By Peter Lucier
We were stacked in the chute, getting ready to leave the wire, hastily clad in mismatched warming layers, rifles and odd ends of equipment quickly grabbed, Kevlar helmet straps not yet fastened, the cummerbunds of our flak jackets not yet secured. Nervous energy permeated and infected the group. Would we hear a name? Neglecting to double check my own gear, I nervously lit a crumpled, half wet L&M cigarette, pulling the dry, acrid, and tarred smoke into my wheezing lungs.
Over the radio – “COC, this is 1 Saber. Hero. I say again, Hero.” My eyes caught my squad leader moving towards me a split second before he yelled, “are you fucking kidding Lucier? Put that shit out” then, to the squad, “let’s go” – to the point man, “don’t rush. There is no rush now.”
In a last-minute fumbling of feet scuttling towards the gate, and hands quickly slapping Velcro together, clipping straps, and clicking buckles, we shuffled towards the spot on Route Crimson, where twenty minutes ago, a blast had erupted while we slept, shaking us from our racks – a rude awakening to a cool April morning in Afghanistan. We moved deliberately and cautiously towards the site where “A” section was circled up, their early morning patrol halted. The call over the radio had confirmed our fears. The casualty was already dead. My sergeant was right. There was no rush now.
The language that Marines use about death is revealing. The radio code for a dead casualty when I was in Afghanistan was “hero.” It suggested to me something about the nature of service, and sacrifice. Growing up Catholic, the idea of a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice that could save and redeem, was familiar to me. Above every chalkboard in my grade school was the image of our Christ, crucified. Now, my dead friend was the lamb burnt whole, the crucified bloody savior. He walked an 800 meter Via Dolorosa that morning, not knowing that the path would end in his death. He walked, as he always had, boldly in front of the patrol, a point man, clearing a path for those who followed behind with his own footprints. His inauspicious cross was a flag planted in the ground, with Taliban scrawl, connected to a pressure release IED. We adore you, oh Christ and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
I returned from Afghanistan five years ago. I had gotten married to my high school sweetheart two weeks before I deployed. I came home to a wife I hadn’t seen in almost a year, a new apartment, a dog adopted while I was overseas, and a world from which I felt separated and detached. That first weekend back in San Diego, Memorial Day weekend as chance would have it, a friend who had been overseas with me called me. “Hey brother, do you want to get out of here? Take the wives and go to Vegas or something?” I quickly agreed. Being back felt like drowning above ground, like suffocating. Everything was unfamiliar and anxiety inducing. What should have felt like safety felt more menacing than a war zone. The safety of a rifle slung around your shoulders, your squad mates in front of and behind you, and the comfort of a well-worn FROG suit (the cammies worn overseas) were gone, replaced by strange clothes, strange sights, strange people. I was home, but home didn’t feel the same, and neither did I.
As time went on, and the alien homeland slowly became familiar again, I noticed the way I reacted to the civilian world was not the only thing that had changed. The way the civilian world reacted to me had changed as well. Whether civilians walked on eggshells around me, fearful I might fly into a rage, or be triggered by a question and fall to tears, whether they adored me, thanked me, deferred to me, I was now something different, something apart.
Some of the differences were innocuous. At the fourth of July, relatives asked if I would be ok with the fireworks. I tried to reassure them I would be fine, but as I tried to explain, I slipped into a story, about explosions I remembered. My eyes stared at the dirt and I kept talking, until I caught myself and looked up, and saw a small audience staring. I could have died from the embarrassment. At another family reunion I found myself in a corner with an uncle who was a Vietnam veteran. Forty years my senior, he treated me like a brother-in-arms, and equal. In low voices we said those things to each other we knew we couldn’t say to the others. We were separate, different, marked. When I started college, a year after leaving the Marine Corps, I would catch professors hedging themselves, knowing a veteran was in the room, the way you might watch your language if a clergyman was near.
Reintegrating into civilian society has been illuminating. We, the veterans who did not pay the ultimate price in war, still play an important – and, to me troubling – role in a different kind of ritual than one of blood and sacrific. Like Odysseus, like mythical warriors who have descended to the land of the dead, who went to hell and back, our exploits are honored, memorialized, passed down through families. We are applauded, ushered into places of public distinction, thanked for our service. Even for those who didn’t grow up in a tradition with incense, processions, and holy water, in all of it, there’s the whiff of something ritualistic – at sporting events, at parades, in public ceremonies, and in national cemeteries.
Many veterans today fulfill a priestly role in American civil religion. We are Americans’ conduits to patriotic grace. Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Veteran’s Day are high holy days when we are trusted to enact the sacraments of our national religion, the one described by Robert Bellah when he wrote his seminal treatment of the American Civil Religion.
We are perceived as receivers and safe keepers of the wisdom and tradition of American values. In this way, like priests, veterans are looked to as arbiters of patriotic values. We are called upon to comment on policy and narrative. This happens on both sides of the political chasm, though, more commonly, on the right, where former SEALs appear in NRA videos proclaiming an American dystopia from which only martial spirit can deliver us. But veterans on the left fulfill the priestly role as well, in the pages of the New York Times and other publications’ opinion section, proclaiming a more inclusive vision of America. They call for what Richard Slotkin calls the “myth of nationality” – “ the idealized self-image of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy, hospitable to difference but united by a common sense of national belonging.”
How do I move in this space, as a veteran, who just wants to come home? Who doesn’t want to be anyone’s priest, doesn’t want to be anyone’s Messiah.
Everyone has an opinion on the war, on what they think it is like, on what they think it means. After enough drinks to work up the courage, or with a hushed, soft, almost apologetic tone, I’ll get asked, by co-workers, by fellow students, by parents of friends, “What do you think about the war? What was it like?” I’ve been asked enough times, I can feel what they want to hear. Some people want you to tell them we should just nuke the whole place. Some people want to hear how mismanaged America’s misadventure has been. They know what they think, but they need it confirmed by a veteran. I can feel them reaching through me, to the place they haven’t been, for that ancient heavenly connection to the star-spangled banner in the machinery of night. I can’t tell them that I don’t want to be their connection, their priest, their messiah.
I wonder what I could tell them to make them understand. I think it would start with the cadences of boot camp.
Leader: Every other left foot, you say kill
All: beat beat beat Kill beat beat beat Kill
Leader: On a Monday
Leader: On a Tuesday
Leader: On a Sunday
Leader: Go to church and pray
Leader: God let me
Leader: God help me
God help me
The middle part of the story would be about poetry. In Afghanistan, the rhythms of patrol matched the rise and fall of T.S. Elliot’s Prufrock.
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky…
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
Those first lines, call you out to adventure, then Elliot undercuts your hope. Every patrol was the same way. I’d step outside the wire. I’d slowly come alive. I’d scan and search every tree line. One morning, cresting a hill, word came over the radio that our blimp had spotted enemy. We were coming around an area known as sniper hill. “Come get in the fight boys!” yelled a corporal, Mike. That patrol ended with four dead bodies in the high grass on the banks of the Helmand River, gunned down by A-10s. The lifeless bodies brought no joy. Just disappointment, just flesh where once there was spirit. Patients etherized upon a table.
The end of the story would be about scripture. In Philippians 2, Paul reverses the usual order of excitement and disappointment, the cycle of Prufrock, and prescribes a radically different form of religious hope.
Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Rather than excite then disappoint, Paul presents a dynamic of condescension, then exaltation. Paul’s Christ condescends, goes down to be among us and in communion with us. It is by lowering himself off his priestly, and godly remove, that Paul’s Christ wins exaltation. I could tell them that I went down, I performed an anabasis, but that I’m still looking for exaltation.
That’s the story I’d like to tell. A story about expectations being undercut. About praying to kill. About becoming lonely and arrogant and lethal, but not finding salvation in war, and now looking for it here at home. But I can’t tell that story. So I tell a different story instead, a story with a twist. I tell the guns, god, and glory types about the mangled bodies of sixteen year-olds who didn’t know any better, and the farmers just trying to make a living. I tell the bleeding hearts about the child rape, about the intel we got about a teenager with Down Syndrome who was going to be strapped with a suicide vest. They leave, like the man who asked The Teacher what he must do to win the kingdom. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. I lie. I talk in parables. I come at the truth from any angle I can. When people know what they want to hear, I have to try and get them to make the journey down with me first, to that place where truth is foggy. Then maybe we can search for exaltation together.
This is the water I find myself swimming in, as a veteran. The Christian Messiah was both sacrificial lamb, and high priest. So too are veterans. Stanley Hauerwas says in War and the American Difference, “If the Civil War teaches us anything, it is that when Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviors that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.” But I didn’t die overseas, my blood wasn’t spilled for you and for all, so that America’s sins might be forgiven. I came back.
I think America wants me to be a priest. But I’m no one’s Messiah. I’m just a twenty-eight year old trying to make sense of the things I saw. I can hear the running cadence, but I’m looking for a new chant, instead of “kill.” I’m trying to empty myself, and take the form, not of a slave, but of a citizen again. I’m wandering through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats, of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels, and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells. The streets lead to an overwhelming question – How can I go from being a priest of American religion, to just a fellow believer?
Peter Lucier is a Marine veteran (2008-2013) and student at Montana State, where he studies Political Science. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy as a member of the Council of Former Enlisted, The War Horse, and Task and Purpose.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.