Combat veterans have a love-hate relationship with war. They love the sense of purpose that they had during deployment; they hate the senseless evil that necessitated war. They love the unity they experienced with other soldiers; they hate the destruction they witnessed and sometimes helped to unleash.
Wars are visible, political conflicts that can spawn invisible, moral conflicts within those who fight them. What combat veteran doesn’t feel by turns pride and exhilaration, disgust and anger? That’s a volatile brew of emotions — one that veterans must face squarely in order to integrate their combat experience into their larger life narrative.
I am a career Army officer who embedded with combat units and interviewed hundreds of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan over multiple deployments. I am also a Christian. In the course of integrating my identities as both a soldier and a Christian, I gained an insight — one informed by and compatible with my faith — that has helped explain why I was both attracted to and repulsed by war.
This insight is that combat deployments affect our souls so deeply because they allow us to taste something of heaven and hell, in ways that civilian life rarely does. The profound purpose, unity, and love that soldiers in a small unit experience is almost impossible to replicate outside of war; it is a foretaste of heaven. At the same time, the dehumanizing suffering and apparent absence of God that characterize a war zone instruct veterans on how awful human existence can be; there's a reason we say "war is hell."
Soldiers and civilians alike know the ways in which war is the Devil’s terrain. Soldiers are pawns in a conflict started by others. People who don’t know us hate us and try their best to kill us. Our freedom is constrained; our only options are to kill or be killed. Innocent men, women, and children are inevitably caught in the crossfire and traumatized, maimed, or killed. A society’s infrastructure and environment are damaged. And for the first time in most soldiers’ lives, we encounter undisguised evil.
Worst, our experience of that evil can undermine belief in God. After a soldier spends two days collecting the body parts of children and medical personnel — the enemy packed an ambulance with explosives and detonated it at a children’s hospital — the soldier has good reason to ask how such a horrific event squares with the reality of an all-good, all-powerful God.
Hidden beneath the ugly destructiveness of war, however, is a sublime beauty that is known only to the veterans who have experienced it. Soldiers at war are living, and dying, for something greater than themselves. In concert with everyone around them, deployed soldiers are 100 percent committed to accomplishing the mission. They live and work together day and night, week after week, for months. On a combat deployment (and unlike almost anywhere else), everyone in the organization has the same agenda: to accomplish their team’s missions, at the cost of their own lives, and to protect each other’s lives. This shared purpose and commitment to the mission and to each other create deep bonds of love. The greater the dangers and adversity that soldiers face and overcome, the greater those bonds. Some soldiers become closer to each other than to their own families.