A Centurion’s Story
Logan Mehl-Laituri, Reborn on the Fourth of July, the Challenge of Faith, Patriotism & Conscience. Foreword by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012. 238 pp.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Or, as the translation of the Roman Missal introduced last Advent has it, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Logan Mehl-Laituri mourns the change and its seeming to “rob the verse of its literary and liturgical beauty” (234). But most significant to him, as a veteran of Iraq and a conscientious objector, is that fact that these words from Mt 8.8, however they are rendered, were spoken by a soldier, an unnamed centurion whose faith Jesus praises.
The image of the centurion helped Mehl-Laituri ”process” what he did and saw in Iraq. This centurion’s tale narrates a soldier’s unlikely journey to Christian pacifism. A striking feature is the discovery that “soldiers and veterans come to the Bible with a unique perspective” (189). Appendix B lists all the New Testament passages where soldiers appear. Reading the Gospel Passion Narratives, it hit Mehl-Laituri hard that the men who arrested and mocked Jesus, who disfigured his body by flogging and nailed his hands and feet to the cross were centurions like him and just doing their duty. “The Holy Spirit slapped some heavy conviction on my heart,” he writes (73). “I had watched friends taunt and assault detaineees for no reason, just like the soldiers that mocked Jesus and crowned him with thorns.” But then in each of the synoptic gospels, it is a centurion who confesses Jesus on the cross as the Son of God. And, though the liturgy changes his words to refer to himself rather than his sick servant, it is the centurion whose prayer is repeated at every Mass. But, in the end, it is “the soldiers (Jn 18.12) who crucify Jesus. And they do it in performance of “their martial duties.” They execute him, a duty for which they could not have been blamed any more than a prison guard who administers a lethal injection.
Speaking of the injustices he thought made war morally necessary and the evils entailed in the conduct of even a just war, St. Augustine wrote in Book XIX of City of God, “And so everyone who reflects with sorrow on such grievous evils, in all their horror and cruelty, must acknowledge the misery of them. And yet a man who experiences such evils, or even thinks about them, without heartfelt grief, is assuredly in a far more pitiable condition, if he thinks himself happy simply because he has lost all human feeling.” “Heartfelt grief” is Henry Bettenson’s translation for the Latin “animi dolore,” more literally, sorrow of soul. For Augustine, this deep soul-sorrow is the ordinary human response to what inevitably happens in war. It is a lament of the virtue that might justify killing another human being.
As he concludes a meditation on the centurions who executed Jesus, Mehl-Laituri puts it this way: “Most, if not all, however, are forever altered by the performance of those duties, no matter their legality or justifiability. The door through which you go in taking a life doesn’t remain open behind you; the threshold cannot be uncrossed. It alters your very consciousness; the truths you learn about yourself can never be unlearned” (74).
“I thought PTSD was hard to deal with, and it most certainly was,” he continues, “but it paled in comparison to the harrowing of my conscience … I felt so stupid not to have seen it earlier” (75). Reborn on the Fourth of July is a traditional Christian confessional narrative, but, as the title indicates, it is cast in terms of an American conversion story, written in an evangelical idiom replete with references to contemporary Christian music. Mehl-Laituri was blind but now he sees. But this book is not just about him. What makes it timely is the way its religious autobiography and advocacy for veterans feed off each other.
As American soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, when among soldiers on active duty suicides outnumber combat fatalities, and more than seventeen veterans end their own lives each day (177), Mehl-Laituri pleads with churches to welcome veterans home with genuine support that goes beyond “bludgeoning them with our own platitudinous gratitude and ‘sanctimonious trivialities’” (182).
The image of the centurion helped Mehl-Laituri make scriptural sense of his time in Iraq. But his conversion narrative takes its shape from those he calls the “soldier-saints.” He invokes St. Maximilian of Tebessa (AD 274-295) and St. Martin of Tours (AD 316-397) throughout. When he finally turned in his “weapons card” in October 2006, it seemed like an act of worship, “the closest I would come to laying down my weapon in recognition of the age-old cadence of soldier-saints: ‘I am a soldier of Christ; it is impermissable for me to fight’” (142). These words of Maximilian’s were repeated a hundred years later by Martin and by soldier-saints down the centuries. Recalling them in the face of charges of irresponsibility, Mehl-Laituri replies, “That’s not anarchy, it’s church history” (105).
He structures the narrative in five Movements. They cover roughly six years from Mehl-Laituri’s deployment to Iraq between February 2004 and February 2005 to his return to Iraq five years later in 2010 with a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT). Appendix E supplies a helpful Timeline of Events. He had been in the military since 2001, but Movement One deal with Mehl-Laituri’s year in Iraq as an artillery man, a “forward observer/fire support specialist” who achieved the rank of sergeant. “While in Iraq,” he writes, “I hadn’t just sat in a guard tower; I was on patrol, calling in fire, planning missions, barreling recklessly through villages in the driver seat of a Humvee” (73). At the time, he judged his combat experience relatively “mild” (60, 166). But Movement Two finds him in Hawaii experiencing symptoms of PTSD and having his conscience “harrowed” by reading the New Testament as a centurion. It ends with an April 2006 epiphany or “cystallization of conscience,” something all military conscientious objectors must describe in detail. It happened in a flash on a bus into the desert, a vision of himself as an unarmed soldier. He ponders the unfamiliar term “conscientious objector” (CO) and determines “to pursue any and all means to return to Iraq without a weapon” (87). In Movement Three he begins the difficult process of trying to gain recognition as a military CO. Officers and former comrades question his courage and competence as a soldier. His military identity dissolves as hopes of returning to Iraq unarmed help to deem him “unfit” for such deployment. In Movement Four, as his application process is coming to a head in summer 2006, he is baptized in a swimming pool after a Fourth of July barbeque on the fifth floor of an apartment complex in Honolulu. By October 2006, he is rear-deployed awaiting discharge. Movement Five takes him to Palestine as part of a CPT team. The Palestinaians remind him of Iraqui civilians and Israeli soldiers of himself. He cannot look at them or greet them. By the end of Movement Five, he is on his way back to Iraq with another CPT team. There he comes face to face with children orphaned by the war.
My description fails before the pathos of Mehl-Laituri’s story. He spent some of the formative years of his life in the military and clearly loved it, his fellow soldiers, and the forms of excellence they achieve. And yet, “excommunicated” (150) from his Company, he can no longer walk with them. What he has written does justice to a Christian soldier’s soul. In an endorsement for the book, Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, who teaches military ethics at West Point, wrote that Mehl-Laituri “provides military readers with deep insights into the mind and motivations of a genuine conscientious objector.” His story also issues a timely call to the churches to respond in Christian ways to the “flood of grief waiting to be released” (163) by returning veterans.
Such language and stories like Mehl-Laituri’s often elicit the response that a majority of veterans reintegrate successfully into society. As one New York Times letter writer put it in the wake of the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, stories “that reinforce some people’s narrative that combat veterans are poor souls forced to war, broken in spirit by its horroors and mostly victims are simply wrong, unhelpful and not clarion calls to action” (Letters, 11/10/09, A30). And yet, even if we assume that only 10% of soldiers are trained for combat and 80% of those return home to reintegrate successfully into society, after two wars that have lasted more than a decade, and an all-volunteer army that necessitates multiple deployments, the real numbers of soldiers with the invisible wounds of PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury, not to mention “heartfelt grief,” has to be staggering.
Mehl-Laituri cannot forget them nor those seventeen veterans who take their own lives each day. In addition to writing this book, he also helped found, with some friends in 2008, the Centurions Guild (www.centurionsguild.org), its mission to “protect and defend prospective, current, and former service members while bearing true faith and allegiance to God” (167).
On Veterans Day last November, Duke Divinity School hosted the “After the Yellow Ribbon” event (http://sites.duke.edu/aftertheyellowribbon). Organized entirely by Mehl-Laituri and fellow divinity students, this was a most extraordinary conference. It brought together soldiers and pacifists, military and civilian psychiatrists, veterans and students, military chaplains and pastors. Instead of arguing the morality of war, they focused on a serious exploration, from multiple perspectives, of the emerging category of “spiritual” or “moral injury,” war’s invisible wounds — something like the “heartfelt grief” St. Augustine described in the fifth century and, after more than ten years of war, something no one can plausibly deny.
As Mehl-Laituri might remind us, before it was Armistice Day or Veterans Day, November 11 was the feast of St. Martin of Tours. All “After the Yellow Ribbon’s” plenary sessions took place in Duke Divinity School’s Goodson Chapel. In the spacious sanctuary, in the background at each talk and panel, stood two icons of “soldier-saints,” recently written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. In this way, St. Maximilian of Tebessa and St. Martin of Tours presided over the event. In a similar manner, may they watch over their fellow veterans and help bring to fruition the work of Mehl-Laituri and those gathered for “After the Yellow Ribbon.”
William L. Portier