Healing by Mud

by Renee Zitzloff

My first exposure to war occurred when I was seven or eight years old. I remember watching scenes of the Vietnam War on the TV news, turning to my mother and asking her, “Has there always been a war?” I can’t remember her answer but I recall being perplexed. My real question was: Is war is a “normal” part of life?

Whatever my mother answered, I grew up believing that war is normal, healthy and good. I believed that when America was involved in war, it went without saying that our cause was righteous and not to be questioned.

Fast-forward many years to the Gulf War. When I heard on the news that we had declared war on Iraq, I burst into tears. A friend called me later that day, and when I mentioned my distress, she said somewhat mockingly, “When did you become anti-war?” It was an ironic question for one avid pro-lifer to ask another, and yet it was valid because war had never concerned me before. I am now as anti-war as I am anti-abortion. It has been a journey. Becoming an Orthodox Christian has had a great deal to do with my change in thinking.

Recently I read a book that has taken me further along the path of abhorring war — Hell, Healing and Resistance by Daniel Hallock (Plough Publishing House; $20; 1-800-521-8011). This came as a “washing by mud” to my eyes — like in the mud Christ applied to heal the eyes of a man born blind at birth (John 9:6). In my thinking, or rather lack of thinking, about war over the years, there was at least one issue I was completely blind to. This is the issue of what happens emotionally, mentally and spiritually to a human being who is taught to kill and then put into the position where these “skills” must be used.

Hell, Healing and Resistance addresses this issue compellingly. It contains the stories, reflections, and memories of those who have fought in war. It also tells of how many of them — wounded, scarred, and carrying the burden of the atrocities they saw and participated in — have found healing and learned to go on. It is these stories that stay in my mind, but when my 16-year-old son read the book, what impressed him most is how the government lies. It does that too.

Early in the book there is the story of Lee, a boy sent to Vietnam in 1968. Soon after arriving, he met a girl named Chi. They fell in love and were meeting at every possible chance. When Chi became pregnant, Lee began to neglect his duties in order to be with her and also to escape the horror of the killing. Chi and Lee married and their baby was born, whom they named Le. Lee begins trying to make arrangements for Chi and Le to come to America. He knew that if he left his wife in Vietnam, she would most likely become a prostitute, because women with children of mixed blood are considered the lowest of the low.

Lee’s officers would or could not help him, even losing papers proving his marriage. Two weeks before his tour of duty was up, Lee was told that there was no way that he could bring Chi and Le to America. He had two choices: leave them behind or desert the army. Lee and Chi were devastated because they did not know if they would ever meet again. Chi asked Lee to come to a cliff by the ocean where they have often been together. As they hugged goodbye, Lee pulled out his gun and shot Chi in the head, then threw her and the baby into the ocean. Lee then returned to the United States to begin living another kind of hell.

One may think that this shocking story is an aberration. True, there are no other stories of soldiers killing their Vietnamese wives, but there are many stories of men who came home so traumatized that they abused their wives and other loved ones, or became drug addicts or became suicidal.

There are also stories of those who became criminals, among them Timothy McVeigh, the highly decorated Gulf War veteran convicted of blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Perhaps men like Timothy McVeigh and Lee learned all too well. After all, as the book says, “The final goal of military training is to break down the will and conscience of soldiers to the degree that they are capable of anything.”

The book is crowded with stories attesting to the fact that the wanton killing of civilians in wartime is the norm, not the exception. Consider the 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers massacred at least 260,000 Chinese civilians. Consider the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Consider that many Vietnam veterans claim the massacre of civilians at Mai Lai was by no means unusual. What should we expect when Marines in boot camp are taught to chant: “Rape the town and kill the people, that’s the thing we love to do! Rape the town and kill the people, that’s the only thing to do! Watch the kiddies scream and shout, rape the town and kill the people, that’s the thing we love to do!”

Hell, Healing and Resistance is full of painful realities and painful truths. Navy veteran Ben Chitty says:

What happened to us, what we did, is stuff that most people don’t want to hear. And the people that particularly don’t want to hear it are the people that sent us over. The only people who really understand what I am talking about . . . are other veterans. The only people in America that took the war as seriously as we did were the people in the antiwar movement.

If we are going to train people and send them off to kill in our name, we are obligated to listen to what they say about what it does to their lives and souls. If we are wise, we will listen and learn, and like the man born blind we will submit to Christ’s washing, even a healing by mud.

Renee Zitzloff is the Church School Director at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis.