War is Ugly, God is Good: What I Learned from the Truth Commission on Conscience in War
I can't imagine a better way to lament the 7th anniversary of the war in Iraq than by spending it with Iraq veterans who are horrified by the war and courageously speaking out against it. Not only did this past week mark the war's anniversary, but it also marked the first Truth Commission on Conscience in War -- which could likely become a historic date as other Truth Commissions are launched around the country over the next year. It was an honor for me to be one of the inaugural "commissioners" (basically, a good listener and witness) and a sponsor of the event, which was held at the legendary Riverside Church in New York. It was there some 40 years ago that Dr. King confessed that America had become "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." Last night we heard the echoes of Dr. King's prophetic voice... and from that same pulpit.
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Religious leaders, heads of NGOs, authors, activists, and community organizers processed into the event together in solidarity as commissioners and witnesses to the testifiers who would share the true stories of war. It was an evening pregnant with hope, and with pain. We heard statements from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars laying some foundations for conscience and morality when it comes to discerning the place of violence in the world, and what God thinks of it. There were lawyers and academics who reminded us that there must be a new conversation on "conscientious objection" in the United States. A conscientious objector (CO) is an individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service or certain military orders on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. Conscientious objection is not just something for pacifists but for all people who believe in freedom and conscience. In fact it is everyone's duty to object to injustice and to disobey orders that violate our conscience and our faith in God. After all, every person has a war they would say is wrong or an order they would not obey. Every government has made mistakes like the one in Iraq -- which is why conscience cannot continue to be the first casualty of war.
And of course, the climax of the Truth Commission were the soldier "testifiers" -- folks who we all should all get more familiar with, as they are some of the true war heroes: Camilo Mejia (author of Road from ar Ramadi), Joshua Casteel, Celeste Zappala, Tyler Boudreau (author Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine), Jake Diliberto, and Logan Laituri of Centurion's Guild. Many of the stories are captured in the film Soldiers of Conscience, whose producers were with us in New York this week. Testimonies from colonels and chaplains, from decorated soldiers and mothers of the dead, rang out like a revival of confession. They baptized us with tears.
There are moments I will never forget... many of them -- hearing of how soldiers were systemically trained to see enemies as people who do not deserve to live... and yet hearing how stubborn the soul is. Even after such training, they still saw in the faces of the dead the image of God, the face of a brother -- and so these courageous folks have said "NO!" to war and "yes" to their conscience. We heard stories from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, even Abu Ghraib itself -- stories of people who were trained to torture and commanded to abuse. Some of them were jailed when they refused to obey orders. Others remember comrades who obeyed the unconscionable orders and went back to their base and hung themselves.
It was hard to sleep after listening to the horrors of war. In fact one speaker said this is the penance we get for surviving the world we have helped destroy. What has happened to the conscience of our country when soldiers are forced to drive their tanks over cardboard cutouts of children so they won't hesitate when they have to run over real bodies? As we heard one soldier confess last night -- cardboard cutouts cannot prepare you for the sound of hearing a child's body crush beneath the tank. And it will take more than a truth commission to heal from that memory. But it was a beginning.
Last night, after listening to hours of testimonies, we headed to an apartment where half a dozen of us crashed, including two of the testifiers. As I started to drift off to sleep I couldn't help but start to giggle at the irony. My roomies (and friends) were folks who may have nearly killed me a few years back. Seven years ago, I was falling asleep in the Iraqi desert in protest to the war in which they fought. Sleeping in the room next to me was my friend Logan who was about to be deployed seven years back, and Jake who was one of the first soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Now they are my heroes because of their humility and courage. Last month Logan and I returned to Iraq together with a peace team, the first unarmed civilians to visit the town of Rutba since the war started, and we just launched a new project to help rebuild the hospital that was bombed there in 2003 by the U.S. forces. And the stories of redemption are countless... it seems more and more people and more and more soldiers have grown tired of war and are finished with the myth of redemptive violence. For what we have seen is the truth of Jesus' words, "The one who takes up the sword will die by the sword." Not only are our wars killing "enemy combatants" and civilians, and women and children -- but they are killing the good in all of us. And they are killing our conscience.
Last night I fell asleep with tear-stained cheeks and a smile on my face. War is ugly. God is good. And another world is possible... I could hear breathing in the still of the night.
Shane Claiborne is a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.