I have two blog posts rattling inside my head: one, a story about a father telling his two daughters a bedtime story and, two, a story about an assistant manager who tries to convince his boss that he, in fact, did hire him. But I’m not writing either of those today. A year ago, I typed: “There is a cost that outpaces Washington budgets. I am neither hero, nor warrior—I am only struggling to understand the war that made me.” In the course of twelve months, I’ve moved, watched my wife birth our son, quit my job, and started a PhD program. Am I any closer to understanding my role in Operation Iraqi Freedom? A little.
I’m starting to grasp the immensity of participating in war and how it forever haunts the veteran. It’s inescapable. It consumes and defines. No matter how far in time I move away from Iraq, I’m never really that far.
What brought about this realization? An introduction to a paper I was writing for my doctoral program, a riveting paper on the methodology of comparison. I wrote:
In the fall of 2005, I returned from my second tour in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps and started pursuing a degree in biblical studies from Denver Seminary. I had an insatiable desire to answer the question: Was I, as a Christian, a justified participant in America’s war on terrorism? This question resulted in my eventual thesis, which was rooted in the comparison between Roman Christians in C.E. 64 and Judean Zealots in C.E. 70. I was interested in both exploring religious responses to imperial violence and connecting those historical responses to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I was convinced that I could prove a kind of historical-Christian nonviolence. Struggling with both faith and PTSD, I needed to prove it.
Later, in the conclusion, I wrote:
This comparison, because I decided upon its component parts, held great meaning for me. It both answered questions and resolved a long-held cognitive dissonance, but I cannot help but wonder—does any historical comparison, mine included, hold any meaning outside of the comparativist? Even if my conclusions are correct, is it then fair to take such subjectively and arbitrarily crafted outcomes and locate them within some larger framework that can speak to human society?
This resulted in a few days of melancholic gloom. The war that made me—the war that will forever haunt me—is an arbitrary-historical footnote that holds no meaning outside of its particular actors. Scholars will wrestle with its importance. Academics will opine on its outcomes. But, in the end, the players—the sights, sounds, and smells of war, that which haunts—will be forgotten. And, yet, it’s always there, lingering just beyond the veteran’s reach.
Which is why I often find myself thinking: Yes, I was there. I did that. I am historical! But, as all veterans know, the desert is a passing thing—forever clarifying, forever haunting.