A few days before Christmas in 1968, twenty-two year old Karl Marlantes was left in charge. His decisions would make the difference between life and death for his undermanned rifle company tasked with defending two artillery pieces on top of a fog-enshrouded, unnamed hill in Vietnam. The night was coming and with it soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army who wanted to visit death upon Marlantes and his marines. Teenagers were about to begin killing each other.
I stumbled across What It Is Like To Go To War, by Karl Marlentes, while browsing at a Barnes & Noble this past autumn. There was a rather large section of personal combat memoirs anchored by the 40th anniversary of Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, as well as books on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme from World War I. My interest in military history led me to pick up a few of the titles and begin reading at random. It soon became clear that Marlentes’s book was going home with me (and it got mostly read through on the first night) because he saw combat as a spiritual experience. I immediately saw a connection with contemporary college ministry! How in the world can those two things be connected? In what possible world could bloodied, combat-weary marines relate to proverbial snowflakes? Read on.
Karl Marlentes graduated from the USMC’s The Basic School a few months before arriving in Vietnam. TBS is a course which teaches young Marines specific skills with an “emphasis on the duties, responsibilities, and warfighting skills required of a rifle platoon commander.” In other words, they are taught the art of decision making during the fog of war – in five months.
The Marines were engaged in heavy combat and platoons from Marlentes’s rifle company were reassigned to help where needed. He was given command of one platoon tasked with protecting the two artillery pieces on top of a hill.
It was here that Karl Marlentes saw death all around him. His men killed the enemy and the enemy killed his men. They were barely holding on because reinforcement and resupply were impossible. The weather was so bad that no helicopter could get in. The wounded bled and died.
Two days before Christmas a brave helicopter pilot made the very dangerous trip in by following the voice commands of the Marines on the ground. This chopper was able to evacuate the wounded and delivered the mail, food, ammunition, water…and the battalion chaplain.
Marlentes relates that the chaplain brought dirty jokes and Southern Comfort. He laughed it up with the Marines and passed around the booze. Marlentes enjoyed both the comic relief and the alcohol in the moment, but after it was over he was very, very angry.
I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed. I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite, and he [the chaplain] was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide (Marlenetes, 7).
These lines come from the chapter entitled “The Temple of Mars”. Mars was the Roman god of war (Greek = Ares). Ancient roman culture worshipped Mars by celebrating feasts and hosting games. Ares/Mars was the god of military might and the protector of the emperor. Ancient Rome was forged by war. Mars signified all the pain, blood, suffering, and death those who fell under Rome’s sword knew well.
Marlentes and his Marines entered the temple. What they needed was a priest. What they got was a pacifier.
Many of us are painfully aware of the mass exodus of millennials from our churches. It is almost as if an entire generation has vanished. I remember when I began doing itinerant speaking twenty years ago there were churches with enormous youth groups. I can think of several of those churches that now only have a handful of students.
Part of the reason I started Addison’s Walk was to find a way to re-engage a generation that is slipping further and further away. I knew my “in” was going to be the college classroom teaching philosophy and theology but I began to learn about some important issues as it relates to millennials.
My students write papers for my classes (love it or hate it) and I allow them to use personal stories and write in the first person. I was at first shocked at the level of suffering the average nineteen-year-old has endured. I have read page after page of things that I would have never dreamed of dealing with when I was that age. They have told me of deaths of family and friends from both disease and disaster. I have read about abuse, neglect, and abject brokenness. I even learned that a student from last semester and I had a mutual friend. He was a young man who died this past summer from a heroin overdose. He was in my philosophy class two years ago.
These students, and many like them, have entered the Temple of Mars. They have become adept at what they are supposed to do but they know there is always an escape. Social media, alcohol, drugs, and sex – virtually anything good can be used inappropriately – all provide a temporary panacea for the pain of being at Mars’ altar.
They need “priests”. They need a spiritual guide.
I saw it yet again this morning in my existentialism class. One of the hallmarks of existentialism is the idea that one can “create their own truth.” The idea behind this is to live an authentic life but the door is wide open for a subjective view of reality. I explained to my class that we will certainly cover this topic, among others, in detail but it doesn’t agree with my Christian theism. “Why not?”, asked a very nice young lady. I explained that Christianity doesn’t allow for a “create your own truth” category. It does, in fact, follow the laws of logic that say any objective truth claim must either be true or false; they cannot be both at the same time. My student was astounded. “Wait, are you saying there are real answers to the big questions?” Yes, there are but they might not always be easy to find. You could see the weight lift from her shoulders.
I do not think we are doing this generation any kind of service by merely providing more anesthesias. We ought not wonder why they are leaving the churches en masse while all we have told them was what to believe but we never told them why. They need priests, not pacifiers. To be clear, by “priest” I don’t mean someone to perform some kind of ball ritual. I mean a shepherd. They need, and in many cases, are looking for a spiritual guide. They really want someone who will help them see reality for how it is.
Broken and hurting students do not really need us give them shots of spiritual Southern Comfort. If our goal is merely to help them feel better we have failed. No, we must learn how to speak truth into their lives so that they can actually be better.