Faith born on the killing fields

Taking the long view, a religious conversion must be understood as an invisible event. The action happens off-stage, behind the scenes; spectators observe only the conclusion. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and exit Hamlet without a personal history: influential figures in the tapestry but ciphers just the same.Many articulate converts have tried to describe their conversion experiences. About all they can agree on is that it turns one inside out and nothing in one’s life ever is the same again. It’s like your first time entering school. You are silenced by fright, and you wonder how you got there, what is happening, and where it all ends. Without being blinded and stunned out of your wits, you are the subject of a less noisy and dramatic contemporary equivalent of Saul of Tarsus flung headlong into the dust on the Damascus road and later coming back to life as Paul: a new man.
But however elusive it may be in its origins, a conversion leaves signs along the trail. Like a love affair, once it is under way you can look back and identify some of the moments that nudged, and teased, and maneuvered you toward your lover.

That is how it was with a conversion that broke surface for me in 1948 and has never since left me alone or at peace with what I am and what I do. The following narrative describes one of a number of such trail markers along my conversion itinerary. But seeing the sign does not strip the event of its mystery.

Jim Palermino grew up in a tough, battered neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. I met him when I had crossed the English Channel in 1944 to join the 42nd Cavalry, one of two-gun George Patton’s favored outfits for scouting the location and strength of enemy forces. It was a few weeks after the Normandy landing.

Jim was gunner in my armored car. He displayed a startling array of contrasts, and no matter how close combat experience brought us, he always remained an enigma to me. It was my practice in those years to turn people into types (an easy way to keep them in their place), but Jim defied the system. He rarely did the expected. He fit no pattern. He moved through our war’s carnage, madness, and degradation with the kind of irrefutable serenity one sees on the features of a Fra Angelico angel.

Then there were the contrasts. Jim was complete master of his weapons, .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and a 57mm cannon. He knew their capabilities. He fired accurately, never wasting ammunition. He had a superb eye for estimating distance to an enemy position. He rarely missed moving targets.

Jim handled his weapons with uncommon delicacy, and it still seems wondrously inexplicable to me, fifty years later. Stripping them for cleaning, he meticulously washed and oiled each piece as if it were Waterford crystal. I pondered that fact and would tell myself that they were killers and here he was treating them like babies. This was something I simply did not understand, because at the same time Jim had an awesome proficiency with those guns. A lot of Germans died of his proficiency.

That didn’t fit, either. I knew soldiers-few of us at the time did not know some-who were thrilled by killing. Not Jim. It was his function to kill, he killed, that was the end of it. He never spoke about it afterwards, the way some gunmen have to keep tasting the excitement repeatedly until the next kill.

Killing was Jim’s job, and he did it. The job was not his life, it was not his master. I am certain he would have been the same man delivering milk or clerking in a store. He would perform his duties, and at the end of the day leave them behind him. He had detachment, independence, and, beyond independence, freedom. Jim was his own man.

A slice of popular sentimental cant during World War II declared with indefensible confidence that there were no atheists in foxholes; the slogan even became the title of a hugely successful, comforting book. (It pacified public anxiety over the morality of soldiers, I suppose.) The assumption was that fear and shock and the presence of brutal death must elevate a soldier’s mind and heart to eternal verities.

The expectation is appealing, but that’s not the way it was. Not in my battle experience, nor in those widely reported during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. To hold a brief for unbreachable U.S. moral superiority is another facet of American chauvinistic cant. Reminds me of my mother in the 1950s blaming immigrants for the country’s rising criminality, blithely ignoring that in so doing she converted her and my father’s mother and father, my grandparents, into criminals.

Soldiers drunk on the moral pollution of modern warfare do not reverse their values. They continue to prize the interests that filled their lives. If it took a man long enough to die, he might get round, finally, to God. For most of us, however, death meant nothing more than the loss of life, an extremely precious, fragile commodity. In the ordinary course of things, God had little to do with it. God, assuming we were believers, was secondary. Our goal was to stay alive, in one piece.

Speaking for myself, if I thought about it at all, I regretted my past only because I knew that it could easily become an inescapable dead end; the time-line was continuous. I gave little thought to what I may or may not have done in my past or what I had made of it. My concern was with the existence that I now had a high probability of losing.

For Jim, however, God immovably occupied the top of his list. Scouting miles behind enemy lines or resting safely within our own, it did not matter. Jim always appeared devout, accepting, gentle, helpful. He was for me the first person, and to this day still is among the very few I know, who would say with perfect conviction and solemn patience-“God willing” or “God is good”-when the machinery of decision (somewhere) confronted him with a doubtful issue. And most issues then were extremely doubtful indeed.

I never heard Jim curse, or use profanity, or blaspheme, and I am dead certain he never tried to reform anyone (anyway, not me!) who did. He reacted to our vile speech as he did to his job, which later I appreciated must have been specially vile to him. Our gutter words were part of reality, and in Jim’s philosophy, one lived with reality as given but did not necessarily join in. If our language agonized him, he kept it hidden behind features almost always set in grave, melancholy lines.

I knew Jim was Catholic because he carried and used a rosary and wore a religious medal round his neck, and several times I saw him receive Communion at a field Mass. Other than these signs, he did not speak of his faith. And I was too insensitive to connect the presence of faith with the behavior of the man.

Who says war is not criminal, one of the supreme atrocities of our criminal century, speaks an inexcusable lie. And let no one (politicians, for sure, theologians, too) dare defend, or rationalize, war or any other form of “permissible” killing until he or she has fixed another human being in their sights and squeezed the trigger, or has felt they are fixed in another gunner’s cross-hairs. Long-distance death-making is not enough.

It is easy to rejoice in righteous slaughter when you are a comfortable 5,000 miles away from it and it is not your doing. It is easy to issue patriotic platitudes and salute a tattered flag when you have not seen a fountain of blood erupting from the chest you have perforated or watched a face squashed flat and smeared like scarlet paste. It is painless to be a warmonger.

Looking back across the fifty-plus years, I submit that Jim Palermino subdued war’s criminality. He proved to me that you could be in it but not of it, could go through it without taking it with you. He would not, and never did, become war’s accomplice. Jim provided me, when I knew enough to appreciate it, a ready-made answer to the Manichaeans and other advocates of a witless universe. Acceptance, yes; complicity, no. Join these two and the syllogism concludes in implacable defiance.

I also learned during those days of war that you could not count on being frightened into believing in God-not a belief, anyway, that was more than a shot in the arm, a toxin immunizing one against fear. During our sweep across Europe, it wasn’t the facts of war and their uncertain outcome that inspired the attributes of faith in Jim Palermino, not to mention prayerful dignity, grace, courage, and gentleness under fire. It was his love of God in the person of Jesus Christ that sustained him-bore him up, as earlier scriptural language has it. It was his trust that the prayers he offered through the Mother of God were not indifferently received.

Ten years passed before I could read Jim’s lessons. They are as present to me today as my damaged spine and arthritic joints.

Jim and I never again met, although I later heard that he had survived the war, thank God. He can not know it, but he remains imperishably in my small pantheon of people precious for having permanently altered my life. My memories of him are unquenchable.

This soldier-comrade was both portent and witness of my future, and I am saddened that he shall never see how great is my debt to him. Without his knowing, or mine for that matter, he helped reset my moral compass. At a certain moment in my life, which I, of course, cannot fix with a date and hour, I started to change direction. The hand on the switch for the track that I chose, however, was Jim Palermino’s.

I can not return Jim to history without mentioning one more gift he made me, merely by being who he was, where he was. He illustrated and modeled in his behavior an ancient truth, a truth that rarely is honored because it so rarely is comfortable to make it one’s own. It is the truth that says: There are human beings. There is choice. And that choice-how you make it, how you implement it, how you accept its consequences-has the final word.

Published in the 1997-12-05 issue: 

Robert Ostermann has written for a variety of journals, including U.S. Catholic, America, and The Critic. He lives in Tempe, Arizona.

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