Photo by Expert Infantry

Yesterday, the last US troops left Iraq after a bloody war that lasted nearly nine years. After losing almost 4500 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives—the gap between those numbers is staggering—I hope it was worth it.

Reflecting on yesterday’s news brought me back to 2003 and 2004, when I was a young pastor finding my voice in the pulpit and classroom. There were occasions when I let my idealism and frustration with the war get the best of me and I spoke against it in public. Not everyone was pleased with what I said or how I said it. Those were learning experiences for me and the congregation I served, and I’d like to think that we all grew together in our capacities to think about current events through the lens of faith.

Several years later, I suppose I’m still a relatively young pastor finding my voice. But the rather black and white way in which I viewed the world nine years ago has been blurred into various shades of gray. I’m still cynical and suspicious about the merits of the war in Iraq, but I hope that history will prove that we’ve done more good than harm.

I continue to struggle with formulating and articulating clear theological reflections on matters of war. Most recently, I was one of many pastors—and people of faith in general—wondering how to process the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seemed to me that some justice had been carried out, but my uneasiness with the myth of redemptive violence and my rejection of the distasteful celebrations in the street left me perplexed.

It occurred to me then, and I have continued to think about it since, that most of us pastors involved in conversations about the ethical and theological significance of military actions have no military experience of our own. This realization has brought into sharper focus a thesis I have been considering for some time: there are not nearly as many pastors in my generation that have direct experience with war as there were in previous generations.

There is a parish associate at our church named John Boyle. He is 85 years old and served in World War II. In fact, he was part of the force that liberated Dachau. When he speaks of war, he speaks as one with the authority of experience. He brings the intimate knowledge of a soldier to his theological and pastoral reflections of war. He has insight into things I will never know. And I bet that he had more colleagues in ministry with this kind of experience than I do.

As I reflect on how my peers think and talk about war, I fear that we are missing the benefits of such insight and experience. I’m not glorifying or romanticizing war. But I do long for three things:

  1. I wish I had done some kind of military service, like ROTC. I wish I had served in some capacity, perhaps as a reservist chaplain, during the wars of the past decade. I suppose I still could, though I honestly wonder if I’m willing to sacrifice time with my family in order to do so. The sacrifices of those who serve convict me.
  2. I wonder if there are programs in existence that give pastors like me the opportunity to visit, even for short tours, active theaters of war in order to see firsthand what our troops are facing. If not, I wonder what it would take to bring something like this into existence.
  3. There are pastors out there, and women and men training to become pastors, who do in fact have military experience. To the extent that they can, we need them to speak from their experiences. This is a unique ministry opportunity in which pastors like me cannot fully engage.

As more and more soldiers return home, and as international conflicts continue to rage, we need pastors with the experience of war to help the rest of us discern and proclaim some good news for these gray times.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. John: I do not think you have to experience war in order to minister to those who have or to have an experiential dimension to your ministry. You don’t have to experience alcoholism, drug addiction, rape, incest or death of a loved one to be a counselor or a comfort to those who have. Have you read Chris Hedges?

    • No, I don’t think you need to have war experience in order to minister to soldiers, but experience (of any kind) enables you to minister to others with a different kind of empathy. I can minster to soldiers, but those who have experience in war will be able to bring a different level of understanding to this ministry than I can. The same goes for the other things you mention as well. I can comfort anyone, but if I’ve experienced something myself, I can relate in a different way.

      But my main point here is probably more about theologizing than ministering. I fear that many of us make bold pronouncements about war from a sheltered and naive perspective.

      No, I have not read Chris Hedges.

  2. I used to love doing pastoral calls at Walter Reed in DC but it became almost impossible to have conversations with patients or their families unless they were my parishioners. While waiting to speak with an elderly parishioner -WW2 vet- I started to talk with Iraqi vet in next bed but this was quickly interrupted by a nurse who told me I was not allowed to speak to him, even though he’d initiated conversation. There seems to be quite a bit of distrust between military and civilians. But those of us not in military would be wise to form friendships with those in armed forces. I like your idea about touring/visiting military sites to connect. Maybe tough logistically. But the distrust would also be a factor.

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