Recently, I came home to see news footage of Tomahawk missiles being launched from US Navy destroyers. We were bombing an airfield in Syria from which gas attacks were supposedly launched on Syrian citizens by their own government. If true, this was an atrocity at the level of attempted genocide. I watched, appalled, but for additional reasons.
I remembered back to the time when I was in the US Navy. I was an Operations Specialist on the USS HIGGINS (DDG-76). It was March, 2003. We were at the northern tip of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, as close to Iraq as we could legally get. Part of my duty was to serve on our Tomahawk Team, which would be called upon to launch our load-out of Tomahawk missiles into Iraq. I remember pressing the button that first night that launched one of our missiles. I remember watching them explode out of our launchers. I remember as we were glued to CNN watching Baghdad erupt in explosions. Worst of all, I remember cheering with my shipmates as we watched Baghdad burn.
We never thought about the Iraqi who were caught in the crossfire. We never thought of the innocents who suffered because of our actions. We never thought of the families whose homes were destroyed because of our missiles. We were hitting strategic targets. Our Tomahawks are meticulously accurate. There was no collateral damage.
Boy, were we wrong.
A few years ago, I met a lovely Iraqi family who began coming to our church. This family is the kindest, happiest, most loving family I’ve met in a long time. They were always smiling, offering warm hugs and handshakes, and praising God and Jesus Christ as often as they could. I looked forward to seeing them at our church. I found myself invested in their lives. I care about them.
One Sunday, our Corps Officer (pastor) brought them to the front and began to tell their story. He told us how “Operation: Shock and Awe” destroyed their home and forced them to leave Iraq. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I thought back to pressing that button. I remembered our revelries. I thought about how we celebrated as their home burned. I wondered: Was mine the missile that destroyed their home? I’ll never know. All I know is that I participated in the event that wiped out their home and made them expatriates.
I try to rationalize it. I try to tell myself that they’re better now in America. Maybe they are. But what did they feel that night, when the world exploded around them? How much fear did they experience as they ran for their lives? I’ll never know. I’ll never know what it feels like to be an enemy in my own country. All I know, and all I will ever know, is that I danced while their home burned. Does that make me like Emperor Nero? God, I hope not.
Every day, I live with this guilt. Every day, I wonder how many other families are like theirs. Every day, I ask for forgiveness for the part I played. I was following orders when I pressed the button. I wasn’t following orders when I cheered. I have no excuse. I can only beg for forgiveness when my judgment comes.