The ground shook as a barrage of artillery shells thundered into the hard earth. In the distance I saw a building collapse, to my left a man suddenly fell to the ground, a stray bullet taking him through the head. I stared dispassionately at the corpse, his name had been Karl, he had a girl waiting for him back home, everyone had a girl waiting for them back home.
I charged across the street praying as I always did. Please God, don’t let the bullets hit, don’t let me die, keep me safe. I made it to another doorway. Thank you, God, thank you for saving my life again. I returned fire, every bullet a searing note on my conscience.
Thou shall not kill.
Yet what else was I to do? If I didn’t shoot them then they would shoot me. If I didn’t shoot them then my officers would shoot me. I had to shoot them because they were shooting me but they were shooting me because I was shooting them. I remember a time when war used to make some sense. Not any more.
Nothing makes sense any more; it’s all gone, lost under the terror of too many skirmishes, cried away in bitter tears for the dead, shouted away in inane battle cries, why does God let this war go on? Why won’t Hitler just die?
I eye up my next source of cover. There was probably a grand plan but I never bothered to pay attention. When it comes down to it the only things that matter are keeping your gun with you, finding cover and praying. I pray very well now. I think I’ve spent the last four years in near constant prayer. I dive from my doorway, shuffle along the hard ground, bullets hit the road behind me, I crawl behind the remains of a smouldering tank. Taking a deep breath I fire my gun in the general direction of the enemy praying that none of my bullets would hit.
There must be Christians out there facing me – are they racked by the same guilt? Guilt for killing men in the name of duty, guilt for feeling so much hatred against the enemy, guilt for surviving whilst so many others have fallen. I used to pray for my friends, when I had friends left alive to pray for. But they’ve gone to eternity now although I know not which way.
They say that war is hell. Theologically the statement is a bit shaky but I know exactly what they mean. It isn’t just a physical battle it’s a spiritual one as well. Why does my mind wander so much? I focus on the now and see three men charging down the street towards me. I aim and pull back the trigger; my bullets take them all down, another three men now facing judgement because of me.
A man joins me at the tank, shouts something I can’t hear, pulls out a grenade throws it and is thrown back by the force of a bullet taking him in the heart. The grenade explodes in the distance, my ears ring as I watch the man’s body lay there in the dust.
Did he know Christ? I doubt it. Maybe he did. The darkness creeps up on me again. I murmur to myself: I will say of the Lord he is my rock and my fortress; my God in whom I trust. I breathe deeply and roll out from cover, scramble over a crater in the road and make it into the ruins of a shop. Psalm 91 has kept me going, when my strength failed and I thought death was so very near, when my soul cried out in agony, when my body wailed in pain and when I wept tears of grief for those that had gone on. I returned again and again to this one Psalm. I could say it off by heart now, forwards, backwards, any way at all.
From my position of relative safety I watch as four men too cover behind the tank I was just at. Then I blink as with a heavy roar a shell lands on top of them. Gone in an instance. A blink of an eye. I cradled my gun close to my chest. Why was I doing this? Why did this war just drag on and on and on? Was there ever going to be an end?
Although a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. Another verse of Psalm 91, my favourite verse of the whole Psalm, I repeat to myself when ever I’m in battle. I would repeat this to myself as man after man would die beside me. Was I under God’s blessing to live so long or under God’s curse? Heaven was infinitely preferably to this; but I did what I was called to do. I made a pact not to seek death but to minister to those around me, spreading the good news even in the bleak realities of war. I had seen so many people die before coming to know Christ. And a few, a glorious few, who died in the full knowledge of the glory of the gospel and that the next life would be one without pain or suffering. Sometimes I feel Heaven so closely yet at other times it seems too good to ever be true.
How often I have wondered why God did not take me instead so that others might have more time in order to be saved. But it is useless to think such thoughts. The war has broken me completely; I have nothing left except Jesus Christ. He is my life, my strength, my all. When I can’t go on I turn to him. I can never go on without him.
The guns fall silent. The artillery stops shelling. There is a moment of peace. I let out a sigh, sunlight plays across the metal of my gun; I can relax for a moment.
“Surrender!” comes the cry in English; it is one of the few words of that language I know. Surrender, that is what I had to do again and again to the Lord. Surrender my fear, my terror, my life to him and his will. Surrendering is hard at first, so very hard but each time it gets easier.
I see men walking down the street with their hands up, I see American soldiers rounding them up, I see officers laying down their weapons. I stand up, no one shoots me, I walk forward, I cast aside my gun, I throw my helmet to the ground and trudge towards the enemy. I did it, I survived, no, God did it, he protected me. As I walk the last few verses of Psalm 91 spring to mind and without a care in the world I shout them to the surprised faces of the American soldiers:
“Er liebt mich, darum will ich ihn erretten; er kennt meinen Namen, darum will ich ihn schützen
Er ruft mich an, darum will ich ihn erhören; ich bin bei ihm in der Not, ich will ihn herausreißen und zu Ehren bringen.
Ich will ihn sättigen mit langem Leben und will ihm zeigen mein Heil.”