February 8th, 2023
“You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me! The LORD replied, ‘No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him.” – Genesis 4:14-15
Back in the spring of 1992, I went on a weekend religious retreat at a Jesuit guest house on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. It was a time for getting some peace and quiet, and for sorting out my thoughts and feelings. I was struggling with some major personal problems at the time, and I needed to talk with somebody who would listen and not judge. I had a long conversation with a Catholic priest at the retreat center. At one point, after hearing my story, he told me,
“You will always be a soldier.”
That remark stunned me. Honestly, it was probably the one thing I didn’t want to hear at that moment. I was trying to put my military experience behind me, and here was this spiritual advisor telling me in no uncertain terms that I would always be a soldier. I guess that, as a Jesuit, the priest knew what he was talking about. After all, the Jesuit order was founded by a soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Now, many years later, I have to admit that he was right. I finished my time on active duty back in 1986, but I’m still a soldier, at least in some ways. My years in the Army have left an indelible mark on me. I think time spent in the military marks every service member permanently. The mark may not be physically visible, like a scar or a tattoo, but that mark is there.
Anyone who has served in the armed forces is fundamentally changed by that adventure. I don’t think it matters which country’s armed forces. I have met people who were at one time in the German Bundeswehr, or the Israeli Defense Forces, or the old Soviet Army, and all their stories are somewhat similar to mine. Whatever they did (or had done to them) in their respective military organizations made them different from their civilian counterparts. It doesn’t matter if they were in combat or served in peacetime. Their experiences as soldiers set them apart from everyone else in their society. When I use the word “different”, I don’t mean in terms of good and bad, or of right and wrong. I am not making a value judgement here. I am just stating an obvious fact.
When I was on active duty, I did not blend in well with the civilian population that surrounded me. Even after more than three decades, I still don’t blend in that well.
Just today, a salesman came to my house to talk with me. He barely got in the door when he asked,
“So, were you in the service?”
I replied, “Yeah”, as I was thinking to myself, “How the fuck does he know that?”
Then I remembered that my old Army footlocker sits near the front door. All he had to do is look at my name and rank stenciled on the top of the chest. It was a dead giveaway.
When I go to the supermarket, I see some of the men my age wearing caps that say, “Army Veteran”, or something like that. Those guys advertise the fact that they served. They are loud and proud. It just shows me how deeply affected they were by their time in the military. Their service is an essential part of their identity. My service is essential to my identity too, but I try to be a bit more subtle.
I think that every vet shows in some way that they served. Our physical appearance may not give it away, but our habits do. Our virtues and vices are all on display. The signs are all there for anyone who has eyes to see them. A non-military person may not know specifically that we are veterans, but they will sense that we are different from other people.
If a lifelong civilian finds out that one of us is a veteran, they may react in a number of ways. Some people might look at us with admiration, perhaps tinged with envy. The salesman who spoke to me was like that. I asked him if he had served, and he smiled and said,
“No, I have family members who served, but I didn’t. I just think it’s great that people do that.”
When my oldest son, Hans, got out of the Army, he went to work in the Texas oil fields. His supervisor in the fracking outfit, who had never been in the military, knew that Hans had been deployed to Iraq. He asked Hans,
“So, do you think you’re a hero?”
Hans shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I was just doing my job.”
I have met other people who despise soldiers. My encounters with these folks have been very rare, but they stick out in my memory because of that fact. I met one young woman, a passionate pacifist, who upon learning that I was a vet, glared at me and said,
“I feel sorry for you.”
We did not discuss the matter any further, but my impression was that she mentally used the equation “soldier = killer” to judge veterans. She was simultaneously committed to non-violence and filled with moral outrage. That’s a bad combination.
Years ago, when Hans was fighting in Iraq, I listened to a priest speak at Marquette University about war and the military. Father McCarthy was there partly because Marquette is a Jesuit (i.e., Christian) school, and yet it hosts ROTC on campus. He was and is deeply opposed to war and all those who participate in it. I don’t remember all of what the priest said, but I remember his eyes. They blazed with the fire of fanaticism. No sympathy for the devil.
Recently I wrote to him to ask him if he thought that ROTC students were mercenaries. This was his reply:
“The cultural name that is put on a person who goes forth to intentionally kill another human being is irrelevant. He may be called a soldier, a mercenary or a Mafia enforcer. Those are just temporal designations. What is of eternal significance if he or she is a Christian is that they are not following the will of God as revealed by Jesus, God Incarnate. So Jesus teaching of the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels, “It is not those who say Lord, Lord, who enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in Heaven,” as well as His teachings, “Put up your sword,” and “I give you a new Commandment: Love one another as I have loved you,” are what is of controlling and ultimate significance, not whether a person is hired and paid by the state or the Mafia or by private enterprise to intentional destroy a deeply loved son or daughter of God, or 10,000 of them.”
Father Mcarthy may be right in what he says, however, it is clear to me that he doesn’t have any use for soldiers and/or veterans.
It’s ironic that many of the people I know who most oppose war are veterans. Back in April of 2017, I was at a demonstration against drone warfare in front of Creech AFB in Nevada. Seven of us got busted for civil disobedience. Five of us, out of the seven arrested, were vets. At least one of the people who got arrested was an active member of Veterans for Peace. That guy, Ray, was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. He is the one who convinced me it was worthwhile to go to jail in order to make a point.
We don’t fit in. The mark we bear maybe protects us, or maybe it puts us at risk. I don’t know. All I know is that we are different from others in our society, and we can’t change that.
I will always be a soldier. So will you.
5 thoughts on “The Mark of Cain”
Very inciteful and informative. While I was schooled at Marquette University and MULS and knew that Layola founded the Jesuits, I had not known that he was a soldier. I had great experiences with my Jesuit scholars. If you ever want something more to read, I highly recommend Tatoos on the Heart, a book written by the Jesuit priest that founded Homeboy Industries to help gang and former gang members. And I would love your thoughts on the book. Finally, I am glad you said Catholic (Christian) because down here in Texas, a lot of folks do not realize that us Catholics ARE Christian (just a pet peeve of mine). Anyhow, thank you for the thoughtful posts.
I am glad that the post was interesting for you. I will look up “Tattoos of the Heart”. I am not sure when I will get to it. I don’t find time to read very often. Caring fulltime for our toddler grandson, Asher, keeps me busy. Right now, I am trying to read a page or two each day from “The Long Loneliness” from Dorothy Day. I have always admired the Catholic Workers. Much of what I post on this blog also gets published on the “Havok Journal”, a veteran’s website. A few weeks ago, an editor from the “Havok Journal” asked me to do a podcast interview. I agreed to do it. It was the first one I ever did. I’m not sure that I want to do another one. If you want to know more about vets and are willing to waste an hour, you can listen to the podcast. This is the link to it: https://player.captivate.fm/show/f77e438a-b4c4-4286-95ac-a34de5bc0c3a#
I feel sad th
I only got the first ten letters of your message.
I feel sad that we even need the military, but I guess it is important when dealing with those countries and rulers who only understand violence as a way to rule.