Last year, while deployed to the 548th Intelligence Group at Beale AFB in northern California, the commander asked an airman to show me a sample video of insurgents killed by our aerial drone. The combat video was “scrubbed” of classified data and wasn’t much different than a YouTube video.
In a cubicle outside the commander’s office, the airman clicked his keyboard and his screen filled with silhouettes that looked more like film negatives than real people. “Watch these bad guys planting a roadside bomb,” the airman whispered, as if they might hear us.
With a forehead scrunch, I asked, “How do you know that’s a bomb?”
“Classified, sir. Take my word for it.”
“Oookay.” I said. Then, I watched the ghosted figures plant something.
“Now, wait for it,” he said in rising tones.
“Bang! Judgment Day!” he pronounced as one figure dissolved. The other one started running.
“It’s a squirter,” the airman said of the runner.
“A what?” I asked imagining the man erupting with hemorrhages.
“No, no.” he said. “A squirter is a runner.” Then in a chuckling afterthought he said, “Well, I suppose he might be hemorrhaging, too. Never thought of that.”
Just then, the screen flashed again. “Got the other one too!”
I thanked the airman for the airpower demonstration and excused myself for a contemplative walk. As I wandered between buildings, I had conflicting thoughts. While grateful the insurgents were thwarted, I was painfully aware that I saw people remotely killed by airmen whom I serve as chaplain.
But as a chaplain, I’m also obliged to consider the pain on both sides and what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that kind of hostility. And it just so happened that a few years previous, I was on the receiving end.
It happened one Saturday afternoon during my 2009 deployment to Balad Iraq. Our chapel staff was sitting around our big government desks joking about our slow day when an “Alarm Red” announced incoming indirect fire. It's called “indirect” because the fire is random. For all we knew, the enemy was shooting at the moon.
Nevertheless, the alarm sent our chapel staff into a flattened position on the chapel floor. If you’d seen us on the floor, you might have thought of the old jokes that start with “a Rabbi, a priest and Baptist pastor walk into a bar…”
Only we weren’t in a bar. Rabbi Sarah Schechter, Father Hoang Nguyen, Technical Sergeant Franklin Castro and I were in a cozy spot under a desk. At first, the desks didn’t seem so big and we cracked humor at our intimate arrangement.
And then we heard it. A boom rattled our chapel building as easily as if it were a child's erector set. Now, the fire didn't seem so indirect. The enemy hit inside our fence line and it felt very personal.
We were no longer joking — we were praying. Praying in our own faith traditions not to die. Praying just as I’m sure the insurgent in the Airman’s video must of prayed. A few minutes later, the bombing stopped and we were grateful that we hadn’t been judged by Jesus’ statement “All who use swords are destroyed by swords.”
As I compare the two incidents, I have a sense that watching the Airman’s video was also a way of watching myself hiding under the chapel desk. And it makes me wonder if people of faith knew what it was like to be on both sides of that video screen, might we be more likely to assume the role of peacemaker?