Soldiers Aren't Heroes, They're Humans

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Soldiers are not heroes. They are not villains either. They are human beings; human beings who have been put in the middle of a horrific situation.

A ten year old boy holding a grenade approaches a group of soldiers. He does not respond to their shouts. One shoots him with his M-16 and the boy crumbles to the ground, dead.

Did he have a choice? It was do or die, kill or be killed. Still he killed a little boy, and those images still haunt him.

This is a classic example of psychological trauma: A person is put in horrific life-threatening situation where they do not feel they have control. That's the situation he found himself in. It was a no-win scenario -- kill a little boy or have you and your friends all die.

Soldier suicides have reached epidemic numbers. As the AP reports, More soldiers are taking their own lives than are falling in battle. Add on top of that the many who suffer from PTSD, and who as a result find themselves estranged from their home, their loved ones, and indeed from themselves.
This is about experiencing trauma, and, with multiple deployments, being repeatedly re-exposed to trauma. It's about people who have seen or done things that they can't forget, things that may haunt them for the rest of their lives. It's about people like you and me carrying the horrors of the reality of war, and often they are carrying those burdens completely alone.

The tendency in the media is to glorify war, to speak of "heroes" and noble ideals like God and country and freedom. But war is not about ideals. Our bumper stickers say "support our troops," but if we really care about our service men and women then we need to wake up to the very real fact that many of them have had their worlds shattered. On returning home they need more than just a parade, they need real support.

Regardless of what you think about the war, I'd like to suggest that we all should support our troops -- not as warriors, but as people. We need to get away from the rhetoric of either glorifying or demonizing soldiers, and instead treat them as fellow human beings like us.

Trauma disrupts a person's sense of security and connection to themselves and others. Consequently there is a deep need to make sense of the world afterwards, to recalibrate reality. For many soldiers that means bridging the disconnect between their experience of war, and the "real world" which can now seem so unreal. Simply "trying to forget" and bury the past is not enough.

That's why it's so important that we provide the soldiers in our lives with a safe space to work through what they experienced. We need to have the courage and the compassion to hear their stories, told in their own time and on their own terms. We need to listen, without judgment, to what they have to tell us. It's a difficult conversation, but one that we as a country need to be willing to have.

As a Christian this is a difficult issue because the church has tended to fall into those two polarized camps: either romanticizing it on the conservative side or condemning and demonizing it on the liberal side. Then there are the rest of us caught in the middle who simply fall silent. So I want to break the silence. I want to speak up from the radical center with a message of unconditional grace.

As soldiers struggle with feeling profoundly estranged and de-humanized by what they have seen and done, as they work through the fallout of this brokenness in their lives of divorce, depression, unemployment, and the crushing feelings of abandonment that accompanies all of this (including feeling abandoned by the military when they are denied benefits) what they deeply need to hear is a message of grace from the church. Soldiers need to hear that  no matter how damaged or inhuman you may feel, you are loved. They need to experience that same unconditional grace that we all so desperately need. They need to know that we will stand beside them, even when it is messy and scary.

One of the best ways to understand something is to listen to people's stories. The trailer above is from the 2006 feature documentary The Ground Truth and in it veterans of the Iraq war speak of their experiences in war, what it did to them, and what they are going through now that they are back. It's a really powerful and eye-opening film, and I hope you will watch it. You can view the entire film either on (for free) or on Netflix (instant download):

Watch The Ground Truth on Netflix

Watch The Ground Truth on


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At 12:29 PM, Blogger Caroline said...

Thank you for this post. In his book, What it is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes also speaks to the need for spiritual and emotional support being a necessary part of a warrior's training. Very well written. I think you would find it resonates with some of your thoughts, particularly around ptsd and the vital importance of caring for the soul without coming down on a particular side regarding war. Thanks again.


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