Over the past month, I have enjoyed sharing with you all, dear readers, stories about military chaplains in several conflicts over the last century.
The 20th century was marked by war after war, dwarfing the violence of previous ages in both scale and ferocity. Unfortunately the current century is shaping up to be no different.
We live in a time that requires all of us to perform honest self-examination about who we are as human beings, and what drives our penchant for conflict.
I’ve chosen to write about military chaplains in part because they show us a way out of the destructive circle of violence that war causes. Accepting the dangers of combat without themselves desiring the death of others, military chaplains are a sign of contradiction to this, and all, ages.
Like our Lord, they are a stone of stumbling in the way of those who claim that violence has the final word.
But I also admire these chaplains because they offered a realistic answer to a real problem. Far from the phony idealism of the armchair pacifist, their very real sacrifices provided hope to assuage the sufferings of soldiers who bore the brunt of our warlike passions.
In the midst of the most difficult situations, they were tangible signs of the presence of God’s grace shining through darkness.
War reveals much about human nature. J. Glen Gray, one particularly reflective American Military Intelligence officer, wrote about his experiences of combat in some of World War II’s fiercest fighting.
Receiving a battlefield promotion for his cool and efficient discipline under fire and elsewhere, Gray’s comrades described him as a “soldier of soldiers.” A student of human nature in extreme circumstances, Gray had much to say about men at war.
One paragraph from his book “The Warriors” is particularly revealing: “Again and again in moments of this kind I was as much inspired by the nobility of some of my fellows as appalled by the animality of others, or, more exactly, by both qualities in the same person. The average degree, which we commonly know in peacetime, conceals as much as it reveals about the human creature.”
Often appearing so stable and secure in the comfort of our air-conditioned homes, our moral character is disclosed for what it truly is when placed under the ultimate test. There, the human being is revealed at once as incredibly broken and vulnerable, on the one hand, and capable of superhuman feats of courage and nobility on the other.
Above all, war reveals that the fragile balance of human virtue is not self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but ultimately relies on the grace of God. All of us, no matter where we find ourselves, share the same fundamental human nature, with all its greatness, and all its flaws.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our moral courage alone will allow us to ride the storms of life, whether they’re on the field of battle or at home.
Our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen courageously offer their lives as sacrifices for our safety and freedom, when the cause is just, or for our folly and sin, when it isn’t.
Either way, they deserve honor for their devotion. And either way, they tell us something about ourselves that we desperately need to hear.
All of us are vulnerable and fragile, at our best.
Our weakness can become great only when it rests in the mighty arms of a loving God.
Eddie Hoffmann is a Catholic seminarian studying to serve the Church in southwestern Ohio and an intern at St. Columbkille in Wilmington. He is also a future Army Chaplain.