April 1, 2010. Dallas, Texas, USA. I ran to the mailbox. I had seen the letter online but wanted to read the real thing, live and in person. My fingers trembled as I tore open the envelope, unfolded the single sheet of watermarked paper, and read the letter. I read it a second time and a third time, just to make sure. It began in my hand as it began online:
“Dear Cory”—That’s me!—“It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been accepted to the Master of Arts in Religion program at…”
April 1, 2012. Nawbahar District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. I plumped down on a box, leaned forward, and put my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. I sighed and closed my eyes.
The bullet was fired from my left at point-blank range. It passed in through the triangle my upper left arm, chest, and left thigh made on the left side of my body, across my chest, and out through the triangle my upper right arm, chest, and right thigh made on the right side of my body. It cut the front of my uniform like a scissors—it even cut through my zipper—and turned the notebook I carried in my right breast pocket into confetti. The bullet burned my right arm and right leg on its way through my right triangle. It happened so fast: I felt the burn before I heard the bang.
How did April Fools’ Day in Dallas lead to April Fools’ Day in Zabul, only two years later?
What took me from a lifelong dream-fulfilling acceptance letter to a nearly life-ending AK-47 bullet?
I enlisted in the Army instead of enlisting in divinity school.
I became a man of Infantry instead of a man of God.
When I am making small talk at cocktail parties, my decision to trade a trained-to-save clergyman’s life for a trained-to-kill infantryman’s life is easy to explain: I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my Christian-apologist hero, the great defender and explainer of the faith, C.S. Lewis, who served as an infantryman during World War I before becoming the smartest Christian the world knew during World War II. (Even after too many cocktails, I make no claims of Lewis-like erudition or creativity—I am much more Wormwood than Screwtape—but I have always built my castles in the air.)
When I am having a heart-to-heart over a couple of beers, however, my decision is difficult to understand, much less explain. It was and is a mystery; I suppose it will continue a mystery. I make sense of it only by unpacking it—step by step, from the outside in—and by thinking as much about what I was not thinking as what I was thinking.
At the time I joined the Army, our country was warring in two countries, so I understood that becoming an infantryman, a front-line, ground-pounding, combat soldier, was dangerous. I like life, I value it and appreciate it—I think it a gift and a blessing—but I do not have an undue regard for my own skin, and, as a result, was not overly worried about getting hurt or worse.
And although I thought about taking another’s life—I considered it, pondered it, weighed the prospect of it—it would be too much to say I struggled with it. To me, kill or be killed is more a matter of common sense and self-preservation than a subject open to serious discussion.
Besides, I hate ivory towers: history tells me the transcendent can pull off turning the other cheek, but the more human among us only suffer when we try it. Turning the other cheek can be a good tactic, but never is it a good strategy. I knew that when push came to shove, as I surmised then, and know now it often does in war, I would not hesitate to kill somebody who was trying to kill me or my friends.
And while I had strong opinions about our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have never mixed my religion and my politics or had any use for those who do. I echo the words of another of my Irish heroes, political seer Edmund Burke: “No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity.”
Apropos of Christianity, I am a believer but am far too ecumenical to appreciate fundamentalism in any form. Too often, my God devolves into my God right or wrong, which is infamous, or my God is always right, which is imbecile, so I did not view our crusade as another Crusade.
I have been too proud for as long as I can remember, and I remember thinking an impersonal organization like the Army could make me humbler, more obedient, maybe less self-absorbed. I also thought the day-to-day ignominies and indignities of enlisting—the modern-day contractual equivalent of legalized slavery—just might shake the attitude right out of me.
No such luck: I am more insufferable now than ever.
Another reason I joined the Army instead of attending divinity school was that I wanted to do my part, to make a contribution to something greater and bigger and more important than myself. As a citizen, I felt it the right thing to do. I still feel it the right thing to do, but this idea boomeranged as badly as did my I-will-join-the-Army-to-become-less-of-a-jerk idea.
No matter how many times nice people in nice airports say nice things to me, I am concerned about the growing disconnect between the minority who fight and the majority who do not; and I wonder about better ways democratic societies can share the responsibilities and risks of national security.
Clearly, my hindsight is not 20/20.
Although I know several reasons that did not affect my decision to join the Army and at least two reasons that contributed to my decision — but which blew up in my face — I know little else.
The bottom line is I did not suffer moral dilemmas or struggles of conscience or crises of faith. I did not make late-night visits to my church or random calls to my minister. I did not pray and read the Bible any more or less than I did before. I was fine when I signed on the dotted line: I might have been a mess, but I was a confident mess.
I think I struggle to understand and explain my choice, because I do not think of it as a choice. I want to serve, and I want to love, and I do not see a fundamental difference between serving and loving the members of a little Methodist church, and serving and loving the members of 2nd and 5th Squads, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2/3 Infantry. If I had become a minister, I would have served and loved my congregation. I became an infantryman, so I serve and love the guys with whom I went to war.
Army Specialist Cory Isaacs, a Texas lawyer and an infantryman, is a member of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He recently returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, and is stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The views expressed here are his own.