The Memory of War
Fr James Parnell
War changes you. The best and worst aspects of the human condition are present as the report of bullets ring in your ear, as the war machines rage. In many ways, it is a sacred space. I never saw a more beautiful sunrise or sunset, than when I was in Iraq and knew that it might be my last. In other ways, war is far from sacred: it is toxic. The things you see and hear don’t just turn the stomach, but can poison the soul. So, it’s probably no surprise that it’s a hard place from which to come home. Well, it actually only takes a few hours on a plane, but the difficulty isn’t really the travel time. It’s trying to come home from war and feel at peace.
It is hard to explain, but it is something like having a song you can never get out of your head for very long, or still smelling feces long after thoroughly cleaning animal droppings from your shoe, or like an oily feeling on your hands that you just cannot wash off. Now take that feeling or sensation in your mind, which normally might last a few minutes, and think about how both annoying and intriguing it is, about how distracting such a feeling might be. Now make it last for years on end, and you’ll have a sense of what coming home from war can feel like. The smells are never fully cleared from the nostrils; the blood and the dirt never quite wash off; the sounds never quite go away.
In many ways, there is a certain psychological and spiritual residue: a ringing in the ears of your soul that may increase or decrease in volume at times, but which is never totally silent. For good and for ill, the constant rhythm—the beating of the war drum—remains in our ears long after the banners have stopped flip-flapping, the plane has landed, and the weapons locked away. That faint hum of war is always there, like a sleeping dragon. And, oh, the racket it causes, in our minds, in our families, and in our communities. Yet, that drumbeat continues, in a positive sense, through storytelling. Sharing stories, either with trusted friends or with other vets, in a way helps turn the roaring boom, boom, boom into a melody on which one can reflect, a lesson from which one can learn.
War stories are those special myths, handed down with reverence and awe, which tell of a truth that really wasn’t; one often inflates, embellishes, and exaggerates so as not to understate the reality, which if told in “actuality,” would be missing so much. Storytelling is an integral part of our lives as human beings, especially when dealing with the sacred, the infinite, the horrible, and the strange. The scientific method means much less here; the story—the drama of a reality made even more real, a story told in truth, even if not with journalistic accuracy—is a mechanism of speaking and understanding events and feelings that are, oddly enough, beyond words.
One of the most dramatic accounts of story-telling done in order to help someone see reality more clearly than might occur by simply stating the facts is in II Samuel, when the prophet Nathan tells a story to King David. The prophet comes to David shortly after the king’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah, and he tells a story. It didn’t actually happen, yet it was essentially true. He tells the king a story about a rich man with much livestock who, desiring to render hospitality to a guest without actually sacrificing his own possession, steals the one precious lamb owned by a poor neighbor. King David flies off in a rage, declaring that the rich man must pay back fourfold for the offense, going on to say that, in truth, this man deserves to die for his ruthlessness. At that point, the prophet replies simply: “You are the man.” It is in this context that Psalm 50 is said to have been written, which in itself reflects the degree to which a soul can be truly wounded, how a moral injury can be self-inflicted.
In our Orthodox Christian tradition, we say or sing this at least three times a day as part of our personal or corporate worship. It’s an integral part of our understanding of what we’re there to do. Imagine everyone who has read, heard, or prayed this psalm … this poem … written in response to a simple story, told in love to a friend, that opened a man’s eyes to his own failings, to his responsibilities to his community, and lead to his reconciliation with God.
In war, this is arguably a prerequisite for healing, if not survival. The muddled mayhem with its fog and fissures are mended through both memory and myth. This is so the emotion and experience, not necessarily the factual details surrounding the event itself, are clearly and vibrantly expressed to the hearer. In some cases, one must (technically) lie in order to tell the truth. Otherwise, one might mistake this legend as being just a war story. The telling of this story provides more than just an outlet for the storyteller, or an interesting diversion for the hearer, but a chance to reflect and process what actually happened, specifically beyond the event itself.
That’s what story-telling can do, God willing. It opens our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the reality that each one of us is facing. So please, encourage your friend or family that has served, encourage the Veterans and their families in your congregation, encourage everyone who is burdened, broken, and bruised, to tell their stories. Tell your story. That in our telling, we can more fully hear, in our hearing, we can more fully understand, and in our understanding, we can more fully love one another.
A Prayer for Soldiers Returning from War
O Most merciful Lord, our Redeemer and strong Deliverer: You commanded your servant Moses to send all the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, those who shed blood, those who touched the slain, and all those who had come from service in war outside the camp that they might be purified. We pray unto you, O Long-suffering Lord, who sent your prophet Nathan to call David to repentance after he slew Uriah the Hittite, that you might grant to us, your servants, compunction of heart, a thirst for repentance, and a hunger for righteousness, that we might run to you for mercy and forgiveness: for every evil deed done: every violent act committed in anger, every wrathful thought, every deceitful word and every good deed left undone: every faint-hearted flight from danger, every wrong not righted, every injustice not redressed. O Compassionate Lord, you forgave the sin of David when he cried out to you with a contrite heart. Cleanse, wash, and purify this (these) Soldier(s) of Christ (N.). Cleanse him (her/them) and us, your servants, from every stain, every blemish, and every defilement, for we come before you, trusting in your great mercy and loving kindness, asking forgiveness for all of our transgressions committed in action or inaction, knowledge or in ignorance, of word or deed, of thought or intention. You, O God, are our Purification, our Sanctification, and the remission of our sins, and in you have we put our hope, for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Another Prayer for Soldiers Returning from War
O Lord, great in mercy and power, who forgives the sins of all who call on your name with their whole heart: Grant pardon and remission of sin to this (these) Soldier(s) of Christ, who has (have) put down his (her/their) early weapon(s) for a time, and has (have) ceased fighting against flesh and blood. O King Invisible, as you strengthened your servant David who, having put down his earthly master’s armor because of its weight, trusted in you alone for victory: fortify and protect this (these) warrior(s), your servant(s), _______, that having your might and signing himself (herself/themselves) with the sign of the holy cross of your Son, he (she/they) may fight against powers, principalities, and spiritual hosts of wickedness. Guard him (her/them) against every wile of the devil and every invisible foe that seeks to do him (her/them) harm. For you are the Fortress, the High Tower, the Deliver and the Shield of all those who trust in you, and unto you do we send up glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen