Helping the Warrior Make Peace

A good friend The Rev. Earl Beshears, Rector of St. Paul's Georgetown, De., made this presentation to a Delaware Clergy Day. It is a powerful statement by a veteran, a fine priest and a good friend. As war goes on and on, and peace seems never nearer, his reflection, made from a place deep within, is a gift.


The truth of history tells us that our world often rushes off to war. How do we help the warrior, the men and women we send off to war, make peace with us, with each other, with themselves and with God? Beyond the warriors' obvious physical trauma, I ask you to consider the warriors' sense of betrayal and guilt and their need for spiritual healing.


Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18, 1893. He was on the Continent teaching until he visited a hospital for the WWI wounded and then decided, in September, 1915, to return to England and enlist. "I came out in order to help these boys-- directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first" (October, 1918). Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home; he was fit for duty in August, 1918, and returned to the front. November 4, just seven days before the Armistice, he was caught in a German machine gun attack and killed. He was twenty-five when he died. The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when there was a knock on the door at his parent's home – a person bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


In Wilford Owen's poem, The Genesis story of Abraham and his son Isaac is recalled and we can hear Owen's sense of betrayal as those of us of a certain age send those of a younger age off to war. We can hear in this soldier's voice his sense that we not only betray the soldier but we also betray the God who sends his angels to restrain our knife.

This sense of betrayal is experienced by many of the men and women, on all sides, who are thrust into war's destruction. The warrior knows betrayal from the realization that justification for war is often false and the promised glory of war is a sham. The warriors know betrayal with the realization that people will wave flags, give medals, sing patriotic songs and soon forget them. The warriors know betrayal with the realization that no one, especially those who send them off to war, wants the true story of war told.

A Service of Unity and Peace

from the Book of Worship for U.S. Forces

Brother, forgive us.
Brother, help us to understand.
And when to the Lord:
a prayer for courage. Help in living with the truth.
We are brothers who seek to destroy.
But brothers.
Peace is a truth lived.
A prayer for peace is an outstretched hand.
In every prayer for peace there is a touch of blasphemy.
It is as though war were inevitable and only war can extricate us.
But, we are the warriors, the makers and wagers of destruction.
(Not God – not even "they")
And perhaps our prayers for peace should be for forgiveness.
And perhaps they should be said first to our brothers.
For "if you are bringing your offering to the altar
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your offering there before the altar,
go and be reconciled with your brother first…"


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is part of many warriors' experience – sometimes PTSD begins on the battlefield and sometimes it does not begins until years later, long after the homecoming.. Earlier wars called PTSD "shell shock" or "battle fatigue" or "cowardice."

Part of PTSD is attributable to the warrior's guilt.

  • "Guilt in the evil in which I have participated." We teach our children not to fight, to care for other people and that harming others is wrong. Then we send them off to war to fight and destroy and kill – to violate the values, ethics, and morals we teach them.
  • "Guilt that I am alive and my buddy is wounded for life or dead." Why did Johnny die and not me? He had so much more potential, so much more promise. It can even be guilt that I am alive and that my enemy or innocents in our line of fire are harmed or dead. Why am I blessed with life, health, and family and my brothers in arms are crippled and dead?
  • The warrior needs forgiveness. The warrior needs forgiveness for participating in the corporate acts of war and for personal actions in war. The warrior needs to forgive the fellow warrior and all the people and forces that start the wars and send the warrior to war. The warrior needs self-forgiveness for surviving, no matter how physically or mentally wounded the warrior may be.

The warrior's reaction to war is certainly more complex than "betrayal and guilt." However, it is in the domains of betrayal and guilt that the priest and parish can help bring healing to the warrior. Critical to healing and perhaps in preventing future war, is giving the warrior the chance to tell the story. It is a kind of confession where the truth is revealed and the story told. The warrior needs to tell the truth of war and violence and betrayal and guilt, not the sanitized or Hollywood version. The church can be a safe place to give the warrior space to confess, to be reconciled with God and with one's conscience. The parish must be willing to hear and listen to the stories, perhaps over and over. The parish can be the place where the warrior can ask for and receive forgiveness, receive words of regret (an honest "I'm sorry") and place where the warrior can offer give forgiveness.


Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell

here in this carload
I am Eve
with Abel my son
if you see my other son
Cain, son of man
tell him I…

Tell him what? What do we tell the child who slays other children? What do we tell Cain after he slays Abel? What do Cain's mother and father say? What do Abel's mother and father say? Maybe they will say nothing and simply listen for a while.

Have you seen the movie Munich? It is a very disturbing movie about the Israeli secret service's murder of the Palestinians who killed the Israeli Olympians at Munich in 1972. The killings were particularly brutal, aimed at revenge and teaching other potential terrorists a lesson. At the end of the movie, the leader of the Israeli assassins is home with his mother. She tells him how proud she is of him serving his country and doing honor to the family. He looks her in the eye and asks his mother, "Do you want me to tell you what I did." She answers "No."

We live in a culture where the warrior is encouraged to be silent and not speak about war. Oh, humorous stories and buddy stories and practical joke stories from the war are OK. Even the occasional hero story is OK. Most often, our culture keeps the real story of war hidden in the shadows. There are graphic war movies but they are still just movies like any other violent horror movie. Politicians, generals, reporters, and movie directors give us a version of war. The story of real war, real horror, and real tragedy stays locked away. Maybe if the warriors' tale was told by those who fight the wars on the front lines, by those who risk all and give all, and if we were willing to hear the violent truth, maybe there would at least be a serious conversation before we begin our next war.

Every warrior needs the chance to tell the story aloud and the blessing of someone to listen. Confessing the truth is one of the ways the wounds of betrayal and guilt begin to heal.

Every warrior needs the chance to begin on the path to forgiveness – forgiving and being forgiven is one of the ways the wounds of betrayal and guilt begin to heal.

We who send the young off to war need the chance to hear the truth of war told by the people that we send off to fight our wars.

What can we do? We can begin by following the advice that The Rt. Rev. George Packard gave us at Diocesan convention and listen to our soldiers. He is bishop to the Episcopal military chaplains serving in our armed forces. To paraphrase, Bishop Packard said: "When people call and ask for the names of soldiers or veterans to pray for, I tell them to find a veteran with that hollow blank expression and talk to them."

Find a veteran with that hollow blank expression and talk to him or her.


  1. Just the finest words I have yet seen about the soldier.

    "The road to Roncevaux lures the poet and the visionary like a drug, but the soldier pays for the real estate."


  2. A personal plea: do not offer any comments with implicit judgments, including (especially for me) "Thank you for your service." to which the truest response, rarely given, is "You don wanna hear about it, so STFU."

    Owen is, of course, classic; I also strongly recommend Tim O'Brien's work, especially *The Things They Carried*. He is a infantry veteran of our war.

    Perhaps it's appropriate to note I am a Vietnam combat veteran with resultant PTSD 1966-present. What prompted this attention, Fr. Mark; may I ask?

  3. johnieb...Earl wrote this as part of a Clergy Day in which we heard and discussed areas of violence that we don't usually want to talk about and have difficulty dealing with, particularly since they are violences within systems. The three we picked were war violence, race/racism violence and violence and prison. The speakers were each involved in some aspect of ministry in the context of the violences. It was a good day, and Earl's meditation brought absolute silence. And, after a bit, and in small groups, some very thoughtful responses from the clergy gathered.

    I particularly value Earl's meditation because along with 20 or so, I stand on Sundays here in Lewes, Delaware, in a Silent Vigil remembering the human costs of war. Three or four of us in the line are veterans, mostly of Viet Nam, one of Korea. Sometimes I think the line is a way for those particular warriors to make peace, but whatever it is, standing on the line passes understanding. And there in lies another reason for trying to hear Earl's concerns.

  4. Thank you, Fr. Mark,

    I re-read the intro more thoroughly on my way out last time, and thought "Oops."; forgive me, the attention was unexpected, and I know none of us who like surprises.

    I meant only to emphasize the good word I hear now and then: "Listen!" Wait for the silence, and listen; here is the place and time for it, with one of us.

    It sounds as if you do so regularly, which comes as little surprise to one who has enjoyed following your comments and thus your "acquaintance" for some time: "Like streams of water in the desert". Thanks to you and thanks be to God.

    Peace/ Hoa Binh

  5. I was at a wedding and in the wedding party was a full dressed marine. Later in the evening I talked to him and asked about his experiences in Iraq. The hatred and bravado expressed took me back, that they had and would continue to kill the 'Sunnis".
    I don't know what else I expected, probably some cold analysis akin to the Newshour. It was simply blunt and to the point- "my job is to kill"

  6. Thank you, Mark. In small town ministry there are always those young people who come home from war and don't know how to fit in again. Hopefully the observations and advice offered here will help me be a quiet listener to bring healing.

  7. From my perspective, Seamus, I guess the Marine in your story was toying with a civilian to get your reaction. I have succumbed to the same temptation more than once; "if this freaks you out, how can you ask me for details?" and. perhaps underneath, "How can you support this casually with a vote every two or four years, and ignore the consequences?"

    Think of it as a warning label. I commend you both for the effort.

  8. I was a marine infantryman in Vietnam and knew some people with that blank stare.

    I've also known a few who've entered the gay way of life and are facing multiple illnesses.

    The first one has had suffering inflict by his enemies, the second by his friends.
    -- JF

  9. Anon,

    I hear that; you never know where it's comin' from. It does prepare the way to a deeper sympathy with the oppressed, as you point out, so it is not lost, but redeemed, is one way to appreciate it.

    Welcome back


  10. Good piece of work.

    "A personal plea: do not offer any comments with implicit judgments, including (especially for me) "Thank you for your service." to which the truest response, rarely given, is "You don wanna hear about it, so STFU.""

    Agreed -- this is the one I have the most problems with, and it annoys the heck out of my parents when I hesitate before I respond. (the question that runs through my mind is always "Do you have any kind of clue what exactly you're thanking me for?!?!?")

    Those guys with the hollow stares (it's "losing time" from my perspective; scares my wife if I do it for too long) have a lot of stuff locked away (and buried) in boxes, so don't be suprised or take it personally if the vet isn't ready to talk about it or tries to deflect the conversation to something else. Best explainer I've seen for an Iraq perspective is this one:



OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.