Chaplains' Writing Competition
Officer Category Winner: Chaplain (CPT) David Shurtleff
"KILL, KILL, KILL"... the young trainees shout as they adjust position for the next physical training exercise, "BLOOD MAKES THE GRASS GROW GREEN"... others sing as they march to training. Many eyes betray the words their mouths are forced to speak. Many faces display the conflict such chants raise within their hearts. These scenes cause my thoughts to race back to somber accounts of the atrocities that occurred at what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. With sickened heart I read the details and was left to ponder why. Merely repeating the truism that war is hell was not enough. What was missing? What element of human nature had been removed or so overshadowed as to free the once captive sadistic side of humanity, allowing it free reign in the hearts of those involved? The answer was clear, yet seemingly contradictory: COMPASSION. Somehow the tragic events and circumstances of war had successfully removed or deeply buried the simple, powerful, essential element of compassion.
We are warriors and many bluntly characterize our mission as killing people and breaking things. Is there room for compassion in the heart and mind of the soldier? Can compassion peacefully coexist with the other Cs of leadership? Both history and experience testify that not only can compassion be a part of the makeup of a soldier, but it is essential. Compassion is the defining characteristic that separates a true soldier from the ruthless barbarian. Even a barbarian can have courage, commitment, competence and candor. But add compassion and the barbarian nature must give way to a new creature, a better creature, a compassionate soldier.
During the Persian Gulf War, I witnessed the epitome of a compassionate soldier, and the inestimable worth of such a soldier was brought forcefully home. I will always remember the scenes as they unfolded before me, compliments of CNN. There in full view was a young American soldier capturing a group of Iraqi soldiers. His M-16 in one hand, the other hand extended in directive action. Terrified, the Iraqis groveled at his feet. Their tones seemed to indicate fearful pleading for their fives. This soldier keenly alert and cautious, spoke firm but gentle words, words of command, mixed with compassionate words of reassurance that all would be well. I was deeply touched as I witnessed the perfect blend of warrior and warmth, of courage and compassion. Was that soldier ready to kill? I do not doubt that he was, if the circumstances so warranted. He was well trained. He was a professional. Yet with that training, with that understanding that he might have to kill, there existed the quality of compassion. As he looked upon those men begging before him he did not see an enemy dehumanized by ethnic slurs, but through the eves of compassion he saw human beings, men ordered by their government to perform a mission. Men pleading for their lives, desperately longing to live, hoping to see again their families and loved ones.
Compassion as displayed by that American soldier is not only the power that binds up the baser side of human existence, a side war so readily unleashes, but it is also the great enabling power that brings with it compliance to the codes of conduct and laws of war. Our soldiers are trained to kill, yet also trained to avoid attacking noncombatants or using altered ammo to increase enemy suffering. Our soldiers are trained to destroy enemy targets, yet also taught to not cause more destruction than is necessary, nor destroy property unless absolutely required by their mission. Our soldiers are encouraged to take prisoners and obligated to treat them humanely. Compassion is the driving force that facilitates and ensures compliance with these and other principles of the Code of Conduct.
As soldiers enter basic training and first encounter the apparent conflicts between training to kill and maintaining compassion, many come forward with questions of compassion's place or role within their lives as soldiers. I thank God that they feel such concerns. I am grateful that most want to accomplish their mission, most are willing to fight, to kill, to die in defense of this nation and its precious freedoms, but not at the expense of their humanity. Wisdom demands that they be encouraged to allow the enabling and restricting power of compassion to accompany their training, enlighten their judgment and to become an integral part of their lives as American soldiers.
Should there come a day when compassion is rooted out of the heart and soul of the American soldier, should our Army ever reach a point where soldiers become nothing more than inhuman killing machines, that will be the day when divine providence ceases to lend its blessed power over the freedoms of this country. That will be the day that we will be left to our own, weak, mortal efforts to defend our great nation. That will be the day when our army, our nation and our people will greatly suffer, a day that all that is good and worth fighting for will be lost and war will be waged for war's sake.
Will it ever be so? Not so long as our forces are filled with compassionate soldiers. Soldiers willing to fight, but looking hopefully to the day when peace will reign. Soldiers ready for war, prepared to kill, but praying for the day when “... they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4) Soldiers firm in their liberty, committed to their mission, competent in their skills, and with courage to use those skills or abstain from using them as compassion dictates. Most importantly, soldiers who will always hold deeply set within their hearts, the power, and the strength of true compassion.
Chaplain (CP7) David Shurtleff is currently stationed at Fort Campbell, KY.
The Army Chaplaincy W[NTER 1998
[reprinted by permission of the author—R.S.]