On Being with Krista Tippett

John Morris

The Soul of War

Last Updated

May 24, 2007

Original Air Date

May 25, 2006

With Iraq veteran and chaplain Major John Morris, we explore how war challenges the human spirit and the core tenets of a life of faith. The War on Terror, he says, presents its own spiritual challenges. He is working to support the reintegration of National Guard and Reserve personnel, who are being mobilized for active duty at record levels in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Image of John Morris

John Morris is a chaplain major currently serving the Minnesota Army National Guard and co-creator of "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," a program that serves to reintegrate National Guard members into society.


May 24, 2007

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, with chaplain Major John Morris, we explore how war challenges the spirit of soldiers, communities and the nation. His insights into the soul of war have been shaped through active duty in some of the worst fighting in Iraq. He is working now with National Guard and Reserve personnel who are being mobilized in Iraq and Afghanistan at record levels. Yet, they have little support in resuming their lives.

CHAPLAIN MAJOR JOHN MORRIS: We take a citizen off the street of Minneapolis, and we turn them into a warrior, a person who, upon demand, without a split-second hesitation, will point a weapon at another human being and shoot them until they don’t get up again. It takes six months to get a person ready to do that. Then we put them in combat for 12 months. Then in 300 hours, we can have them from their last mission back on the street in their civilian clothes. There’s a problem there.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. In recent decades, we have acquired the language of post-traumatic stress to treat veterans after combat. My guest this hour says that we must also find new language, rituals, and practices, as a society, to support all veterans as they rejoin their lives, their families, and their communities.

Chaplain Major John Morris speaks with honesty and passion from his own experience in Iraq and his work now with returning soldiers and Guardsmen and women. Being a warrior, he says, is at once heroic and spiritually bruising even under the noblest of circumstances. The war on terror will be with us for many years to come, Major Morris warns, and we must pay closer attention to the imprint it is leaving on military personnel, for their sake and for ours.”

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Soul of War.”

Since September 11th, 2001, 1.5 million military men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And more than 1 million have returned to pick up their lives across the U.S. We often use movies and books to make sense of such epic events. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of an English teacher-turned-World War II soldier in Saving Private Ryan is often cited by veterans as an accurate window into the spiritual disconnect that is wrought by military service.

MR. TOM HANKS (AS CAPTAIN JOHN H. MILLER): So I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to — to tell her about days like today. I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.

MS. TIPPETT: My guest, Chaplain Major John Morris, is now working, as he says, to bring veterans all the way home. He co-founded a pioneering program to support the reintegration of National Guard and Reserve members into society. They’ve composed over one-third of the active duty troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have not had all the support systems of the regular military. Since I spoke with John Morris last year, interest in his reintegration model has grown, and a proposal to nationalize it is now before Congress. John Morris has been a chaplain since 1984. His insights into the soul of war have been shaped through two tours of active duty, including some of the worst fighting in Iraq.

MAJ. MORRIS: I was in Iraq in 2004.


MAJ. MORRIS: I celebrated Easter, a very memorable Easter in 2004 in the city of Fallujah. So I was in Iraq in a dangerous place at a really terrible time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Tell me about Easter in Fallujah.

MAJ. MORRIS: I was at a camp with the Marines, the 1st Marine Division. I was supporting Army special operations soldiers, psychological operations soldiers, who were supporting the 1st Marine Division as they began to lay siege to and take down that city. At Camp Blue Diamond, it’s the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, and we had an early sunrise service, which actually was dangerous because the camp was being mortared occasionally. But, nonetheless, the Marines showed up in great strength, with a few Army personnel there.

And I celebrated with Father Devine, the 1st Marine Division Roman Catholic priest. And it was particularly memorable because, you know, it was the only service I’ve ever conducted where we were — we all knew that, by the end of the day, people who were worshipping in that service would no longer be on this planet. And so we talked about the hope of the Resurrection with a sense of fervency and urgency that I had never experienced before.

The walls of the chapel were adorned with posters with the name of every Marine that had been wounded in the Anbar province, and every Marine that had been killed. And I couldn’t help but think of that verse in Hebrew, as it talked about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. You know, we were, and we knew that very quickly many of us could be on that wall.

So there was a sense of joy, and expectancy, and dread all meld together. All the Marines had their weapons. They were ready to go out on their mission. The place was packed. It was loud, as Marines can be. It was a participatory service. It was a beautiful, sacred privilege. And the service ended. And I went on my way to do my rounds of conducting Easter services for Marines and Army personnel all over that area. So it was an amazing time. A lot of Marines were killed, a lot of Army soldiers killed.

MS. TIPPETT: That same day, after that?

MAJ. MORRIS: Yeah. That fight in Fallujah rolled on for five days, and then went down the road to a town called Ar Ramadi where 12 Marines were killed. That corridor there just was an incredibly bloody corridor. And, of course, that was a peak in the insurgency. And then it rolled into Sadr City, and then down into the holy city of Najaf. And my mission was following all of that. So the sense, however, of the privilege of doing ministry in a place like that was overwhelming. And it was really sustaining for me because I had the strong sense that I was where God wanted me to be. And I was empowered by Him to minister to men in desperate situations, both Iraqis and Americans. I had tremendous opportunity to meet with many, many Iraqis as I went with…

MS. TIPPETT: How did that happen? How did you come to be speaking with Iraqis?

MAJ. MORRIS: Well, our psychological operation teams go right into villages and then towns. And I would often accompany those teams. And we traveled with translators. And so I had great opportunity to talk to the translators. And these were men who were risking their lives for their country’s freedom. They faced certain death. During my time in Iraq, we had 10 translators killed. When they would leave to go home, they’d be tracked down, hunted, and murdered. And they knew that that was the risk they were taking.

MS. TIPPETT: So you were kind of the chaplain to those Iraqi translators as well, in effect?

MAJ. MORRIS: I didn’t set out to serve that, but the men that I met were deeply spiritual men. They respected things of the spirit. And one of their dismays was that they didn’t find many Americans that they considered to be spiritual.

MS. TIPPETT: And there’s something interesting about the Chaplain Corps of our military. That it’s profoundly interfaith in the sense that not only there are chaplains from many traditions, but that you minister — you as a United, someone ordained in the United Methodist Church — you minister to whoever’s there, right?

MAJ. MORRIS: I do minister to whoever comes, and try not to abuse my office in getting them to believe what I believe. And then I work hard to ensure that that soldier has what they need to worship in the way that they believe they need to worship. And I’ll give you a great example. We learned that a rabbi would be in Iraq for Passover. And, you know, rabbis are in short supply in the Army. So I found four Jewish personnel — two Marines, two Army — way out in the Anbar province, and said, ‘Hey, I will get you on a convoy and accompany you and get you in to Passover,’ which was being held in the CPA Palace, now the embassy.

And I had one of the most moving experiences of my life sitting in Saddam’s palace, sharing with these Jews who, in their case, were not really well-versed in their own history, and saying, ‘Hey, look, guys. You’ve come full circle. Your people were here for thousands of years. And they endured so much, and you’re back. And you’re sitting in the palace of a man who persecuted your people. And when the psalmist said, you know, “Sing to us the songs of Zion by the river,” this is where it was at, and you’re back. And look, look around. The room’s filled…’

MS. TIPPETT: By the rivers of Babylon.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yes. ‘The room is filled with 400 of your compatriots.’ And we had, all the coalition partners were represented by Jewish personnel, the CPA, the civilian contractors, all the branches of the military. I sat through the whole service, three, three and a half hours and, you know, walked out of there feeling like, ‘I’ve touched the hem of God here. I have been in something so movingly spiritual that I can’t really capture it in words.’ And when it was all said and done, one of the young soldiers said, ‘You know, sir, I never thought a Christian would do this for me.’ And…

MS. TIPPETT: In a Muslim country.

MAJ. MORRIS: In a Muslim — yeah, just, I mean, God has a sense of humor. And that day He had a great laugh.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I love hearing that story because it’s been so striking for me from the very beginning of our military involvement in Iraq, that it is this critical place of kind of sacred geography, of Genesis, also, of kind of the beginning of Abraham, of the beginning of so many pivotal Biblical stories.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. Sure. Well, there’s no doubt about the historical significance. It’s unbelievable. And there’s a spiritual dynamic that I think often we, and I’m speaking of American military forces, fail to take into account. And it’s to our demise.

MS. TIPPETT: You mean in that culture, in that land?

MAJ. MORRIS: That’s part of it. And in this fight, which we call the global war on terrorism. We say that we understand that the people we’re fighting are motivated by an ideology that’s rooted in an aberrant view of a religion. It’s a great line. But I’ve often had to really be forceful with commanders that, ‘You don’t understand. These people are tapping into something in a spiritual realm. And if you fail to take it seriously, it doesn’t matter how long we fight, we will not defeat them.’

MS. TIPPETT: What does that mean for you? I mean, what are you wanting these commanders to do differently? Or how are you wanting them to think differently when you say that?

MAJ. MORRIS: It has several components to it, and I’m going to be blunt. And I don’t say this for effect; it’s just a reality. We’re in a war. But this is a war where you can’t kill enough people to win because this has a spiritual motivation to it. You’ve got to have more tools than kinetic energy. And that’s how I talk to commanders because they understand kinetic energy as firing of a weapon system.

That means we have to take seriously religious leaders. We have to take seriously the religious worldview of people. We have to think that when we fire that weapon and we miss, that round goes somewhere. And when it hits somebody else that’s innocent, it has a ripple effect on a culture that takes seriously life and death, clan and family. That when we search mosques, it has an impact, whether the mosque was used as an armory, which I often saw that it was, or not. There is an impact. And then the other things that we have to take seriously, how do we care for the dead? These people have…

MS. TIPPETT: You mean the Iraqi dead?

MAJ. MORRIS: Correct, Iraqi dead, Afghani dead, the insurgent fighters that come in from other countries who are Muslims. Do we understand their sacred rituals and rites for dealing with the dead? Do we understand the religious calendar of the area we’re operating in and adhere to this? You know, Iraq has huge pilgrimages that the Shias have to make their way to Karbala and Najaf. You know, you got to take that seriously. And we do. I’m not saying that we don’t, but I’m passionate…

MS. TIPPETT: But it’s hard. You’re right. It needs a whole shift in worldview.

MAJ. MORRIS: Oh, it does. And we train military commanders to be excellent warriors. And they are. They’re very lethal and very effective. But we don’t train them about the spiritual dimension. We pay lip service to it. You know, ‘Hey, religion’s a part of culture. You got to be aware of that.’ Well, that’s great. But how aware are we really?

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you’re getting at something that I think about a lot, and that I think intersects a lot of my conversations with religious people, speaking about many different subjects. But where you’re talking about it in the midst of war, an American military presence in a Muslim culture, it’s intensified. And it is this, the power of religious energies of the spiritual aspect of life, which can be powerfully good, but when it’s distorted, very powerfully destructive also.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yes, it can. Yes, it can. And you’re exactly right. And we’re in a day and an age where, you know, there’s a toxic edge to some views of religious understanding, and it’s costing people their lives.

MS. TIPPETT: Chaplain Major John Morris. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Soul of War.” Chaplain Morris is working now on programs to address the particular spiritual challenges of National Guard and Reserved personnel in and beyond combat. Currently, over 80,000 of them are mobilized worldwide, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the highest level since World War II. And unlike career military personnel, they are offered little in the way of re-orientation and support in resuming their civilian lives. John Morris says this is a public health issue and a story that’s been missing in the media.

MAJ. MORRIS: Here’s the thing that we face in the Guard — the Army Guard and the Army Reserve, which is being used now in this war like it hasn’t been used since World War II, massive call-ups, people uprooted from their lives. And we actually go to combat longer than the active-duty counterparts do. They go for six months to a year. We go for 18 months — six months of training, 12 months of combat.

Now here’s the disconnect: We take a citizen off the street of Minneapolis, and we turn them into a warrior, a person who, upon demand, without a split-second hesitation, will point a weapon at another human being and shoot them until they don’t get up again. You don’t just easily train people to do that. That is an amazing transformation. It takes six months to get a person ready to do that, then we put them in combat for 12 months. Then, in 300 hours, we can have them from their last mission back on the street in Minneapolis in their civilian clothes. There’s a problem there. The active duty doesn’t do that. They bring their soldiers back to bases, they have a transition period, they have programs, they watch their soldiers. We just release them. And how do you reverse from warrior back to citizen in 300 hours? It can’t be done, and it’s not being done well around the country. And so we’re putting a speed bump there to help this process, and an educational component, and support component to try to help our soldiers. And that’s where the spiritual dimension comes in.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, and I want to ask you, as someone who is wanting to focus attention on the spiritual dimension, you’re a religious person, a religious leader, and when you put it that bluntly, that we’re training people to point a gun at another human being and kill them, you know, what happens to someone’s spirit in that process? And how do you make sense of that? How do you justify that?

MAJ. MORRIS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and that’s a classic question. And I do put that very bluntly because we don’t do anybody any service couching war in any language other than war language. I call it tricking soldiers into killing people. If we mask this language, we set them up to be further damaged because they’re not mentally prepared for the horrible job we’re giving them to do. And if we don’t talk as a society about war with war language, then we’re fooling ourselves about what we’re all participating in, and we’re underestimating the impact it will have on those that we’re sending there and then on their families when they return.

Now, how do I deal with the whole question of killing another human being? Well, not with great ease, and anybody worth their salt, I would pray, would be at dis-ease with the concept of sanctioning the taking of human life. Now, the way I deal with it with soldiers, I don’t have a formula. But we are engaged in something that we believe, by our president and foreign policy, to be a needed task to combat a greater evil. We have people on the battlefield who want to take our lives. We have a great responsibility to discern who the enemy is and who isn’t the enemy, and to use the proportionate amount of violence to address and kill our enemy, and to spare those who are innocent. And we cannot deny that when we take human life, it impacts us. When we go in after killing people and search them and find their photographs of their families, we have killed human beings. We haven’t killed things or people that we’ve managed to convince ourselves are robots. We’ve killed humans. And I will tell you, dealing with combat veterans of all generations in this, I’m proud to say that American soldiers are bothered by taking human life.

We may have time periods on the battlefield where we are hardened, but when we come home and we have a chance to reflect, we don’t come to peace easily, even though often, we know we were in clear-cut engagements with an enemy. The worst that we have to deal with is when we know we’ve killed innocent people or our own soldiers due to the chaos of the battlefield. And that drives some soldiers mad. But, for all of them, it bruises their spirit.

And this is where I, as a clergyman, plead for the help of the church. Because soldiers come looking for absolution and often find that the church is not a place they can come to, or they feel disassociated from it. And then where do they go?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You have said elsewhere that spiritual leaders, clergy and congregations are really often not equipped. And, you know, where is the training for this in our culture to be part of this healing of our military personnel when they come back home? Tell me about that. Tell me what you’ve observed in terms of what, what is the problem there?

MAJ. MORRIS: It seems, you know, having been a parish pastor for 20 years while I served in the Guard and Reserve, I can observe the people that I associated with in my denomination. By and large, they came of age, either during the Vietnam era, or were instructed by the people who came of age during the Vietnam era, a time when we had a societal nervous breakdown, and when we did turn on the military. We understand, intuitively, we don’t want to do that again. But I watch my colleagues wrestle with the dynamics of ‘How do I separate the war from the warrior? And how do I deal with the divisive issue in my congregation? I don’t want to appear to be promoting war.’ That seems to be the default mode for most Christian clergy, and I think that’s a good thing. ‘I don’t want to promote war, but I don’t want to shame the warrior. But I don’t know how to do either, so I just won’t do anything.”

Now some go one direction or the other. Some say, ‘Look, I’m against this war, and I’m not going to honor the warrior. I won’t have an American flag in my sanctuary, and I’ll do everything I can to let warriors know that they shouldn’t participate in this.’ And on the other end, you can wrap the flag around the gospel and say this is God’s war. And I’ve seen both. I’m asking people to do the more nuanced of whatever your foreign policy opinion is, please share it. That’s your role as a prophet. I have no problem with that. But in your congregation are men and women whose sons and daughters, or grandmas and grandpas, or fathers and mothers are off risking their lives. How do you tend to them? And how do you help that soldier come home? Big, big pastoral challenge.

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that even in congregations where — and you’re right, you know, the public debate tends not to be nuanced.


MS. TIPPETT: At least the publicized debate.


MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that in congregations, where the choice is to support the war and to welcome our military personnel back as heroes, even there that healing might not take place because there might not be that nuanced acknowledgment still of what a difficult and damaging experience that is, even if it is deemed to be morally right.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yes, you’re right. And we don’t have a lot of rituals, and we need one for this.

MS. TIPPETT: In our culture, hmm.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yeah. In Medieval days, in some parts of Europe, the priest would go with the soldiers, raised from the villages to go fight, and you know, hear their confession prior to going to battle, give them last rites, and send them to war. So that’s a very stark psychology. ‘Hey, you may die, so we need to make things right with God.’ Then when they came home, they were stopped before they entered the village. The village went out to meet them. They were not allowed in the village. Stripped off their clothes that they had fought in, bathed, heard confession again, celebrated the Eucharist, and then allowed back in the village. Now, what were they saying there? ‘You know, there needs to be some business done with God and with the community prior to allowing you to rejoin us. We need to leave the old out here.’

I say we’re in the Dr. Phil culture. Here’s an ironic observation on this war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

MS. TIPPETT: In terms of how it’s been covered, yeah.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yeah. And it’s, you know, it’s our culture today. We like to delve into people’s personal lives and pain. That has a peculiar spiritual effect on combat veterans as well because heroism doesn’t seem to be as valued in our culture, but having personal pain and trauma gets you notoriety. That’s a real twist that’s hard for people to come to grips with.

MS. TIPPETT: People — soldiers once they’re back here.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. And the military, you know, heroism’s a sacrament. It’s a virtue. It’s something unbelievable to see somebody exhibit. And we honor it highly. And so what it tends to do is it alienates us even further. We’re part of a subculture in America that values things the general culture doesn’t seem to be as interested in. And that puzzles us, and so it creates, again, that sense of alienation, that ‘Hey, where I was really most vital and alive was when I was with my combat buddies, and we were executing our mission. When I come back here, people want to treat me like a victim.’ ‘There must be something wrong with you, because you went to combat.’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Something that I’ve noticed in this war, or in this — in these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and I think this is part of the media’s attempt to honor the people who are fighting — you’ve had a lot of stories about the toll that it takes on their families for them to be away.


MS. TIPPETT: Those are real traumas that are happening to people in our society. But, to me, I mean, and you’ve kind of given me a word to describe what makes you uncomfortable about it, it is portraying military people and their families as victims.

MAJ. MORRIS: Well, I agree, and I often say this in our…

MS. TIPPETT: You know what I’m talking about?

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. I often say this in our community reintegration training. Make — see if this resonates with what you just said. I say to people, you know, this is a volunteer army. This is not your father’s army.


MAJ. MORRIS: And it may shock you, as citizens, to know that the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who are going to war, chose to do this. And in fact, the vast majority in theater, while they don’t like being away from home, they don’t like the danger, they believe this is what the nation needs them to be doing. And we used to call that noble. And now, we don’t seem to have a word for that. Back in the ’80s, there was a term “weekend warrior,” and there was a myth that said if you called the Guard and Reserve, they won’t come. Well, you know, there hasn’t been any mass desertions. There have not been any units that failed to come. That’s an underreported story.

MS. TIPPETT: In fact, there’s been an incredible amount of self-sacrificing.

MAJ. MORRIS: Yeah. People have uprooted their lives. And what a lot of folks don’t realize is we’re sending from 17 to 57 to war. Seventeen hundred soldiers in Iraq today are over the age of 55. We’re sending grandpa and son, father, son, mom and dad. This is an unusual time in American history, with this volunteer force. The 3,000 Minnesota Guard soldiers that are in Iraq today, 1,000 of them are on their second deployment since 9/11. That means they’ve given up twice putting any roots down in a civilian career and in their family to serve in harm’s way. I’m awed to be around people like that, and I have a hard time conveying that to my fellow citizens, that, ‘Hey, we’re not victims, you know. We’re willing volunteers.’

MS. TIPPETT: Chaplain Major John Morris. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, his observations on how war challenges the core tenets of a life of faith. There are, he says, atheists in foxholes. In the American Army these days, there are also, of course, Muslims and Wiccans and Buddhists.

Our companion Web site, speakingoffaith.org, includes Chaplain Morris’ essay on how members of faith congregations can help returning soldiers reintegrate with their communities. There’s also an audio slide show of Major Morris describing his tour in Iraq. Also, sign up for e-mail newsletter and subscribe to our podcast, which includes a free download of each program, now with bonus material. Listen whenever and wherever you like. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Announcements ]

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Soul of War.” Chaplain Major John Morris is a veteran of Iraq, and he leads a pioneering initiative of the Minnesota National Guard called Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.

I spoke with him in 2006 about the spiritual impact of military service on soldiers and their communities. Now a model for a national program, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is teaching clergy and counselors how to deal with the mental and spiritual needs of returning soldiers and their families.

The Department of Defense recently revealed that one-third of returning soldiers report psychological concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Among members of the National Guard, that figure jumps to 49 percent, and problems rise significantly after repeated deployments. John Morris is just as concerned with the challenge of readjustment for the remaining 50 to 70 percent.

MAJ. MORRIS: When we say mental health, my experience is most of the duress that I see in soldiers coming out of combat is marital issues. Seventy percent of the military is married. You leave your spouse and your family for 18 months, you’re going to have problems when you come home. The strongest of marriages will be tested sorely. When you leave your children and try to reconnect, and they’ve grown two years in your absence, you’re going to have some significant challenges. When you try to re-engage with a job, and I’m speaking about the Guard and the Reserve now, that will cause you mental duress…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MAJ. MORRIS: …on top of the agitation that you’re going to experience having been in another culture. Basically, I tell people, if you live in a forward operating base in Afghanistan or Iraq, you’re in something like a medium-security to maximum-security prison. Anybody that’s been in prison for 18 months and gets released is going to have some issues that are going to cause stress. Then you throw the culture. You’ve left the Middle East and returned to the United States, then you throw the loss of camaraderie. And then on top of that you throw all the battlefield skills that you’ve learned to survive, don’t translate…

MS. TIPPETT: That you have to unlearn.

MAJ. MORRIS: …you’re going to have duress. But the legions of soldiers throughout all conflicts come, work through those things, leap forward in life in a tremendous way.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And, you know, I wanted to ask you about this. I do think there’s a general sense that, you know, we talk about the great generation, World War II. There was a war that we think of as morally right, no ambiguity, really. You can take fault with some missions and actions.

MAJ. MORRIS: Mm-hmm. Sure, and they came home and lived happily ever after.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Now did…

MAJ. MORRIS: Well, thanks for raising that.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that because we didn’t talk about these problems back then?

MAJ. MORRIS: Yeah. Right on. I’ll prove it to you.


MAJ. MORRIS: Let me read you something here from a memoir.


MAJ. MORRIS: From my wife’s great uncle, who lives in Lake Crystal, Minnesota. Great guy. He served 152 days in combat with the 91st Infantry Division, fought up the boot of Italy ’til the last day in hostilities with the Germans in Italy. This gentleman writes:

“Combat is a traumatic experience. After all these years, even though my senses are not as keen, I can still close my eyes and see and hear and smell the battle and sense the death and fear that surrounded me. My discharge from the Army was anti-climactic. I was 20 years old, but in some ways, I was an old man. I had been in places and seen things that few people see in a lifetime. I wanted to forget, but I couldn’t. I had trouble sleeping. I was nervous, confused and angry. I had trouble concentrating, and I had no idea on what to do to earn a living. In today’s world, I supposed I’d be diagnosed as having PTSD. However, we were told to go home, forget about it, get a job. My parents encouraged me to attend college. But with my mental state at the time, I knew it wouldn’t work. During the next three years, you might say I was a bum. I drove a flower delivery truck, dismantled machinery, worked nights in a 24-hour truck stop, was a molder in a foundry, and went broke operating a restaurant.”

Now that is a World War II, greatest generation, dogface soldier.

MS. TIPPETT: Not a Vietnam vet.

MAJ. MORRIS: No. No. We didn’t have, you know, he was like the, his peers of the day. They didn’t have a language to discuss it. So many people had experienced it that they silently bore the agony. The interesting thing that the VA tells me — and I work closely with the VA vet centers and VA psychologists — they tell me that since 9/11, the biggest upsurge in customers for them is World War II-generation veterans…

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MAJ. MORRIS: …who finally are coming in with idle time on their hands, like this gentlemen who wrote four years of his combat experience down in a book. They’re coming and looking for help. So, yeah, they had the same problems dealing with the trauma of war that this generation will have. I think this generation, we’ve got more resources for them. And one of the purposes of my program is to connect them early with those resources so they don’t have to walk with this for 60 years, so they can bring this to the surface and process it, draw strength from it, and move on with their lives.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. I want to ask you, we started here, but I want to sort of come back to this territory of war and faith and the soul. There’s this phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

MAJ. MORRIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you think of that phrase?

MAJ. MORRIS: It’s not true. There are atheists in foxholes. Stephen Mansfield’s written a great book called The Faith of the American Soldier. And he chronicles what he saw in Iraq, the same time I was there. I think he got it very, very well. What I saw in Iraq, and I ended up my tour of duty in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But what I saw in my combat experience — and I’ve seen through my 22 years — is on the battlefield, using crude numbers, a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith. A third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic. And that’s, that religion on the battlefield bears a lot of looking at. The other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith.


MAJ. MORRIS: And many would say to me, very bluntly, ‘I’ve lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away,’ or ‘I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there’s a good God, He wouldn’t let that to happen. So I do not want to believe anymore.’ The guys I worried about, that were fatalistic, were people who had really hardened in their soul. And they had what I would call the thousand-yard stare, the classic combat look of a fatigued soldier. And they were droning through each day not thinking too far ahead and not being retrospectful.

To look ahead meant you had to have hope for future. To look within meant you had to deal with the pain and the challenge. Too much energy to expend that, you know, to do that, so they wouldn’t do that. And they had seen so much chaos, and war is chaos. You could do everything right and still die. And you see that on a regular basis. And that’s so counter to American philosophy where the good guys win in the end. And if you do everything right, you’re rewarded.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. At least, the movie philosophy.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. And here, you know, a guy that’s barefoot, with an AK-47, can kill the best and the bravest soldier, or a mortar round can fire inexplicably into your PX and kill innocent people. It’s chaotic. And that chaos seems to so harden people into saying, ‘I can’t think about transcendent things. Nobody’s in control. The only thing I can control is the space around me right now. And whatever is is. And whatever will be will be. And I’m not going to worry about it, so don’t bother me with anything transcendent or eternal.’ Now the thing that really throws the, a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place, and who may be shooting you out of that sacred place.


MAJ. MORRIS: That really hardens some people to say, ‘I don’t know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don’t want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. And so I don’t want to deal with any of you people that have anything to do with religion, because you guys are causing the wars of the world today.’

So you meet a real mix, just like you do on any street in America. The American military’s no different. Everything from the atheist to the devout Orthodox Jew to the Wiccan to the Pagan to everything in between. It’s all there.

The unique thing about this war, I think, that our forefathers and mothers would not recognize is this generation of soldiers will do their own religion and not wait for the chaplain to organize it for them.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MAJ. MORRIS: So it’s not unusual to find Bible studies, Qur’anic studies, prayer groups. People doing it and not, they’re not asking for permission. They’re exercising their freedom. It’s a wonderful thing to see. So, you’ll have a chapel on every one of these forward operating bases, and a chaplain staff in the chapel, but you might not have big attendance. But don’t let that fool you about the religious fervor on that operating base. It just may not be in an organized variety.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s someone named Gordon Cosby. Have you heard of him? He’s a Baptist. He was a Baptist minister and a chaplain in World War II, and he founded the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.

MAJ. MORRIS: I just know the name; I don’t know him well.

MS. TIPPETT: And he wanted to found kind of a new kind of church, because as a chaplain in World War II, he said he experienced that what churches should have been — and he was mostly with Christian American soldiers, I suppose, at that time. He felt churches should have been places where people were prepared to face death…


MS. TIPPETT: …and to face the large transcendent issues of life and death that they were confronted with in battle, and they weren’t. What you’re describing is, you know, and now, there are many more people who we would called “unchurched” in our culture, but, oh, I think it’s really interesting that what you’re describing also is people taking that spiritual quest into their own hands.

MAJ. MORRIS: You bet. You bet. And it’s true of American soldiers.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s really fascinating.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. And so, you know, my first time with the military, into the Middle East, was in 1996, and I was up on the Iraqi border, waiting for Saddam to reinvade Kuwait, and I personally gave out over 150 Qur’ans. People inquiring, ‘What do Muslims believe?’ And hey, look, and I should say they were English translations of the Qur’an. But ‘Here, you can read this for yourself.’ I passed out Arabic translations and said, ‘If you really want to get to the essence here, you’re going to have to learn Arabic.’ But that’s the American soldier searching. OK? And I passed out thousands of Bibles and Jewish prayer books, and that’s the role of the chaplain: Resource people so that they can inquire. I’ve been called “father.” I can’t — if I had a dime every time, I’d be able to retire today.

You know, all the denominations come to your services, and we set aside a lot of things. And I often think about the picture of the animals on the Serengeti when there’s a flood, and they’re all on the island together, predator and prey. Well, you know, combat does that. Hey, we don’t have time to worry about the fine distinctions that divide us.

MS. TIPPETT: Chaplain Major John Morris. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Soul of War.” John Morris is now working with National Guard and Reserve veterans. He says that the nature of the current military action in Iraq intensifies the spiritual disconnect that the experience of war always creates. Highly publicized atrocities committed there by U.S. soldiers, such as the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, both reveal and compound that.

MAJ. MORRIS: And I was outside Abu Ghraib when those things, those horrible pictures hit the international media. And I’ll tell you, men were moved to revulsion because we’re not that kind of people, and that isn’t the depths that we sink to. And it isn’t where we want to go morally or spiritually. And to think that there were among us people that did that, I think those things cause a numbness of the soul. I think another thing that affects us is many soldiers will patrol, and patrol for a year, see their buddies maimed, wounded and killed and never see the enemy. And come home with a sense of ‘I didn’t do my job, I was…’

MS. TIPPETT: Because it’s the insurgency?

MAJ. MORRIS: It — yes. They…

MS. TIPPETT: So they’re not facing, you know, soldiers in uniforms.

MAJ. MORRIS: They’re invisible. They blow a bomb up from, you know, half a mile away. You never — they don’t come out to fight you.


MAJ. MORRIS: And the warrior sense of ‘I’m here to protect, I’m here to defend, and I never got to do my job, but my buddy got wounded and killed. I failed in some way. I’m frustrated.’ I — the sense of justice, where is justice. These are the real things that we wrestle with. And then to see an enemy that’s so wanton in the use of innocent people to perpetuate their gain, it’s in a category we have a hard time comprehending.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, you’ve used the word chaos with me several times, and anarchy, and this fact that you are up against good and evil, including the good and evil within yourself. I think civilians are in that situation, also, in a war zone, which touches on the big dynamics of religious faith and of religious traditions. You knew at 23 or something that you were called to be a chaplain, and to be a military chaplain. And, you know, how do all these things you know and all these things you’ve experienced in yourself and in others, how do they, can you talk a little bit about how that changes your understanding of some of the great, big tenets of Christianity?

MAJ. MORRIS: Well, let’s talk about love your enemies. That’s sorely tested in combat. I think, in a very chilling way, I came to the abyss of hate in Fallujah. The body parts of four Americans charred and hanging off a bridge over the Euphrates brought me to a point where I could truly sense myself going down a vortex of hate, that in a city, people were harbored who were that debased. And so at that point, I felt that I was crossing a line to say, ‘Yes, these people’s time on the planet is over, they need to leave. There’s no second chance, there’s no other form of justice. They have forfeited all rights to humanness.’ That was a chilling, chilling moment for me because I knew I was entering a new territory. And once you cross this line, there’s no coming back.

When do I become like them? I found myself fueled with a sense of hatred that I could easily have said, you know, ‘Hey, I’m God’s wrath. We are God’s wrath. This needs to be taken care of.’ The only thing that pulled me back from that was the power of the Holy Spirit, all the Christian disciplines, and my sense of understanding that, wait a minute, as much as I abhor everything that’s done, and as much as I believe what was done was evil, and that if these people don’t come out and surrender, there’s only one alternative, that is to go in and kill them or apprehend them. I knew I could not cross that line and say, ‘OK, God’s on my side, and here we go.’ No, this is chaos, this is human fallenness to the max, and we’re using the most brutal tool of human society, the military, to solve a very, very terrible problem. And this isn’t God here, this is fallen human beings. So God help me and have mercy on me. I’m a part of something like this, and I prayed that it wouldn’t be, but here we are. Save me from becoming a debased, immoral human being. And save my soldiers as well.

One of the things that I see as a challenge here is how does the community accept its moral obligation to reintegrate veterans and their families? And I’m treading lightly here because I don’t want to be perceived as laying guilt on people, but what we learned from the Vietnam conflict is, if the community shames and shuns, it has a disastrous public health effect that ends up affecting all of us. But we haven’t figured out what our moral role is here, and it’s often put back on the military. ‘Hey, you fix these people so they can come home and live peacefully among us, and we’ll be quiet and they’ll be quiet.’ Well, we can’t do that.

So we’ve alluded to this, how does the church do it, but how does the greater community do this beyond paying our taxes? I think citizens are wrestling with that and looking for guidance. What do I do? Do I say “thank you” to a veteran? Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing to do. But what else do I do? Well, how do I make space in my workplace when a veteran returns, for them to make a successful transition? How do I provide for their family while they’re gone and their children and help make space for them to reconnect? How do I help the soldier learn how to reconnect with their child? How do I help the child deal with a soldier who’s different than when they left? How do I help that spouse who’s trying to hold it all together or that grandparent who’s raising that soldier’s kids? These are community issues that I find the community saying, ‘We didn’t think about this, we want to think about this, we need some guidance. Where do we go to learn how to do this?’

And I am begging for the community, let’s talk quickly, because there’s no end in sight to veterans returning, and how we help them reconnect sets us up for a successful, healthy future or for lingering problems and wounds from this war.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m thinking about how you said to me that the trauma, the spiritual and mental and physical trauma of war has always been there, but we didn’t have a language for it…

MAJ. MORRIS: Correct.

MS. TIPPETT: …until these last couple of decades. And what you’re, what you’re talking about here is that the entire society needs a language also for being part of that healing.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure. And in the past, we’ve attempted this by doing things like Veterans Day, Memorial Day.


MAJ. MORRIS: Those are great rituals that brought this issue to the surface for us to wrestle with once again. Obviously, we need to preserve those. But because we’re using Guard and reservists so much, how do we build into our communities, beyond the parade and the welcome home, a long-term effort to help them come all the way home? This involves social services and educators, doctors, lawyers, law enforcement. Every sector of the society will be touched by us and our families. So this is a long-term effort for people who tend to have a microwave attention span.


MAJ. MORRIS: And I often say it’s like recovering from Hurricane Katrina. It won’t happen in a year. Neither will recovering from war.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And we have people coming home now every day, every day.

MAJ. MORRIS: Sure we do. And we will for years and years to come. This is with us for the rest of our lives and on into our children’s lives, this homecoming of veterans. So let’s get it right this time.

MS. TIPPETT: Chaplain Major John Morris. His project with the Minnesota Army National Guard is called Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Its new initiatives this summer include a camp to help young children prepare for the return of their deployed parents.

Send us your reactions to this program at speakingoffaith.org. We provide links there to Beyond the Yellow Ribbon and other resources for community reintegration of veterans. And view an audio slideshow of Major Morris describing images taken during his tour of duty, ministering to soldiers in Iraq. Sign up for e-mail newsletter with my journal and subscribe to our podcast, which includes mp3s of current and past programs, and now we’re adding bonus material. Listen whenever and wherever you like. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson, and associate producer Jessica Nordell. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.