Religious Responses to Combat
Submitted by: Donald D. Denton Jr., D. Min
(Reprinted with permission from the 1st Marine Division Association’s The Old Breed News December 1996)
It is a distinct honor to speak with fellow Marines, especially because in this group there is a breadth of experience in the Corps which spans the sweep of contemporary Marine Corps history. Here in this room are men and women whose service exemplifies the globe- spanning image of our Corps, much of our experience coming deployed under arms and in harms way. It is because of this breadth of actual combat experience, I intend to speak with yourather than to youabout the religious nature of our experiences. Because we speak as fellow Marines and combat veterans, I will try to avoid the technical language of professional preachers. Rather, my hope is to provide all of us with helpful patterns to organize our responses to combat within a religious framework
This is, indeed, the first word that needs to be said clearly. All of you who have been in combat are already living out a religious response. Because combat, by definition, places us in a setting where we face our own possible death, our response to our survival of necessity involves religious themes. Combat, viewed religiously, is a “transcendent experience. ” This means that combat is one experience where we exceed our normal physical, mental, spiritual and moral boundaries. Our survival, especially if it involves our being awarded some medal for heroism typically forces us to rethink who we are and what our purpose on earth is. In religious terms, this is a conversion. As Col. Sitter has noted often here, living with the Medal has been a greater challenge than conducting the action for which it was awarded. This challenge remains true for every combat veteran, regardless of the degree of personal valor or whether that valor was officially recognized.
Because combat challenges all of our deeply held values, training and life experiences, our psyche and soul struggle to create new meaning out of the carnage we both witnessed and conducted. The question here is not “whether” we succeed in creating new meaning but “how and what” is the meaning that we create out of the chaos of battle. Theologians can wax rhapsodic about the Spirit of the Lord creating meaning out of chaos. But for those who have actually faced chaos and conducted the struggle for meaning we can assure the theologians that there is no rhapsody to it…only cold, hard, life-long struggle.
The most primary response to the chaos of combat is to decide that one’s life has no higher meaning. All of us begin here, with the shock of battle ringing in our ears and the blood of our buddies staining our utililies. Some of us never get beyond this level of despair although we may continue living a long time and may even bear the outer appearance of adjusting well to future military and civilian life. Alcohol, work, garnering advanced degrees or climbing the ladder of military advancement may mask this despair. But in the dark hours of the night some of us never leave behind this shattering of our life’s purpose.
Fortunately, many people, and I would venture this includes a solid majority of Marines in this room, make a far different response. My first response beyond the initial shock of combat was that of gratitude. In the moment, this was expressed as nearly uncontrollable laughter. For others, tears, war whoops, numb silence and what we call “the shakes” also express our fundamental relief and wonder at our survival. In conversations with numerous Marines and other combat vets has convinced me that this step of gratitude is the first step toward hope. The full expression of such gratitude is never realized as long as we are in harm’s waythat comes only upon return to the relative safety of this country and civilian life. If our survival came as the result of another’s sacrifice or valor, we have a visceral focus for our gratitude.
Gratitude often becomes focused upon significant objects which endured the event with us. These become talismans of our having cheated death or of God’s graciousness. When in our saner moments we would deny that these objects have any magical quality, they nonetheless assume what theologians call “numinosity.” That is, these particular objects have the unique capacity to evoke the memories and feelings of those fire baptized moments for us….and for no one else. These objects can be literacy anything, from the weapons we confiscated from the dead, Bibles which stopped bullets, St. Christopher medallions, shreds of our uniform, etc. For example, in my office I still have the New Testament which I carried in Vietnam and my field jacket still hangs in my closet resisting nearly all attempts by someone else to wash it. We can laugh about these things in public, but in the privacy of our hearts, these items evoke our initial sense of wonder and gratitude at God’s utter mercy.
But what happens beyond graciousness? Some of us find that we must express our gratitude in specifically religious ways. We become clergy or active members of religious communities. Our communities never know the full details of our motivation. But this is quite immaterial. I remember my father, a Marine who served as a wireman on Iwo Jima. He sang in the church choir and also worked with Boy Scouts during my youth. The only hint of connection I ever had as a boy between the man who sang bass and the Marine who was apparently exceptional with a knife was a rare tear during the pastor’s prayer. I saw the connection more clearly when he took me on a night hike as a Scout, demonstrating effectively that, as he put it, “the night can be your friend. ” It wasn’t until I stepped off on my first nighttime patrol that I began to realize the full scope of what he had given me.
Some of us do form a deep, abiding attachmeut to church Our attachment may result from the ministry of a chaplain, another veteran or family member. Or our coming to church after returning safely home may be the dutiful living out of a promise made when things looked awful. There isn’t a “veterans church,” some typical church that finds the “average veteran” most likely to attend. I’ve found vets in every size church. Most likely we join with churches that are able to use our vitality, creativity and desire to serve. It is not size but spiritual depth that we look for when we walk into a church.
I serve a church which has two D-Day veterans who attend. They are regular supporters, active in all the programs we put on. Just recently I mentioned in a sermon that our most effective prayers are uttered when we can place ourselves in the place where we felt especially blessed by God. After the service, one of the vets came forward and related that, “while waiting in England for D- Day, I attended worship in a small cathedral…in Salisbury. ” Then he paused, tears streaming down his face quietly. I waited until he could compose himself. Then he said, “Reverend, it isn’t the size of the cathedral. God touched me there and on D-Day, I was very lucky.” The man’s understatement speaks volumes! As it is with men in combatthe ones doing the most talking have seen the least actionso it is with veterans and God.
But many veterans of combat find themselves very uncomfortable in overtly religious settings. This is usually taken as a sign that veterans, especially Marines, are a particularly irreligious lot. Let me say clearly, nothing is further from the truth. Rather, it is because combat is such an intense experience of God’s mercy that little else especially the traditional Saturday or Sunday Servicecomes close. The veteran who wishes to honor the Creator who plucked him from the gateway of death may avoid religious services out of a sense of respect for this utter mystery. Consequently many of us look for other ways to express our gratitude. We volunteer in our communities at a rate far exceeding the general populationhospitals, intramural leagues, youth programs, community service bonds beneficiaries of our gratitude. We often involve ourselves in programs which seek to give someone else an enhanced quality of life. This involvement is always practicalMarines particularly want to get past the verbal bull…. real quick and into the thick of unloading truck, sweeping the floors, driving the nails or whatever else needs to be done. This involvement is profoundly spiritual although it may not be explicitly Christian. Creeds and denominational squabbles are things the average veteran doesn’t have time for usually. This is because we know that this stuff isn’t worth dying over. We also know that when the chips are down what matters most is the capacity to meet the challenge.
Let me say a bit more about living together when the chips are down. Combat taught us how much we needed our buddies. When this is added to the intense bond we feel toward each other as Marines, we wind up with a bond that is truly unbreakable. This comradeship is a direct expression of religious feelingit is the heartfelt desire to fellowship with persons of a kindred spirit This is why we’re here on Wednesday. . . why we show up for reunions and a host of other gatherings. It isn’t arrogance but rather the profound recognition that, finally, only those who have tasted the cordite, felt the fire nearby and seen the face of life after death with whom we feel comfortable.
I would hope that each of you is active in a local religious community. God knows they can use your help. Thank you for your indulgence.
(Sgt Donald D. Denton Jr. served with H&S Company, 1st Radio Battalion in Vietnam. These remarks were made recently at an informal luncheon of Richmond-area Marines who meet once a month under the leadership of Cols Joe Holicky and Carl Sitter MOH. Member Denton is the Coordinator, Assessments and Publications of The Vrginia Institute of Pastoral Care.)