A Soldier's Magnificat: Up against the Contradiction between His Prayers and His Duties

By Casteel, Joshua | National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Soldier's Magnificat: Up against the Contradiction between His Prayers and His Duties


Casteel, Joshua, National Catholic Reporter


A couple months after returning from Iraq, a fellow soldier, then taking six medications for posttraumatic stress disorder, knelt in a toilet stall while I heard his confession in an Army latrine.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have never confessed, he said to me.

Reacting on the fly, I simply told him I would do my best, and pray as God might lead me. When he emerged from the stall, I extended layman's hands toward the cold shell of a man. Perhaps, though, this had been the most alive John (not his real name) had been in months. I gave him a hug and promised that I would walk him through the penance I had suggested for him. Weeks later, I found myself wrestling John over a bottle of gin amid shouts and paranoid hands.

John had seen some of the worst. Wading amid corpses for days, taking fingerprints of dead Iraqis in the aftermath of the assault on Fallujah; interrogations with images stained in his mind. Once he'd even turned himself in as a committer of atrocities--only to be completely ignored. The silence was simply too great. Desperation asking laymen to pray the prayers of priests.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have never confessed.

For months in Iraq, I prayed the daily offices. The rosary, the Magnificat, the Prayers for the People, and of course my own self-scripted dialogues with God. Morning and evening and noontime alike, I knelt alone, lit candles, sang. Sometimes I would pray the Mass liturgy in the priest's absence, and linger for an hour or more with my head upon my book of prayer, the silence pounding upon me. These times were an entire world unto itself. But that was a world altogether different from the one that existed between my moments of seclusion and prayer. I was, after all, a soldier at war. I was an interrogator.

The first three weeks of any incoming interrogator are pretty much the same. You want to believe in what you're doing. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you look for a way to do what you must. So, you look across the interrogation table in order to right a wrong. You look with the eyes of justice for an evil to be rectified. Sometimes you make decisions of conscience, sometimes decisions of necessity. Each morning I rose, prayed my prayers, donned my M-16 and body armor, walked to my interrogation booth, and met my enemy. And at the end of each day I collapsed again upon my knees, kneeling before an altar of cardboard, cutout icons, and rosaries made of ranger beads, praying for the strength to get through another day--to find justice, to be the servant of justice.

Hail, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

From the first moment I heard them tell me "lock and load," I accepted the fate of a sword bearer, and found peace with God over the possibility of my death. Death was not the fear. But terror filled me when leaving the prison walls over the possibility of becoming one who kills. Once while driving slowly, just outside the perimeter of the Baghdad International Airport, I pointed my rifle as I always did out the window of our armored Humvee. Through the sights of my rifle I saw the faces of three young shepherd boys--probably 8 years old. I realized in that moment that I had just pointed a loaded weapon at three 8-year-old boys, and I'd made eye contact with each of them. I can still see them passing by me, as if in slow motion.

How would they remember that encounter? Were they used to weapons? Had they, too, grown accustomed to living in threat? How was I, an ambassador of the love of Jesus Christ, supposed to recall that day? St. Peter tells us always to proclaim our hope. It was my sin mostly that came to mind when leaving the prison walls. What was yet unconfessed? With whom had I not reconciled?

Lord, please do not let me pull this trigger.

Every time we safely concluded convoys, I'd thank God for keeping my rounds chambered in my rifle. …

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