“You’re a medic, right? You must be a conscientious objector.”
Conscientious objector? I didn’t even know what that was, but the word conscience immediately gripped me. It maneuvered between the seams of my empty flak vest, veering threateningly close to my heart. After months of subsisting on fear and constantly being fed an us-versus-them, “shoot first, ask questions later” mind-set, my head and heart were a minefield. I was a soldier in a war zone, but I still didn’t know whether I could kill someone if I had to. I was hiding behind the medic bag I carried and the job that came with it—defending life, limb, or eyesight without exception: American, Iraqi, civilian or enemy. Wearing self protective blinders, I zeroed in on keeping people alive long enough to get them transported and cared for. I accepted the possibility of having to watch people die, but I hadn’t yet decided if I could pull the trigger to take a life.
Oblivious to my battling conscience, the soldier next to me carried on his one-sided conversation. “Me too,” he continued as if I had answered. Refusing to meet his gaze, I kept my eyes on the floor, staying in my protect-and-defend mode, which I had practiced so well as the lone female soldier: Don’t look up. Be small, invisible, less female, less me. Avoid being noticed. And try to make it through another day without being pinned against a wall or targeted for being followed to the latrine at night.
That didn’t deter him from continuing to talk. “I’m not an official conscientious objector,” he clarified in a cheerful voice. “But I love Jesus, and there’s no way I would take away another person’s chance at knowing God by taking their life.”
His words sounded like an official pronouncement, cutting through the silence of the deserted clinic waiting area. “I’m a truck driver, and it’s dangerous out there every day. I love my wife and two kids back home. But I refuse to load bullets in my weapon,” he declared. “I’d rather go to heaven myself than take that opportunity away from another person.”
I was stunned. His words were like a neon sign illuminating a truth that had been chasing me since landing in this war: What am I willing to give my life for? What am I willing to take a life for? My unflinching answer to both those questions had always been my country. I had always been satisfied by this answer until the first night of the convoy. My certainty trembled under the weight of this soldier’s commitment to a costly, self-sacrificing love. God’s quiet insistence that he loves my enemy too, pushed back on my beliefs that night.
The soldier beside me was the first person I’d met who thought this way. I caught a glimmer of a love so big that death couldn’t scare him into doing anything other than loving the other person. His faith made him free in a way I wasn’t. He was free to live as if heaven was real and this earth was not his home, and he could live out that faith in the most costly way imaginable—as if he had something extravagant to give, instead of something priceless to protect.
In the middle of the darkest desert night in the tent clinic, I felt a hovering elation. The truest and most beautiful love I could imagine was sitting right next to me, smiling to himself. His cross-shaped love started to unmake the fear that had been suffocating my soul on the battlefield. The tension that had been building ever since the night God told me not to run over an Iraqi child to protect my convoy finally broke apart.
I understood that I could follow God’s command to love my enemy and serve the country I love. But what had felt like holding in tension two competing allegiances—my allegiance to my country and my allegiance to God—was actually an unequal match. One allegiance trumped the other. I understood that my faith does not require me to kill as proof of my loyalty. It requires me to give myself away, to love my enemies instead of harming them. I understood that I couldn’t be whole if I took the life of another. But if I gave my life in sacrificial love for someone else, then I wouldn’t really lose. I understood that no matter what flag we are born under or what uniform we wear, we are all in the same family, the human family—planted in the same soil, roots intertwined. I understood that I no longer had to choose between my own life and someone else’s. I could choose both. Because there is absolutely something more precious to lose than your own life. I understood that my faith is a call to come fully alive, not just dodge death.
JOIN: RED LETTER CHRISTIANS BOOK CLUB WITH DIANA OESTREICH
With that understanding, the burden I’d been carrying since stepping onto the battlefield lifted from my shoulders like a hot-air balloon suddenly freed from the gravity that had been pinning it to the ground. Untethered, I could see what I had been blind to my whole life—that I was made for life, not death, that even if I gave my life away, I could never really lose. Sometimes we have to be willing to die in order to come fully alive. So in the middle of the night, in a dusty tent in Iraq, I looked the truck-driving soldier in the eye and said, “Me too.”
Later that night back in my tent, sitting on the edge of the army cot that represented my three feet of living space among twelve other soldiers, I held my nine-millimeter Beretta in my hands. It suddenly felt heavy, almost too heavy to hold. I slid my thumb along the side until it found the magazine release. I heard a metallic click, and a full magazine tumbled out into my hands. The gold glint of fifteen bullets shone brightly in my palm. Holding it in my trembling left hand, I reached under my cot with my right hand and pulled out my metal ammo case. A camel sticker with the Kuwaiti flag waved up at me. I lifted the case onto my lap, unclasped the lid, and flung it open, flipping the smiling-camel sticker decor upside down. My left hand hovered over the open ammo box, where my second magazine was stored as usual for the night.
That soldier’s words were still ringing in my ears, still pounding in my chest. Adrenaline pumped through me, leaving a strange metallic aftertaste in my mouth. I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him in the chow hall the next day, but the words he had spoken were electrifying. They were breaking open a new possibility, a third way I had never heard of before.
Clink. My thumb flicked the first bullet out of the magazine. It landed in the bottom of the box with a loud metal clunk. My thumb found the ridge of the next bullet and released it from the magazine’s spring. It tumbled down into the ammo box after the first bullet.
The spring of the magazine tore into my thumb. With each bullet I released, its pressure lessened. The thrum in my chest quieted in sync with the bullets being ejected. As the last round left the magazine, I heard its telltale click of spring against spring, instead of bullet against bullet.
Now empty, the magazine felt like a feather resting on my upturned palm. I pushed it back into its place, inside the pistol grip of my Beretta. My weapon didn’t look any different than before. No one would be able to tell it didn’t hold its standard-issue fifteen rounds. But nothing would ever be the same for me again. My head sunk onto my chest. Grateful tears streamed down my cheeks. My shoulders slumped in relief, as if they’d had been holding up the pyramids and were just relieved of the crushing weight. Peace flooded over me, down my face, into my chest, allowing me to take deep, refreshing breaths of cool air. Freed from taking a life, I felt closer to God than I had since I’d stepped into this war zone. It was the comforting presence of true freedom and the absence of a false sense of security.
The next day, for the first time since landing in Iraq, I woke up without fear clawing in my belly. I finally knew who I was. I am a citizen of heaven first and a patriot second. God’s call to love my enemy would take first place. I was set free. There was so much peace in knowing I would step in front of a bullet for anyone but wouldn’t use a bullet to take a life.
I was still scared of the possibility of watching one of my soldiers get blown up in front of me and not being able to save their life. I was still scared of being raped by my fellow soldiers or tortured by the enemy. But the freedom of knowing how I was going to face those fears in the midst of war changed everything.
It brought me back to what I’d known all along: that love is the most powerful weapon on the planet. At church, I had learned that love can transform enemies into friends, fear into friendship, even hate into humility. When the world was broken, God gave—not conquered—to heal it. God sacrificed to make things whole again. My tradition puts the cross everywhere to make clear that self sacrifice is the way to make wrongs right. And it is that kind of selfless, transformative, fearless love that I am called to give away. This was my only debt: to love the way I was loved.
Seeing myself first and foremost as an outpost of love, a citizen of heaven, changed the way I saw the war, my enemies, and the world around me—it rearranged everything. Believing that this earth is not my home—and living that out—made me feel free. I was alive to living life without doling out death, and nothing could take that away from me. The fear of death no longer controlled me. The pressure to be willing to kill to prove my allegiance to the country I loved was lifted. It couldn’t make me rain down death when I was created to rain down life and more life on this earth.
Even in the midst of unpredictable violence, hope bubbled up in me. As with a foot that has fallen asleep, the waking was painful and exhilarating. I was coming alive, in a place where I had been slowly dying.