Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their lives had; they hate the senseless evil that necessitated the war. They love the unity they experienced with their fellow soldiers; they hate the destruction they witnessed and sometimes unleashed.
Wars are visible, political conflicts that spawn invisible, moral conflicts within those who fight them. What combat veteran doesn’t feel pride and exhilaration, disgust and anger? That’s a volatile brew of emotions—a cauldron that veterans must recognize and reconcile in order to integrate their wartime experiences into their personal life narratives.
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 my own struggle to integrate my identity as a soldier with my larger identity as a Christian, I gained an insight—one informed by and compatible with my faith—that has helped me make sense of my simultaneous attraction and revulsion to war.
My 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 sense of 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 dehumanization, senseless suffering, and apparent absence of God that characterize a war zone instruct veterans on how awful human existence can be; they point to the unimaginable sadness of Hell.
The ways in which war is the devil’s terrain are well known by soldiers and civilians alike. In war, soldiers’ lives are devalued; we are pawns in a war started by others, and people who don’t even know us hate us and are trying their best to kill us. Soldiers’ freedom is constrained; our only options are to kill or be killed. Innocent men, women, and children inevitably are caught in the crossfire and killed, maimed, and traumatized. Damage to the society’s infrastructure and environment occurs on an epic scale. For the first time in (most) soldiers’ lives, we encounter evil. Worst of all, our experience of that evil can undermine our belief in God. For example, when we (as one of my friends did) spend two days collecting body parts of children and medical personnel after the enemy packed an ambulance with explosives and detonated it at a children’s hospital, it’s not unreasonable to question how such a horrific event is compatible with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. War gives us glimpses of a world without love and goodness, aka, Hell.
Hidden beneath the ugly destructiveness of war, however, is a sublime beauty that is known only to the veterans who have experienced it. Soldiers at war are living, and dying, not for selfish pursuits but for something greater than themselves. In concert with everyone around them, deployed soldiers are 100% committed to accomplishing the mission. They live and work together day and night, week after week, for months at a time. On a combat deployment (and unlike almost anywhere else), everyone in the organization has the same agenda—to accomplish their team’s missions, even at the cost of their own lives, and to protect each other’s lives. This shared purpose and shared commitment to the mission and to each other create deep bonds of love. The greater the dangers and adversity that soldiers face and overcome together, the greater their bonds. Some soldiers become closer to each other than to their own families.
A soldier on deployment wakes up every day surrounded by people whom he knows would risk their lives for him, just as he would for them. This sacrificial love isn’t merely hoped for or hypothetical; it is demonstrated in mission after mission. Scripture tells us that there is no greater love than this (Jn 15:13), and it is a love that leads to complete joy (Jn 15:11). Seen in this light, we shouldn’t be surprised that soldiers experience heavenly joy even in the midst of a hellish combat deployment.
How might this perspective help veterans make sense of their feelings about their combat deployments? First of all, it explains their attraction to deployments. We’re not warmongers; we’re simply longing for another experience of Heaven with our fellow warriors. Second, it explains why life outside of war can seem so mundane and even meaningless. Having experienced the extremes of Heaven and Hell, our everyday lives can feel like limbo. Third, it explains why deployments can be so disorienting. Our lives rested on a worldview that assumed the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Our encounters with evil force us to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Most Americans do not need to understand a theodicy, which is argument that reconciles the existence of God and the reality of evil; veterans do.
A combat deployment is often a life-changing experience because it exposes veterans to extremes—of love and brotherhood; of fear and hatred. We’ve seen what humans are capable of, for better and worse. Reflecting upon our experiences of war, we are alternately inspired and terrified. We’ve had glimpses into the previously unimaginable happiness of Heaven and desolation of Hell.
A lightly edited version of this essay was published on the Christianity Today website on Dec. 9, 2015, under the title "War is Hell. But It Can Be Heaven."