How much is a child's life worth? In Eastern Afghanistan, about $170.
Before the deployment, I talked to a number of soldiers who were concerned about being able to kill someone, even someone who was trying to kill them. They recognized that it's not a video game. They knew that people who were very different from them in some ways were also just like them in others. However, when the shooting started, basically everyone shot back.
Part of the reason was the distance. As my former psychology professor, David Grossman, wrote in his book, "On Killing", shooting at someone far away is not too morally difficult - though it is harder than dropping bombs on them. It isn't until the enemy gets into hand grenade range that we get really uncomfortable. They look too human when they get that close.
The hardest is knife-range, what Grossman refers to as the "sexual intimacy range" of body-to-body. While those "hands-on" fights did occur in Afghanistan, they were rare. Most were at crew-served weapon range - heavy machine guns, rockets, mortars. Many of the targeting systems used an infrared camera, so the targets were just human shaped blobs on the screen.
Even so, I distinctly remember talking to one of the young men who engaged an enemy with his infrared-slaved machine gun. He wounded the enemy combatant, and then engaged again to finish him off as he crawled away. His gaze was distant as he talked about it. I guarantee he still remembers that.
Of course, once we were there, everyone played off as if it wasn't a big deal. With your buddies getting killed and wounded around you, the obvious trauma was far more pressing, at least in public, than the moral injury of killing.
Unfortunately, there were unwanted casualties. Most of the time they were people wounded in the crossfire, and since we would be near the civilians, they were shot by the enemy (accidentally, as a rule). However, we're the "good guys", so it was our leadership that paid off the families for their losses - and the payments they accepted for those losses didn't endear the people to the American soldiers.
We had two incidents I can recall in which we were responsible for civilian injuries and/or death. One was when a forward observer called for mortar fire, gave the wrong numbers, and the mortars dropped in a village. It was a "bad guy" village by reputation, but anyone who wasn't supporting the Taliban already...probably was after that. Another occasion was when a commander cleared attack helicopters to engage a group of people based upon what the pilots reported. Apparently, what was reported wasn't what was there.
But, of course, in war there is always deception, and the war isn't just the gunfights. It's the public relations battle, the propaganda battle, the battle for "hearts and minds" - in theater and at home. Were those "funerals" really funerals? Were the kids killed by helicopters actually being used to carry the rocket shells always fired from that area? The uncertainty wasn't just hard then - it remains with soldiers and leaders far after the deployment was over.
That uncertainty is part of why we need a faith grounded in truth - not just something our grandparents told us, but something rooted in the entirety of human experience. A God who just makes us feel good in hard times can't stand up to the pain, rush, and regrets of combat.
But, knowing a God who orchestrates all things, who makes our failures and successes both meaningful and consequential, and also part of a divine plan in his hands, is one that gives us a foundation to stand upon. The "what if's" have no resolution that satisfies, but the God who saves, who is making all thing new, fills a need beyond knowledge - and gives a life worth living.