Beliefs Born On The Battlefield

A U.S. soldier on watch in central Baghdad on Nov. 7, 2008.
Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

There is perhaps no time that belief is more emphatically tested, and acted upon, than in war. For this Veterans Day, five essayists who served in battle from World War I through the Iraq war describe how the violence of combat shaped their beliefs.

Arthur S. Abramson was shot by a German sniper during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He wrote about his belief that love, mercy and truth are the common property of all mankind.

James N. Young served on Gen. John Pershing's staff in France during World War I. He wrote about his belief that humankind is moving toward a world in which warfare is unknown.

Roger Angell spent four years in the Army Air Force during World War II. He wrote about his belief that all of mankind's true greatness and civilization lie in the future.

Michael Whitehead served in the Army and Army Reserves for 30 years. He writes about his belief in the people of Iraq and the need for the U.S. to see the war to its completion.

Jeff Carnes did tours of duty in Kosovo and Iraq. Carnes writes about an Iraqi man who taught him to believe in the strength of the human soul.

Constructing The House Of Life

Born in Montreal, Dr. Arthur Abramson trained in Canadian and American hospitals before joining the U.S. Army. After World War II, he led rehabilitation programs at Bronx Veterans Hospital and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Abramson died in 1982.

On December 27, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, I was shot by a German sniper. At that time, it was a catastrophic event. Afterwards, to begin the long journey of recovery was even more difficult because I had lost some of the flexibility and formativeness of youth. The road ahead was obstructed with huge barriers such as pride, bitterness and self-pity.

My first realization was of being terribly alone. Then came a greater realization: that there were people trying to help me. And finally, much later, I realized that the basic thing was to help myself. And although I must accomplish and achieve through my own efforts, I would never be alone, for the social unit around me would share in my achievements. It helped in my rehabilitation. My next and greatest problem was interpreting what people do and say, because I saw that only by being part of people could I progress.

In my youth, I had wanted to be an architect — to build. I achieved my wish in another way. As a physician, I remembered the thought that you can't construct a building without a scaffold. That scaffold, I decided, would be responsibility for service to others, as it was to me. Giving of myself would give my life continuity. In offering my experience, perhaps I could help people to eventually respond to crisis in this troubled world.

Life has been different since that sniper shot me. I believe I am a better man now, because as a younger man, I was moody with little balance — moods that interfered with concentration and achievement. Now, as a doctor working in rehabilitation, life is fuller at all times. Suffering has been good for me, and now I am a doer. My acceptance of my own pain and physical injury, and hence, my desire to do, completely submerged my bitterness, killed any sense of personal revenge. I know now that I could talk to the man who shot me and feel no rancor.

Thus, I shall not have to steal through an existence without honor and observation. I believe this to be due to my sense of duty, for if I had not a sense of duty, I should not now be a paraplegic. And by the same token, I should not be the man I am. And as such, I should not be able to hold the world close enough. On reflection, I believe I would again undertake the events that led up to the moment that changed my life. For that is the kind of person I am, and experience has shown me that the change was good.

This then, I believe: that human beings grow up with aspirations and hopes for joy and sorrow, and by contrast appreciate each the more. I believe that love and mercy and truth are the common property of all mankind, that life is the soul, and the soul knows no frontiers, no more than does nature, of which we are lucky enough to be the end result. I believe that experience counts most heavily in the construction of the house of life, and not how we are told to build it.

The spoken word only has meaning for me, which fits my experience. It says truth as I see it. I believe in the powers of communication, yet I am forced to recognize the great barriers of concept, for herein lie the struggles of life, as well as its mercy. I measure my standards by my inadequacies and flexibly discipline myself, for one gains stature not with maturity, but with growing. This I believe.

Toward A Far, Far Better World

James N. Young was born in Texas and worked as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore and Los Angeles. During World War I, he served on Gen. John Pershing's staff in France. After the war, Young worked for three decades as an editor of Collier's Magazine.

Many years ago, one of my friends and I purchased 40 acres of land not far from Wilmington, N.C., with the intention of starting a small chicken farm. In need of a house, we employed an old colored man to build one for us. We did not discuss the cost. We knew that man was honest. Born in slavery, the old fella could barely read and write, but he drew up the plans and built that house, a good house, honestly constructed, strong, just what we wanted. But when I glanced at the bill he submitted, I was shocked; the sum he asked was so pitifully small. "See here," I explained, "you aren't making any profit."

The old man smiled. "I'm making plenty," he replied gently. "Couldn't rightly ask for more," and he wouldn't take a cent more than the bill called for.

He lived across the road from us. He owned a little cabin. He had a fine wife who had borne him many children. He did odd jobs, and the good Lord provided them. He never complained about anything. And although hard times were constantly knocking at his door, he was always cheerful. He owned a huge Bible, which he referred to as The Good Book. Reading was difficult for him, but he could do it by spelling out the words very slowly, and every day he read a chapter in The Good Book. Better still, he lived in accordance with the precepts in that book, and I shall never forget him. He was the happiest man I've ever known.

Wise men and cynics alike continue to propound that old bromide that happiness is a goal impossible of attainment. But the wisest of men can be wrong, and I believe that despite the sorrows and disappointments and frustrations that all men must endure, happiness is attainable. I believe that all over the world, men and women in various walks of life may be found who are fully as happy as my old colored friend in Carolina.

We human beings have a long way to go, however, before we are thoroughly civilized. And because this is true, an appropriate title for a history of mankind would be "The Martyrdom of Man." I honestly believe, though, that the good in almost all sane, normal men outweighs by far the evil, and that mankind is slowly but surely growing better.

I believe we are moving toward a far, far better world than we have ever known in the past, a world in which warfare is unknown, a world in which it will be regarded as unthinkable that man live a selfish, self-centered life without regard to the welfare of others; a world in which intolerance of others — a product of ignorance — because of their race, religious beliefs or customs will be a thing — a hateful thing — of the past. This I believe, and I am sorry I cannot render it in terms less platitudinous.

I have other beliefs, of course, and some of them are set down by author Christopher Benson in his delightful collection of essays, "From a College Window," in these stirring words: "I've grown to believe that the one thing worth aiming at is simplicity of heart and life, that one's relations with others should be direct and not diplomatic. That power leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. That meanness and hardness and coldness are the unforgivable sins. That conventionality is the mother of dreariness. That pleasure exists not in virtue of material conditions, but in the joyful heart. That the world is a very interesting and beautiful place. That congenial labor is the secret of happiness."

I like that credo. I believe it is a good one by which to live.

The Dignity Of Man

During World War II, Roger Angell spent four years in the Army Air Force. He later became a longtime writer and fiction editor for The New Yorker, where he penned essays about baseball and nurtured writers, including John Updike and Garrison Keillor.

I state what I believe with seriousness, but with many doubts. I have doubts because I am still a young man, and sureness in the young is unwise and unbecoming. And this is not, it seems to me, a time of certainty, of faiths easily espoused and firmly held. I suspect that this is a good thing, because I am a great believer in skepticism. I think that a man should grasp a belief warily and carry it gingerly. He should always be ready to test its worth against experience and to abandon it without regret if it begins to look ugly, expensive or cumbersome.

I am, as I said, a young man. I cannot look back, as the generation just ahead of me can, to a quieter and less nervous world. Ever since I can remember, my world has been the one we all know so well today. A place of war and a fear of war. A place of incredible speed and incredible change. A world where the most incredible event of all has been our horrified realization of our own weakness, our lack of civilization, our ignorance and the inhuman violence that we human beings are capable of. If this world is not a jungle, it is often as dark as one, and as frightening.

Before too many years, I'm afraid, there will be few of us left who will be able to remember a time of stability and accepted values, accepted peace. And yet, even when this happens, I will refuse to believe that this state of cruelty and fright must be a permanent one, that this is the best which man can attain. I will insist then, as I do now, that man is capable of the heights, but he is with infinite slowness and infinite mistakes, edging out of the darkness.

I believe it is a mistake to take ourselves too seriously as fully developed, fully rational, modern men. It is only dark now, I think, because we are still in a primeval place. All our history, our true greatness, our civilization lie ahead of us. I believe in mankind.

I base my belief somewhat upon history. I base it more on man himself as I see him. Once in a while, in my dealings with other men, an astonishing thing happens. Something I cannot get out of my head. Suddenly I see straight into a man and find, to my shock, only myself there. This is a rare moment, because men do not often give themselves away, only by accident or in times of great pain and happiness. In that moment, if I dare to look, I see in any man my own desires, my deeply hidden beliefs, my need for love, my inner seriousness, and my hope. This moment is a lightning flash in an unlit room that suddenly illuminates all. After it is gone, I still see, pressed on my eyes for a few instants, the shape, the bright highlights and the true vivid colors of the dark room in which I sit. In that moment, the dignity of man is an almost visible thing.

Finally, I am a believer in children. I love children, it seems to me, because they have not yet learned to hide their humanity, to protect it behind words and customs, and lonely fears and suspicions. I love it in them because it is visible, and seeing it, I make great plans for them and for all mankind.

We Will See The Job Through

Michael Whitehead served in the Army and Army Reserves for 30 years. He is writing a novel about his Iraq war experiences titled The Lion of Babylon. Now an emergency manager for the state of Florida, Whitehead has helped direct relief efforts for 18 hurricanes.

From the moment I left Iraq on February 28, 2004, and unloaded my weapons at the Kuwaiti border, I have struggled to communicate what I learned there and how the experience of being there has changed my life. For this reason, I have hesitated to speak my mind. But I made a promise when I was in Iraq, and I want to come forward now and speak what I believe.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I did not believe in them when I arrived in Iraq, but I believed in them when I left. I had few occasions to meet the sullen and suspicious Sunnis of Ramadi. I spent most of my time among the majority Shia in towns like Hilla, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut. The more I came into contact with these people, the more I was impressed with their industriousness, piety, courtesy and sense of family. The most enduring memory for me is not of an Iraqi with his fist held high in anger, but of an Iraqi family, the mother in full-length abaya carrying a baby and the father, walking ahead in a white dishdasha, and holding a small child.

I cannot forget the Iraqi woman who came forward, despite great personal danger, to lead the women's rights center that we created in Karbala. I shared with her a picture of my family that I carried in my helmet. She gave me a postcard of Karbala to give to my daughter. I think of this woman often, and I do not even know her name. When I think of the sacrifices that I made, and the sacrifices that my family made, I believe that they were made for this woman.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I believe in the message of the Iraqi woman that I saw in the streets of Hillah. She looked at me, an American soldier wearing a helmet and body armor and carrying a loaded weapon, and wasn't afraid. If she had been, she would not have lifted her baby's arm to wave at me.

Many times when I was in Iraq, I was thanked, often by grown men in tears, for helping to remove the terror and the horror that had beset these men's lives for over 30 years. And I promised them, each one, that this time we would see the job through. That after awakening them from their nightmare, we would lead them to the democracy that they deserve. When I made that promise, I believed what I said. And I continue to believe it today.

The Strength Of A Man's Soul

Jeff Carnes served in the Army and Army Reserves for six years, and did tours of duty in Kosovo and Iraq. He is now completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. Carnes hopes to go back to Iraq as part of his linguistic studies.

I believed that I was a strong man. Then I met Muhammad.

Serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division as an Arabic linguist in 2003, I met scores of Iraqis. Muhammad was the first Iraqi with whom I had more of a conversation than, "Halt! Go home!"

Muhammad despised Saddam Hussein's despotic regime. He spoke too loudly, and after a Stalinist show trial, he was jailed for six years in the '90s. After the trial, Iraqi intelligence agents tied him to a chair and brought in his wife. He was forced to sit helpless as they raped her in front of him until she died of a heart attack. Muhammad was then subjected to countless tortures including being imprisoned in an isolation cell for 16 months while being fed only bread and water, whipped, chained, as well as other tortures too horrible for description.

I sat at a command post in southern Iraq with Muhammad as he told me all of the tortures he endured under the soon-to-be-deposed Iraqi regime. During this long conversation, Muhammad showed me the scars from his ankles to his wrists. He bared his soul, scarred by years of the anguish of losing everything he had — all because he spoke the truth.

What amazed me during our talk is the fact that Muhammad not only remained composed, but stoic as he told me about his life. Almost any human soul would have faded away. Muhammad, however, was strong enough not only to survive, but to approach a soldier from the most powerful army in the world just to tell his story.

And Muhammad did so as if telling an old war story — with a sense of detached reality. It was not until I asked him, "What do you want to do now that you are free," that he finally showed some emotion.

He finally cracked and whimpered, "I want to go to Kuwait and have a family."

That night we sat in a room, ate MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) and talked late into the night. He helped me with my Iraqi Arabic, and we talked about everything from the regime to soccer to life in the United States. Muhammad gave me the confidence to be able to speak with Iraqis with my Wisconsin-accented Arabic.

The next morning, Muhammad and I parted ways. I never saw him again after I waved goodbye. After all, as a soldier, you're trained to look forward, not back. I am still amazed that Muhammad survived. And I am more amazed at the strength of his soul. That night in late March 2003, Muhammad not only gave me a crash course in Iraqi Arabic. He taught me that the human soul can endure and flourish under even the most trying circumstances.

It is the strength of Muhammad's soul in which I believe.

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