Thursday, November 12, 2009

Brief Book Review: A Table in the Presence

Cash, Lt. Carey H. A Table in the Presence. Nashville, TN: 2004.

There are a number of first person accounts of the Iraq War in print, but this one is unusual as the author is a chaplain. Cash was with the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, which he describes as:

“Our unit was the first ground combat force to cross the line of departure into Iraq, saw the first man killed in action at the hands of enemy gunmen, and fought what many believe to have been the most decisive battle in the taking of Baghdad (xi-xii).

I had not given much thought to chaplains and how they might serve in active combat. They are not allowed to carry a weapon and so a “religious program specialist” is assigned to them to help with administrative matters and also serves as a bodyguard and sometimes driver.

The book is written in chronological order, with flashbacks thrown in to provide some background on the author or other people mentioned in the book. As one might expect of a chaplain, Lt. Cash throws in Bible verses and spiritual allusions. He talks about the religious beliefs of the men he serves with, and recounts events that he considers miraculous. This is not to say that he glosses over the grim details of war. His regiment saw heavy fire and he does not spare anything in his descriptions of what happened. Here is one of the less action-packed passages (195):

The blast caused the vehicle’s Halon fire retardant system to engage, pouring noxious chemical fumes into the lungs of the shell-shocked marines. Choking, gasping for air, vomiting, they crawled up and out of the hatch, falling on the ground, oblivious to the continual enemy fire around them. They didn’t care – they had to breathe.

A couple of days earlier, someone had been smoking and had inadvertently set off the Halon system, emptying its bladder of over half of its supply of fire retardant. Horton recalled later that, if the providential smoking mistake had never happened, some of those Marines would never have made it out of the compartment before choking or being suffocated.

Just then a burning Iraqi troop carrier exploded, sending shrapnel and debris all over the Marines who by now were positioning themselves to kick down the front door and storm the mosque. Lance Corporal Benjamin Wetzel took a piece to the face, leaving a burning hole in his jaw. He found on, not realizing that his face was smoking.

He also writes touchingly of the men, one searching for a photo of his wife that had fallen off the dash of his vehicle, the regret of past misdeeds, and the worries of going into battle. In answer to the question of why some live and some die he offers the contrast between Daniel, who was protected in the lion’s den, and Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. He writes:

Daniel and Stephen both remained true to their calling; both walked faithfully no matter the cost. For one, that calling would be affirmed through the power of divine protection. For the other, it would be illuminated through the heroism of sacrifice. (p. 241).

His descriptions of the landscape and of the Iraqi people are also interesting. In one vignette he tries to find the gestures to indicate that he wants to meet the children of an Iraqi man who is helping them, and then shows the man a photo of his own family.

The day to day aspects of his job, having communion with limited equipment, using a lowered truck tailgate as a staging area, counseling soldiers, leading prayers, and providing appropriate spiritual guidance to those of other faiths, are included.

I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it those who enjoy first person accounts of the war.

A current Pennsylvania candidate served with Cash, but I wanted to have a separate post on the book itself, and a second post on mentions of the candidate, so, stay tuned ...

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