PTSD, Veterans, and the Wisdom of the Bible

Sebastian Junger is an author that has written several books such as The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont. His most recent work concerns war. Mr. Junger embedded almost 15 months with a US Army infantry unit in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. His and the soldiers’ experiences during their time there are captured in Junger’s book called War. Additionally, he co-directed a documentary on the unit’s mission called, Restrepo. Both the book and the documentary describe in gritty detail the dangers infantrymen face in modern warfare.

On Mr. Junger’s return from combat, he took the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by returning combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written insightful articles and a book, Tribe, on the subject.

So when I found a podcast of an interview with him, I eagerly downloaded it and listened. At the beginning of the podcast, he repeatedly mentioned that he was an atheist.  His statement made me realize an important point; many articles I have read about PTSD fail to mention the benefits of religion in helping veterans. This made me think of what lessons the Bible can offer veterans.

The Bible, Warfare and Human Nature

The Old Testament is full of battle stories and the toll battle takes on men and society.

From Genesis, there is the battle outside of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genius 14) and to the battle in Exodus of the Jews fleeing from Egypt (Exodus 17:8-15). The book of Joshua describes the conquest of the land of Canaan by Israel and the famous battle for Jericho. The Israelis’ conquest is swift and severe, with the Israelis practicing herem meaning “the total destruction of the enemy and his goods at the conclusion of a campaign.”

Joshua 6:21“They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep, and donkeys…”

Joshua 6:24 “The city itself they burned with all that was in it; but the silver, gold, and articles of bronze and iron they placed in the treasury of the house of the LORD.”

These verses show how brutal wars were in ancient times and that nothing has changed in human history, as we have seen during the savage World Wars waged throughout the 20th century. Human nature does not change.  

Israel waged war throughout its existence and each historical book of the Old Testament chronicles battle after battle.

These descriptions of battles are not to glorify or revel in the horrors of wars. Instead, they are lessons that war is sometimes a necessary evil. As it states in Ecclesiastes 3:8, “there is a time for war and a time for peace..”

It also shows that fighting and waging war in of itself is not bad, it all depends on the goal.

Soldiers in the Bible

The Bible portrays soldiers as honorable. One example is in Acts 10:7, “When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and honorable. “

Read about the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour [his] servant was healed.

Even God is called a man of war in Isaiah 42:13, “The Lord goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes. “

Being a soldier is not inherently evil. As described above, God understands that soldiers are every bit human and can be noble, honorable and just.

Warrior Saints

Dozens of Catholic Saints fought wars and faced the same problems that modern day fighters endure.  These Saints are shining examples for soldiers to emulate. Soldiers should study the lives of the Saints prior to battle to prepare their souls and minds for combat.

One example of a warrior saint was Saint Ignatius Loyola. Saint Loyola served as a soldier and suffered a direct hit by a cannonball that broke his legs which caused him to limp for the rest of his life. After this wound, the military deemed him unfit for service. He suffered horribly during surgery as there was no anesthesia during his time. While recovering he suffered what many would now call PTSD. After he was able to walk he went to meditate at a Benedictine monastery. Later he would found the religious order of the Society of Jesus and would become famous for his Spiritual Exercises.

Though all veterans do not need to become Saints or found religious orders, soldiers can relate to Saint Loyola’s life as he experienced similar trials to those modern combat soldiers face. As has been stated, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Humans for the past several thousand years have experienced the same problems we face today. It would be wise for the veteran to learn from the past.

Veterans, Forgiveness, and Redemption

Soldiers during war witness or perform violent acts that are unfortunately necessary to defend themselves and their comrades. Nations require soldiers to use violence when ordered to attack enemy positions to pursue objectives that the competent authority has deemed necessary. Unfortunately, these actions haunt some soldiers.

Soldiers in battle sometimes do sin. Or they feel that they are participating in a sinful war or battle. But the soldier that does sin should not despair and realize he is not alone. He should know that Jesus accepted in his ranks sinners, such as Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, one of the worst occupations to have in the time of Jesus.  Another was Simon, a zealot who was reckless in his actions. Simon had extreme hatred in his heart for the Romans and anyone that collaborated with them. But he abandoned his hatred when he followed Jesus.

Many, many other people sinned before embracing the love of the Lord and seeking forgiveness.  Remember not one of us is without sin and Jesus welcomes all.

So it would be wise if people supporting veterans should lead them to the lessons of the Bible and to the lives of Saints.