War Is Hell. But It Can Be Heaven.

Why soldiers crave the extremes of active duty.
War Is Hell. But It Can Be Heaven.
Image: 401st_AFSB / Flickr

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.

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.

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.

We’re not warmongers; we’re simply longing for another taste of heaven alongside other warriors.

A soldier on deployment wakes up every day surrounded by people whom he knows would risk their lives for him, just as he would for them. This sacrificial love isn’t merely hoped for or hypothetical; it is demonstrated in mission after mission. Scripture tells us that there is no greater love than this (John 15:13), and that such a love that leads to complete joy (John 15:11). Seen in this light, we shouldn’t be surprised that soldiers experience heavenly joy even in the midst of a hellish deployment.

How might this perspective help veterans sort out how they feel about their combat experiences? First, it explains why soldiers want to be deployed. We’re not warmongers; we’re longing for another taste of heaven alongside other warriors. Second, it explains why life outside of war can seem so mundane and even meaningless. Having gone through heaven and hell, our everyday lives can feel like limbo. Third, it explains why deployments can be so disorienting. Our lives once rested on a worldview that assumed the existence of the Christian God. War forces us to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Many Americans can live happily without needing to ask questions of theodicy; veterans desperately do.

A combat deployment exposes veterans to extremes — of love and brotherhood, of fear and hatred. We’ve seen what humans are capable of, for better and for worse. Reflecting on our experiences of war, we are alternately inspired and appalled. We have glimpsed what was previously unimaginable: the happiness of heaven, the desolation of hell. And no matter what, we will be changed.

Pete Kilner is an active-duty Army lieutenant colonel serving on the faculty at West Point. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

We want to invite conversation about the experiences of veterans. If you have a story to share, or a question to ask, direct those to Centurions Guild founder Logan Isaac at logan[at]centurionsguild.org.

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War Is Hell. But It Can Be Heaven.