War and New Life

January 29th, 2012

A War Ends

There was no ticker-tape parade. Instead, the final chapter of one of the longest wars in American history closed December 15 with a small and solemn ceremony as the stars and stripes were lowered in Baghdad, not far from the site where they were first raised nine years ago. At the farewell event, visitors carried badges that told them which bunker they should run to in the event of a rocket attack by insurgents. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta presided over the casing of the colors. As US troops withdrew, Panetta hailed the sacrifices of the US military personnel, who created an “independent, free and sovereign Iraq. . . . These years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity,” he said.

As solemn witnesses to the war’s end, many people of faith are looking back at the conflict and its legacy.

Assessing the Costs of War

In the shadows of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and in an effort to address the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the authoritarian rule of dictator Saddam Hussein, a coalition of countries invaded Iraq in March 2003. Hussein was soon captured by US troops and then hanged in December 2006. Following the execution, President George W. Bush said that bringing Saddam to justice “is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror.”

In 2007, at the height of the war, there were 505 bases and more than 170,000 US troops fighting in Iraq. By the end of the war, more than 1.5 million American troops had served in a conflict that claimed the lives of 4,487 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, and cost the United States more than $1 trillion.

People hold differing opinions on whether the cost of the war was worth it. In a recent national poll by the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say the United States has mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq.

However, the decision to use military force was more contentious. Although 48 percent believe the United States made the right decision to use military force in Iraq, nearly as many (46 percent) disagree. In a poll taken just before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, 31 percent said that US involvement in Iraq has increased the chances of another terrorist attack here, 39 percent said it has made no difference, and 25 percent said the war in Iraq has lessened the chance of another attack. Among US military personnel, 44 percent say that given the costs and benefits, the war in Iraq has been worth it. However, thirty-three percent say neither the war in Iraq nor the war in Afghanistan has been worth the cost. However, Americans are almost unanimous in their support of the military personnel who fought in Iraq. More than nine in ten express pride in the troops, and three quarters say they have thanked someone in the military. The troops (who make up about one half of one percent of the US population) tend to be on the same page. An overwhelming 96 percent of veterans who served on active duty in the post-9/11 era report they are proud of their service. But this rosy outlook is dampened by the fact that 44 percent of these troops also report having difficulty readjusting to civilian life; and according to a Pew Research study, eight in ten say that “the American public has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.” Such a perception should not be allowed to continue, said President Barack Obama, “because part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it.”

Home From War

While the troops were officially scheduled to leave Iraq before December 31, 2011, military leaders thought it was important to get them home so that they could celebrate Christmas with their families. In December, small local newspapers across the country reported stories of spouses getting up in the middle of the night to make sure every detail was perfect for the homecoming; children told about making Christmas cookies and other homemade gifts for parents they hadn’t seen in too long; and soldiers recounted daydreams about long hot showers, wearing blue jeans, texting anyone at anytime, being alone, crawling into a bed that feels as large as a swimming pool, taking children to the zoo, and being in the arms of loved ones again.

It’s the small, everyday freedoms and joys that seemed to mean the most to people. But also on the mind of almost every soldier, sailor, and Marine were their comrades who came home wounded. According to a report from last November, about 32,200 military personnel were injured in Iraq. For every American killed, seven were wounded. In addition, one in five military personnel returning will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies indicate that those who experience a traumatic event are 26 percent less likely to have an easy reentry into civilian life than those who did not experience such trauma.

But even some soldiers who come home healthy are experiencing difficulties. In December, The Economist magazine reported that around 800,000 vets are jobless, 1.4 million are living below the poverty line, and one in every three homeless men in the United States is a veteran. The job prospects for young male veterans are especially challenging, with the unemployment rate for male vets ages 18 to 24 hovering around 27 percent. In addition, the divorce rate among military couples has increased to 42 percent since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began; and even driving has become an ordeal for some vets. United Services Automobile Association (USAA) reports that “auto accidents in which the service members were at fault went up by 13 percent after deployments.”

Healing Spiritual Wounds

The church stands in an excellent place to reach out to veterans experiencing difficulties, say United Methodist chaplains who have served in Iraq. Studies by the Pew Research Center back this up, indicating that recent veterans who attend church services at least once a week are 24 percent more likely to say they had an easy reentry into civilian life than vets who never attend services (67 percent compared to 43 percent).

But in addition to helping with lifestyle, health, and relationship issues, the church can also offer a witness to spiritual issues facing many who have served in combat. According to a 1995 study, many vets suffering from PTSD at Veterans Affairs facilities indicated that war caused them to lose their faith. Battle often creates moral dilemmas that can wound people spiritually as well as physically. War can damage the human spirit as soldiers witness and participate in sometimes unspeakable suffering. In 2007, the American Medical Association reported that one in five active-duty soldiers needed mental health care when they returned from combat in Iraq. But for many of these soldiers, guilt and the weakening of their religious faith were often more crippling than their PTSD symptoms.

Claiming the Spark of New Life

Throughout the war in Iraq, United Methodists ministered to the troops. In one program, they sent 17 million phone-card minutes to the service members. At the same time, United Methodist bishops also pressed the US government, asking officials to bring peace to a conflict they found “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.”

One of the reasons there was no ticker-tape parade to mark the end of the fighting is that the United States continues to wage war in Afghanistan, where many of the same soldiers who fought in Iraq could be assigned. United Methodists will continue, along with the rest of the American population, to struggle with the ideas and realities of war as they attempt to build a world of peace. This dichotomy was expressed by President Obama in 2009 when, as a wartime president, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflicts in our lifetimes,” he said. “There will be times when nations––acting individually or in concert––will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” However, he also encouraged a future built on prayers for peace, saying, “Let us reach for the world that ought to be, that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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