When Fighting in War Tests Your Faith

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Two military veterans share their experiences. This first reader, Tony from Boise, was deployed to the Middle East three times, once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq:

I was raised in a very Catholic, Midwestern town in North Dakota. Church wasn’t just something you did on Sundays; it was a way of life. During lent you went to church every morning at 7 am, and you absolutely did not eat meat on Fridays during lent for fear of eternal hell fire.

The first thing that ever made me think twice about it, was the fact that after church every Sunday we would go to my grandmas, and all of the adults would sit and talk crap about everyone who was at church—who was there, who wasn’t there, who looked hungover, who sucked at singing … the list goes on and on.

After high school, I joined the Army. The turning point in my life and my view on religion is when I met a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who had lost her arm from an RPG.

It was intended for an American convoy but hit her house instead. I remember thinking, “What did she do to deserve this? If there is a guy up there, how can he justify this?”

I spent a lot of time soul-searching over that deployment and came to terms with the fact that religion isn’t for me. If anyone can justify that, and plenty of people could, it just isn’t for me. In a world where you can justify the loss of an arm of a 12-year-old girl, where does it stop? Genocides for your religion, killing yourself or others for what you believe in, has to stop.

I get along with Muslims really well now that I am in college. I connect with them, and I have nothing against them. They are people, the same as you and I. When Christians want to talk about how violent they are, I always end the conversation with “Remember the crusades?”

This next Army vet, on the other hand, stuck with his religious faith through the horrors of war. Here’s Patrick Stallings’s story:

My experience with religion has been deep and has kept me moored through the many different phases of my life. Growing up, my mom was Catholic, dad was Methodist, brothers never really went to church, and I ended up going with my granddad to a Presbyterian church.

I saw my church as full of thoughtful, introspective, and kind people. When I tagged along with my other family members, I saw much of the same. The church members weren’t outspoken about the kinds of volunteer work they did, but they were there. I remember couples fostering children, groups working in soup kitchens, and others raising money for projects across the city. It was far from perfect (my home church has split twice over LGBTQ inclusion questions), but it very much seemed a net good.

I left town and joined the Army. My first deployment (Northern Iraq 2006-2007) was brutally violent. I saw the worst of humanity, but in that darkness I also saw the best of humanity. As I worked with my platoon to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and ultimately reconcile people who had murdered each other across sectarian lines, I worked with village leaders and imams and I saw the powerful way which religion framed that reconciliation. Not only was it the part of their identity that was catalyzed to start the fighting, it was the frame of reference they used to reconcile their hatred, and ultimately forgive the “other.”

My faith was challenged, and I spent years of my spare time reading philosophy and theology, as well as reflecting as I struggled to make sense of it. Eventually, I came to feel a sense of peace as I accepted knowledge that some questions are unanswerable. Through that process I abandoned my faith and found it again. I realized that so much religious strife was due to the conflation of core tenants and theological questions, most prevalently by those with little understanding of theology or even intentionally by those who seek to weaken or co-opt religious institutions.

I continue to reflect, but in the years since I have realized how my understanding of my own faith has increased my capacity to understand and work with those who have a religious perspective that differs from my own, and how so much of the dogma that people fight over matters so little.