Chaplain Brian G. Koyn
Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest once said, “War means fightin’, and fightin’ means killin’.” We expect such a brutal statement from a man like Forrest, but he cuts to the quick of what it means to be a soldier in combat. In polite conversation and pop culture, war is full of heroics, camaraderie and honor. Although this certainly can be true, it is not the whole story. There exists one terrible constant in war — young people will be called upon to kill.
I have personally wrestled with the decisions discussed in Soldiers of Conscience — as a Christian, as a former Infantry officer and now as an Army chaplain. My discussions with veterans of all wars reveal to me that most (if not all) soldiers will wrestle with this issue; my desire is that they settle the issue in their minds before — rather than after — the battle. Their thinking should be influenced by the reality — not the misperceptions — of what it means to be a soldier in war.
Traditionally, it was the combat-arms soldiers (infantry, armor, etc) who bore the brunt of direct combat and thus the issues of killing stood more in the forefront of their collective minds. But in this current war all soldiers, regardless of job specialty, must be prepared to face the same issues of killing. Two significant factors can be seen in the stories of the film’s conscientious objectors: None were in the traditional combat arms and all seem to have had unrealistic expectations of what it meant to be a combat soldier.
It is incumbent upon leaders of all levels and branches in the military not only to train their units to kill, but also to lead them through frameworks for understanding what it means to kill in war. Our veterans from all wars can still serve our nation by providing young men and women in military service (or those about to go into military service) with reasonable and realistic expectations about the realities of combat as well as by helping returning soldiers deal with the emotional wounds of war. Our clergy and religious leaders can help guide the consciences of those who serve in combat and they must be there to minister to veterans once the sounds of bombs and bullets have faded.
General Douglas MacArthur, in an address to cadets at West Point, said “The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” In our discussions of the politics and rationale of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us not lose focus on taking care of the less than 1 percent of our population who choose to don the uniform of our nation’s armed forces. They bear the brunt of war on behalf of us all.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the us Department of the Army or the us Department of Defense.
Chaplain (Captain) Brian G. Koyn is an Army chaplain serving at the United States Military Academy. He is a West Point graduate and was an infantry officer for six years before leaving the Army for full-time Christian ministry. He returned to active duty as a chaplain and recently returned from 15 months of combat in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division.