Wednesday, November 11, 2009

War Is Hell

Today was Veterans Day. Every Wednesday morning we have a Matins Service, and later a morning program for our seniors who gather. This morning, in honor of Veterans Day, we say a medley of patriotic songs and heard a few stories by veterans who are members of our congregation. I have to say, I was strangely moved by the cheerful Air Force Song, "Off we go/into the wild blue yonder/Climbing high into the sky", especially when one elderly gentleman, a World War II veteran, stood up and remained standing while we sang.

"He was in the Air Force," someone whispered to me.

"I know,"I whispered back. He is a member of my noon Bible story, and has alluded to his service in the Army Air Corp on occasion. He has particularly said, on more than one occasion, that he never thought he would make it to his 22nd birthday.

He told us more of the story today. In fact, I got the feeling that he has been waiting over fifty years to tell his story. He trained and flew B-17s over Germany in 1945. He told us that you had to get 35 missions in before you were done, but hardly anyone made it to 35. He told us about how it felt to know you were expendable, to know every day that there were people who didn't make it back. And he told us a little bit about his mission, too: to "break the will of the German people", as he was told.

"Our job was a dirty job," he told us, and he didn't have to say more.

The war ended after he had flown 17 missions. He didn't go to the South Pacific, because B-17s weren't useful there. After the war, he flew officers over to North Africa, where he would sometimes confess how he felt about the work he had had to do. These were men who had seen ground conflict all over Europe. They told him not to feel guilty. They hated the Germans.

He was in Germany as well, for the Nuremburg trials. He put on the headphones, and heard, over and over, men whose defense was "I was following orders."

"I was following orders, too," he said.

He wondered about the chaplains, and how they did their jobs. He said they never heard scripture readings or sermons about "Loving your enemies," or even "Loving your neighbors." "We were trying to destroy our neighbors," he said. The unspoken question: what happens to faith in times of war? What does it look like? How far does it extend?

Eli Wiesel tells a hasidic tale that asks the question, "When do we know that the night is over and the day has come?"

The answer: when we can see the face of our brother, and know that he is our brother.


steve said...

What becomes of faith during a time of war? The implications are a bit staggering, I think.

A friend of mine with a background of military service recently told me about a field of study (I think it's actually called "Killology") -- wherein the purpose is to study how to best train soldiers to kill people as part of their jobs. And one of the recurrent findings from this field is that it simply isn't in our nature to kill fellow human beings.

I find something reassuring in that. Something about basic human decency.

Peace to you, Diane. Thanks for this post.

Rev SS said...

I feel so bad for our veterans ... the pain in their faces and voices when they remember and share just the tip of the iceberg of their experiences is heart breaking

altar ego said...

Thanks for this lovely post. I'm married to a veteran and have a step-son that serves.

I can't answer the question about what happens to faith in wartime, but I can share two things my husband has told me. He was trained as a sniper, and when I once asked him if he ever thought about the people he had shot, his response was, "I never shot people, I shot targets." That's one way to cope.

I'm also aware that his sniper training and missions aren't part of his record any longer. Such training makes you eligible for permanent recall. His faith was involved in the shift in his "status."