Faith in Time of War: Grace Under Fire
I’m a believer that the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” are actually a guarantee to all of us to our freedom OF religion and not the twisted battle cry of freedom FROM religion. How that has come to mean that openly praying to or invoking the name of one’s God should offend someone else is a mystery to me.
There is much discussion these days about religion and its rightful place in our society, our politics and political institutions. And, of course, there is great debate (actually it’s more like yelling and screaming) about the role of religion in conflict -- past and present. But there is no debate on the importance of Faith. While I would not say that I am a religious person, I am a person of great Faith and readily admit that my experiences with this war have tested -- and ultimately strengthened -- my Faith.
I cannot imagine that there are more heartfelt professions of Faith -- or a time of greater need of Faith -- than in time of war. In my own experience, after I cried me a river, “I cried and begged God, His Mother and all the saints in Heaven to protect my son… and his new brothers.” And after my son would communicate with us, I would exuberantly "thank the Good Lord for the call and our son's continued safety.” Just hours after we heard from the Army that Noah had been wounded, I asked the blogsphere to "Please pray for my son." And the next day I told of how I busied myself the previous night and said, “Although this seems like a logical string of actions, in reality they are herky-jerky tasks strung together by time and episodes of gasping sobs and crying... and praying to God to please, please let our son be OK. I'm not really praying, I'm begging God to please spare my son. I'm bartering... I'm badgering...” Many hundreds of people left comments on that post principally with messages of prayers and Faith.
And when Noah’s friends Matt and then Jason Benford, and then Tommy, Tim, Jeff, Rich and Vince Summers were all killed within weeks of each other, I wrote about one of my many conversations with Noah while he tried to make sense of why them and not he, “I tried to gently talk with Noah about how there must be some greater Plan set in motion by God in all this -- that while he has been wounded, he is about the lone survivor of his original Bradley crew and perhaps he was spared because there is a task he has been chosen for ‑‑ even if he can not see it at this moment. He says he knows that God has both a left and a right hand but says he's pretty tired of the Left hand... then he quickly says he doesn't want to talk about God today... he's angry with God for the moment. There's not much you can say... Haven't we all been angry with God at least once or twice?” And I finished that blog post with, “Please continue to pray for our soldiers, for the families of our fallen Heroes, for our leaders and those that must send or command our loved ones in harm's way. Please God, grant our dearly departed Peace in your Kingdom, and please grant the rest of us Peace on Earth.” (I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve prayed in my blogs -- for the living, for the wounded, for the dead… for Peace. I pray a lot for Peace.) And when the call goes out for prayers for a wounded soldier or Marine, milbloggers routinely refer to it as “waging spiritual warfare”. Just goes to show that perhaps the old adage about “no atheists in foxholes” is more accurate that not.
In this context, I’d like to draw your attention to a new book about to be published by the wonderful author and editor (and founder of The Legacy Project - War Letters), Andrew Carroll, titled Grace Under Fire - Letters of Faith in Times of War. I was privileged to speak with Andy once or twice while he was editing the superb Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front.
Like his other critically (and commercially) acclaimed works War Letters and Behind the Lines, Grace Under Fire is a collection of letters (and emails) of soldiers from the US Revolution to the current War on Terrorism. Although written in war, these letters relate the hope, devotion, honor and Faith of soldiers and their families that transcend conflict. The letters are not overly religious, but they are filled with purpose and honor and commitment -- to family, to mission, to brothers-in-arms... to Faith. These letters contain lessons and inspiration valuable in war or peace.
You cannot help but be moved by the last letter of NBC News correspondent David Bloom in which he writes to his wife Melanie, “I hope and pray that all of my guys get out of this in one piece. But I tell you, Mel, I am at peace. Deeply saddened by the glimpses of death and destruction I have seen, but at peace with my God, and with you…. Yes, I am proud of the good job we’ve been doing, but -- in the scheme of things -- it matters little compared to my relationship with you, and the girls, and Jesus.”
And how can you not be impressed by the words of Lt. Col. Scott Barnes, a surgeon in Iraq when he says, “But I have no doubt that this is exactly where the Lord wants me to be. I am convinced that I am here for a reason. And I can see it in the faces of some of the soldiers and the Iraqi civilians on whom I operate…” and later in the same email asks and answers the question, “Where is God… He is in the OR guiding the hands of the surgeons, He is in the will of the sergeants helping organize a blood drive as only they can, He is in the hearts of the soldiers who immediately roll up their sleeves to give what they have to save a dying brother whom they don’t even know.”
While those are two of my personal favorite passages, the letters of Chaplain Ray Stubbe before, during and after the siege at Khe Sahn are riveting; and how timely the description of a WWII sailor evacuating soldiers from the jungles of the Pacific describing the many with “shell shock” (now called PTSD) saying, “… and we noticed the vacant look in the soldiers eyes which seemed widened by some recent horror.” And a bit later writes, “It was hard to read their ages; some looked as though they were fifty years old at nineteen; others looked as though they had been born as old men.”
I could personally relate to the joy Mrs. Norton surely felt when she received the April 15, 1945 letter from her wounded and captured son, PFC James Norton, after being liberated from a German POW camp. You’re bound to chuckle as I did when he writes about the Army showing up at the camp, “As much as I’ve cussed the army, I love it now, and I’ve never seen a more smooth working, efficient organization.” And again when he writes, “I'll never forget that first Yank. I always said I’d kiss the first one I saw who liberated us, even if it were a 2nd Looie, and you guessed it, he was.” And I imagine that it wasn’t the first or last time a soldier wrote his momma when PFC Norton wrote, “…I should be back in the States soon, Mom, and when I do get home, I'll probably never get further than the back porch, as I’ve had all the excitement and adventure to last me a lifetime.” But you will be able to envision his face when he confesses that he had faced death many times in the previous months and, while he had always considered himself a good Christian to that point, he learned “what a fool I had been and what it really means to have faith and the power of prayer.”
There are other letters -- an unidentified sailor’s letter to his mother describing in great detail the attack on his ship in September 1942 and the days spent adrift at sea awaiting rescue… a soldier convinced he will die at Bastogne… a war weary soldier who survived the invasion of Italy and is now asked to fight on another front… a WWI soldier who questions his pastor back home on God’s purpose in a time of war…
In Grace Under Fire, Andrew Carroll has selected an array of letters that conveys the spirit and heart of soldiers, sailors and marines and their families through time -- and their belief that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that the mission is an honorable one. While the names of the correspondents and the wars may change, the words of these soldiers and their loved ones are timeless.
Just a note: a portion of the proceeds from Grace Under Fire will be donated to military support groups and used to underwrite a distribution of free books to US Military Chaplains stationed around the world.