I was not a Christian when I joined the Marine Corps. I was not a Christian when I deployed to Afghanistan, nor when I returned home. I entered the Church only after I had left the Marines. This has made my thoughts about the relationship between military service and Christian faith oddly disjointed. Not only have I entered the Church since leaving military service; I’ve also become a professor of theology. The disjunction between my life in the Marines and my life as a Catholic theologian allows for—perhaps “demands” is a better word—a kind of reflection on war not immediately available to everyone.
Like many veterans, I found myself more emotionally involved in this past summer’s rapid evacuation of Afghanistan than I thought I’d be. It’s been over a decade since I returned home from the war, but watching the final defeat and withdrawal of U.S. forces from a country where I spent a year of my life was distressing. It helped crystallize thoughts that had been foggy and inchoate. The violent collapse of our two-decade mission in Afghanistan has made it clear to me that the Church needs to recover a theology of sin and a penitential practice capable of accounting for the trauma of war. Calls for prayer, reflexively saying “thank you for your service,” singing patriotic hymns on Memorial and Veterans Day weekends—these aren’t the answer. At best, such gestures make the Church seem generally uninterested in war and its consequences. At worst, they conform the Church’s response to that of the world, in the Pauline sense of that term. Shouldn’t the patriotism of the person who knows her true homeland is not of this world be distinguishable from the civil religion of the United States?
The Church has resources for addressing these questions. Some of them will likely make you uncomfortable—as they do me. But we all have good reason to feel uncomfortable. The end of the war in Afghanistan ought to elicit introspection and compunction, and the Church’s penitential practices are, for Catholics, the most suitable expression of that compunction. Now is a good time for us to examine our consciences, individually and collectively.
Returning from Afghanistan was a stranger experience than going. A seasoned master gunnery sergeant told me it would be: “Nothing you do when you get back will seem as important as this, and you’re going to have to get used to that.” He was right, of course. The stakes of everyday life are less extreme. Decisions are not usually life-and-death. There are more mundane details to civilian life—buying groceries, paying bills, renewing your car registration—than you remember. This adds up to things seeming less important. But it’s his warning that I’d have to get used to it that sticks with me. His point wasn’t that ordinary experiences are less important, but that they seem so. Getting used to that means coming to terms with your time at war.
Much of this happens within your unit. Some of it happens with your friends and family, some with the broader community. Your interactions with all of these people helps you understand what it means to have gone to war and to have returned. The Church has a role to play here, too. One thing the Church does, which distinguishes it from all the others, is provide access to the sacrament of Reconciliation. Those returning home from deployment often have things to confess—sometimes terrible things. The ministry of the Church is there as a means of God’s grace, to deal with sin. But what if that’s not enough?
I don’t mean that the grace of the sacrament isn’t enough. I mean that the Church might not be able to wait passively for penitents to come to the sacrament for healing. One reason the Church can’t stand by and wait is the deep cultural narrative about military service in the United States. According to that narrative, those who serve in uniform are heroes. We must support the troops. What the troops are up to usually isn’t part of the discussion. The thing to do—the only thing to do—is support them.
The roots of this unreflective support are pretty dark. The backdrop of “thank you for your service” is the complete failure of Americans during the Vietnam era to welcome and assist returning troops. I’ll never forget the people waiting to welcome my unit home when we set foot on American soil after a year away. Many of them were Vietnam veterans whose own homecomings had been decidedly different from ours. The veterans waiting for us when my unit stepped off the plane recognized the need—their own and ours—to be seen, and to be seen as honorable. Better, we’ve decided (and it surely is better) to reflexively support those fighting the nation’s wars, to pat them on the back, to call them heroes, than to vilify or ignore them.
But neither vilifying veterans nor heroizing them will help them come home well. Neither helps them come to terms with their actions during deployment. This is where the Church has the tools, and the responsibility, to take action. It can do so by demanding penance from those who have returned from war. To demand penance is not to demonize. Rather, it amounts to an acknowledgment that “evils and injustices accompany all war” (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2307). War, as the Second Vatican Council tells us, is something we’re enslaved to, something from which we should desire to be freed.