“Chaplain, can we talk?”
The sergeant caught me as I was nursing my second coffee of the morning on my way to my office.
“Sure thing, Sergeant.”
I saw a look on my colleague’s face that seemed out of the ordinary. I would guess from experience that this was not about the usual reasons soldiers came to me — his marriage, a woman, his children, or finances. Whatever it was, I thought, the angst seems to be coming from somewhere deep in his soul, and burrowing on his brow, stealing the light from his eyes.
We sat down in an empty classroom, removed from the busy places where new workdays begin. He took his seat in a folding metal chair and I sat on the side of a desk. The soldier put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes as if he had red pepper in them. There were no tears. There was something akin to a dry rub of anxiety built up from nights without sleep. I waited and gave him time to gather his thoughts. He was hesitant to speak.
“Chaplain Milton,” he began, “I have a huge problem that I have not had before in 15 years of service.”
“I understand,” I said. “Go on, Sergeant.”
“Well, Chaplain, to be honest, I cannot figure out how to mesh the Army Core Values with the enemies we face… I know that sounds weird. Let me try again.”
“You’re fine, Sergeant,” I assured him.
He squinted his eyes as if seeking to visualize the incomprehensible.
“Well, Chaplain, the Army lauds courage and patriotism, right? Right?”
“Right,” I respond.
“Well,” he went on as he looked up at me, “and yet so do our enemies, men that I have shot at, men that I have killed. Not all, but many of our enemies [he had returned from Iraq] are courageous and love, if not their country, then their tribe, their fatherland. In my mind, I transposed those values on that poster on the wall to our enemy. I just don’t get it. I used to think I was doing this for God and country and to protect my family. Right and wrong were the measurements we used to justify war. We understood right and wrong from the Bible. Even if you weren’t a Christian or of the Jewish faith, you knew the standard, the source, the ultimate discriminator of good and evil. Now, I don’t see that anymore. I don’t see that standard plastered on a poster. It’s not taught. In fact, it is like our institutions are avoiding it. I feel like I don’t know what we are fighting for. I am confused from the inside out. Am I a traitor?”
He was serious in his question, and the silence that followed bore witness to this man’s genuine inward struggle.
“No, Sergeant,” I broke the silence. “You are no traitor. You are just a human being, a caring, thoughtful man who wants to do the right thing. You are trying to make sense of suffering amidst a world that seems to be without the biblical values that guided us in years gone by. Suffering is hard. Suffering without meaning is almost unbearable.”
He nodded in affirmation.
“Sergeant, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His Word is still our standard. And God has placed eternity in our hearts. It is what philosophers call ‘Natural Law.’ There is good and evil. And to be sent by your nation to defend the right, even when some in the leadership don’t admit the standard for what is right, doesn’t change the truth.”
We prayed. Over the following years, I saw more of that kind of soldier than I had in over 30 years of service. Often unwitting adherence to a worldview of postmodernity and the secular age stripped meaning from the act of self-defense at a civic level. The hastily removed virtues are necessary for young males, who are still the overwhelming majority of those who defend our nation.
The agents of the new morality, lacking a transcendent ethic on which to stand, have inevitably removed honor and nobility from the cause, hollowing out the spirits of those who are ordered to war. Unsurprisingly, these young men return with great existential questions metastasizing into angst and angst into depression and worse.
It is time for wiser heads to have greater voices, for military leaders — and, of course, parents, teachers, professors, journalists, and other influencers — to exercise their First Amendment rights and respectfully but plainly speak the truth. Teach our service members — teach our children — how we know right and wrong.
If you can’t say, “We know because the Bible tells us so,” then at least admit that there is a Natural Law. The secular age is quickly stripping Western Civilization of the protective ozone of the founders’ faith. The harmful radiated rays of deconstruction and postmodernity are now showing signs of moral tumors, erasure of ethical memory, and an epidemic of diseases of the human soul that inevitably follow.
Now more than ever, we need to post the truth on the wall of every institution: “There is a God. And He has spoken in Creation and in His Word. Be careful that you guard that voice of conscience. For this is how we know right from wrong.” And that is something we can fight for, and when necessary, die for.