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United Methodists reflect on costs of Iraq war

U.S. Army soldiers patrol the Iraq province of Al Anbar in September 2006. A UMNS file photo by Cpl. Trenton Elijah Harris, U.S. Marine Corps.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

April 7, 2008

As the Iraq war enters its sixth year, the costs extend far beyond the more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 600,000 Iraqis who have died in the violence.

Thousands have been left wounded in their bodies, minds and souls––and face a lifetime of struggles related to the experience, says a United Methodist chaplain who has seen those wounds up close.

United Methodist Celeste Zappala (left), whose son was killed in
Iraq, stands with other protesters at a March 7 demonstration in Washington. A UMNS photo
by Jay Mallin.

"I am deeply concerned about the returning troops and the mental and physical wounds they have sustained," said the Rev. Laura Bender, a Navy chaplain who served in a field hospital in Iraq. "This all-volunteer force has borne the full weight of this war through multiple, back-to-back deployments and has done so at great cost."

The Associated Press reported that 29,320 soldiers had been wounded and 31,325 others treated for non-combat injuries and illness as of March 1, 2008.

According to research by the U.S. Veterans Administration, 144 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide from 2001 to the end of 2005, and thousands face potential mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I saw what those wounds looked like," Bender said, noting that many are life-altering and will require extensive aftercare.

Many others wounds, however, are not as visible as missing limbs, she said.

"We do not have the resources in place to provide what is needed, and I am afraid that many will fall through the cracks. If The United Methodist Church wants to take a stand on the war, I'd like to see us champion the cause of these returning veterans," she said.

'Wrong answer'

Bender was among United Methodists who reflected on the effects of the war on the five-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

A United Methodist pastor and chaplain who asked not to be identified said he isn't sure what the answer is but "to continue as we have been is the wrong answer."

"My initial reaction to the war when it started in Afghanistan was that it was a necessary evil," he said. "When it started in Iraq, I was somewhat more skeptical of the justification being offered. I am still skeptical about the initial justification. I have mixed feelings about our continuing presence there. I deal with the human cost every day.

“...I have made the decision that now is the time to … deal with this enemy, and now is the time to spread freedom as the great alternative to the ideology they adhere to.”
–President George W. Bush

"On the one hand I would like to see the bloodshed stop; on the other hand I don't want to think that the lives of so many young men and women have been spent to no good end."

The death toll of U.S. soldiers now surpasses the total killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush, a member of The United Methodist Church, has consistently defended his war policy.

In a March 11 address to National Religious Broadcasters, the president spoke of fighting against the "enemy," including Taliban extremists in Afghanistan and "terrorists" in Iraq, according to a report by Religion News Service.

U.S. Army Chaplain John Read and retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie White pray with a wounded soldier in February 2007 in Landstuhl, Germany. A UMNS file photo
by Hilly Hicks.

"I wish I didn't have to talk about war," Bush told the broadcasters gathered in Nashville, Tenn. "No president wants to be a war president. But when confronted with the realities of the world, I have made the decision that now is the time to confront, now is the time to deal with this enemy, and now is the time to spread freedom as the great alternative to the ideology they adhere to." 

'Unholy mess'

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, is among denominational leaders who have spoken out against the war since its beginning in 2003. The church's social advocacy agency has released numerous statements calling for peace and withdrawal from Iraq.

Now, he said, the "unholy mess" will pass to Bush's successor.

"The leading Republican candidate for the nomination, Sen. McCain, has no intention of ending the war if he is elected president," Winkler said in a recent column on the board's Web site. "And, it remains uncertain what Sens. Clinton or Obama would do if either is elected, although they have both stated they plan to end the war."

Winkler cites estimates from The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, that more than 600,000 Iraqis have died from war-related violence from March 2003 to July 2006. The journal cites gunshot wounds, air strikes, mortar fire, car bombings, preventable disease and lack of access to health care. Another have 12,000 died from unknown violent causes and 12,000 from accidents attributable to violence, the journal reports.

"As best I can tell, few of our clergy or lay leaders say anything against the war," said Winkler. "Maybe this is because of fear or misguided patriotism or a desire to avoid ruffling feathers. And it may well be they will not be held accountable for their silence as long as they walk on the earth. I’m not so sure, however, they will avoid judgment in the life to come."

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, top executive of the National Council of Churches, has said the war has been a "disastrous mistake" that, instead of making America safe from terrorism, has made it less secure.

"Anyone can observe that U.S. aggression is spawning new generations of terrorists, but the Christian critique runs deeper," Kinnamon said. "Because human life is interdependent, because we are all children of one Creator, security can never be won through unilateral defense."

In the five years since the United States invaded Iraq, more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 60,000 have been wounded. A UMNS photo by
Kathleen T. Rhem.

Because Bush is a United Methodist, the church should have found a way to talk to him, said the Rev. Beauty Maenzknise, dean of the Faculty of Theology at United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe.

"If they can manage to talk to other members of the church when they are doing immoral things that are affecting other people, why not him?" she asked.

The church needs to encourage politicians to dialogue so the powerless won't be harmed, she said. "Politicians are not the ones who are going to be harmed. Women and children and the powerless have suffered and are still suffering and dying."

Taking a stand

The Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has publicly prayed for peace since 2002. United Methodist women wrote thousands of prayer cards and spent a week reading the prayers aloud outside the White House, said Harriett Olson, top executive of the division.

"In each of these settings, we have remembered our service personnel who are in harm's way as a result of this war," she said. "We grieve for loss of life of civilians and all service personnel who are caught up in this conflict, and for the lives forever changed as persons are injured and more lives are lost every day."

Last November, the United Methodist Council of Bishops called on leaders of all nations to begin an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, declaring that war is "incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ."

“We grieve for loss of life of civilians and all service personnel who are caught up in this conflict, and for the lives forever changed as persons are injured....”
–Harriett Olson
The United Methodist Committee on Relief established a fund, Advance Special (#623225), for humanitarian work in Iraq when the country stabilizes enough for relief work to begin.

The United Methodist Church has struggled with the issue of war since the church's founding. The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, states: "We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression…."

At the 2004 General Conference, the denomination passed resolutions calling for prayers for peace and military personnel. The church's lawmaking body condemned terrorism and called for a full investigation of the alleged abuse of prisoners of war and for better relationships between Christians and Muslims.

The 2008 General Conference will hear similar resolutions when it meets in Fort Worth, Texas, April 23-May 2.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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