The Spirituality of War

“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.”
–-Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War.

Carry Me Home
There you have a longish quote from a brilliant writer and noble warrior.
I worry that in trying to demystify post-traumatic stress – separate the mythology of the media from the actual effects of the trauma of war – not enough attention is paid to the tremendous power possessed by combat veterans. It’s this power that draws me to these guys. They’ve walked point in a spiritual zone the rest of us glimpse only occasionally, as when a too bright sun breaks momentarily through thick fog.
If Marlantes is correct, and I believe he is dead on, the spiritual nature of the experience of war helps explain the intense brotherhood these men possess. It has been my privilege to witness the power of this brotherhood first hand and I’m here to tell you it raises the hairs on the back of my neck and touches a place deep inside usually reserved for mystics and monks. It’s the reason these guys NEVER leave a man behind.
Which is why I was surprised by the immediate and intense reaction to the release of Bowe Burgdahl. Especially as I have heard many Vietnam combat vets tell of their own feelings of wanting to walk away, of feeling that they should not have been there, that nothing was being accomplished but bloody awful killing. I was surprised because I layered the present situation with my own personal history and I am a child of the sixties. I was surprised because I did not at first see the complexity of emotions the release of Burgdahl would free in other combat veterans.
Burgdahl abandoned his brother warriors, and in the church of combat, that is the unforgivable sin. It’s the reason for survival guilt. It’s why combat vets struggle to allow joy into their lives even fifty years after they’ve returned to us.
Personally, I’m happy Burgdahl has come home, but then I am not one of those consecrated by the fires of war.