War is hell

Father David Epps's picture

“War is hell,” said General William T. Sherman in 1864. The politicians speak of the honor of war and the poets speak of its glory but the soldiers and the victims know the real truth… war is hell.

The hell doesn’t necessarily end when the hostilities cease. In 1982 I sat with a man in my office in Colorado as he wept about the things he had seen and the acts he had committed in wartime. No one else, as far as I know, was privy to his thoughts and regrets. He still saw the faces of people he had killed, especially the civilians—most vivid was the face of a civilian woman he had bayoneted after he discovered that she had stabbed his comrade. The incident took place not in Vietnam or Korea but in Germany. He had carried the war and the pain inside his head for nearly forty years.

Young men, and now women, go off to war to do their duty, some with visions of glory. What they discover is blood, death, loss, brutality, stench, pain, suffering and situations for which they are unprepared.

In March 1968, 107 civilians were killed in a hamlet called Son My near the My Lai village in Vietnam. The incident became known as the “My Lai Massacre.” Army second lieutenant William Calley was about to enter the history books as a war criminal. Born in Miami, Calley was known by the nickname of “Rusty.” He was called “nice” by those who knew him. Calley was 5’ 4” tall and the son of a World War II veteran of the U. S. Navy when he enlisted in 1966. After he completed basic training and advanced infantry training, Calley was accepted into the Officer’s Candidate Program.

According to a report, “Calley said that he was following orders when he ordered the men of his platoon to kill everyone in the village. Of the 26 soldiers and officers who were initially charged in the incident, only Calley was convicted of the murder of 22 civilians and sentenced to life in prison. Calley explained he had been ordered to take out My Lai, adding that he had intelligence that the village was fortified and would be “hot” when he went in. He also said the area was submitted to an artillery barrage and helicopter fire before his troops went in. It turned out that it was not hot and there was no armed resistance. But he had been told, he said, that if he left anyone behind, his troops could be trapped and caught in a crossfire.”

After his conviction, but before being sentenced, Calley was allowed to address the court: “I’m not going to stand here and plead for my life or my freedom,” Calley said. “If I have committed a crime, the only crime I have committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently I valued my troops’ lives more than I did those of the enemy ...”

Polls at the time showed that 79 percent of Americans disagreed with the verdict and many thought that Calley had been a scapegoat. In the end, Calley served only 3 1⁄2 years before having his sentenced commuted. On August 19, 2009, Calley, now 66, said to a Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Ga., “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry....If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.”

Calley’s apology last week was reported internationally and was accepted, with conditions, by one My Lai survivor who saw his mother and brothers killed during the massacre. According to the Canadian Web site “Media with Conscience,” the director of a small memorial museum in My Lai said he welcomed the public apology. “It’s a question of the past and we accept his apologies, although they come too late,” Pham Thanh Cong said. “However, I prefer that he send his apologies to me in writing or by e-mail.”

“I want him to come back...and see things here,” he added. “Maybe he has now repented for his crimes and his mistakes committed more than 40 years ago.”

For 41 years, Calley, like the soldier mentioned earlier—and like countless others who have fought-- has carried with him the burdens and regrets of war. War is not about honor and it is not about glory, whatever the politicians and the poets may say. It is about survival. Young men go into war to kill people and strive not to be killed themselves. Sometimes, in the heat of the conflict, in the terror of the moment, in the desperate struggle to survive, decisions are made. Later, when the soldier has survived, he may question and regret the decisions he has made.

Deeds cannot be undone. But, as Pham Thanh Cong stated, repentance and forgiveness is possible—even for the worst that war brings. War is hell but confession, repentance, and forgiveness mean that the soldiers of war don’t have to live in that hell for the rest of their lives. Welcome home at last, Lt. Calley. May you and all of those who have seen and experienced the hell of war finally come to peace.

David Epps is the pastor of Christ the King Church, 4881 Hwy 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277 between Peachtree City and Newnan. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. He is also the Bishop of the Mid-South Diocese and is the Mission Pastor of Christ the King Church in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org

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Submitted by Bonkers on Sun, 09/06/2009 - 5:36am.

Americans have a tendency to send off boys (and a few men) to fight our wars--have them kill everything in sight that "might" be an enemy and then forgive them of it all.
Even invite them to speak to civic clubs! It is the only way to get them to do it the next time.

The mixture of religion (organized) and war is usually the cause of most wars. After all it is stupid to have our soldiers and sailors kill hundreds of thousands of the "enemy" and maybe just as many of our own die, solely for the excuse of money or oil or a vague threat to our existence.
We also have a tendency to fight for ten years in a losing cause due to one days terror in New York and a couple of other places instead of going after just the ones who did the horrible deed!
Why do we do that? Because we sometimes were looking for an excuse to do it anyway!

People like Calley are victims of such miserable judgments.

I would like to see a defense by th minister of the last administration for the maybe 200,000 Iraqis who died and maybe 300,000 who were wounded; and our 40,000 severely wounded (some others who still have rattled brains)and 4-5,000 who are dead, in their starting and follow-up of the long war we are still in.

If you can forget the politics of it.

Submitted by Bonkers on Tue, 09/08/2009 - 2:37pm.

Now even our generals are saying we can't win as is the standard interpretation of winning, without occupation and help.
They are allso saying that Iraq and Afghanistan now have their own governments and army and we can leave! We won, although they haven't!

I heard that in the early 70s somewhere. War isn't so much hell if one wins and it lasts at least one hundred years, although nothing ever has done that without succeeding wars to show the colors. Even then most fail.

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