War Stories


by Father Kevin Devine-Chaplain 4


By Father Kevin Devine C.S.P. Circa: 1975

United States Army Chaplin Vietnam 1969-1970

At one time, peace was a mere abstraction. It was a prayer offered at Mass, a word tossed around glibly in a sermon, a subject to be debated over a cocktail.

But I have changed. I have seen men suffer; I have seen men die. I have felt cold fear within me as my jeep slipped behind the convoy and left me alone in enemy territory. I have found tears welling in my eyes as bodies were brought in after an all-night "sapper" attack with hand-to-hand combat. I have stood beside men as they groaned in agony. I have smeared oils on their bloodstained faces and whispered a final absolution over their tattered remains. I have conducted memorial services where the upturn rifle and a battered helmet and the empty boots too well symbolized that that man was no longer with us. I have written letters of sympathy to wives and parents and lost sleep after receiving their moving replies.

As a result, peace is now more than an abstraction. It's a driving passion, a deeply longed for dream. There is truth to the words of Douglas McArthur, "The soldier, above all others, prays for peace, for he must suffer the deepest wounds and scars of war."

One young soldier expressed it well. Our unit had been ambushed by a well camouflaged and heavily armed enemy; he hit us with B-40's and mortars and small arms, while we responded with twenty machine guns firing away on full automatic. As shells exploded and bullets zinged overhead, the trooper whispered to me: "This is a hell of a way to settle on the argument!"

Yes, war is that: A hell of a way to settle an argument. It is not a Hollywood thriller with John Wayne heroics, machine guns blazing as the hero moves through a sea of bullets like Christ walking on the waters.

No longer is it a young patriot dying for his country- though it can be that. Nor is it winning medals or making headlines.

In the words of a young officer who wrote to a group of fourth graders shortly before he died in action: "War is not a glamorous, daredevil experience where the "good guys" always win. It is not a game which you play, where you go home to a good supper and a warm bed after it is over. War is fought by real human beings, not Hollywood stars - men like your daddy and perhaps older brothers. War is a time of tears when we must overcome our sorrow for our fellow comrades and do what must be done.

Yes, war is a battle with real people involved, with arms and legs and eyes and brains laid on the line. It's shooting and being shot; its killing and being killed.

It's the firebombing of Dresden, the annihilation of Nagasaki in a split second. It's Pearl Harbor and MyLai as well as Iwo Jima and Omaha beach.

It's blood and scattered chattered limbs and pain. It's the cry of the enemy as the M-16 slug tears through his guts. It's the shrill scream of the young soldier in the surgery hospital when he suddenly realizes he's been blinded in both eyes by that mortar explosion. It's the funeral procession for a mother of three who foolishly wandered into a minefield. It's the mangled body of a little girl left as a warning to those who refuse cooperate with the guerrillas.

In the most overworked - but still the most accurate of all phrases, War is hell!

And Peace...

It is not the burning of draft cards nor the bombing of R.O.T.C. buildings. Certainly not the desecration of the American Flag in demonstrations gone wild. Peace can, however, be a "V" flashed by hippie and soldier alike, or a symbol painted on a car, or a demonstration welded together by idealism and love.

Traditionally, peace has been sensed in lazy snowflakes falling on a virgin forest. It's been felt in the clear still night of the Arctic winter as the Northern lights dance carefreely overhead. It's been heard in the peal of church bells ringing out in a small country village. It's been inhaled in the crisp morning fog that rolls across the countryside and envelopes mountains and forests in a cloud of fluffy white. It's been communicated in the laughter of a child, completely open to the world. It's been sensed in the joyful pregnancy of a young wife, filled with the expectancy of new life. It's been romanticized in the innocence of young lovers, walking hand in hand through the woods, their future before them lined with roses.

To a soldier in the battlefield: Peace is sleeping soundly through the night without a single incoming shell. It's humping for days through thick brush without the slightest trace of the enemy. Tragically, it's lighting up a weed and soaring off to an unreal dreamland where there is only "love and flowers and more love." Happily it's splashing around in a mountain stream, perfectly relaxed because HoChiMinh's birthday means another twenty-four hour cease fire. It's coming in from the field, after months of combat, alive and unharmed. Or it's waking up, aboard a medevac plane gliding across the Pacific, to find a beautiful young nurse gazing down and whispering reassuringly: "Relax, soldier, the war's over for you. You're on your way home."

To some, Peace sounds boring and dull - like a Hollywood spectacular on the Bible where everyone smiles and violins play and Christ spouts platitudes.

But, no! Peace is vibrant and creative and alive.

It can be as innocent as brother and sister playing together along the shoreline, dodging the waves that role in and wipe away their sand castles.

It can be as idealistic as black and white, and Puerto Rican and Filipino working together and living together as fellow human persons.

It can be as harsh as the frantic scream of the siren on a police car as it is escorts an ambulance through the rush hour traffic of midtown Manhattan.

It can be as violent as the roar machine guns as a covering field of fire explodes in every direction to allow the medevac chopper to glide safely away from the contact area with its heavy load of injured troopers.

No, peace is not dull or lifeless. It is creative and alive. Elusive, but worth searching for! Yes, life giving, but, at times, even worth dying for!

It is Doctor Tom Dooley, leaving mother and father and homeland, and settling in the jungles of Laos to bring the blessings of modern medicine to fifteenth century people.

It's Cesar Chavez, battling economic giants and government bureaucrats with hunger fasts, and boycotts and pleas of non-violence.

It's John F. Kennedy warning the world: "Man must put an end to war or war will put an end to man".

It's Pope Paul, standing before all the nations of the world and pleading in the forum of the UN: "No more war. War never again!"

It's America sending five hundred thousand of its youngsters overseas - dressed not in khaki of the military, but in the varied colors of the Peace Corps. Armed not with machine guns and tanks but with slide rules and bulldozers. Dedicated not to search and destroy but to find and to build.

Peace is the whole world watching, holding its breath, as American astronauts maneuver a crippled spaceship carefully back to old mother earth - and Russia pledges its full resources to help in the rescue attempt.

Peace is the "Shalom" of the Jewish rabbi. It is the "Pax" of the Catholic priest.

It's a lull that settles on the battlefield as men clustered around the altar for a field Mass; and it's the dynamic energy that goes forth, as men, now aware of its meaning, exchange the Kiss of Peace.

And for those who have given their lives because brother has not lived at peace with his brother, Peace, please God, is relaxing under a shade tree in the Elysian Fields of paradise and swapping war stories over a can of cold beer: Jew and Nazi reminiscing together, American and North Vietnamese outdoing one another in their tales of daring.

In a simple phrase:

On Christmas Eve each year, the Air Force radio station at Thule, Greenland breaks its regular programming of music and small talk, to make a startling announcement in the form of a news flash: "An unidentified flying object has just been spotted moving south from the Pole. All of North America has been put on special alert. Fighter interceptors are already on their way to intercept this intruder from the North."

Throughout the course the evening, the music is frequently interrupted by brief news flashes which plot the path of the unidentified intruder as well as the attempts of the Air Force to intercept him.

Then, as the clock strikes midnight and Christmas descends on the world, a news flash joyfully announces: "The fighter interceptors have just made contact with our unknown traveler. The object has been identified as a caravan of sleds, pulled through the sky by seven reindeer and loaded down with gifts. The driver is a jolly old man with long white whiskers; he's dressed in a red suit; his name: Santa Claus. NORAD headquarters have lifted the alert. Santa Claus has been given full clearance to proceed on his way to the States; and the fighter interceptors have been ordered to act as his escort."

Peace is a dream that someday soon the only role of the DEW lines and alert procedures and fighter interceptors to will be the escort Santa Claus safely through the skies every Christmas Eve.