Even in the face of the ultimate human failing, we must be responsive to suffering and attuned to joy
A U.S. soldier in Iraq searches a house for enemy combatants after one of his unit’s vehicles was struck by an improvised explosive device. (Luke Thornberry/Flickr)
By Phil Klay
December 4, 2017
When I was a kid, I had a comic book called The Big Book of Martyrs, part of a series by Factoid Books that included such titles as The Big Book of Thugs, The Big Book of Losers, and The Big Book of Weirdos. Inside the martyr book were comic-book depictions of various saints and their horrible, horrible deaths—great stuff if you’re an 11-year-old boy. I know that Catholics like myself are trying for a more modern, nicer church these days, with less of the fire and brimstone and more of the let-the-children-come-unto-me, but I can’t help thinking that if Game of Thrones can be a smash hit, then the Catholic Church might make progress in the 10- to 14-year-old demographic by leaning more heavily on the decidedly R-rated tales from The Big Book of Martyrs.
I enjoyed these stories immensely, but they were also confusing—and not because of all the killing and dying for faith. That, I could understand. God, on the other hand, behaved very strangely. He was always protecting his martyrs before their deaths, but (to my eyes) in what seemed like the laziest, most halfhearted way imaginable.
There’s Saint Lucy, for example, who refuses to burn a pagan sacrifice. She is sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, but when the guards try to take her away, they find she’s completely immovable. Big, muscular guards strain to drag off this slender young woman, but she’s fixed to the spot, standing firm. Not the greatest miracle in the world but, okay, not bad. Then things escalate. They bring in a team of oxen, hitch her to the animals, and let them loose. Once again, nothing. Guards lash the massive beasts forward, the animals pull with all their might, but Saint Lucy does not budge. They lay bundles of wood at her feet and try to set her on fire, but the wood doesn’t burn. Things are looking up for Saint Lucy. But then it’s as if God gets distracted and looks away for a moment, while they rip out her eyes and stab her to death.
She’s hardly the only one with a story like this. There’s Saint Sebastian, protected from arrows only to be clubbed to death. There’s Saint Agnes, who like Saint Lucy was ordered to be dragged naked to a brothel, though in her case God didn’t make her immovable, he made thick, coarse hair sprout all over her whole body before some soldier beheaded her. Or Saint Cecilia, struck on the neck three times with a sword. Divine intervention enabled her to survive, which sounds great, but the miracle wasn’t invincibility; the miracle was that somehow, despite a giant bloody neck gash, she was able to walk around for three more days before dying of her injuries.
As miracles go, that has to be one of the shittier ones. If I’m going to die by the sword, I’d prefer to go quick, without the glorious and providential beneficence of the good old walk-around-bleeding-horribly-for-days miracle. Even the rapid-gross-body-hair-growth miracle is better than that.
For a boy, this is all highly entertaining and totally ridiculous. But as an adult, I came back to these martyrs when looking through a book of sermons from a medieval English abbot. There, in great detail, was one of those stories I’d previously read in comic-book form, the story of the Forty Soldiers.
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, there was a group of 40 Cappadocian soldiers—noble warriors, loyal to one another in every fight, and always victorious in a raging battle. They were also Christians. This wasn’t a problem until the empire appointed a new judge, Agricola, who loathed Christianity and decided to break the Forty.
First, Agricola ordered them stoned to death, but every time a Roman soldier threw a stone, it rebounded and struck him in the face. Soldiers kept throwing stones with the same result until a magistrate picked up a huge flint and hurled it, only to have the stone rebound and crack open his head, at which point everybody decided stoning wasn’t the best way to go.
The next day, Agricola ordered the Forty led in chains to a wide lake, covered in thin ice and whipped by rushing winter winds. The guards threw them, naked, into the center of the lake, and placed a tub of warm water off to the side, telling the freezing men that if they paid homage to the pagan gods, they could jump in and warm themselves.
That night, the lake froze, encasing the men and causing their flesh to break open from the frost. At this point, some of the men were likely wishing that God hadn’t bothered to save them from stoning. One of the Forty broke and ran for the tub, only to die as soon as he touched the water. The rest of the men prayed to God in their suffering.
That’s when the big miracle happened. All except one of the guards suddenly fell asleep. A heavenly light shone down, melted the ice, and made the lake’s waters as warm as a bath. The one alert guard was so moved by this sight that he stripped off his clothes, rushed out to the lake, and declared himself a Christian. Then, true to form for a martyr story, the heavenly light stopped shining, and Agricola ordered the legs of the Forty broken. They froze to death, and their bodies were burned.
My 11-year-old self had seen this as yet another absurdity, another story of an absent-minded God, pulling his faithful out of the fire and forgetting about the frying pan. But to my surprise, reading it as an adult, I was moved, for the story made sense in a way I wished it didn’t.
Part of why begins with my chaplain in Iraq, Patrick McLaughlin, who was beloved by all of us at TQ, our forward operating base in Anbar Province. We called him Chaps. He was a tall, affable Lutheran, always ready with a smile or a joke. His most difficult duties involved TQ Surgical, our little combat hospital, which treated Marines, soldiers, Iraqi army, Iraqi insurgents, and civilians. Given the amount of violence in Anbar Province at the time, this meant being witness to some pretty horrific things. The worst, for everybody, was seeing what war did to children.
Military triage is a cold, logical process. If there’s no hope, you make the individual comfortable and move on to some other patient who might survive. But the doctors, who felt every loss keenly, would never just shove a dying person in a corner. They wanted someone to be there, caring for them until they passed. This was especially true when it came to children, and it was this responsibility that Chaps took upon himself. When there was nothing the doctors could do beyond providing morphine, Chaps McLaughlin used to hold kids in his arms and rock them gently as they died.
At first, he did this standing, or on his knees, outside the hospital. The first child was small, maybe six or seven years old, in the throes of agonal breathing, three or four respirations a minute—“ragged,” Chaps described it to me years later in an email, “gasping, tiny chest heaving, lungs expanding as the mouth gulps air as though this breath is the very last and yet it’s not.” Chaps, a father of five, held that boy for an hour as he clung fiercely to life, his brains slowly seeping through his head, no family around to comfort him, the family unknown, perhaps dead. “When my nameless little boy died,” Chaps wrote me, “I kissed his forehead.”
For the second child, a three-year-old girl, her body tattered from an IED blast and half her face missing—a sight so awful that two of the medical staff, men long inured to every kind of injury, left the hospital to vomit outside—Chaps whispered calm words in her ear as a female corpsman, who had a daughter the same age, held her hand. It was after that girl passed that he asked the Seabees, a group of military engineers, to make him rocking chairs, “combat rocking chairs,” the corpsmen called them, with which he could rock the dying children for as long as they held on to life.
Over the course of his time in Iraq, Chaps McLaughlin would rock 11 children in those chairs. Eventually, before redeploying, he took the chairs to a unit bonfire, threw them in, and watched as the embers rose heavenward to, as he put it, “the children that once occupied them in my arms.”
My boyhood objection to the savagery of the martyrdom stories, to God’s ultimate silence in the face of suffering and death, takes on a different light in the wake of such deaths. To anyone with any kind of experience in war, a story of God saving the good would feel less like a comfort and more like an indictment. Any soldier can tell you that no amount of prayer provides security for the defenseless in a war zone. The good die. The bad die. The combatants die, and the children die. The old men and the women and the fathers and mothers and sisters and daughters and sons die. Sometimes, often, they die horribly. When we return home, a new knowledge follows with us, the viscerally felt knowledge that men are cruel, that history is bloody and awful, and that the earth is a place where, no matter where you live, whether it’s New York or Fallujah, Chicago or Baghdad, we are regularly failing to protect our most vulnerable, our poor, and our desperate.
We recoil at religious platitudes intended to get around this truth or to make it less bitter. So we can appreciate the way stories of martyrdom unrelentingly focus on suffering, refusing to suggest that faith might spare us from horror. The fourth-century Christians who first told the story of the Forty Soldiers knew that hard lesson better than we do. But that leaves us with the other piece of the story: the insistence on the miraculous in the midst of the suffering, the tales of pain as a means of inspiring us and drawing us closer to God, complete with dramatic miracles to underline the point.
The violence I have seen has left me feeling hollowed out, unable to gild all the agony with some beautiful meaning. As I watch the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq, it now seems absurd to cheaply suggest that it built toward any greater purpose, or paved the way for greater peace and prosperity, or that it is anything more than a net increase in the suffering and horror of a world awash in blood, or that there is even a realistic prospect for any kind of justice, some kind of restitution or payment or balancing out, even in a small way, for what has been erased.
In the modern era, we do not want to hear of death as a sacrifice, as an atonement or a gift. Religious claims are tenuous, and pain is certain. Pain provokes our sympathy, and our outrage, while hope of the resurrection serves as little more than a hypothesis. German writer Ernst Jünger once declared pain the “authentic currency of our age.” Perhaps this is why many consider it something of an embarrassment to speak of God in public, or to speak clearly and forthrightly of our experience of transcendence. We’re much more comfortable talking about trauma. Physical trauma, done to bodies. Psychological trauma, done to minds. Something we can see when we look at a scar, or an MRI scan of the brain. That’s hard data, not wishful thinking and willful naïveté. So we address ourselves to the suffering, which after all, we can do something about. In the medical realm, we can seek cures. In the political realm, we can hunt those responsible. In both cases, we aim at suffering and leave questions of transcendence by the wayside.
My time in the Marines left that worn saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” sounding especially hollow. For one thing, it’s verifiably untrue. Marines come from every religious background. But even if we consider the adage’s underlying meaning, that a man in enough terror will cry out to something, to anything, what kind of faith is that? The Russian journalist Artyom Borovik once described a young soldier in his first firefight, whispering to himself, as the bullets whizzed overhead, “Mommy, take me back inside of you … Mommy, take me back inside of you.” If this kind of impulse is the stuff of religious faith, then religious faith doesn’t count for much.
A soldier may call out to God while in combat, but the experiences that caused him to do so might be the very ones that later cause him to abandon his faith altogether. What kind of God, after all, would allow any of the innumerable things that happen in a war zone?
This old complaint takes on a particular urgency when you’ve seen children dying slowly after going through more pain than any human being should ever experience. It’s not even a complaint unique to war experience. When the writer Aleksandar Hemon’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, he and his wife spent the next few months desperately trying to save her as she was subjected to chemotherapy, brain surgery, and rounds of drug treatments. She died anyway. The experience convinced him that the religious notion of suffering as somehow ennobling was a despicable lie. He later wrote,
Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.
So no, the most intense horrors of the world do not always lead to faith. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes, and some of them are atheists because of what they experienced in foxholes. It would be more accurate to say, as the Vietnam veteran Keith Nightingale has stated, that war leads less to faith than it does to a moment of choosing. Faced with immeasurable human suffering, causing immeasurable human suffering, causing the deaths of other men, experiencing the highest reaches of terror, fighting side by side with men you love so passionately you’d gladly give your life for them, only to see them killed or maimed—all this raises questions about the nature and purpose of life with an urgency that can’t be held at bay by scrolling Twitter or turning on the television. Nightingale writes that the veteran thinks either, “I have to believe in God who got me through this night,” or, “I cannot believe in a God who would permit what I have just lived through.”
Karl Marlantes, the Vietnam veteran and author of the novel Matterhorn, argues that combat experience is inescapably spiritual. “Mystical or religious experiences have four common components,” he writes: “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.”
What did I see? As a public affairs officer, I was never in combat and never saw the hell that Marlantes did. Or rather, I saw a complex mixture of things. I saw civilians dealing with horrible injuries. I saw men dying in dusty combat hospitals. I saw men embittered by months without progress in a violent place far from home. I saw a unit coming to terms with the fact that it had accidentally killed two civilians in an escalation-of-force incident. But as the year progressed, I also saw Marines grow increasingly confident that they had changed Anbar Province. I saw markets opening up. I saw Iraqi police chiefs boasting that they’d hunt down al-Qaeda in Iraq with or without our help. I saw a sheik reveal his bullet wounds to me and promise to fight those who’d done it. I saw police forces swell. I saw what I thought was a taste of victory. And of course, I saw far too many of those children. Once, I saw a one-armed girl come in with shrapnel wounds from a bomb that had just gone off. She hadn’t lost the arm in that day’s bombing; she’d lost it in a bombing a year before. She couldn’t have been older than five, and this was the second time the war had shattered a part of her body.
In theory, this sort of thing should have forced the kind of choice Nightingale refers to. It certainly forced some brutal self-reflection for Chaps McLaughlin, who on Ash Wednesday of that year wrote in his personal journal, later published in the book No Atheists in Foxholes,
As my anger boils over in righteous indignation, I know that none of us comes away clean—none of us walks away without blood on our hands—the blood of children on our hands from this war. … Being a noncombatant does not exempt me from one iota of responsibility. … Urban warfare means children living in fear, children in tears, children orphaned, children wounded, and—God forgive us all—children killed. I will have to square my presence here in Iraq—my life in the military—with my soul and my God.
That was Chaps McLaughlin’s reaction, but he had actually held those children.
I was in a different position. My job in the Marine Corps meant that I was generally a spectator rather than an actor in the war. I was never faced with the responsibility of leading men in combat, never responsible for the direct act of killing, never faced with what Marlantes has described as “a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite.” Instead, I had the images of those children in my head, and for a young man, fervently believing in the mission and in the potential for the Marine Corps to turn around Anbar Province, they confirmed me in all I believed. A Special Forces veteran later told me why, for him, killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than killing people in Afghanistan. “Iraq may have been a giant clusterfuck,” he said, “but al-Qaeda did always make it easy.” In other words, al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you could not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.
So rather than challenging my Christian faith or provoking deep questions about who I was as a man, what kind of war I was in, and what sort of country I was a citizen of, the children made me feel like I didn’t have to justify myself at all. When I got home, those children were a useful tool for propping up my image of myself as a decent human being. Confronted with a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”
At the time, it was quite gratifying to suppose I’d come out the victor in a conversation about who has got the dead civilians on his side of the argument. Thanks to that feeling of certainty, that feeling of assurance that I was on the side of the good, questions of complicity fell away. I walked around like some bizarrely inverted, old-school Calvinist, assured of my own righteousness not because of any good I saw in my life, but because of all the evil I saw in others. My notion of the value of faith went away, convinced as I was that I could justify myself through events, through being on the right side in a political debate, through material things, and through the self-serving way I interpreted them.
Once, after a lecture I gave, a woman approached and asked me how to talk to her boyfriend. She pointed him out in the back of the crowd—a tall, good-looking guy with military bearing. “He’s an Iraq veteran,” she said, “and I know he had a really hard deployment. I know, during his deployment, something really bad happened, but he won’t talk about it. It’s this closed-off part of him. How do I get him to open up?”
I get this sort of question fairly often. For the spouses of men and women with trauma, war related or not, it can sometimes feel as though there’s some mystery in their partner, some moment, a site of wounding. Maybe this veteran lost a friend, got IEDed, got shot at, experienced mind-breaking terror for months. Maybe it was something worse. There’s this sense that, if only the partner knew what it was, they’d be able to move forward, that somewhere there’s a key to understanding the loved one’s pain.
But it doesn’t work that way. There is no such key, no moment that once unlocked might be easily dispelled. I told her to focus not on the bad things he had been through, if she wanted to have that conversation with him, but on the good. Ask about his best friends in his unit, about the good times they had, about what he liked about the military, why he’d joined in the first place, about the bonds of love between soldiers, the sense of community and purpose. About all the things, in other words, that would give context and meaning to the bad things he’d suffered. We do not understand the oak tree through a clear picture of the scarred-over hatchet wound still visible in its bark. Trauma has less to do with a person than with how that person has grown around it. You cannot understand the harm that has been done without understanding the good suffusing the rest of life.
Evil seems so grand—good so quotidian. The drama of 9/11 is infinitely more impressive than the daily labor of placing one steel beam after another as you construct a building. There’s a certain drama to the story of a child’s death, while the day-to-day life of a parent raising a child—changing diapers, shopping for wet wipes, making baby food, and keeping to a strict schedule—is undeniably tedious. Yet it is that day-to-day work that shifted, for me, the meaning of those memories I had in my head of the injured children, shattered families, and lost lives.
On Memorial Day, I was sitting with my son in my arms, holding him, rocking him to sleep. The holiday is never a particularly happy day for me, but this was the first one I’d experienced as a father. I was looking at this little baby who hadn’t let me or my wife sleep the night before, who had earlier peed on me and then laughed at my startled reaction, and I thought about how much we had already sacrificed for him in his first few months of life. How much we’d continue to sacrifice for him. How much love he’d brought into our lives, and how much joy, and how much joy he’d brought to the people around us, to his grandparents and uncles and great-grandparents and the rest of our family. How he’d enabled me to love the people around me in a deeper way. Then I thought about the violence and loss that had swirled around but never reached out and touched me directly while I was in Iraq. I thought about the Marines I’d known who died, but who now seemed like more than Marines, more like sons, like my son, loved, and I thought about the children in Iraq who were never given a chance at adult life. I considered them not as objects of suffering, not as the locations of wounds or as horrible images I can’t get out of my head, but in much the way I view my son—as pure, transcendent, unbounded, fragile.
The birth of my son has changed me in many ways. I get less sleep, I’m even more disorganized than before, I’m more stressed out—and I expected those things. Before he arrived, I even had a small sense of the joy he would bring. What I did not expect was how much he’d deepen the sadness with which I view the world. These days I’m less capable of gazing on horror with a disinterested intellectual curiosity. Less capable of employing suffering as a political argument without feeling that, in some way, the suffering makes a claim on me as well. That at the very least, it ought to leave its mark. I’m not saying you have to have a son to feel this—I think we all feel it to an extent—but for me, it was revolutionary.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that it is only when we come face to face with another person that we see the trace of God, that to look directly into another’s face, not through a screen or photographic lens, inevitably leaves us with a sense of that other person as our responsibility, “to which,” he writes, we are “wanting and faulty. It is as though [we] were responsible for his mortality, and guilty for surviving.” If we accept that responsibility, hard to do with a stranger, though obligatory when it comes to your own son, it must necessarily change your life—and not simply because it provides you with onerous, unfulfillable obligations toward a suffering world, but because it connects you in a real way to that world and becomes the means by which you might find transcendent joy.
These days, leafing through The Big Book of Martyrs, I no longer read those stories and think of the miraculous proclamations of God’s glory as somehow waving away the harsh realities. It was the Gnostics who thought of the flesh as evil and the death of a believer as an escape from a material prison. For most Christians like me, who consider ourselves born into a universe made by God and proclaimed by Him as Good at the beginning of Creation, accepting this world’s joy is a part of our religion’s mission. When the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s only son died of scarlet fever at the age of nine, the grief-stricken father rejected calls for him to rejoice that his son was in heaven:
Regarding this world as I always do, as a world which is glorified through the life of the Redeemer and hallowed through the efficacy of his Spirit to an unending development of all that is good and Godly; wishing, as I always have, to be nothing but a servant of this divine Word in a joyful spirit and sense: why then should I not have believed that the blessings of the Christian community would be confirmed in my child as well … ? Why should I not have hoped in the merciful preservation of God for him also …?
In the Catholic tradition, it is that very sweetness of the world, a world Pope Francis urges the faithful to accept as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise,” that makes the loss more bitter, not less. This is the other piece of those ancient, fantastical stories I read as a child—the unfashionable, absurd, and magical way in which glory is constantly being revealed in the midst of suffering, the moments in which the clouds open, the frozen lake’s waters become like a warm bath, and the one Roman guard capable of seeing this miraculous world for what it is reaches out toward joy, not pain, and in doing so joins the Forty in death.
The elements of the fantastic in those stories, the over-the-top miracles and wondrous deeds of the saints, I now think of less as foolish absurdities than merely unfashionable descriptions of a deeper truth. G. K. Chesterton once asserted that fairy tales make us see the world more clearly than realist novels because they allow us to remember how strange the world really is. “They make rivers run with wine,” he wrote, “only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” To read a story in which we marvel at a fairyland in which the sky is green and the grass is blue serves to remind us that, more marvelous, capricious, and delightful than this fantasy is the reality that the sky is blue and the grass green. We feel this most keenly when out in nature, walking across the ridge line of a mountain—that sense of witnessing a grand cosmic drama in which we are an infinitesimally small part. In the stories of the martyrs, where the heavens are always opening up in glory or the sun blackening in sorrow, the world is not simply the stage for the moral drama of our lives and deaths, not merely a neutral setting for our joy and suffering, but part of revelation.
And it’s when I think about that, and when I think about my son, that I realize maybe the hard-nosed realist view, the view that says that it is the suffering that we must accept with a steely eye, and the abundant glory around us crying out from a supernaturally charged universe we must look at with a patronizing, disbelieving smirk, perhaps that is the naïve view. Perhaps to misunderstand that is to misunderstand the source of our relation to such suffering.
I think of Chaps McLaughlin, holding one dying child after another, and the sense of brokenness that it left him with, and I think of myself, in my self-righteousness, and I realize it was not simply an acute sense of suffering I was lacking, but also an acute sense of joy with which to give that suffering context. You can accept the miraculous or not, the divine or not. Either way, we remain both blessed and guilty, obliged to absorb the full radiance of the world and to accept the consequences of our failings as people, as members of churches, as members of nations. To take our obligations to our fellow man seriously means knowing we will never be able to adequately respond. It means knowing, at all times, that we should be moving toward a revolutionary change of heart, for the strength to act more fully, directly, and powerfully in relation to the agony existing not just overseas, but in the divided communities where we live. It means knowing we will fail, and knowing the glory of creation is there for us anyway. It means accepting that being responsive to suffering and attuned to joy are not different things, but one and the same.
Phil Klay is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.