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.

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. ...

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