Doubt and Certainty

You could tell that Joe had been on the battlefields for six months. He had that look of a man who was living life on the edge of a nightmare. He was thin, gaunt, had a wasted body and his eyes displayed that vacant look often referred to as ‘dead eyes’. He had seen, and been involved in, events that had no place in a civilised society.
It was common knowledge that Joe had ‘gone over the top’ with all the associated actions and duties that this entailed, more times than any other member of the regiment. In the polite language of his officers and supposedly betters, he’d been involved in clearing up the German trenches. This meant walking through no man’s land towards the enemy, under withering gunfire and watching mates and close friends drop dead or get badly injured from the machine gun fire of the opposing army. Then, once he was within shouting distance, he had to run full speed towards the target trench, jump in and hopefully surprise the German soldiers sitting waiting for him. It was then his task to ‘clear out’ the trench by either shooting or bayoneting all those German soldiers who had not been incapacitated by the pre-attack barrages.
As a result of all this close quarter hand-to-hand fighting, Joe suffered from a curious tick whereby every two or three minutes he involuntarily and violently jerked his head to one side uttering a strange guttural sound. His hair, lank and stringy from a lack of washing facilities, hung wisp-like down his furrowed forehead and down well past his ears on either side. With a straggly beard and mounds of facial hair, he resembled a yeti, especially when he wore his fur waistcoat extra warmth. Joe believe that washing or shaving was a luxury that was reserved for the rear trenches where presentation was rather more important than skill as a fighter. He looked and smelt exactly like the impression he wished to convey to the enemy.
This appearance as a shambolic figure was overshadowed by his reputation as the King of hand-to-hand fighters. He’d developed a ruthless streak is a highly efficient killer who moved through the enemy trenches with no mercy; shooting and stabbing all and everything he encountered.
Things took a strange turn early one morning when he called in on the regimental chaplain. Joe seemed strangely subdued and had a slight tremor in his hands.
“Padre, do you really believe in God and the angels and all that kind of stuff?”.
“Yes I do, Joe. I know it might seem hard to remain a believer when we are here in this situation, but that’s when the strength of our belief is really tested and should come up stronger than ever. Why do you ask?”
“Well Padre, I was on sentry duty last night and I sat listening to an injured German soldier out in no man’s land. He moaned and groaned; obviously very badly injured. Then round about 2 o’clock in the morning I heard a strange noise coming from the area where he was lying. It was a low groan then a harp -like sound that stopped as fast as it started. I thought an attack was imminent so I cocked my rifle and pointed in the direction of that noise.”
Joe went on “I decided to take a look and see what was out there. What I saw has made me question myself and the righteousness of our cause”.
The Padre looked at him in a questioning way but said nothing to interrupt his flow.
“I saw an eerie light in the shape of a ghostly figure rise from the ground and soar high above the battlefield. Breaking all army standing orders I climbed out of the trench and crept on all fours to the point where I’d seen the figure lift from the ground. As I suspected, there was the body of the now dead German lying there. He was hunched up and covered in mud, blood and gore”.
Joe stopped for a moment and said “strangely he had a calm and composed look on his face. It seemed to me he had met his maker and was now at peace. The vision I had seen could have been when his life passed from this earth to a higher place”.
The Padre nodded slowly. A worried frown appeared on his face, as he understood that the dilemma Joe faced was one he himself had faced many times in this cursed war.
“Carry on Joe, you’re expressing an opinion that many feel”.
“Well it made me think. If this German was a righteous soul, was his cause as just as mine? Could it be that we are wrong about fighting the Germans? Is God on their side and not ours? I , mean, will there be repercussions in the afterlife for my behaviour in this life? In normal times killing is a crime, why not now? Padre, such thoughts of set me on a course of eternal regret. Last night, right there and then I pledged that my future actions would be based on saving life, not taking it”.
With heavy heart the Padre listened to Joe. “Go on, my son”.
“Isn’t it noble to have pity and compassion for your fellow man? God is supposed to be a higher authority than all the generals in the world. I may not be a pacifist but I will no longer kill as I did in the past. Hopefully I can meet my future responsibilities without taking the life of another. What do you think Padre?”
The Padre felt the sides of the trench closing in on him as he fought with the reality of these doubts. Then with a tear of sincerity in his eye he replied “I’m sorry son, even if I agreed with you I also have to remind you that if you fail in your military duty you will face a far more ignoble death than on the battlefield. You will be shot by firing squad and bring shame to your family and friends. Don’t think about your doubts, just do your duty son”.
Maybe even God and religion can be wrong sometimes.

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