppression, to begin a process of liberation and movement towards a culture of peace and justice. A tension between the already given reality of peace and its not-yet-fulfilled reality characterizes the key theological stance of Christians involved in the struggle for peace. The awareness that peace is an eschatological gift of God and of the active presence of God’s Spirit in history makes it impossible for the Church to accept either the historical fatalism that makes wars, lesser clashes, and other violence an unshakable reality or to embrace the possibility of a permanent peace in this world by relying on simple human-centered ideologies.
The Christian notion of Peace in the Public Space: The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace. Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker and a worker for justice. This calling is nourished through prayer and repentance, by allowing Scripture to form our human consciousness, in participating in the Eucharist, and through recognizing the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed as living icons of Christ.
This calling is noble, and Christians, through the above mentioned devotional practices, receive the gift of God’s peace as the basis of their involvement in the life of the world. They are peacemakers because of their participation in God’s mission. Here it is important to differentiate between the gift of God’s peace and how this gift is received, acknowledged, and communicated by the Church and the faithful. While the gift of God’s peace is given through the Church to all by virtue of their identification with Christ, it is not equally true that the faithful are always the vehicles of God’s grace and peace to the world. Christian responses to situations of violence are always subject to God’s judgment that compels the Church and the faithful to repentance and asking for God’s forgiveness for all their failures to act as agents of His peace to the world.
Orthodox theologians have recognized that there is a need to “lift up in the consciousness of the Church the peacemaking character of Christianity and the Christian duty to serve the cause of peace and Justice.” Articulating only abstract theological truths, which nevertheless are normative for the Church’s identity and mission, cannot raise the consciousness of the Church. There is a need to enhance and concretize these theological ideals with insights about social injustice, oppression, and violence that the social sciences provide. As the report of the Orthodox Perspectives on Justice and Peace states:
It is important that we not only speak about justice and peace, but also develop projects and contribute practically in programs and sustained organized activity on behalf of the concrete realization of the values of justice and peace in our ecclesial life. In this regard the Church must learn to dialogue especially with non-Church bodies to find the most suitable common ways for the implementation of justice and peace.
We carefully note, however, that dialogue between opposing sides is not simply a means to reach agreement. The Orthodox Church should exercise its peacemaking mission through its active participation in peace dialogues seeking to end wars between and within states, resolve violent disputes of all kinds within society, and defeat racism, discrimination, and exploitation of the weak and the poor. The very presence of the Church in dialogue with others is witness to God’s love for all humanity and affirms the dignity of all human beings as well as affirms that dialogue itself is part of a reconciliation process. The Orthodox should defend not only dialogue on peace as such but also the inclusion of people who are very often neglected in crucial deliberations. Those who partner in true dialogue with open and sincere minds, ready to listen and not only to speak, are already on the way to peace.
On the basis of the theological understanding of peace, the various Orthodox Churches should participate in movements of peace and justice. However their involvement will not be credible unless they first liberate themselves from ethno-nationalisms that reflect the history of the long identification of church-nation-state relationship in most Orthodox countries where the Churches had been considered as national institutions. Ethno-nationalism has in some instances reduced the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to a “national” church, restricted geographically and shaped by a particular culture, shared history, worldview, language, and other idiosyncrasies that serves the political purposes of a state while helping to preserve its nationalist, racist, and chauvinist ideologies. The suggested liberation of the Orthodox Churches from ethno-nationalism does not mean that their members cannot be patriotic or love their nation. What is objectionable is the exclusive identification of God with a particular nation and the triumphalism that attaches to that. The partiality of ethno-nationalism not only hinders the Orthodox contribution to peace movements, but it debases basic tenets of the Orthodox faith.
The Church must learn to express its deep-rooted commitment to justice in concrete ways relevant in our time. We must continue to affirm, loudly and clearly, the truth that God’s image is present in every human being. We need to seek out and actively cooperate with all forces of good working for the eradication from God’s creation of all forms of prejudice and discrimination. We ourselves must teach our people to respect the integrity and dignity of all peoples of every nation, economic condition, race, sex, and political affiliation, so that reconciliation and tolerance may replace coercion and violence in our relationships. Our goal is nothing less than the reign of God’s love among all peoples.
Is it possible for Orthodoxy to justify wars in defending the dignity, the rights, the freedom and the liberation of oppressed people? As the report on Orthodox Perspective on Justice and Peace states:
The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defense of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed, a just war theory, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for Peace.
The Church, while it supports all human efforts to repudiate the logic of violence and war, must not forget its greater mission to lead the world to address the deeper issues. Peace is not a moral good in and of itself; it is linked with the most basic human values and practices as a permanent improvement of the human condition on all levels. Defending the dignity of every human person and the sanctity of life cannot be disengaged from the quest for greater justice and freedom as the foundation, source, and origin of real and permanent peace. “No society can live in peace with itself, or with the world, without the full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person, and of the sacredness of all human life.” The Church must be hesitant to fully support those peace movements that disregard fundamental human values like justice and freedom for the sake of merely avoiding the last explicit negation of peace, i.e. massive armed war and lesser applications of violence. Certainly, a Christian would always share in the efforts to avoid bloodshed because life is the most precious God-given gift, but he would try to remind people that when attempting to avoid war and keep peace they should critically examine what kind of peace they represent.
One has to speak of the Christian peace concept and its contribution to the general peace movement not as an absolute one in a general religious, self-sufficient sense but as a radical particularity which is unique in that it goes dynamically deep into the primary causes of war and violence and calls for thorough understanding in shaping a praxis of peacemaking. Particularity here refers to a uniqueness relating to Christ as our Peace, presenting God’s Peace as a paramount gift to the whole of humanity. There are good attempts in the secular realm regarding peace, and a Christian should affirm them as a first point of contact with God’s peace: “Whenever we see harmony, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity, generosity, and care for the weak in the common life of humanity, we witness a blessing of the Lord and catch a glimpse—no matter how dim and imperfect—of the peace of Christ.” Then the uniqueness of Christian peace could definitely become a necessary and positive counterbalance against all kinds of unilateral, human-centered and godless peacemaking.
Finally, the contribution of the Orthodox Church in advancing peace with justice and freedom depends upon the unity of all Orthodox Churches in their total commitment to the Gospel of love and reconciliation and on their courage to speak and act accordingly beyond any kind of temporary affiliations in the socio-political realm. Its contribution will, however, be truly Christian, if it is offered in all humility and in that spirit of repentance and forbearance which is the key prerequisite of true peacemakers. IC
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, MA where he has taught since 1985. In Communion thanks Fr. Emmanuel for his invaluable contribution to our ongoing quest to promote peacemaking not just as an ideal, an eschatological end point, or for those inclined to activism but as necessary for the whole Church. His essay has been edited here for length. The unedited essay with full notes and references may be found at: www.goarch.com.
* To save space, all footnotes and references have been removed throughout this issue. Any article is available, with full notes, to anyone upon request.
No act is more violent than taking another’s life. Four years of my life were defined by training to commit, attempting to commit or committing these very acts of violence. During that period I was one of the unfortunate Marines put into situations where murder seemed to be my only option. For me, this taking of lives was only half of the sad and violent story that was my life from ages 18 to 22. The other half of the story is one that most people do not consider when they sign the military contract that gives away the right to their own lives.
It’s the story of friends that you lose in war that is left untold in recruiting films. It’s the story of the friends so badly wounded that they will never live a full life again. Such stories shaped my life in the aftermath of the violent confusion that defined my years in the Marine Corps infantry.
What made me realize the true severity and true weight of the act of murder was a series of incidents on November 26, 2004 – a sunny and warm Thanksgiving Day in Fallujah, Iraq. It was my unit’s third straight week without a shower, hot meal or change of clothes. The day started normally, mortars and rockets exploding outside the walls of the house we had made into our temporary central command. I remember thinking as I put my boots on that this day felt different.
The first task of that day was to retrace our steps of the last 21 days and show a “body snatcher” team where we had killed people so they could dispose of the remains. This mission was supposed to be simple. I thought it would get me out of the daily patrol and thus maybe save my life. It would be a vacation day.
What actually happened was to take a huge emotional toll that I will have to live with the rest of my life. The things I saw can only be described as something from a terrible nightmare or a gruesome war movie. The bodies were barely human – few human characteristics remained. This was the first time I had seen the results of my violence up close. I felt disgusted with myself knowing I had done such things to another living being.
Unfortunately, I was unable to avoid the daily patrol that day. In fact, my platoon had waited for me to get back so I would not be left out. On this patrol I watched my close friend get killed by a machine gun. He, two others and I went into a house where there were six men in a room with the door closed and mattresses on the ground so they could not be heard moving around. Brad walked in front of the closed door and was shot seven times in his body and twice in his armor. He died before he hit the ground.
In the confusion that occurs after such an event, I – who was directly behind Brad – fell onto the stairs behind.
Everything around me was moving in slow motion. Once I regained my composure I realized what had happened and was so enraged that what I did next was the complete opposite of every human instinct in my body. Instead of trying to help my friend, as most would have, I went to the door that Brad had died in front of and kicked it in and shot wildly into the room.
The story of this day is important because it is an accurate account of the ways in which I have handled violence in the past and illustrates the reasons why I handle violence now. The act of killing, in these years, was as simple as three pounds of pressure on a trigger, and that’s how we were trained. What I realize now, astonishingly for the first time, is that I should have questioned my orders at every instance when I was told to go somewhere to take another’s life and that killing another living being is far more complicated than three pounds of pressure on a trigger.
There is no contract with any government in any country that can justify murder of any kind. By the same token, I cannot justify my actions by claiming that I was simply being obedient. Those were my decisions. I made them, and now I must live with them forever.
Now I feel terrible for what I have done. I’ve been haunted by nightmares every night since returning home. These experiences, my education and the reevaluation of my past have brought me to where I am today when it comes to violence. I have seen firsthand what the most gruesome violence looks like and I know that I was capable of committing it. I am actively trying to learn about being a nonviolent person and have worked hard to avoid violence. So far I have been successful.
What I am most afraid of is not the person with the guns, it is how I will react to the violence they bring into my life. Will I revert to the instincts that were drilled into my head while in the military – the same instincts that sent me through the door shooting wildly? Or will I remember what it felt like to see the dead bodies that my friends and I had killed, and be sickened with the thought of taking another’s life?
It has and will continue to be a learning process for me and I hope very much that I can be the caring and compassionate person I believe I am. ❖
Brandon Frazier is a student at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. This essay was written for a class on “The Principles and Practices of Peace” taught by Colman McCarthy. Reprinted from The National Catholic Reporter.
❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59
Every war leaves deep scars on its survivors, not least the soldiers who were involved.
In World War I there was “shell shock.” World War II vets had “battle fatigue.” The troubles of Vietnam veterans led to the codification of post-traumatic stress disorder. In combat, the fight-or-flight reflex floods the body with adrenaline, permitting impressive feats of speed and endurance. After spending weeks or months in this altered state, some soldiers cannot adjust to a peaceful setting. A visit to a crowded bank may become an ordeal. They display what doctors call “hypervigilance.” They sit in restaurants with their backs to a wall. A car’s backfire can transport them back to Baghdad.
The New York Times reported in December that a U.S. Army study notes that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.
“There’s a train coming that’s packed with people who are going to need help for the next 35 years,” said Stephen L. Robinson, a 20-year Army veteran who is now the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, an advocacy group.
“I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war,” said Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, who served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs from 1994 to 1997.
Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said he believes the estimates are conservative. “I’m not an alarmist, but I think this is a serious problem. It may be worse just because of the nature of the war,” he said, citing extended tours of duty and the change of mission from liberation to occupation.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of guys with classic post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said Dr. Evan Kanter, a psychiatrist at the Puget Sound Veterans Hospital in Seattle. “We’re anxiously waiting for a flood that we expect is coming. And I feel stretched right now. Such costs of war are not revealed by official casualty counts. People see the figure of 1,200 dead. Rarely do they see the number of seriously wounded. Almost never do they hear about the psychiatric casualties.”
Ninety percent of those posted to Iraq reported being shot at. A high percentage also reported killing an enemy combatant, or knowing someone who was injured or killed. About half said they had handled at least one dead body.
“In [Iraq’s] urban terrain, the enemy is everywhere, across the street, in that window, up that alley,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who served as a platoon leader with the Florida Army National Guard for ten months, going on hundreds of combat patrols around Baghdad. “It’s a fishbowl. You never feel safe. You never relax.” In his platoon of 38 people, eight were divorced while in Iraq or since they returned in February. One man in his 120-person company killed himself after coming home. “Too many guys are drinking,” he said. “A lot have a hard time finding a job. I think the system is vastly under-prepared for the flood of mental health problems.”
On his second day in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, a translator attached to the 10th Special Forces Group, suffered what he thought was a nervous breakdown after seeing one of the Iraqi dead. “I wasn’t functioning. I was having physical symptoms. I was having a behavioral reaction,” he recalled. After struggling through the night, he said he decided to tell his superior officer out of fear that “if we do go out on a patrol and I do freeze up, that could have consequences too.” Instead of being given help, he was told to reconsider for the sake of his career. “The message was: ‘Hey, you’re a coward. You’re acting like a coward.'” Pogany was sent back to the U.S. where he was charged with cowardice, though the charge has since been dropped. “My career is probably at an end. I’ve had my security clearance revoked. I’m still struggling to get things set straight.” Pogany hopes that by speaking out he can help other veterans. “The most important thing is that trauma, whether experienced in combat or anywhere else in life, needs to be looked at as an injury to the mind. An injury to the mind needs to be treated just like an injury to the leg, whether you have shrapnel wounds or gunshot wounds.”
Capt. Tim Wilson, an Army chaplain serving near Mosul, counsels up to ten soldiers a week for combat stress. He noted that fierce battles produce turbulent emotions. “There are usually two things they are dealing with,” he said. “Either being shot at and not wanting to get shot at again, or after shooting someone, asking, ‘Did I commit murder?’ or ‘Is God going to forgive me?’ or ‘How am I going to be when I get home?'”
“During the war, they don’t have the leisure to focus on how they’re feeling,” said Dr. Sonja Batten, a psychologist at the Baltimore Veterans Hospital. “It’s when they get back and find that their relationships are suffering and they can’t hold down a job that they realize they have a problem.”
Robert E. Brown, 35, was proud to be in the first wave of Marines invading Iraq last year, now finds himself in the first ranks of returning soldiers unhinged by what they experienced. He served for six months as a chaplain’s assistant, counseling wounded soldiers, organizing makeshift memorial services and filling in on raids. He knew he was in trouble by the time he was on a ship home, when the sound of a hatch slamming would send him diving to the floor. After returning home, he began drinking heavily and saw his marriage fall apart. He was discharged and returned to his hometown, Peru, Indiana, where he slept for two weeks in his Ford Explorer, surrounded by mementos of the war. “I just couldn’t stand to be with anybody,” he said.
Dr. Batten started him on the road to recovery by giving his torment a name, an explanation and a treatment plan. But 18 months after leaving Iraq, he takes medication for depression and anxiety and returns in dreams to the horrors of war nearly every night. The scenes repeat in ghastly alternation, he says: the Iraqi girl, three or four years old, her skull torn open by a stray round; the Kuwaiti man imprisoned for 13 years by Saddam Hussein, cowering in madness and covered in waste; the young American soldier, desperate to escape the fighting, who sat in the latrine and fired his M-16 through his arm; the Iraqi missile speeding in as troops scramble in the dark for cover.
“That’s the one that just stops my heart,” said Brown. “I’m in my rack sleeping and there’s a school bus full of explosives coming down at me and nowhere to go.”
In July 2003, as Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine reservist from Belchertown, Massachusetts, prepared to leave Iraq after six months as a truck driver, he at first intended to report traumatic memories of seeing corpses, his parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey, said. But when a supervisor suggested that such candor might delay his return home, Lucey played down his problems. Haunted by what he had seen, at home he spiraled downhill. He began to have delusions about having killed unarmed Iraqis. In June, at 23, he hanged himself in the basement of the family home.
“Other marines have verified to us that it is a subtle understanding which exists that if you want to go home you do not report any problems,” Mr. Lucey’s parents wrote in an e-mail message. “Jeff’s perception, which is shared by others, is that to seek help is to admit that you are weak.”
Meanwhile U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq are beginning to show up at homeless shelters around the country. Agencies assisting the homeless fear they are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless vets not seen since the Vietnam era. “We already have people from Iraq on the streets,” said Linda Boone, director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “It’s happening and this nation is not prepared for that.”