As much as they are plagued by the horror of the things they saw in their wartime experiences, some veterans are consumed with guilt over the things they did. Guilt, whether justly deserved or not, unleashes its own set of demons.
One veteran told me he could not forgive himself for the things he did while in the service. “I killed people! How can God forgive me for that?”
What surprised me most was that he had not come to terms with his feelings forty years later! How long does it take to find forgiveness? As I am not a priest, I could not offer absolution. All I could do was point out that wartime puts us in situations where we do things to stay alive, and we do what we’re told to do. Everyone does things he or she is sorry for, and most of us aren’t programmed to be a soldier and to follow orders. Because he had already introduced God into the conversation and had told me he was Christian, I pointed out that Jesus even forgave those who crucified him; surely it wasn’t such a stretch to think he could also forgive one hurting soldier. Unfortunately, forgiving ourselves can be harder than forgiving someone else. Sometimes we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do others.
I hoped my words comforted him. I think guilt is a worthwhile emotion to an extent. There would be much more crime, pain and anguish without any guilt to inhibit people, but there comes a point where it’s counter-productive. When it becomes a cancer that eats at you and consumes you, then it’s just a burden and does no good.
Does anyone act normally when they are in a life-and-death situation? What part does conditioning play in programming a person to do things he or she wouldn’t do in a “normal” situation? And, I even have to ask, is conditioning all bad when it keeps you alive?
If you did things in the heat of battle that you’re feeling guilty over, what can you change? Is there anything you can do to make amends? Do what you can and then forgive yourself. You’ll feel better for it.