The Jungles of War

Moral Dilemmas of Combat

by LtCol Tom Hemingway USMC (Ret.)

How well do you reflect the gospel in the pain-filled eyes of a frightened seven-year-old girl whose grandparents you just helped kill?

This is not merely a rhetorical question. I had to rip the answer from myself one day in 1965 as I stared into those terrible eyes at a devastated village in Viet Nam.

Moral dilemmas are by no means the private territory of men at war. However, wars do provide acute crises in moral and ethical decision-making. During two tours as an infantry officer in Viet Nam, as well as service in Cuba, Malaysia, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, I encountered several such dilemmas. I'll examine a couple of them in this article.

First let me establish that a military career had not been my choice early in life. The second of three sons born to a Marine who held every rank from private to major (some twice!), I'd decided living out of a sea bag (11 grammar schools and four high schools) was not for me. In 1955, when I was a 17-year-old boy living in Yokohama, Japan, I accepted Christ as Lord. Thereupon I told God I'd go anywhere and do anything He said.

I soon discovered that "anywhere" meant the military and that "anything" meant, more specifically, the Marine Corps. I signed on for what seemed the logical "patriotic minimum" tour, but was soon to discover God's plans were for me to remain a Marine for some years to come. The point of this explanation is to establish that I was a Marine in accordance with God's will for my life, and while I wasn't always ecstatic with His choice, I was at least sure of my calling.

Serving at Guantanamo Bay through the ominous days of the Cuban missile crisis brought no particular strain on me personally. We did our job; we returned home. Then came an assignment in 1965 as a battalion advisor with the Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). The VNMC was an element of the "fire brigade" troops for the South Vietnamese government. They were well-trained, loyal and effective combat troops. Because of these factors they were moved into all four Corps areas, wherever the enemy was active, throughout the war. As soon as things cooled down, they were moved to another hot spot. All this made for an interesting, challenging--though not very safe--tour. I was learning a great deal, enjoying life in the "boondocks," growing professionally and in general satisfied.

The Dilemmas Begin

Serving God was usually taxing, stretching and tiring--but it certainly wasn't dull! Up in Mang Giang Pass I'd recently been promoted to captain by Bill Leftwich, one of the finest Marines anyone ever knew, and everything seemed to be going well in my life--as well as a Marine can expect when he's in a war-time situation.

Shortly thereafter we were engaged in a major firefight, attacking a Viet Cong force west of Tam Ky. My unit suffered numerous casualties from mortars and small arms fire from the south end of a village. We requested support from the U.S. Air Force. After marking and target confirmation, two F-4s dropped their ordnance--napalm and 500 pounders--on the target. Enemy resistance stopped. My unit secured the village without further casualties.

Everything was done very professionally. All was well until, as we moved into the area hit by the air strike, I encountered my first civilian casualties of the war. They were an old man (over 70) and his wife who had been too feeble to leave the south end of the village when the Viet Cong troops had taken up firing positions. Their small granddaughter had stayed with them.

As the battle raged, they had stayed in a narrow tunnel where they were safe from small arms fire, but not from the bombs and napalm. These had killed the grandfather and grandmother, but left the child unhurt.

My first response was horror and hurt at the infliction of pain and death in which I'd played an integral part. The fact that all our actions had been carried out professionally didn't relieve the pain I felt, and it mattered not at all to this little survivor before me.

Next came a wave of something mean and cruel in my nature: a rejection of responsibility -- a denial of my role in all of this. My heart formed the phrase (with a pre-Rambo sneer), "You harbor VC, that's what you get!" I was shocked at my feelings, deeply disturbed by the callousness that grasped my soul. I struggled to regain control of my emotions and tried to remember scriptural passages that might tell me what I was to do.

Weep with Those Who Weep

Very clearly, God's Word spoke from memory. "Weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15) and "Comfort all who mourn." (Isaiah 61:2) So I sat down with a small, frightened, seven-year-old girl and wept. Marine captains don't cry in the movies, but in the horror of war they do--if they are to maintain the dignity of God's image in man.

At that moment, being certain of my call to serve our Lord as a Marine was crucial. Knowing that God's Word didn't allow me to protect myself with the calloused hardening of the world was a key factor in helping me through that devastating experience.

I left the young girl in the care of a Vietnamese family. I was determined to carry on my calling as a Marine, but to be on constant guard against the beast of callousness lurking always near. I determined to accept the pain of dealing with the results of necessary military decisions and never to seek the safety of insensitivity.

I knew I'd need a lot of help, for in me there was not the sort of strength I needed to fight this interior battle. I spent a lot of time "casting my cares on Him for He cares for me." (1Peter 5:8) I reflected on 1 Peter 5:9 "Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil stalks about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." The dilemma of civilian casualties had been met with some failure, some success. My failure; God's success.

Different Insignia; the Same Savior

Often in the course of our spiritual and emotional growth and maturity, the resolution of one problem brings with it the harbinger of another. So it was in this instance. A week or so later a sapper force attacked our position. The attack was successfully repulsed, and all was quiet until daylight. The cool morning light revealed several young Viet Cong soldiers dead, still hanging in the defensive wire. They looked exactly like the young Vietnamese Marines I had come to love. In no way could I distinguish them from my new-found friends in the VNMC, except for oddities of uniform, weapons, badges, etc.

This was very disturbing. I'd thought about it before, but seeing these young men die bravely in the prime of life, and realizing that my Savior had given His life as much for them as He had for me, was most unsettling. I began to ask, "What can I pray for in regard to my enemies and my work that will make sense?"

I struggled with this question for several months, but nothing was resolved. Try as I might, I couldn't make sense of my calling, my feelings, my day-to-day actions as a front line infantry officer. In June of 1966 this came to a head as we were briefed on an upcoming operation that threatened a large number of casualties on both sides.

I went to the Lord the night before we were to land on top of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment. I insisted before the Lord that I had to know what to pray for regarding the enemy. I had no problem praying for my men, for myself and for others on our side. But what about the enemy soldiers--God's creation--who were wearing different badges and carrying different weapons?

Praying for Prisoners

After several hours before the Lord in spiritual agony, I told Him I couldn't go on without His answer. In my mind He spoke very plainly "Pray for prisoners." I was puzzled at first; then I understood. Pray that we can do our job so well the enemy will be overwhelmed and surrender, avoiding the set piece, low-level combat of attrition and casualties. Surely prisoners are of much greater value than corpses, especially from an intelligence perspective.

In a war that has as its major target the "hearts and minds" of the people, we can deal humanely with prisoners, show them what life on our side is really like.* And besides, the Wycliffe missionaries had already told me the South Vietnamese government granted them unlimited access to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners, figuring that any sort of deistic teaching would be useful against the atheistic indoctrination of the communists.

In this manner, many former NVA soldiers returned home, having accepted Christ, to preach the gospel in North Viet Nam, a country closed to the gospel and Christian teaching since 1954. To this day, many of Christ's ambassadors in North Viet Nam are former NVA prisoners.

Even back then, in 1966, I could see the hard, direct logic of praying for prisoners, and my soul soared. I thanked God for His answer to my dilemma and for the first time in a long while I slept peacefully. I shared this answer with several of my fellow Christians in the Danang area. It was a time of rejoicing for many who had struggled with this same concern. Once again, all was well . . . until.

A Pointed Prayer Reminder

Not long after all of this occurred, I heard a small brown man say to me, "You are prisoners!" As I started to speak, the man inserted the barrel of an automatic pistol into my mouth. With that, his point was made. My answer regarding "pray for prisoners" had taken on a new meaning and moved into a dimension quite different from any I'd imagined. I launched a quick "arrow prayer" to remind God I was in big trouble, and then I accepted this new status as gracefully as possible.

Without dragging this narrative out needlessly, let me simply say I wasn't a prisoner for long. God indeed delivered me. In the process, He also made it possible for several hundred men to surrender to the U.S. Marines in the Danang area without a shot being fired. The details of that incident will be dealt with in another article at another time. But the point is clear: God does answer our prayers. He does look after His people, and His deliverance from doubts, dilemmas, and dogma can be dramatic.

It's significant that God gave me answers from His Word and by His actions in my times of need. The knowledge that He is present at the front, on the battlefield, is crucial to those He has called to serve there. It shouldn't surprise us that pressures are brought to bear on our faith, our fears, and our fleeting courage in time of war.

Such intense pressures pose a great threat to those who stray from His Word, from His presence. He is able. He is faithful. Often, we are not. That's the greatest reality of all, and it must form the basis of our response to every moral dilemma in every battle.

*Programs like the Marines' Kit Carson Scouts gained great success by implementing this principle. Kit Carson Scouts utilized former VC soldiers as scouts in operations against their former units, after these men had changed sides based on humane treatment and a change of politics.