War is Hell
A Lenten Prayer
War has been on my mind a lot lately.
I remember returning from a particularly challenging mission in Iraq. As we all started to ground our body armor and weapons when we returned to base, our entire team was silent. Finally, I tried to break the silence. “Well, like Sherman said, war’s hell,” I deadpanned. There were a few chuckles, but things quickly grew silent again. Big Rob broke the silence.
“I don’t think it’s hell,” he said. “But you can damn sure see it from here.”
In his masterful work What It’s Like To Go To War, Vietnam veteran, Marine, and writer Karl Marlantes makes the argument that war is a religious experience.
“I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed,” Marlantes writes. “I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite…” (emphasis mine).
Not all interactions with the sacred are beautiful, although most are. However, all religious traditions have stories of martyrdom, persecution, and other moments where people are as close to their perception of the Divine as can be conceived, but whose temporal presence is subject to calamity and pain. Think about all the stories of Christian saints, the tales about Muslim martyrs, and even Buddhist monks practicing self-immolation to protest the American presence in Vietnam.
One can find themselves very close to God by going through something objectively terrible.
War is divine. And at the same time it is also hell. Actually, war is worse than hell. You know what? I will let Hawkeye Pierce explain:
Lots of people don’t ask to be in war. And war comes anyway.
When the disciples came to Jesus and asked him about the apocalypse, Jesus warned them that they would “hear of wars and rumors of wars.” He also told them to “see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”
The disciples, like many people before and since, were borderline obsessed with the end times. They assumed that the signs they saw all around them of death and destruction and strife were surely indicative of the end of the world. And now they were even confronted by the presence of this amazing, divine man who led them and performed miracles. It was a lot to take in.
Jesus gently led them in a different direction. Throughout his ministry his focus was less on the world to come and more on making THIS world more just. He was focused on showing them what a kingdom of heaven on earth might look like, knowing that the end would be the end. It would come when it came.
Worrying about the end of the world won’t stop it from happening. Some things you can never be prepared for. Some things are beyond comprehension, much less direction.
And when we focus on all the things we *can’t* control, we fail to see all the ways we can actually change the world. Right here, right now.
Let’s not mince words or pretend that it isn’t happening. The world is in a precarious place. It was already precarious with climate change and pandemic and growing mistrust across all levels of society around the world. And now Vladimir Putin comes in and throws nuclear gasoline on the whole tinderbox.
It is tense, and it is hard.
I know there is a temptation to know more, to do more. To doomscroll Twitter 24/7. And there is also a temptation to disconnect and avoid. The path through this lies somewhere between these two temptations. We cannot avoid what is happening. Even if we can shut our minds off to it, our bodies record the trauma. We also cannot be obsessed with it because we cannot control it. We cannot change the outcomes.
If I could control the outcome of this, I would. I would do it for the people of the Ukraine. The soldiers on the ground. My son in law the Marine. My son Matthew. And no. I don’t know anything about what Matthew is doing. Yes, that is harder than I can describe.
I have spent more time at war than I would have preferred. And I learned some things. I would urge everyone to remember 4 things in the days to come:
The fog of war is real. War is kinetic. It is active. Things can change in a heartbeat. Know that the situation is ongoing, and never completely stable. You will hear things, read things, see things. Just know that the truth on the ground may look and feel very different.
There will be unintended consequences. All around. This will have effects that are far reaching and unknown for every person, group, and country involved.
There are no “winners” or “losers” in war. In war, everyone loses. The bad and the good. The people you like and the people you don’t like. Everyone.
The impacts will last far longer than the war. There are parts of France where the ground still shows the trenches dug for World War I over a century ago. So it is with emotional scars as well. They will last. Through generations.
War is war, hell is hell. And war is worse.
Sherman tells us war is hell, Hawkeye says it’s worse, and, as Marlantes reminds us, war is also sacred. Like all intense experiences, war reminds us of the fragility of human existence, and calls us into the radical present. You have THIS moment. The past is gone, and the future is far from guaranteed. When someone is shooting at you, you are relentlessly and unforgivingly in the moment.
You have right now. What will you do THIS second?
It is this reorientation on the present moment that makes war (and all trauma experiences) sacred. They bring you into now. All the other stuff just… fades away.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period on the Christian calendar when believers prepare for the coming Easter. For most believers, that means giving something up, practicing self-discipline or purging oneself of sin. It means cleaning something up, “getting right” with God.
That’s fine. And look, if forgoing chocolate for the next 40 days is gonna make you feel better about yourself and more in control of your world, then do it. You do what you need to make your life better.
I would also like to humbly suggest another way.
For this Lent, I want you to ADD something. I want you to think about something you have always wanted to do. A new hobby, a book you want to read, or a show you want to watch. Some experience you have always wanted to have. Take the next 40 days and do THAT. Or even just make plans to do that.
Take a nap. Knit a sweater. Paint a picture.
Whatever it is, do something that fills you, that lifts you. Something that reminds you that THIS moment is all you have. And that this moment may have dread and fear, it may have war and rumors of war, but that is not all that is in this moment. In this moment there is the sacred. In this moment there is the divine.
Sometimes things can feel like hell.
Believe me when I tell you that it’s not hell. Even if you can see it from here.
The moment is what it has always been. It is joy and light, fear and darkness. It is completely and totally human.
And more than any of that, this moment is yours.
My Lenten prayer is that you will embrace your moment.
As always, thank you for reading and supporting this newsletter. I appreciate each of you.
I hope you have a wonderful week. Love one another. Be kind. Hug your people. Text a friend and tell them you love them.
Be well y’all. Keep pounding the rock.
See you soon.