Krista's Journal: Conversation Starters for Memorial Day Weekend

May 24, 2007

One of John Morris' great gifts, I think, is that he brings home the essential relationship between the dignity and sanity of veterans and the dignity and sanity of citizens and communities back home — wherever any of us may stand on the rightness or wrongness of the military action in question. This week, for myself as much as others, I've highlighted a few of his wise and provocative thoughts as reflections, conversation starters perhaps, for Memorial Day weekend. John Morris brings rare perspective to the "soul of war" — our current war in Iraq in particular. He has served two active tours of duty there. He has celebrated Easter during an offensive in Fallujah, preaching about death and resurrection with certain knowledge that some of the worshippers present would not live to see the next sunrise. He has prayed with Iraqi translators for U.S. personnel — translators who were later tracked down and murdered. He has stood before the charred bodies of four U.S. contractors hung on a bridge over the Euphrates. He has experienced Passover services at Saddam Hussein's former palace — and was struck by the spiritual gravity and the irony of this gathering in what was once ancient Babylon, near the biblical geography of both Genesis and Abraham. Maj. Morris on the "religious dimension" of the War on Terror and in Iraq:

…In this fight, which we call the global war on terrorism, we say that we understand that the people we're fighting are motivated by an ideology that's rooted in an aberrant view of a religion. It's a great line. But I've often had to really be forceful with commanders that, "You don't understand. These people are tapping into something in a spiritual realm. And if you fail to take it seriously, it doesn't matter how long we fight, we will not defeat them." … We're in a war. But this is a war where you can't kill enough people to win because this has a spiritual motivation to it. You've got to have more tools than kinetic energy. And that's how I talk to commanders because they understand kinetic energy as firing of a weapon system. …That means we have to take seriously religious leaders. We have to take seriously the religious worldview of people. We have to think that when we fire that weapon and we miss, that round goes somewhere. And when it hits somebody else that's innocent, it has a ripple effect on a culture that takes seriously life and death, clan and family. That when we search mosques, it has an impact, whether the mosque was used as an armory, which I often saw that it was, or not.

Maj. Morris on the choices religious communities and leaders make, and the tension they may feel, about supporting soldiers and supporting the war itself:

…I watch my (clergy) colleagues wrestle with the dynamics of "How do I separate the war from the warrior? And how do I deal with the divisive issue in my congregation? I don't want to appear to be promoting war." That seems to be the default mode for most Christian clergy, and I think that's a good thing. "I don't want to promote war, but I don't want to shame the warrior. But I don't know how to do either, so I just won't do anything." …Now some go one direction or the other. Some say, "Look, I'm against this war, and I'm not going to honor the warrior. I won't have an American flag in my sanctuary, and I'll do everything I can to let warriors know that they shouldn't participate in this." And on the other end, you can wrap the flag around the gospel and say this is God's war. And I've seen both. I'm asking people to do the more nuanced of whatever your foreign policy opinion is, please share it. That's your role as a prophet. I have no problem with that. But in your congregation are men and women whose sons and daughters, or grandmas and grandpas, or fathers and mothers are off risking their lives. How do you tend to them? And how do you help that soldier come home? Big, big pastoral challenge.

Maj. Morris on the need for rituals for soldiers and their communities in wartime:

In Medieval days, in some parts of Europe, the priest would go with the soldiers, raised from the villages to go fight, and you know, hear their confession prior to going to battle, give them last rites, and send them to war. So that's a very stark psychology. "Hey, you may die, so we need to make things right with God." Then when they came home, they were stopped before they entered the village. The village went out to meet them. They were not allowed in the village. Stripped off their clothes that they had fought in, bathed, heard confession again, celebrated the Eucharist, and then allowed back in the village. Now, what were they saying there? "You know, there needs to be some business done with God and with the community prior to allowing you to rejoin us. We need to leave the old out here."

Maj. Morris on one psychological disconnect for veterans in a "Dr. Phil" culture:

And in the military, you know, heroism's a sacrament. It's a virtue. It's something unbelievable to see somebody exhibit. And we honor it highly. And so what it tends to do is it alienates us even further. We're part of a subculture in America that values things the general culture doesn't seem to be as interested in. And that puzzles us, and so it creates, again, that sense of alienation, that "Hey, where I was really most vital and alive was when I was with my combat buddies, and we were executing our mission. When I come back here, people want to treat me like a victim." "There must be something wrong with you, because you went to combat."

Maj. Morris on how the basic tenets of a faith are challenged by the experience of war:

Let's talk about love your enemies. That's sorely tested in combat. I think, in a very chilling way, I came to the abyss of hate in Fallujah. The body parts of four Americans charred and hanging off a bridge over the Euphrates brought me to a point where I could truly sense myself going down a vortex of hate, that in a city, people were harbored who were that debased. And so at that point, I felt that I was crossing a line to say, "Yes, these people's time on the planet is over, they need to leave. There's no second chance, there's no other form of justice. They have forfeited all rights to humanness." That was a chilling, chilling moment for me because I knew I was entering a new territory. And once you cross this line, there's no coming back. When do I become like them? I found myself fueled with a sense of hatred that I could easily have said, you know, "Hey, I'm God's wrath. We are God's wrath. This needs to be taken care of." The only thing that pulled me back from that was the power of the Holy Spirit, all the Christian disciplines, and my sense of understanding that, wait a minute, as much as I abhor everything that's done, and as much as I believe what was done was evil, and that if these people don't come out and surrender, there's only one alternative, that is to go in and kill them or apprehend them. I knew I could not cross that line and say, "OK, God's on my side, and here we go." No, this is chaos, this is human falleness to the max, and we're using the most brutal tool of human society, the military, to solve a very, very terrible problem. And this isn't God here, this is fallen human beings. So God help me and have mercy on me. I'm a part of something like this, and I prayed that it wouldn't be, but here we are. Save me from becoming a debased, immoral human being. And save my soldiers as well.

Maj. Morris on the moral responsibility citizens have in veteran reintegration — and the collective cost when this fails:

One of the things that I see as a challenge here is how does the community accept its moral obligation to reintegrate veterans and their families? And I'm treading lightly here because I don't want to be perceived as laying guilt on people, but what we learned from the Vietnam conflict is, if the community shames and shuns, it has a disastrous public health effect that ends up affecting all of us. But we haven't figured out what our moral role is here, and it's often put back on the military. "Hey, you fix these people so they can come home and live peacefully among us, and we'll be quiet and they'll be quiet." Well, we can't do that. So we've alluded to this, how does the church do it, but how does the greater community do this beyond paying our taxes? I think citizens are wrestling with that and looking for guidance. What do I do? Do I say "thank you" to a veteran? Yeah, that's a beautiful thing to do. But what else do I do? Well, how do I make space in my workplace when a veteran returns, for them to make a successful transition? How do I provide for their family while they're gone and their children and help make space for them to reconnect? How do I help the soldier learn how to reconnect with their child? How do I help the child deal with a soldier who's different than when they left? How do I help that spouse who's trying to hold it all together or that grandparent who's raising that soldier's kids? These are community issues that I find the community saying, "We didn't think about this, we want to think about this, we need some guidance. Where do we go to learn how to do this?" And I am begging for the community, let's talk quickly, because there's no end in sight to veterans returning, and how we help them reconnect sets us up for a successful, healthy future or for lingering problems and wounds from this war.

Now John Morris is creating innovative programs to support the reintegration of National Guard and Reserve personnel, who are being mobilized for active duty at record levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, into their lives and communities beyond combat. You can read more about that, and find practical tools for veterans and your community, on our companion Web site.

Krista Recommends Viewing:

Audio Gallery: Travels with a Military Chaplain SoundSeen: Slideshow "Travels with a Military Chaplain"
On our Web site this week, Chaplain Morris takes you on a narrated tour of his images from Iraq. Also, books and resources he and others recommend for veterans, their communities, and their families.

Voices on the Radio

John Morris

is a chaplain major currently serving the Minnesota Army National Guard and co-creator of "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," a program that serves to reintegrate National Guard members into society.