The biggest issue for our soldiers—and I can speak from experience both as a chaplain and as someone who served in Vietnam—is the guilt they feel when their friends are killed," Lt. Col. Roger Criner, a Southern Baptist, told our Eve Conant. "'Why did God take my buddies and not me?' "
Criner, a 22-year veteran chaplain, oversees the work of Capt. Roger Benimoff, the Baptist minister who is on our cover this week. Benimoff served two tours in Iraq, tours so turbulent that he very nearly lost his faith—and says he is not fully reconciled with the Lord even now. "I hate God," Benimoff wrote in a January journal entry. How to worship a deity so many see as a God of love but who allows so much pain and horror in the world is an ancient question, and Benimoff's battle to keep his religion in the face of reality illumines a widespread but little-noted struggle many soldiers face.
As the president and Congress battle over war funding and withdrawal proposals, our piece explores what life is like for the everyday warrior, men and women whose experiences in Iraq remain remote for many of us. To cope with combat, soldiers often turn to faith, only to find familiar convictions consumed by the fires of war. It is an ecumenical issue: Lisa Miller and Dan Ephron recount the controversial history of chaplaincies, including the challenges confronting Jews and Muslims in the military.
Historically, the most fervent of believers have often been the most bloodthirsty of warriors. Evan Thomas and Andrew Romano note that religion can be a dangerous element in the lives of nations. From Saint Augustine to Shakespeare to Lincoln, some of history's most searching thinkers and politicians have wrestled with the question of God and war, of how we can know for certain that the blood we are spilling is being shed in a just cause. Religion can help inspire the noblest of human endeavors—the expansion of human dignity, the comfort of the weak and the protection of the innocent. There are secular sources for such undertakings as well, of course; one certainly need not be a religious believer to be a soldier of freedom and justice. Still, many wars for liberty have been framed in religious terms. John Quincy Adams said he was fighting for the abolition of the slave trade under "the standard of Almighty God." Lincoln privately said he was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation because of a bargain he struck with God: if the Union won at Antietam, he would free the slaves.
How can we tell when religion is playing too great a role in our politics, or in the decisions made by our leaders? Lincoln offers a useful test. He never presumed to understand the ways and workings of God. He prayed, rather, that he might see "the right as God gives to see the right," which meant, in effect, that he would do the best he could according to his conscience. He resisted seeing any political course of action as divinely ordained. Lincoln's humility is one of his greatest legacies, and we can usefully judge our current and future leaders by his example. Are they humble? Do they acknowledge their shortcomings? Are they curious and probing, believing, as Lincoln did, that "probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did"?
Humility is not only a virtue for those at the highest levels. It is shared by Benimoff, who, while nervous about sharing his story, says that he lives in the hope that "if my experience can be meaningful to others, especially to soldiers, then that is my prayer."