By: CH (CPT) Tzvi Teitelbaum, USAR
The old adage “There are no atheists in foxholes” is true insofar that you would be hard-pressed to find many philosophers in combat. The idea that folks finding themselves in precarious situations somehow put their faith in a higher deity does not seem to be the case much anymore. Perhaps one who had taken the time and effort to develop a life’s philosophy would realize during a time of danger how limited they are. In that case, a denier may realize that what they have been denying all along may be the only savior. But many of today’s Warriors have not been raised or educated with faith or a belief in G-d and have not deeply considered their life philosophy, and therefore may not have where to turn in a time of crisis.
Almost a decade ago I read “American Sniper”, a book written by Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle. The book is a fabulous read, hard to put down, and not just because he was a fellow Texan! What was so intriguing to me as a chaplain, is that not only did Chris express his faith throughout the book, but his faith is evident in the way he conducted himself as a SEAL, sniper and as a family man. Not to say that he was a big churchgoer, but he had a strong belief in G-d and a faith in something greater than himself. Chris Kyle was undoubtedly a legendary sniper, a true professional and an impressive Warrior. While Kyle and I are not of the same religion, I believe that faith in a Higher Power is a crucial element of emotional and moral stability, and Chris Kyle presents an excellent study of that in American Sniper.
Kyle truly believed in the mission he did. He had no guilt or regret for any of the lives he took as the most prolific sniper in Iraq at the time. He would say, “I don’t think much about the lives I took; I think rather about the lives I saved.” The only guilt he lived with was when thinking about the lives of the troops he was not able to save. His outlook and his ability to compartmentalize was based on faith. (Parenthetically, I was privileged to spend some time with the sniper’s parents, and there is no doubt: they are true people of faith. Their deep faith obviously impacted their son.) Faith gave him the strength to not only believe in the mission, but to take pride in his work.
Perhaps surprisingly, the hardest time of Kyle’s life was when he was forced to make the decision to leave the Navy. Life immediately after the Navy was very difficult, and depression ensued. This phenomenon is quite common among veterans. The aftermath of overseas deployments, separation from active duty, retirement or involuntary separation from the military proves to be emotionally difficult for military professionals. Kyle eventually found a way not only to cope with his new life as a civilian but also to make a difference and positively impact the world around him. He found strength not only in physical fitness, but in his faith, and this allowed him to thrive until his unfortunate death, killed by a fellow veteran he was trying to help through his suffering from PTSD.
On a recent mission I read another book about a prolific sniper, “The Longest Kill”, written by Sergeant Craig Harrison from the Royal British Army. Harrison held a record for making a Kill from 2,475 meters. The difference in background, upbringing and general environment between Kyle and Harrison was inescapable. The biggest contrast that stood out was that Harrison was not a man of faith. He
expresses several times throughout the book that he had no need or use for faith or belief in G-d. The effects are clearly evident. When you read American Sniper, you are taken on an exhilarating journey of failure and triumph, and finally a feel-good conclusion of a life being lived with purpose, meaning and joy. The Longest Kill, while also a fun read with plenty of ups and downs, twists and anecdotes, ends leaving the reader with a feeling of sadness and pity for a life in torment and turmoil.
I acknowledge that much of the turmoil in Harrison’s life is not of his own doing. And I recognize the failure of the British government to properly care for, honor or even respect their service members and veterans. But I couldn’t help thinking throughout the book and especially upon completion, that if only Harrison believed in something… Something that transcended himself, his difficult upbringing, something that transcended the Royal Army or the violent anti-war anarchists.
Perhaps faith would have allowed him to attribute meaning to the things that happen not only to himself, but also to the world around him. Perhaps faith would have guided him and helped him clear his conscience, so that he would understand the difference between a military sniper ending the lives of active terrorists, and the acts of the terrorists themselves. When one does not have the benefit of believing in something greater than life and something greater than human decision or human error, then the world is an evil place. Life could then be interpreted as a cynical joke.
Faith uplifts us from our circumstances. When you believe in G-d and the Torah as taught to us by the prophets and the holy Sages, then you have all you need to guide you through the difficulties as well as the good times in life. King Solomon taught us that everything in this world is fleeting, everything in this world is vain, yet everything in this world happens for a reason. As a military professional, the benefit of faith as a guide cannot be overstated. Faith is needed to get us through every difficult experience. Faith is equally as important to help us through
crises we may experience within our conscience. Ultimately, having a strong system of right and wrong within ourselves keeps our internal systems in balance with the life and death decisions those of us in the military need to make.
Much like physical fitness, which requires constant maintenance and advancement, faith is the same way. Reading a nice article may inspire you for the moment, but for the long haul you need a lot more than that. There is an abundance of resources available to help us maintain our faith and challenge our status quo. Daily and weekly Torah study, prayer, charity and acts of kindness serve to constantly fortify our faith and protect us from inadequacy. Steady growth in our faith will carry us through, to the ultimate and imminent coming of Moshiach, when we will, in the words of Isaiah, “study war no more”.
Originally published in the Purim 2020 Jewish American Warrior.