2 Samuel 23:13‑17:
13 During harvest time, three of the thirty chief men came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 14 At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. 15 David longed for water and said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!"
16 So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD.
17 "Far be it from me, O LORD, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it. Such were the exploits of the three mighty men.
With our country still at war it is appropriate, I think, to recognize the veterans of our country. I realize that this may seem a little self-serving since I am a veteran myself, but I hope you will trust me that this isn’t for me. As a Cold Warrior, my service was not especially demanding compared to the men and women who served in the hot wars of Vietnam, Korea, World War Two or the wars since 9/11. They are whom I have in mind.
To honor our veterans is not to glorify war. Certainly, no combat veteran would ever glorify war. After the Civil War, General William T. Sherman became disgusted at the rhetoric of glory being used to describe the war’s campaigns. In a graduation speech at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, Sherman said, “War is at best barbarism. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell!”
Despite war’s cruelty, there are many admirable features found among men and women in wartime. The battlefield is a place of many emotions. There is fear and anger. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion at work on the battlefield is an unlikely one. It is love. In the desolation of the battlefield, love abides. Warriors love their country but don't talk about it much. Besides, when flies the angry iron, they fight for their buddies. A soldier who fought in Iraq wrote,
I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. ... It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies’ lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.
A Marine major in Iraq wrote of a young corporal, a squad leader, who, during the invasion of Iraq was wounded by an enemy grenade. This Marine refused evacuation and continued to guide his squad until he passed out from loss of blood.
Recovering at a hospital in Germany, he convinced his doctors to release him, “borrowed” a camouflage uniform from a Navy corpsman, called his wife and told her that he wasn’t coming home because his Marines were depending on him, and then talked his way onto an Air Force transport back to Iraq. He had the “golden ticket.” He was headed home as a war hero with medals to prove it, but he just couldn’t bear to let his Marines down, so he schemed and connived ... and got himself back into the fight. There are those who will call that kind of response foolish. Then may God grant that I be such a fool. You may question the wisdom of that Marine, but he’s the kind of man you want on your side when the chips are down.
Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. It is a love known well by veterans. Many veterans still grieve for buddies long dead. I knew well a very elderly gentleman who was a stretcher bearer in World War II. He still has bad dreams of wounded men dying as he is carrying them to an aid station.
During seminary I read of a World War I veteran named Cadet Shirer. He was a medic assigned to a U.S. hospital caring for wounded soldiers in France. “One case I never forgot,” he said.
When me and the nurse passed him, he’d say, ‘Sister, can’t you help me?’ He was burnt, blinded in both eyes. . . . He’d had chlorine gas. The nurse said, ‘Take care of this man, he’s going to die.’ I worked with him and I worked with him. I think his suffering controlled my whole life. Later I picked up Stars and Stripes and learned he didn’t die. Was I happy! His name was Stanislaus Nagursky. Would you believe a man could take so much interest in another man that he’d remember a name like that for 79 years? I still see him in my sleep at times. I still see him in my sleep.
Mingled with grief for friends who died there is sometimes a feeling of guilt at being alive. The battlefield is not an equal-opportunity destroyer. It often seems entirely fickle. An artillery shell explodes overhead and all around you are struck down, but you suffer not even a scratch. You see a plane hit by antiaircraft fire and fold up in flames just ahead, but your plane escapes. James Jones, wounded at Guadalcanal and author of the classic World War Two novel, The Thin Red Line, wrote that the greatest psychological problem among combat troops was not the threat of death but the shock of remaining alive. Some veterans also carry with them the particular burden of having killed other human beings, which war permits but somehow does not justify.
Second Samuel relates that David was thirsty and homesick and didn’t watch his mouth. David said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" Three of his veteran campaigners overheard him and took great risks in enemy territory to bring back water from Bethlehem to David. But David poured it on the ground, refusing to drink it. "Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it.
Americans are free because of the risks of mighty ones who brought them the cup of freedom at great risk. Do we drink from the cup without considering it was bought with the blood of many who gave or risked their lives for it? Far be it from us, O Lord, to do such a thing!
Probably every veteran has experienced a moment when the imponderable awfulness of what soldiers do makes them stop and give cry to the deepest-rooted hope for a better world, populated with better people. Soldiers pray for God to come near when the fog of battle closes in. They see only dimly that out of blood and death there can come a brotherly world. They are alert for signs that the kingdom of God could break in even among ruins and horror.
And the kingdom does break in, without regard to nation or cause. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Franz Mueller, a German soldier, and six of his comrades found themselves in the middle of a division of American paratroopers. They stumbled across two American soldiers attending to a third, who was dying from wounds. Franz spoke English and he told the Americans he was taking them prisoner. But the dying American couldn’t be moved so everyone sat down and waited for him to die.
Shortly, the two American soldiers knelt beside their friend and began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. After a moment, Franz knelt and joined in. Another German soldier who spoke English joined in, too. The other five Germans didn’t speak English, but they recognized the rhythm of the prayer, so they prayed in German. For this small moment in the midst of war, God’s kingdom broke in: nine soldiers of two enemy armies, suspending their politics and nationality, praying together—four in English, five in German.
Ernest Gordon was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. He wrote of a train trip he and his fellows made while in the hands of the Japanese. At a stop in Burma, a train of Japanese wounded pulled alongside.
“They were in a shocking state,” Gordon related. “I have never seen men filthier. Uniforms were encrusted with blood, mud and excrement. Their wounds crawled with maggots. The wounded looked at us forlornly as they sat waiting for death. They had been discarded as expendable, the refuse of war. These were our enemy."
Without a word most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their rations and a rag or two, and with their water canteens in their hands, went over to the Japanese train. Our guards tried to prevent us, but we ignored them and knelt down by the enemy to give water and food, to clean and bind their wounds. Grateful cries of "Arigato" (thank you) followed us when we left.
I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have readily destroyed [the Japanese]. Now these same officers were dressing the enemy’s wounds.
We had experienced a moment of grace, there in the bloodstained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey his command, "Thou shalt love."
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). This is the hope and faith we have in Christ when faced with the mournful mutter of the battlefield: that in Christ we can be reconciled with each other and with all peoples.
We all have a personal vision of heaven. Here is mine. When the end of the age has come and Christ has put everything under his feet, the dead shall be raised. And all of us who have borne arms and weapons, whether American, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Panamanian, Afghan or Iraqi, we will all meet again. We will not meet in battle, but at the foot of the Prince of Peace.
Cadet Shirer will find Stanislaus Nagursky and they will have a wonderful reunion. My father-in-law will embrace the men who died on his stretcher and will no longer have to grieve for them. The men who died in the next foxhole or airplane will greet us, smiling.
And we will find the people whom we have shot or stabbed or clubbed or bombed. We will see them face to face and we will say, “In Christ’s name, forgive me!” And they will reply with elation, “In the name of Christ, you are forgiven!”
That day has not yet come. Let us pray it comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who are serving now, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home.