William James Quinn was 24 and a veteran of the Iraq war when he began his freshman year of college. While in Iraq, he worked as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper. He recently penned a Veteran’s Day piece for The Washington Post Outlook Section about his experiences in Iraq and Georgetown. I recently interviewed William on his Roman Catholic religious beliefs and how they interact with his roles as a soldier and student.
William on faith:
“It has not always been very easy for me to believe –either in God or in Catholicism. And there were many times, particularly before I went to Iraq, that I would have said that I pretty much couldn’t feel it at all. And in reality, I even feel that way now. I don’t go to mass and sit there and have this deep sense of warmth and communion with God. If that happens to other people I think that’s amazing but it doesn’t happen to me.
“As far as Catholicism is concerned, it may be true that if I had been born into a family that practices a different religion that I would practice a different religion, but that’s just as good as saying that if I had been born into a family that spoke a different language then I’d speak a different language. English is still the one I have to communicate with so Catholicism is the way that I communicate my religious beliefs.”
William on suffering:
“In Iraq, I saw things so awful that it’s too much to believe -I can’t make myself believe –that these lives that were lost were ultimately lost for nothing. Not the cause or anything like that, but that the moment they died, that was it for them. Period. During the sanctions, something crazy like 500,000 Iraqi children died. I mean, are we supposed to believe that because of a political and economic decision by our government these children just perished and ceased to exist at all in any kind of way? And if so, how do we go on living ourselves? How do we rationalize that? I think that the only way that I can is through my faith. It’s almost that in a way my faith comes as much out of suffering as it does out of feelings of joy.”
William on killing:
Q. You wrote in a piece in ‘The Hoya,’ “As a veteran of combat, I have given this a great deal of thought. I believe that killing –all killing –is evil.’ How does that work for you as a member of the military?
A. “That’s the really nice thing about being Catholic; that you can make these blanket assertions, and also recognize the futility of being able to totally avoid sin at all times if you are in the world. I guess I am kind of an Augustinian in that sense. Yes, killing is evil. Killing is wrong. There’s no kind of killing that’s justified. And I don’t care about all the ‘interpretations’ in the Old Testaments where it really says ‘Thou shall not murder.’ I don’t care if that’s a distinction. I’ve seen killing. Killing is wrong. There’s no way to justify it. And I don’t care if the people that I was in some way participating in the killing of were innocent or guilty, I mean, both happened. They were human beings and killing them was wrong. It just is, and it always will be. I don’t think that we can apply some kind of temporal form of justice or legal system to human life and say ‘OK, in this particular instance, this is OK, this guy can be killed,’ or ‘in this particular instance, he can’t.’
“But I understand that sometimes the way that the world is killing is necessary. There’s just no way to avoid it. That doesn’t make it right. I don’t think there are too many people –too many soldiers –who would come away from the war and say, even if it were the cleanest war in history, who would still come away from it and say, ‘Yeah, that was all really good. All we did was really good stuff.’ It bothers you and it bothers you for a reason because it’s not the sort of thing that we ought to be doing. In an ideal world we wouldn’t do any of it.”
William on human growth:
“I think we’re growing as humanity –not Christians, not Catholics, but all people –we’re growing in our understanding of God, I think. It’s a pilgrimage that we’re all on and we’re all growing in our understanding, but, that doesn’t mean that we ourselves have become better people. We just grow in our understanding of God.
“It doesn’t really follow that we have become better people. The people who are born today are just as capable of doing the crimes that were done 50 or 100 or 200 or 1000 years ago. It’s just because maybe life was a little more harsh at time, or better in some ways, it doesn’t mean that we are better or worse now.”
William on moral decision making and the military:
“If I am ever in a position where I am asked to do something that I think is immoral I won’t do it. That’s not just something because I’m Catholic; the military has a rule in the UCMJ that you never have to do anything that you consider immoral. And if you are given an order that you consider immoral, your responsibility actually is to refuse that order.
“That ends up being a catch-22 for junior enlisted idiots like at Abu Ghraib. Why were they all guilty? Ultimately, yeah, their leadership failed them. But they were guilty because they were given an illegal order or at least put in a position where they had the opportunity to do immoral things, and they did them. The appropriate thing to do would have been to refuse.
“The more difficult question is ‘If you’re in a position where you consider the action that you’re taking part in –say the mission –say the Iraq War –to be wrong, then how do you balance that?’ Or, ‘If you’re put in a position where you have to kill people –either directly or indirectly –whether they turn out to be innocent or guilty you obviously wouldn’t know at the time. How do you justify that?’ There I think being Catholic really helps. Because in a way, I think that being Catholic makes it so that you can’t be a conscientious objector. Being Catholic means accepting that the world that we live in is evil and the only the way to make it any better is by living a life in faith focused on God. You have to do that regardless of your circumstances and you can never avoid a particular event in your life just because you think that makes you more holy. It’s like everything Christ said to the Pharisees and the apostles. You can’t avoid being in a particular situation because if you were in that situation you’d be less righteous.
“That’s where you want the moral people to be. You don’t want them to be sitting back home on a college campus holding up an anti-war sign. You want those people who are really concerned about treating enemies with dignity and respect, making very difficult decisions about life and death, in the fight. It’s about making the best, even though the best isn’t always that great, out of an incredibly bad situation.”
William on terrorists:
“I used to have a nightmare when I was in Iraq about this one guy –and he was a bad guy, I used to watch videos of him beheading people –but I used to have this nightmare that I would one day be told he was going to be executed but ‘We’re not going to bother transporting him or anything. You just go to his cell and do it yourself.’ And then I’d walk in with my side arm and just walk into his cell and he’d smile and greet me and I’d shoot him in the head. And I had this nightmare over and over and over again. It just terrified me.
“And now, that guy, he was executed. And that same guy, when I was leaving Iraq, I went and said goodbye to him, and he gave me a big hug and he said ‘You’re a good man.’ In many ways, it was a comforting thing to hear from somebody that I would consider my enemy.
“I really think that in some ways, he was a good man as well, at least in the sense that he had a soul. It’s not like he did all the things that he did because one day it just popped in his head to go crazy and make people miserable. There are people who believe that we can perfect the world. And he is one of those people. He felt that in order to do that it would take a lot of violence.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army