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October 8, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 24




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy A soldier's remorse

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

Jimmy Massey has a friendly enthusiasm about him that's charming. Watching the 32-year old North Carolinian work a crowd, you can believe he was, a successful, energetic Marine climbing up the ladder of his military career. But when Massey describes an "incident" from his time in Iraq, his face sags and suddenly he looks old and very weary.

A former staff sergeant with the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, Massey said his unit was in the vanguard of the ground invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Like many combat veterans before him, he returned from war overwhelmed by memories of senseless killings. Discharged from the military in December 2003, he admits to suffering from combat trauma. He still has nightmares. He takes blood pressure medication and anti-depressants. And he talks and talks, his presentations a public confession of the atrocities that he said he and his men committed.

"I stand before you a war criminal," Massey told his audience at the First and Summerfield Methodist Church in New Haven, Conn., one of many stops on his two-week tour of New England that began in late September.

Massey estimates he and his men killed 30 civilians in a 48-hour period. Outside the Rashid military compound, located in southern Baghdad, they fired upon a cluster of unarmed protestors and shot-up five vehicles that ran a checkpoint. As Massey described it, the killings were not deliberate. He said his Marines implemented procedures to try and prevent civilian casualties. They fired warning shots. They ordered their snipers to shoot out the engine blocks of the oncoming cars. But the killing of Iraqis, none of whom were armed or transporting political propaganda, still happened.

Also by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Oct. 4, 04 Records of outrage so quickly forgotten
Aug. 4, 04 A garden's wealth
June 7, 04 A primer on war
April 12, 04 A Resurrection Story Told in a Time of War
Feb. 13, 04 Janet vs. Halliburton
Feb. 11, 04 Learning lessons from people's movements in India
Feb. 9, 04 A spy for the people
Dec. 12, 03 What about those weapons of mass destruction?
Dec. 10, 03 On war and human rights
"When you take an innocent life, you just can't hide. You can't hide it from the Iraqis. These people that we killed, they had family," he said and then later added, "Even in war you are held accountable for your actions."

As Massey spoke, an awkward and somber silence fell over the New Haven audience, most of whom were against the war. It made them uncomfortable, even despairing, to hear how young American soldiers shot-up an 18-wheeler truck as it was swerving to avoid a checkpoint, its driver, his body partially on fire, fleeing the vehicle in pain. Or how they gunned down an Iraqi as he emerged from his car with his hands up because from where they stood, they thought he was going to draw a weapon.

"What can we do now?" someone feebly asked during the question and answer period. Massey did not hesitate with his reply. If he were president of the United States, he would go before the United Nations and apologize.

Until that evening in New Haven, I had never heard an American publicly recommend we show remorse for what we have done to Iraq. Yes, there have been lengthy and expensive investigations (The Iraq Survey Group spent $900 million and 15 months to publish a 1,000 page report that confirms what many said before the war: Iraq's arsenal posed no threat to the United States); but I have yet to hear an American policymaker say, with regard to our catastrophic policy in Iraq, "We are sorry."

I don't expect to. Governments, militaries, or terrorist organizations, for that matter, are not in the habit of publicly apologizing for their brutalities, voluntarily. But we the American people can apologize. We can publicly confess our complicity in tolerating a war that has killed so many people and left soldiers, like Massey, burdened with a terrible guilt. And we can reach out to those soldiers.

On October 29-31 the newly revived Catholic Peace Fellowship, a pacifist organization, will host their second annual conference at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind. This year's conference, titled "The Soldiers Came Asking," will focus on ways Catholics can learn from and minister to soldiers, especially those troubled by the immoralities of war.

Conference organizer, Fr. Michael Baxter, a theologian at Notre Dame, said Catholic Peace Fellowship is hoping to create a service comparable to Project Rachel, the Catholic church's post-abortion reconciliation and healing ministry for women who have aborted their unborn children. The diocesan-based ministry, which operates in 110 dioceses, has a hotline, and offers a network of specially trained clergy, spiritual directors and therapists who provide compassionate one-on-one assistance to those who are struggling with the aftermath of an abortion. Couldn't dioceses establish a similar program for traumatized veterans? I don't think a single diocese has a post-war reconciliation and healing ministry for soldiers who have killed innocent civilians.

Catholic Peace Fellowship hopes to change that. Baxter said his organization is thinking of calling their ministry Project David, named after the biblical David who was a repentant warrior. The Catholic Peace Fellowship conference is open to the public. You can register online.

Editor's Note: Sept. 17, NCR published a special section devoted to ministry that carried a story, Ministry helps veterans deal with demons of war , that talked about Point Man International Ministries.

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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