by Troy Chapman
(published December 03)
We’ve all heard about the many soldiers who’ve been killed in Iraq since the end of major combat operations. But I saw something on the news the other night that’s even more disturbing. It was that 17 U.S. soldiers have taken their own lives in that same period of time in Iraq. That’s 17 that are officially recognized. The military says they’re investigating several other deaths they think might also have been self-inflicted.
We can skip the fact that this startling news has gone virtually unreported — the spot I saw was a 10-second blurb — and turn our attention to some deeper questions about it. What did these young Americans see or do that would cause them to take their own lives, to decide that life is so bad they no longer wanted to participate in it?
And if this many actually took their own lives, how many others have committed “psychic suicide,” killing off the sacred mind inside themselves so they can continue doing this job we’ve sent them to do? What is the truth behind the patriotism, political maneuvering, and corporate profiteering surrounding this war? Are we seeing the truth that these young men and women are seeing every day in Iraq?
The present coverage of the war and the American dialog about it is an exercise in avoiding the truth by focusing on the facts. The truth of war is never contained in the facts.
I took a man’ s life 19 years ago, and I was forever scarred by the killing. In the beginning I, like these soldiers, also wanted my own life to end. I’ve spent the past two decades trying to find my way back to the person I was before the killing — not to the insanity, hopelessness, addiction, and sickness of that time in my life but to the innocence that lay behind all that. The innocence that the killing had driven me even further from.
To find my way back, I had to allow myself to feel the full horror of what I’d done. I had to override all my instincts to protect myself and actually look — in memory — at the human body that lay on the barroom floor in front of me that night.
I made myself imagine that he was my brother, that we’d grown up exploring the woods together, discovering life, talking about girls like I did with my actual brothers. I made myself imagine that he was my son; I looked at my regrets, things I could have done better in raising him, all the pride I had at what I did right, his accomplishments and his goodness. Finally I imagined that it was me who died; I thought about the things I still wanted to do in life, my hopes and dreams, and the final seconds of realizing that I wouldn’t get to do them. This brought me closer to the truth of my crime than the facts ever could.
I can manage the facts, but the truth wraps me in grief and breaks me again and again. Yet facing this truth and allowing its full weight to reach me is the only way back to innocence. It’s the only way back to my humanity and I force myself to face it for that reason.
In the same way we must force ourselves as a nation to face the truth of war. We must see our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers — ourselves — in the mangled and torn Iraqi corpses, in the young Americans gasping their last breath on that foreign soil. We must resist the hypnotism of facts and thrust ourselves into the spiritual truth of war. We will be torn and broken by it but we cannot hold on to our humanity without being broken and torn by war. Hurt is the only sane and healthy response to war — and if we’re not feeling it we must ask, what has become of us? In what way have we been damaged that we do not grieve and suffer over war? If we are not suffering we should go in search of it; we should go inside ourselves and look for that part of us that’s been driven out, allowing us to perceive the reality of war as a set of intellectual facts that no longer touches or hurts us.
Many think the most important question about the war is whether we’re for or against it. We debate this question, take polls, and listen to arguments on each side as if we’re talking about private vs. public funding of Medicare. But I don’t think this is the most important question. I think it’s more important that we know what war is, that we know the spiritual truth of it. That’s the debate we ought to have. Do we understand what war is? Let’s bring it out and put it on the table. Take away all these spirit-numbing discussions about strategy, tactics, technology, and politics. Bring me the wounded, the dead; ask soldiers (in intentional “bad taste”) what it feels like in their heart to kill another human being. Ask them how they will be able to go back to Little League games and “Seinfeld” reruns and making love after this.
People who know the truth of war aren’t necessarily against it in all cases. They may feel they need to fight one, but if they do they will enter it knowing that war isn’t a solution and that there will be no winner. They will enter it with no delusions of glory but rather with deep sadness for what they are about to kill inside themselves.
And they will leave it, as I hope we leave Iraq, with a deep and radical commitment to return to life and build a true cross-cultural community in which war is both unnecessary and unthinkable.
Whenever we think about the war in Iraq or see politicians talking about it on television, we should remember these 17 young Americans who have taken their own lives in Iraq. We should superimpose this image over all our other images because this one takes us close to the heart of the matter. Remember them.