Even for Christian Combat Veterans, No Easy Answers

What two recent films get right, and what they miss.
Even for Christian Combat Veterans, No Easy Answers
Image: Courtesy of Provident Films LLC and The WTA Group, LLC
Real-life Armed Forces veteran Skye P. Marshall (left) in INDIVISIBLE

The recent films Unbroken: Path to Redemption and Indivisible center on spiritual responses to the personal toll of war. Those responses are, first and foremost, personal and individual. It would be a mistake to think that the transformations we see in the films can be generalized to all, most, or even a significant minority of war-zone veterans. But, however limited their perspectives, the films are helpful in that they show us two of the paths war veterans can take—two of the ways the Lord can meet veterans in their particular circumstances.

Unbroken (a follow-up to the hit 2014 biopic) tells the postwar story of Louis Zamperini, who survived nearly 50 days on a raft in the Pacific only to be imprisoned and brutalized by the Japanese. His first response to the hatred and nightmares that followed the war was alcohol. The more lasting answer was the gospel, preached at a Billy Graham crusade and responded to in the form of a traditional altar call.

Indivisible is also based on a true story—that of Darren Turner, an Army chaplain who discovered that Sunday school theology and the world of war don’t easily mix. Early in the film, we see an eager Turner anticipating a long deployment to Iraq, saying, “I signed up to be where the need is.” The film depicts him making a difference in some soldiers’ lives—not so much the result of his homilies, which seem to fall flat, but because of his personal example. Yet war wears on him and he unravels. Back home, a senior chaplain tells him, “I’m not sure there is faith without some doubt.”

I approach these films not as a movie critic but as one who over 20 years has interviewed hundreds of combat veterans. Much was familiar. Unbroken, for example, shows Zamperini mentally replaying wartime scenes. In his memoir, he tells us that he wondered how he was able to get free of a plane that had crashed into the sea. “I relived every moment.” This is common.

There’s the case of Bennett. The German plane that would shoot down his bomber was coming directly at him. His job as a machine gunner was to shoot, but he didn’t because his gun jammed. Or did he panic and freeze? Was Bennett’s bomber shot down and most of the crew killed—was he himself made a prisoner of war—because his gun had jammed or because he had frozen in fear? He relived every moment for decades but went to the grave not knowing.

Then there is Chris, the driver of a Humvee, who remembers the Iraqi woman he was ordered to run down in an episode of high stress. Did she stand in the vehicle’s way paralyzed with fear, or steady in defiance, or because she was an insurgent, the goal being to stop the Humvee so it could be attacked? The tape replays—she and Chris lock eyes again—but he doesn’t know. Chris’s faith has deepened since his war, but he has a hard time relating it to what he saw and did.

Zamperini’s conversion stopped the tape and the nightmares. Turner’s post-war-zone faith—tested, toughened, and deepened—made it possible for him to continue his work as a chaplain. But, as a young Marine officer I know would tell us, this kind of resolution isn’t universal, however deep one’s faith.

Once, while on patrol, this officer and a few troops came across an unwitting group of North Vietnamese soldiers eating lunch. He gave the order to gun the enemy down before they had a chance to defend themselves. Zamperini, Turner, and this Marine all experienced hideous war, but different experiences lead to different responses. Zamperini found instant, lifelong spiritual relief. Turner’s exit was more complicated, yet spiritually and intellectually deeper. But the Marine, also a Christian, speaks only of “50 years of agony and heartache.”

Of course, faith matters in these instances. But personality also matters. Experiences and processing styles differ. One veteran was a door gunner in Vietnam and served on three helicopters that were shot down. He never felt postwar wrath or had problems adjusting to civilian life. He took in stride a visit to the “The Wall,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. But when another veteran, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, drives on open highways, he finds himself again aloft over Phu Bai, Da Nang, and Chu Lai. “When I first saw the Wall,” he says, “I lost it.”

And even when it does offer some relief, faith doesn’t always provide answers to our biggest questions. Indivisible shows Chaplain Turner carrying the lifeless body of an Iraqi girl. A soldier asks him: “You got a Bible verse to explain why a little girl’s life was taken before it even began?” This soldier sounded like Pete, a missionary kid, who served a combat tour in Iraq. “Seeing kids die did it for me,” he says. “They had nothing to do with the war and never had a chance. It’s hard to believe a fair and just God could have a hand in a five-year-old girl getting run over by a truck while trying to beg for food.” The movie soldier converts. Pete lost his faith.

As Indivisible shows, this is the sort of thing that makes the work of combat-zone chaplains difficult. Surprising as it may seem, the world of battle is often a prayer-free zone, if we exclude the quick, semi-conscious utterances for help in a jam. War is hell, and if a basic definition of hell is God’s absence, then (in some sense) God isn’t there. Few Christian combat veterans will say this, many will contradict it, but their own reflections usually tend toward that conclusion. Who could possibly say with conviction that Jesus can be found in the thrusting of a bayonet, the hurling of a grenade, the dropping of a bomb, the laying of a mine—even if, in a given situation, these acts are necessary?

As with many things in the world of war, memories of chaplains differ. Before he died of conditions probably complicated by Agent Orange, my uncle wrote of the evening in Vietnam when he realized that “God was not involved in the conflict.” He tried to talk to chaplains about his fear, “but they had no scriptural comfort, and at the end of the day they were paid soldiers.” He became a Jehovah’s Witness and a pacifist.

On the other hand, David Hess, who fought at Hill 875 in the battle of Dak To, remembers Chaplain Charles Watters with the deepest admiration. Watters was killed while assisting the wounded. He didn’t have to be on the mission. He would have served wounded enemy Vietnamese. He died a non-combatant hero.

For all the difficulties, many see that God turns hard experiences to good. In Indivisible, an improvised explosive device takes a soldier’s leg but saves his family. Humbled and constrained, the soldier understood that he needed to make significant changes in his life. And, referring to his chief prison-camp tormentor, Zamperini said that if “it hadn’t been for the Bird I never would have been converted.” The day after his conversion he “woke up and realized I hadn’t had a nightmare about the Bird. And to this day I’ve never had another.” It isn’t a common story, but it is a real one.

Both Zamperini and Turner found postwar meaning in connecting with and helping others. Isolation for the combat veteran is a path to disaster; reaching out not just to ask for help, but also to help others, can be a source of profound relief. Zamperini started a program for troubled boys. Turner continued to serve fellow soldiers while remembering not to neglect his own family.

Luke Ryan, who served four tours in Afghanistan, encourages war veterans to look outside themselves. “In combat, you live one of the purest forms of service,” he says. “You throw your very life into the fray for the sake of the mission and the sake of those around you. The last person you think about is yourself. You have to find a way to do that again.”

And so it goes, according to other combat veterans I’ve worked with:

“Reconnect with family and friends. Don’t isolate yourself. Remember Philippians 4:8. Stay busy and think of others. After all, it was for others that you went to war in the first place.” (Ken Leach, Vietnam)

“When I was discharged, veterans were seen as pariahs and baby killers. I sought to distance myself from other vets, which was a big mistake.” (Gary Heald, Vietnam)

“Look for ways you can serve others,” says Derl Horn, who has published his Vietnam memoir. “Through prayer, I have released many of my difficult memories to God.”

After his combat tour in Vietnam, Ron Maines flew for Mission Aviation Fellowship. The work of service was a work of healing.

Unbroken and Indivisible tell individual stories about individual war-zone veterans. For me, these stories go into the same mental container as the two conversations I had yesterday with veterans—one who saw close up killing in the invasion of Panama in 1989, the other a sailor who saw combat in the Mekong Delta in 1968. Veterans’ stories have much in common, but their ways with memories are personal.

Experiences, personalities, and processing styles differ. Wars differ. Situations within wars differ. Zamperini had his answer. Turner has his. The combat veteran at your church may have another. The important thing is not to generalize, not to sentimentalize, but to listen to and be ready to learn from those who live with hard memories of war. Pray for them. Sometimes faith doesn’t answer everything. But time, interest, and individualized responses, informed by faith, can pave a trail to recovery and, in many cases, healing.

A professor of history at John Brown University, Preston Jones has recently posted dozens of discussions with combat veterans at his YouTube channel. He is the author of God’s Hiddenness in Combat: Toward Christian Reflection on Battle.

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