Chaplain reflects on how war affects body, soul

November 7, 2008

Surviving war is more than assuring one's physical safety, claims Colonel Frank Wismer III (ret.), an Episcopal priest who in his 25-year career as chaplain in the Army Reserve served with troops in Saudi Arabia, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait.

 

His personal concern, expressed in a new book about his experiences in Iraq, is for the many who meet death either psychologically or spiritually. "Returning from war alive is not merely an issue of the body; it is an issue of the soul," he says, relating incidents during which he counseled those suffering from "the long night of the soul."

In War in the Garden of Eden (Seabury, 184 pp., $22.), Wismer undoubtedly will bring some readers to tears while he will anger others as he chronicles his experiences in Iraq between 2003 and 2004, when he served as senior chaplain for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and reflects on the U.S. Administration's actions since then.

Wismer, whose awards include the Bronze Star Medal and the Combat Action Badge, passes on to readers many lessons he learned while in Iraq. Here's one: "Going to war is an incredibly fantastic experience if one lives through it…One year in Iraq revealed things about community that the church was not able to reveal to me in 50-some years. I say that not as a criticism of the church, but to highlight the incredible bond that is established by individuals who survive the horrors of war."

And another: "I don't believe it is enough for the United States to win the Global War on Terrorism. We must also, as a people, win the Personal War on Terrorism. It isn't good enough for our soldiers to finally come home from Iraq and Afghanistan victorious in the global war if in the process they lose the personal war that strips away human dignity…It isn't enough to expel evil from the world in its entirety if we cannot constrict it within ourselves individually."

Preached about war
Unlike others who closet tightly their wartime experience when they return home, Wismer said wrote the book because he felt the need to integrate what he learned into the rest of his life. "I was involved in Planning for Tomorrow [retirement] conferences for Church Pension Fund," he explained, "and I would preach at the end and over those occasions I shared some of my experiences in Iraq.

He revisited and reread the daily journal he had kept in Iraq and the result is a series of vignettes in 26 chapters about people, places and occurrences that he witnessed as the Coalition Provisional Authority struggled to bring order to a country in chaos.

He pronounces unreserved judgment on persons he knew in Iraq who used the war for personal gain – Philip Bloom who "became involved in a scheme to bilk the U.S. government out of millions of dollars" and someone else in the Army Medical Corps who after "more than $184,000 in tuition assistance for medical education," declared herself a conscientious objector. (Her petition was accepted despite Wismer's recommendation that it be disallowed.)

He urges Americans to "stay the course" in Iraq, saying he has become more convinced than ever that the U.S. in engaged in a global war with a discernable strategic plan that, unfortunately, remains obscure to many Americans.

In an interview with Episcopal Life, Wismer says he's troubled by the nation's current response to the war and by political leaders who seem distracted by the day-to-day vicissitudes of tactical mission planning and execution.

"They need to need to have the big picture," he says. "If we are electing people to positions of public trust, they should have a view of the big picture."

The big picture, he suggests, are the strategic objectives that led to the invasion of Iraq -- to fight the war on terror outside of America's borders, to plant democracy in a part of the world that spawns terror; to isolate neighboring Syria, influence a democratic movement in Iran and give notice Saudi Arabia that it cannot tolerate a strict, conservative brand of the Muslim faith practiced there and harbor Islamic militants.

"To pullout our troops out of Iraq now would be a colossal mistake and send that country to chaos," he says. "Strategically that would not be helpful. We would be seen as a people only in something for a short time, not for the long haul.

"I would like to see the Iraqi government be able to manage, the military be able to protect the country from without and the police to protect it from within. Then there can be phased withdrawals, but that needs to be done over time."

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