November 11 marks Armistice Day, the date on which World War I, the “war to end all wars,” ended in 1918. In the United States this is also Veterans Day, a reminder to support those who fought in the many wars since then.
In almost any community, there are men and women who “brought the war home.” Some will carry hidden wounds and haunting memories to the grave. But others have travelled the difficult road from guilt to healing—a gift they believe every veteran can find.
George Zabelka was one such veteran. As a Catholic military chaplain stationed on Tinian Island in August of 1945, he gave his blessing to bombing crews under his care: young men tasked with carrying out the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Decades later, he reflected:
I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima…I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness—for myself, for my country, for my church.…I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation—admission of guilt and forgiveness.
Carroll King could easily have been one of the young men in Father George’s care. Two months before his eighteenth birthday in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and by June 1944 he was flying a B-24 bomber in the 15th Air Force Division in southern Italy. His crew continued its bombing raids till the end of the war, striking cities, factories, transport facilities, and enemy troops. Planes all around him were shot down, but Carroll survived, though his experiences gnawed at him.
“I hated the Nazis, and I expressed my hatred from the nose of a B-24, raining down death and destruction on Germany and German-occupied towns and cities,” Carroll recalled. Once, his crew even dropped bombs left over from an aborted run onto a manor house in the Austrian countryside, indifferent to the pain and suffering of the innocent people below.
After the war ended in Europe, Carroll was sent back to the States for retraining in a B-29, for the continuing air war in the Pacific. On the ship home, he came face to face with the human wreckage of the war: men without eyes, missing limbs, or disfigured by burns and scars. He was shocked and tried to reach out to them, but was met with bitter silence.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a sudden end to the Pacific War, and Carroll came home, went to college, and married. He tried to get on with his life, but the horrors of the war wouldn’t leave him. It wasn’t until much later that he was struck by the active part that he himself had played in this violence. His actions and experiences came to him again with blinding clarity, and he recalled the famous painting of the crucifixion by Rembrandt, which depicts the artist himself as one of the executioners. When he first had seen it, the notion seemed ridiculous, but now he understood: The war is in me, not in the past, not in the world at large.
He went to a pastor and poured out the memories and feelings of guilt. Suddenly he felt a peace he never had before.
I had souvenirs, pictures of the bombs, the targets—everybody had them. Pictures of me in uniform. I tore them all up. I trashed everything that had anything to do with the military. I got rid of my uniforms and those medals. In that way, I expressed my determination never again to fight in a war…
I wish I could bring back the people I know I killed, but I can’t. You can’t undo it; it’s just there. And I imagine every murderer feels the same way. I visit men in prison now, and when I hear their stories, I tell them, “You know, in a way I’m just like you, I’ve done the same things.” And I remind them that without God’s forgiveness I’m no different than any other murderer. We wish we could bring our victims back to life and ask their forgiveness. But we’re not in that position, and so we simply have to accept God’s forgiveness.
I trust in the forgiveness I have found—and I really have found peace, by looking into my own heart and confessing the things that burdened me. I’ve never been tormented by the past again, and I feel that there has been real closure. Of course I still regret the past, and I will always feel the pain of it, but it has lost its power over me.
Veterans like George and Carroll help us realize what it is we wish for every veteran this November 11. When we think of the pain so many veterans suffer—revealed in the troubling statistics of suicide and homelessness, mental illness and drug abuse—we should think of Jesus: Jesus, who was mocked and whipped, scourged and spat upon, and nailed to a cross. We should remember his words as he hung dying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And his words to his disciples: “Take heart, I have overcome the world!”
For believers, these can never be hollow statements. If Jesus has truly overcome sin and death through his own death and resurrection, then he has overcome the horror of war too. There is no deed so terrible that it cannot be forgiven, no memory so sordid that it cannot be wiped away. God can redeem everyone.
As we remember veterans this year, let’s acknowledge the lasting pain so many carry. Don’t the rest of us also need forgiveness—for being indifferent to their anguish, too self-concerned to share their burden, or unwilling to listen when their ghosts surface? With them, let’s each face our own guilt and brokenness and allow ourselves to be converted and healed.