Christians in Combat

by COL Eric Wesley, USA

On the morning of 3 April, 2003, I was following the lead battalion of our brigade across the Euphrates River en route to our final attack against the Medina Division, which would precede our attack into Baghdad.

Enemy contact east of the Euphrates was as significant as we had seen. Several Bradley Fighting Vehicles continued to destroy pockets of resistance on either side of the road as the brigade command post quickly moved to a point where we could set down momentarily.

I will never forget the sight I witnessed by the side of the road. Adjacent to a burning truck were the still smoldering, charred bodies of what looked like a young family—two adults and a child.

Many years ago, LTG William Harrison penned a now famous booklet, an apologetic for a Christian’s service in the profession of arms, May a Christian Serve in the Military? The wisdom in that booklet has had utility in countless debates over the role of Christians in secular society. Many will agree with my view that I have never found a more concise document articulating this issue with such a solid spiritual foundation.

I have never struggled with this question. However, on 3 April, I found my mind racing back to LTG Harrison’s booklet.

Often we discuss this issue in softer tones, under cleaner circumstances, with the nebulous cover of philosophy, avoiding the carnage of reality. But what about the carnage? What do we do with that?

Granted grace

Days later I found myself contemplating this question again. It was 7 April, the morning second Brigade, Third Infantry Division embarked on an attack into Baghdad’s city center. Many have attributed this as the battle that ultimately brought an end to the war.

Mid-morning, after we had initially secured all of the downtown cultural sites (palaces, parade grounds, Al Rasheed hotel), I left the brigade tactical operations center (TOC) and went out to my HMMWV. I took my helmet off and pulled out my satellite phone to call the brigade commander who was at the palace at the time.

I wanted to congratulate him. I moved away from my HMMWV, walking somewhat randomly as one does when talking on a cell phone. It was great to talk to him and we were both proud of the brigade. He said, “Eric, it is just what we would have hoped…” At that moment I heard for a split second the hair-raising sound of what seemed like a fighter jet screaming overhead and then I felt a blast that shook my world. I found myself thrown to the ground, seeing only dirt, smoke, and flames.

The soldiers reacted immediately. They began pulling casualties out of the wreckage, triaging the wounded, and moving what remained of the TOC equipment out of the rubble and fire. As it turned out we lost five good men to that missile strike, with seventeen others wounded. Twenty-two vehicles were destroyed.

The fire finally was out after burning a good part of the day. I meditated over two soldiers who had died that morning, their scorched bodies still present where they had been moments before the attack.

It could have been much worse. The missile, we believe, was either an Abigail 100 or FROG series missile, a precision-guided munition with a large warhead. Although it was a direct hit on our compound, it apparently had a delay fuse which resulted in a 10-foot crater—had it not had such a fuse, and had some of our armored vehicles not been positioned as they were, the effects could have been far more horrific.

There was nothing left of my HMMWV, where I had been moments before. The knowledge of the grace that I was granted that day has not left me.

'What do we do with this?'

So, as I viewed the sight where these fine soldiers died, I found myself contemplating the same question that had come to my heart just days before. What do we do with this?

I stirred myself to go back and “check on” those we had lost. I strolled over to where my HMMWV had been. There was nothing but a crater there. All I found was the engine block, about thirty feet from its original location. As my driver and I stared at the wreckage of what was left, we beheld a strange sight.

Beneath what was left of the engine, we found, almost untouched, a small pocket Bible my father-in-law had given me. The pages were ever so lightly burned on the edges, but the integrity of the Bible was sound. It was the only piece of my belongings that survived the blast.

I was struck by the moment. I gathered it in…and then I turned and went back to work. We lost five fine soldiers that day in the battle for Baghdad and many more were wounded. But ultimately, Baghdad fell and it seemed it was this battle that resulted in the end of the war.

That Bible and the image of finding it remained in my mind. And I realized that there was a loose analogy to the emotion associated with the carnage of war. The pages were burned on the edges, but the integrity of the Bible was sound.

This is similar to the conflict we have when we are certain of the just nature of what we set out to accomplish, but sin—and in some cases the nature of life—creeps in and tarnishes it.

I was and I am fully convinced that what our country has done and is doing in Iraq is not only justified but is necessary and righteous. Yet the tragedy of war goes deep—the horror of civilian deaths; the violent, indescribable loss of those fellow soldiers who are so close, so alive, and so important to their loved ones back home; the destruction of infrastructure leading to future trials for a young country.

All of this is a true and given nature of war. But as I stated to a reporter one day, we must always acknowledge that war is a bad thing—a very bad thing. That is a given.

Weighing the costs

Alternatively, the only thing that brings glory to war is the hope of making a previous situation much better. We have to decide when going into a conflict that the cost of the war will be outweighed by what we justly achieve in human—and spiritual—value by the outcome.

The compatriots and friends we lose and those that sacrifice—the father cursing Americans as he holds his lifeless daughter in his arms, the tragedy of the family at the side of the road—manifest this cost in the harshest of images. But it reminds me of the tattered pages of my Bible that I found in the rubble on 7 April. The exterior was burned and it “looks” uglier than it used to. However, the integrity of that Bible and the truth that it represents remain.

There are ugly aspects of war that anyone would like to soon forget. But the hope we have in the outcome—and in this case that of the Iraqi people and the entire region—and the prudent elimination of a regime that posed a threat to us and to others, offsets the cost that many had to endure.

In other words, there are hurtful and, sometimes, ugly memories, but the truth and integrity with which we embarked on this campaign remains.

This is not an apologetic for our nation’s policy. It is an argument for the pursuit of truth and for an understanding of the cost of the pursuit. It sounds trite and it is a phrase that is often overused, but it is true when we say that there are things larger than ourselves.

There are pursuits that are worthy of pain and tragedy. The questions upon which we must remain focused are, “What is true? What is right? What is righteous?”

The answers to these questions are eternal and constant. And we must remember that no ancillary introduction of pain or sacrifice can change the correct answer to these questions.

If we are called to embark on a campaign that we believe to be righteous, whether it be moral high ground, dangerous missions work, lifestyle evangelism, or a military campaign, then tragedy or cost cannot tarnish the truth associated with that calling.

And the reason is that truth, by definition, never changes. It is eternal.