Deployment to Iraq changed my view of God, country and humankind. So did coming home.
It started in the middle of the night. The U.S. Army surrounded the buildings, established perimeters and posted heavy weaponry at key positions, dividing the space around their targets into neat, geometric kill zones. But their targets were not terrorist hideouts—they were family homes. And so, instead of kicking down doors or blasting out locks with shotgun rounds, they knocked. They roused the families inside, woke husbands and wives, grandparents and young children. They pressed money into their hands and told them, “You have to leave. You have no choice. Pack.” And then the soldiers stood in families’ living rooms, watched as the families packed their things and left, carrying bags, sometimes leaving behind clothes and keepsakes in their haste.
Behind the army came the engineers. They built large earthen barriers, laid out concrete blast walls, placed sandbags around windows, set up radio and data connections to headquarters—in short, converting these former homes into small, defensible outposts. Where once children were raised, where husbands and wives argued and made love, there was now an armed camp of foreigners staring out from behind automatic weapons.
This was in April of 2007, in a series of small towns south of Fallujah in Iraq. The people there had lived through the American invasion, through the multisided insurgency, through the growing consolidation of power by the Islamic State. Recently, someone had taken 40 members of the towns, bound them, shot them and left their bodies in a mass grave. And now the people who remained—poor, rural people—had new neighbors.
When they woke up, the physical geography of their towns had hardly changed, but the social geography had undergone an earthquake. The old power structure in those towns was the Islamic State. It had controlled towns and cities and smuggling routes and black markets. It had offered jobs and opportunities—$40 for laying a roadside bomb, more if that bomb blew up and killed or injured an American. It had offered the potential for a farmer or mechanic to work in an insurgent cell, rise up through the ranks, become a person worthy of power and respect. It had offered an ideological and religious appeal. It had offered a way to strike back at foreign invaders. And if you crossed it, it had offered torture and murder. Now it was being challenged.
But who, exactly, was challenging it? It may seem obvious that the American troops were the new power players in that region. After all, what was that night of forced displacements and rapid construction if not a show of power? A new boss was in town, and he wore an American flag on his sleeve, right?
That is what I thought at the time. I came in a military convoy two days later, looking out at the surrounding area from behind thick, bulletproof glass. When we arrived at one of these new combat outposts—COPs, they were called—I sat in on a briefing given by the leadership to discuss plans for moving forward. The essence of war is imposing order onto an inherently chaotic environment, and from inside the COP everything seemed very orderly, very controlled. We could look out at the surrounding town from towers covering every angle of approach with interlocking fields of fire. We had maps and satellite imagery and a Blue Force tracker that provided real-time data on the location of every friendly force in the region. We had an intelligence section that had mapped out every violent incident on every street and highway in the past couple of years. To the inhabitants of the town, perhaps, the changes we had wrought were bewildering and frightening. Perhaps they were looking on us in fear and confusion. But within the COP, behind our walls and weapons, stuffed full of data, sitting on some former townsperson’s couch and listening to the briefing, there was no confusion. We could look out with what seemed like an objective, God’s-eye view. We were in the town, of course, but not a part of it. The town was an object in our grasp. A text we could read.
But that feeling of power lasted only so long as you stayed inside the COP, surrounded by comforting maps and data. When it came time to leave, I walked outside the walls to where our vehicles were waiting and stood for a moment in the street. I looked at the Marines around me—performing their pre-convoy checks on their vehicles and weapons—and then turned to the town surrounding us. There was a small road that intersected the main street we were on, and it ran straight for a bit before curving off into the distance. I felt a desire to start walking down that road, to just wander off from my unit and explore, a feeling somewhat akin to the odd desire one feels standing on a cliff or the edge of a tall building, where that little voice whispers, perversely, “Jump.”
This moment of vertigo was an intimation that, perhaps, we were not quite the new boss in town I imagined we were. Certainly, we had the most firepower. The greatest capability for effectively wielding violence. Simone Weil once defined “force” as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Under that definition, you could certainly say that we were the dominant force in the town. What is much more disputable, however, is whether we were the dominant power.
Power and the use of force are often conflated. “Power grows out of the barrel of the gun,” said Mao. “Only violence pays,” claimed Frantz Fanon. However, there is another, very different conception. “All governments rest on opinion,” James Madison claimed, a statement that, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, is as true for democracies as for monarchies and totalitarian states. In this conception, the strength of a society, and thereby the degree of power its government can wield, relies on the consent of the governed far more than on the constant, looming threat of violence. Indeed, states that rely on that constant threat, like North Korea, are notable for their weakness, their crippling need to internally police dissent to keep the house of cards from collapsing.
Power, ultimately, is not about control. It is about submitting to a complex system that is out of any one person’s control.
What to make, then, of my situation, staring down a dusty side street in a tiny, poor town bordered by desert? I knew that, no matter all the information we had—the maps, the Blue Force trackers, the intelligence reports and timelines of significant events—and no matter the tremendous show of force the town had just witnessed, there was not a single Marine or soldier behind me who would feel comfortable walking down that road alone. That simple physical space, a road in a town, the sort of thing that to me had always seemed no more than poured and hardened concrete, took on a new depth. That road was not simply a physical part of the geography but the location of a complex social life, the setting for a set of relationships, customs, traditions, rituals, crafts, stories, songs and practices. All of which, of course, were foreign to me.
None of these factors seemed important until I stepped outside the walls of the COP. They only exist as long as they are lived, and so they cannot be charted by a military intelligence cell, printed on a map and pinned to a wall. Nevertheless, they barred me from the town as surely as our blast walls and earthen barriers excluded the town from our COP. They were not only real, they were dangerous. As Mao also pointed out, insurgents “move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Walking through a town without having an intuitive sense of the people, then, could feel like driving in a foreign country at high speed down a narrow highway, full of dark turns over steep cliffs, and suddenly realizing that you don’t know whether you’re supposed to drive on the left or right side of the road.
In movies and on television, our recent wars tend to be portrayed in terms of violent action. Firefights and raids and slow-motion sniper bullets flying across the battlefield to kill the enemy. And it is understandable why. The exercise of violence, unlike the accumulation and use of power, offers a satisfying narrative structure. A raid is a morality play with a beginning, middle and end in which a set of brave warriors prepares for battle, strikes their objective and ends the life of a bad guy. No wonder, then, that in our deeply unsatisfying, neverending wars, the most popular cultural offerings are movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Sniper,” where we are treated to the spectacle of highly trained operatives killing undoubtedly evil people—bomb-makers and torturers and sadists and thugs of all stripes—while the communities in which these fights happen are rendered almost invisible. In “American Sniper,” there is barely a civilian to be found—even the young children in that movie are actively engaged in trying to kill Americans—so the viewer need not worry about the complexities of waging war in and around people’s homes. The city is not a social space but a hostile landscape, which the soldier must dominate through brute force. And once the army has rampaged through the whole of the city, and the enemies have been killed or driven away, well...that is victory.
So little of Iraq had anything to do with guns or bombs or jihads.
This can be fun to watch on television. The problem is that in real life, it often does not work. In the Second Battle of Fallujah, Marines and soldiers fought their way through the city, block by block. Close to 2,000 insurgents, 800 civilians and 100 coalition forces were killed. It was the bloodiest battle involving U.S. forces since the Vietnam War. But by 2006 the city was once again firmly controlled by the insurgency. Aside from the structural damage visible everywhere, it was as if we had never fought our way through it at all.
And so, by the time I was in Iraq, the military had come up with a new strategy, formalized in the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24. This strategy emphasized knowing the cultural terrain, getting out and interacting with the people of your battlespace. “Sometimes,” it cautioned, “the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.”
Some soldiers took this idea to extremes. In Afghanistan Major Jim Gant, an officer in the Special Forces, would occasionally stop military matters to play with the local children in the town where he had been stationed. He later claimed, “I would play with the children—for hours.... I often thought that these play sessions did more for our cause in the Konar than all the raids we did combined.”
The idea was to introduce a sociological, rather than purely physical, conception of security. And this is the reason I was in that little town south of Fallujah in the first place. An alliance of Sunni sheiks had decided, for a complex mixture of reasons, to oppose the Islamic State and cooperate with Americans. This alliance, the Anbar Awakening, had successfully leveraged the overwhelming force and wealth of the American military in their bid to upend the power structure of Ramadi. Insurgents were suddenly fleeing the city to rural towns. The next step, naturally, was to expand to those rural towns.
Hence the operation I went on, where the military had set up outposts to force U.S. units into close physical proximity with the people of Iraq. Terrifying the village and kicking families out of their houses in the middle of the night was, perhaps, not the most auspicious start, but the general idea was that, over time, living in little Iraqi towns, patrolling the streets, getting an intuitive feel for the life of the community they were supposed to police, the military would become more than just a looming violent force in the region, but a power player enmeshed in the life of the community. As Matt Gallagher, an Iraq War veteran who served during this time, put it: “So little of Iraq had anything to do with guns or bombs or jihads. That’s what people never understand. There was the desert. And the locals, and their lives.”
In practice, this meant not a series of clear-cut raids, in which good and brave soldiers kill bad and depraved terrorists and the world is made progressively safer one bullet at a time, but a series of complex negotiations whose success or failure depends on much more than the abilities of each side to conduct violence.
Most U.S. commanders would have, at the very least, arrested the sheik, interrogated him for information and tried to bring people to justice. This is not what Major Fishback did.
Here is an example: In 2010, a Special Forces officer named Ian Fishback was stationed in a section of Diyala Province when a group of Sunni tribesmen launched a few mortars at his base. Mortar attacks generally were not particularly serious—Major Fishback often slept through them—but in this case, the shrapnel from the rounds ripped out the throats of two service members, both of whom quickly bled to death.
Because of his knowledge of the area, Major Fishback was pretty sure he knew which tribe the mortarmen had come from and who was the local sheik nominally in charge. Most U.S. commanders would have, at the very least, arrested the sheik, interrogated him for information and tried to bring people to justice. This is not what Major Fishback did.
He was operating in a volatile region and saw his job less as one of pacifying an insurgency than working out some sort of settlement between the competing groups that would allow them to live together peacefully. “The process was primarily political,” he told me, “with violence in the background. Most of it was about reconciliation and politics. I don’t think we ever killed anyone.”
On the one side were the Sunni tribes, who felt threatened by Kurdish incursions into their territory. On the other were the Kurds, who had controlled that region until the late ’80s, when Saddam Hussein waged a genocidal campaign that killed up to 180,000 people and then resettled Sunni tribes in the devastated territory. The Kurds, understandably, were not particularly sympathetic to Sunni grievances.
And so, during his deployment, Major Fishback had served to open lines of communication between the various groups, operating as an outside force that could limit the uncertainty each side felt in negotiating with the other. He mapped out 550 nodes of power in the region, people with influence who could play a role in possible reconciliation, and he worked to help the local leaders build institutions that could, in the event of U.S. departure, help keep the peace. And, he felt, it was going well. He had sheiks who had fought in the insurgency for almost 10 years and who had never met an American before who were willing to work with them. There was no descent into general violence. But then there were these mortar attacks. Two Americans dead. The sort of thing that requires a response.
This is not a great war story to tell at a bar.
Major Fishback called a meeting with the sheik whose men he thought were responsible, and the sheik agreed to come. Prior to the meeting, Major Fishback knew that the sheik probably had blood on his hands. He knew that the sheik probably knew who had launched the mortars, or at least knew enough to probably be able to help Major Fishback track them down. He also knew that the sheiks in the region did not have absolute control of their tribesmen, that the tribesmen often felt that attacking Americans conferred legitimacy, and that even tribal leaders who genuinely wanted to work with the Americans often turned a blind eye to the occasional mortar attacks, which rarely killed anybody and so were usually a harmless way for their men to get a shot in at the invaders. Usually.
“He came in, clearly very nervous,” Major Fishback told me. “It was common practice among some people to detain sheiks during these meetings. But I was in the position of establishing the peace. Detaining him had the potential to undermine relations with the other Sunni sheiks. So I made it clear, if this happens again, we won’t be friends. And he knew what that meant. The interpreter thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
And that was it. Major Fishback made the decision to forgo a hard approach seeking justice for two needlessly dead Americans on behalf of the hope that continuing his relationship with the sheik would lead to better outcomes down the road.
This is not a great war story to tell at a bar. It does not have the clean trajectory of a sniper’s bullet, the satisfying moral conclusion of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, or the awe-inspiring display of force that was the Second Battle of Fallujah. It is not even really possible to know whether it was the right choice, whether that particular sheik was as reconcilable as Major Fishback thought he was, or whether any of it really mattered in the long term. That year Iraq would have bitterly disputed elections followed by the Shiite prime minister going after Sunni politicians, igniting yet another round of vicious sectarian warfare in which ISIS was able to successfully woo the support of Sunni tribesmen.
Once you move outside the realm of physical force and into the realm of social power, you move into the realm of uncertainty. Each action of yours sparks a chain of reactions among the people you are trying to influence, reactions that all the social science in the world and all the mapping of nodes of power cannot predict. As Hannah Arendt points out, “The reason why we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action is simply that action has no end...the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” There is no sure guide for action, no rulebook that will tame a population, because populations are composed of free people with choices of their own to make. The exercise of power, then, means not dominating an external world but weaving yourself into a web of relationships in such a way that those around you begin making choices that take your wants and desires into account. This means that power, ultimately, is not about control. It is about submitting to a complex system that is out of any one person’s control.
So Major Fishback cannot say for sure that he made the right choice, though he feels that he did. “I think it did well for the people,” he told me, “I think it did well for the prospects for peace.” Even if those prospects would not come to fruition.
When he left the area the Sunni sheiks cried. They told the Americans that the reason no one was killed was because of Major Fishback’s team and the way the team conducted itself. On that deployment Major Fishback and his men had not killed anyone, had not exerted force and turned people into things; but in their own way, they had exercised power.
Major Fishback’s work, however, was very different from my day job as a media officer. I ran a team of Marine correspondents, assisted professional media moving through Anbar and served as an advisor on communications. Every morning, I had to brief my commanding general on the three biggest news stories out of Iraq, and in those early months they were never good. It was all chlorine gas attacks and assassinated political leaders and bombers using children as decoys. Eventually, the chief of staff called me aside and said: “Phil, you’re doing good work, but...your morning briefings are kind of depressing. How about we add an extra, positive news story at the end of each briefing to, you know, pep things up.”
This was the beginning of the Positive News Story of the Day, or, because the military loves acronyms, the PSOD, as it came to be called. I would have three horrible stories of violence and despair...and then tell the general, “But, for our PSOD, we have an article in The New York Times where John McCain says we’re making progress.”
As a staff officer, especially as a staff officer with a job related to media, it was difficult to square my day to day activities with the life and death stakes all around me.
Some days, though, the news was so overwhelmingly bad there was almost nothing I could find. “No idea what the PSOD’s gonna be,” I’d tell my chief as I pored through the dregs of the internet, coming up with things so pathetically threadbare it was often worse to include them. “Well sir,” I’d tell the general, “We’ve got a suicide truck bomb that killed 47 people, the assassination of a tribal leader, a U.N. report saying that the Iraqi government has engaged in widespread torture and, for our PSOD, from freedom-mom.blogspot.america.com, look at this adorable photo of a Marine who went on patrol and took a selfie with a baby goat.”
I am not sure whether the PSOD ever made anybody in the briefing feel better about things. In fact, searching for a PSOD on a dark day was downright troubling. There were some times when trying to put a positive spin on a story felt obscene.
At one point during those early months, a Marine squad raided a house near my base where an execution was taking place. The insurgents had captured a couple of Iraqi soldiers, brutally beaten them, taken a power drill and drilled through their ankles, and then set them up in front of a video camera to be beheaded. It was then that the Marines burst in, killing or capturing the insurgents and freeing the Iraqis, who were given medical care and sent to the military hospital on my base.
I tried to imagine ways of reordering myself in relation to this very disordered, broken world.
A senior officer reached out to me and told me that this was a really dramatic story that spoke well of the American military, and I should head to the hospital, talk to the doctors and see if one of the Iraqis was willing to do an interview about what he had experienced and how grateful he was to U.S. forces for saving him. And so, naïvely, I walked over to the hospital and asked to speak to one of the surgeons who’d worked on the tortured Iraqis. When I explained why I was there, it took him a moment to respond. This doctor, he had spent time with these men, with their broken bodies that would never be fully whole again. At first he did not quite understand what I was after. The notion that this was a good news story was inconceivable. It was one of the worst things he had ever seen in his life. Evil, written on the body. “You don’t understand,” he said in a strangled voice. “They’re in really rough shape.” I left ashamed of myself.
During this time, as I struggled through these emotions about myself and the place I was in and the work I was doing, I went to church and I went to confession. And, in confession, I mostly talked about my sense of my own inadequacy. Here I was, in a site of deep moral concern. People were dying. People were being tortured to death. And I had joined the military to be of service. In high school the Jesuits had taught me to be a “man for others,” the Marine Corps had promised me a way to do that, and so here I was. And yet, as a staff officer, especially as a staff officer with a job related to media, it was difficult to square my day-to-day activities with the life and death stakes all around me. I did not even know if I was helping or hurting the cause. Most of the journalists I hosted from major news organizations in those days tended to report only bad news. All I knew was that I had a safe job in a dangerous place, the sort of place where moral heroism was needed, and where I had not the slightest clue what that kind of heroism would even look like.
Faith, for me, has always been a place to register a sense of doubt, of powerlessness, of inadequacy and uncertainty about my place in the world and how I am supposed to live. You kneel before a crucifix. Before a broken, tortured and humiliated human body. You face human frailty, and human cruelty. You call to mind your sins. All that you have done, and all that you have failed to do, in a place where nevertheless you know you are accepted and forgiven. Those early days in Iraq were so busy it was easy to get lost in the constant flow of work. But my time at Mass, and particularly my time in confession, were when time stopped for me; and I tried to imagine ways of reordering myself in relation to this very disordered, broken world. Then I poured out my doubts, received reconciliation and went back to my confusing day job.
However, on April 29, a week after I came back from those little combat outposts in those little towns south of Fallujah, The New York Times ran a story about the Anbar Awakening by Kirk Semple, a reporter I had briefly hosted. The article, “Uneasy Alliance Is Taming One Insurgent Bastion,” was the first major piece of reporting from a reputable source on the Anbar Awakening, the alliance of Sunni sheiks that was reordering the power structure of Anbar Province. In it, Semple did a careful job of explaining what the Awakening did and did not signify, pointing out that the alliance was an uneasy marriage of convenience, that many of the sheiks had participated in the insurgency, that governance remained a wreck and so on. The article ended with the suggestion that barring an eventual political settlement between the Shia-dominated national government and the Sunni tribes, the long-term effect of the Awakening might simply be to arm and organize a potential enemy to the Iraqi state. Nevertheless, he noted that in Ramadi the insurgency was on the run. At that time in the war, for an article in The New York Times, that was a PSOD. That was as PSODey as it got. And so my war started to turn.
Soon, more and more journalists were passing through Anbar Province, interested in covering the changes in Ramadi, or in the operation that would soon start in Fallujah. A steady stream of casualties still passed through our base, but it wasn’t like before. Mortar attacks stopped. At a certain point, I could not remember the last mass casualty event. I saw fewer injured children. And I went from hope that we were winning to certainty.
It became a matter of statistics. How many patients coming into our military hospital? How many people dying in attacks across Anbar? Looking at the figures, it was easy to imagine a rough, utilitarian calculus in which my service was overwhelmingly justified by the changes wrought on the ground. It was, seemingly, an empirical question: Did fewer people die in Iraq because of the surge? If the answer was yes, then according to that strictly utilitarian, consequentialist calculus, I was right and noble while the antiwar folks who opposed the surge were guilty of risking Iraqi lives.
Clausewitz, the great German philosopher of war, might have disagreed. For him, immaterial forces are often the most important forces in war. Spirits that “seek to escape from all book-knowledge, for they will neither be brought into numbers nor into classes, and want only to be seen and felt.” Since war is waged against “a living and re-acting force,” mechanical laws and rules will, be “perpetually undermined and washed away by the current of opinions, feelings, and customs.” Such arguments did not seem to matter at the time—the sheer power of the data suggested we had indeed found a rulebook in which the spirits permeating war had been quantified and tamed. It would be only a few years, though, before those spirits would rebel and changing social and political conditions in Iraq would lead to the rapid collapse of the Awakening and the rise of ISIS.
But that was in the future. Not knowing the future, I knew the statistics. The numbers of the dead. The continual decline of violence. Statistics are wonderful. Like force, they turn people into things. For example, in January 2008, the last month I spent overseas, 554 Iraqis were killed. This is a horrible number if you think about it in terms of specific people. If you think of the woman with Down syndrome who on the 31st, the last day of that month, walked through a checkpoint to a pet market. She claimed she had birds to sell but, in fact, she had bombs strapped to her body, bombs she may not have even been aware were there. Within minutes, a remote triggerman detonated her in a flash of fire and blood and feathers. Survivors would describe awaking from the blast covered in blood, not knowing whether it was their blood or human blood or the blood of animals. One man searched for his friend Zaki amongst the various species of corpses until he passed out and woke up in a hospital bed. This incident left 46 dead. But when I thought of them, I did not think of the individual experiences and lives. I imagined a spreadsheet counting Iraqi casualties. A spreadsheet in which those 46 dead were numbers 482 to 527. A later blast, also from a bomb-carrying woman with Down syndrome, would bring the total for that month to 554. And when stacked against the previous January’s 1,802 Iraqi deaths, this was a relatively low number. Which is the most pleasant way to think about it.
So I left Iraq, untroubled. Confident. I came home, untroubled, confident. Yes, soldiers had died. Yes, civilians had died. Yes, bodies had been torn and rent and I had even seen some of those bodies. There were images that stuck in my mind, like a man’s eyeballs flattened and covered in reddened cloth. Like a father and mother holding an injured baby and looking on her with sorrow and love. Like a young Marine’s tattoo as he lay on a trauma table. But from my secure vantage point as an officer, on a general’s staff, following the big-picture news of the war, it was easy to anesthetize myself to such things, or think about them in a sentimental, instrumental way. The soldier, whose name I did not know, was sacrificing for a good cause. The injured civilians, whom I did not know, were an example of why that cause was so good and our enemy was so evil.
In theory, war is supposed to enhance one’s faith, or at the very least force a deep sense of reflection upon spiritual matters.
In theory, war is supposed to enhance one’s faith, or at the very least force a deep sense of reflection upon spiritual matters. The experience of war, and trauma more generally, can be an assault not only on one’s physical sense of safety, but on one’s social, moral and spiritual conception of the world. Recovery, as the psychiatrist Judith Herman has described it, challenges the “ordinary person to become a theologian, a philosopher, and a jurist,” who must reconstruct a view of faith, society and ethics that will not merely collapse into the emptiness of the evil they have faced. Faith in God, faith in people, faith in the immaterial aspects of life that we rely on to go about our day-to-day existence needs to be rebuilt. And though many do not turn to God seeking aid in the process, for those who do, their faith can emerge stronger than ever.
But this was not my situation, which was comfortable, not particularly traumatic and seemingly justified by external events—even if those events did not have much to do with my own actions. And so I stopped going to Mass. It was not a conscious decision. It would be a year before I would admit to a woman I was dating that I no longer believed in God. It was more that I simply stopped feeling the need to trouble myself about my spiritual life.
As the numbers went more and more in the right direction, I felt less and less as if I was in a place of mystery and confusion, but in a rational, controllable world where the correct application of right thinking and right technique could tame chaos, tame the wild spirits of war and civic life, and move us closer toward a progressive, technocratically managed ideal of democracy and peace. I was less bothered by the war, by my place in it and by the challenge of living justly in response to tragedy than by what I viewed as the shallow and wrongheaded political debates about the war back home and by the politicians I thought were lying about the facts—from Rahm Emanuel accusing General David Petraeus of using “creative statistics” to Hillary Clinton suggesting it took “a suspension of disbelief” to accept what he was telling Congress.
My understanding not simply of the war but of myself shifted. I was not a fallen creature in a broken world reliant on grace, but a Marine in a successful army that had all the answers. I was justified not by a cross, but by an interpretation of public policy, not by the cruel and barbaric torture and murder of an innocent man, but by politics. If the surge had saved lives, turning a monthly death toll of 1,802 to 554, then the month of January did not just make me right and the antiwar folks who had opposed the policy wrong, it made me morally better than them by exactly 1,248 dead Iraqis.
My understanding not simply of the war but of myself shifted.
It did not occur to me that I could be right about public policy and still be a sinner, or wrong about public policy and still be redeemed. And so I set aside the moments of doubt. I set aside the experiences that gave me pause. Like, for example, that moment I stood in that small Iraqi town, the town I thought I knew everything about, stared down a street and heard a voice, my voice, saying: I do not know where I am, or what I am doing or what we are doing, and none of the Marines around me do either.
In 2009, I left the Marine Corps and returned home. Very quickly, I developed a sense that something was missing in my life in New York. In an odd way, it was similar to that invisible force I had felt in that small town, the force that separated me from the town and its inhabitants.
Joining the Marine Corps, you see, is not just taking on a new job. It is about entering an entirely different culture, one that in many ways echoes the nature and character of religious life. “Modern man may well find his monastery in the military,” Samuel Huntington wrote in 1957, and I certainly found that to be the case. Like a novice monk, I was given new clothing, new standards of dress, a new haircut, as well as a distinct role within a broader community. I was given a list of virtues I was meant to embody—virtues like honor, courage and commitment taking the place of the Christian virtues of hope, faith and love. I went through rituals that mark the stages of life and the passage of power—swearing the oath of office, promotion ceremonies, award ceremonies and, of course, memorial services. I was given a formalized language to use in chants and songs and shouted group responses. I was told that class, wealth and race do not make a difference here. I was told to embrace austerity and mortification of the flesh. I was submerged into communal living, told that all were expected to give their bodies and their lives. I was given the stories of military saints—men and women who risked their lives under enemy fire, who jumped on hand grenades to save their buddies, who held faith with their fellow prisoners of war during years of torture. And the whole thing was sanctified with the blood of sacrificial figures, the fallen Marines who came before and gave their lives to the cause.
It did not occur to me that I could be right about public policy and still be a sinner, or wrong about public policy, and still be redeemed.
Out of the Corps, I was deprived of that community and not yet fully absorbed into the civilian world, which has its own rites and rituals and myths, many of them accepted unconsciously. I was alienated, as so many veterans have been before. There is nothing new or even especially dramatic about this. Plenty of veterans have come home and felt the same. Here are these incomprehensible people living absurd lives, without a thought in their head about the real world. And the real world, for some reason, did not mean the lives and families and hopes and dreams of ordinary men and women—it meant the war. It meant the stuff I cared about. As one Vietnam veteran put it:
I could not fathom how Vietnam could be anything to all Americans but the central concern of their lives; how it could be anything less than the dark sun around which we were all in unbreakable orbit as its doomed and somehow hopeless satellite.
To walk through a city like New York upon return from war, then, felt like witnessing a moral crime. Much as, in Iraq, we were frustrated that the Iraqis didn’t just give up their own lives and goals and adopt our vision of a democratic society, I was frustrated, coming home, that the American people did not embrace my vision of war.
This was something I wanted to solve by writing fiction. I wanted to tell the oblivious American public what they needed to know. Here, my grand ideas were primarily psychological and moral and political. I thought I would write a novel about PTSD and thereby show a shamefaced nation what they had asked their Marines to bear. I would write about the dramatic suffering of soldiers and contrast that with the empty materialism of modern American life. I would write about the apathy of the broader American public about issues of war and peace. I, the authoritative returned veteran, would deliver my hard truths to a public that had failed in its civic duties. This was not about reconciling the civilian and military worlds, much less about reconciling the narrow experience of war within the broader social reality of the towns and villages where that war was fought, but about preaching from a great height.
It is somewhat amusing now that I thought, at the time, that those were the things missing from the public conversation. The public conversation in America at the time was full of those things, frequently written by people with a lot more knowledge than myself. But, like many young writers, I was eager to regurgitate the culture back at itself.
“Modern man may well find his monastery in the military,” Samuel Huntington wrote in 1957, and I certainly found that to be the case.
So that was one motivation. But there was another, messier motivation that I could not quite have articulated at the time. It was less about a message to unload upon my reader, and more about a group of unquiet memories that hung around in my head, cluttering up the place without serving as fodder for an easily digestible moral of the sort I wanted to impart. They were memories like the following: how funny it could be to talk about dead bodies, what it looked like seeing dirty soldiers back from a patrol eating cherry cobbler in the TQ mess hall, the voice of that doctor as he told me what it had felt like treating those two tortured Iraqis, watching a man shepherd a group of sick sheep with mucus hanging from their snouts, and the adjustments men made in the summer months to deal with ball sweat.
And because I was writing fiction, and not weekly opinion pieces, the odd, unquiet memories began to win. Fiction is strangled by simple messages, by notions of justice dependent on statistics where, as Gabriel Marcel put it, every individual is “reducible to an index card that can be sent to a central office.” Or, he might have added, to Facebook’s algorithm. But fiction thrives on sick sheep and ball sweat. Stories are things that happen not to ideas or statistics but to people, people with bodies, living in specific places. And so, unconsciously, and simply by the form that my writing took, I began to undermine my own certainty.
Around this time, people I knew were injured. A few people I respected were betrayed by the Marine Corps, treated badly and callously and cruelly. A few Marines I knew and liked experienced periods of homelessness. A bitterly disputed parliamentary election in Iraq threatened recent security gains. And so, without quite knowing why, I went back to Mass for the first time in years. And I thought about how the world was not quite meeting my hopeful expectations. And Christ, looking back at me from the cross, blood dripping from the thorns in his crown and the wound in his side and the nails in his hands and feet, asked, “What on earth convinced you that it would?”
In the book of Job, after the hero has been stricken with illness, suffered the death of his children and his servants, he asks to make his case before the Lord, to ask what he has done to merit such suffering. And the Lord does respond to him, speaking out of the whirlwind. But instead of giving him answers, God offers rhetorical questions. At first, they are about what Job knows of the world—“Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Who laid its cornerstone?” And then God switches to a set of questions about what Job can do, what he can control, if he can thunder with a voice like God’s, if he can humiliate the proud, bury them in dust. And God ends with the famous image of the Leviathan, later used by Thomas Hobbes as an image of the state itself, that vast conglomeration of people that form a civic body. God asks:
Can you lead Leviathan about with a hook,
or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a ring into his nose,
or pierce through his cheek with a gaff?
Will he then plead with you, time after time,
or address you with tender words?
Will he make a covenant with you
that you may have him as a slave forever?
Can you play with him, as with a bird?
Can you tie him up for your little girls?
It increasingly seems to me that the certainty of earlier life was based on fantasies of an orderly future in a rational, controllable world, fantasies that were no more than the wish that the Leviathan might one day be tied down by force. That man, with his ever-increasing sophistication and technology, could come up with a set of rules about how states are to be built, how societies are to be governed, how men are to be made to live, that would allow us to lead the Leviathan of the state, the city or the town with a hook, tie its tongue down with a rope, and make of it, and men, a slave.
It increasingly seems to me that the certainty of earlier life was based on fantasies of an orderly future in a rational, controllable world.
And so, though I struggle with faith, faith not only in God but in my country, my church and my fellow men, I go to Mass. I return to doubt, and confusion and uncertainty. I return to a social gathering. To a meal. To the experience of music, to the image of our tortured God, to the recitation of words. To that moment when everybody in the church trips over the phrase “consubstantial with the Father.” To the hands of my fellow congregants offering me peace. To the inscription of the sign of the cross on the forehead, lips and heart. I return to the physical expression of a broader social body that proclaims itself a mystical body, each one of us branches emanating from the vine that is Christ. I return to a place designed to pull me out of my individualistic American brain and situate me back inside my skin, and inside a community, with all the raucous contradictions and odd harmonies that implies.
Paul tells us “the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” And, at times, I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of force. Not of hard mechanical rules, but of stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables. It is an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control. It is a religion that fits with what I know of reality, that helps me live honestly, and that helps me set aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, comes not from men, but machines. Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.