Friends of Padre Steve’s World
Yesterday I posted an essay about a German physician and pastor who drew the picture The Madonna of Stalingrad, and the day before one about the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the movie Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas). As I have mention before, I get very reflective around Christmas, in large part due to my experiences in Iraq. While I am certainly happy this year, I am, as I still tend to be a bit melancholy. My time in Iraq changed me, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.
As I said, when I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.
Likewise my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:
“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”
My first Christmas at home was so difficult that at a Christmas Eve mass I handed my wife the car keys and walked home in the dark and cold. Had there been a bar on the way home I would have walked in and poured myself into a bottle.
That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before, especially at Christmas.
But I live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”
As difficult as things have been and as much as I wonder what will happen next, at Christmas I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war.
But amid such unholy thoughts one can hope and pray for peace at Christmas, I guess that is a reason I love the song Happy Christmas, I have put Melissa Etheridge’s version here.
As my Iraqi friends are prone to say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…
Yes, God willing,