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Lessons Learned in Iraq

By Don Malin

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is hell!”William Tecumseh Sherman addressing the graduating class at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879

Watchman Fellowship Staffmember Don Malin in Iraq

Having served for some twelve months during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I have an understanding of what Sherman was trying to convey to these young cadets. War is terrible and filled with many horrors, yet it has one important difference with hell: God is not found in hell, but He can and is found in war.

I realize that this war is currently being hotly debated as a political issue, but that is not what I want to address. Instead I would like to share, as a soldier, some of my observations from my time in Iraq. During my time there as a military chaplain, I found many similarities between this physical war and the spiritual war for the souls of men.

Stressful Surroundings

One of the first hazards we experienced in the war in Iraq was the harsh climate: it’s very dry and very hot! During the summer the temperature was as high as 140 degrees. The wind was hot and we had to deal with dust storms. Sand was everywhere, in your hair, food, clothes—everything. When I arrived in Iraq electric power was almost nonexistent, so we had no lights or air conditioning beyond what a few generators could provide. We spent our nights sweating under mosquito netting (for the sand flies) in a building that also sheltered hundreds of bats.

The stress of the climate was heightened by the lack of peace and privacy. For “bathrooms,” we had tubes and later wooden outhouses. We were always around people and noisy activity: planes taking off and landing at all hours, and the noise of generators nonstop. Also, many Iraqis worked on our base, doing repair work and other kinds of manual labor. While many of them were sincerely helpful and friendly to Americans, they were still new faces and members of an unfamiliar culture—and we had no way of telling the difference between Iraqi allies and insurgent spies. So even in our own base, we could never fully relax. All these factors added up, and our internal resources were stretched. We developed bad attitudes, which led to conflict between people in the same units. And, sadly, some soldiers even committed suicide.

Ministry of Encouragement

Confronted by a stressful environment, soldiers looked for a friendly face. Chaplains filled that role. Often non-Christians—including Wiccans, Mormons, agnostics and atheists—sought out Christian chaplains to talk. This gave us many opportunities to witness. During the time I was in Iraq, I know of twelve people who made professions of faith. Also, I provided counseling for distraught or stressed-out soldiers, including those feeling suicidal. The harsh environment of Iraq actually gave me many opportunities to share Christ that might not have arisen in the comfort of the United States.

Don Malin with an Iraqi Sheik at the Tigris River (Don recently learned that this man was killed in a car-bomb attack)

Bible studies and worship services were also a great source of encouragement. I led three Bible studies, and preached two, three, and sometimes even four times on Sunday. One of the most rewarding studies for us was in the Book of Daniel. In that book, we saw young men—Daniel and his friends—face crushing circumstances, yet overcome them. Even though Daniel was far from his home in Jerusalem, he trusted the true God and remained faithful to Him, even in the hostile and godless kingdom of Babylon. For the Christian soldiers in Iraq—the land that once was Babylon—the example of Daniel served as an important reminder of the sovereign faithfulness of God and our duty to remain steadfast in our commitment to Him.

We were also given a morale boost by our work in “winning the peace.” We started a program called “Operation Enduring Mercy” (OPEN ME) which involved taking medical and school supplies to the community outside the base. The Iraqis appreciated what we did. They have been and are continuing to see a positive side of the United States as we help them. While as soldiers it was our job to fight and take lives, programs like OPEN ME allowed us to see first hand the good that we were accomplishing in the everyday lives of Iraqis.

Dangerous Deception

However, the openly harsh and stressful environment is not the only—or the worst—danger we faced in Iraq. The worst dangers came secretly and stealthily. Everyone remembers how quickly the coalition forces reached Baghdad and conquered Iraq. Our troops were awesome, overwhelming the Iraqi army in all respects. However, a problem arose after we arrived. The Iraqi army played tricks on us: Iraqi soldiers would pretend to surrender, then open fire. This made our troops nervous and made capturing Iraqis who were really surrendering more difficult. They also used children to ambush convoys: children would swarm a vehicle for food and water, and when we stopped or slowed down, we would be attacked. Other Iraqis would flee into the countryside for a time and wait to fight later. They also used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack us.

Don handing out supplies to children at a school near the Balad Airbase where he was stationed. Balad, which is about 50 miles north of Baghdad, has been described as ground-zero for Baath Party (the political party of Saddam Hussein) sentiment.

In our country we see boxes and trash by the side of the road and think nothing about it, but Iraqi insurgents used trash and dead animals to conceal IEDs. Alertness and discernment were critical for survival, but our ability to make decisions was often impaired by the anxiety of being attacked at any time.

Ministry of Discernment

The deceptive tactics of the Iraqi insurgents made me think of another war that rages around us—a cosmic, spiritual war:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons that we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.2 Corinthians 10: 3, 4

Christians are in a spiritual war of beliefs and attitudes and arguments. However, it isn’t always easy to know where the enemy is. There are millions of people who claim to be Christian and belong to a church. They say they believe in Christ, the spirit and the gospel. The gospel seems to progress. But are all who claim the name of Jesus Christ truly His people? Jesus in Matthew 7:15 tells us, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” In other words, the enemy is often disguised. Like the war in Iraq, the enemy takes on the appearance of innocence in order to harm us. Paul echoed Jesus’ warning in Acts 20:29-30: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”  How will these “wolves” attack the church? In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Paul says that “I am afraid that…the Corinthians] minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” Our spiritual enemies use deception as the key to their success. These false teachers used the same words as us: Jesus, spirit, gospel. They looked and sounded correct. But since their Jesus was not the Jesus of Scripture, then they had the wrong Jesus. Now, how did these people become accepted into the church? They slipped in using all the right words but having different meanings for the words. Jude 4 says they, “secretly slipped” in. 2 Peter 2:1 says they will “secretly introduce destructive heresies.” The key word here is secret. The false teachers came in looking and acting like us and using the same vocabulary. They are the “ferocious wolves” that look like the “sheep,” the church members.

This spiritual war is being fought in Iraq as well, within the ranks of our own military. As I said, the stressed soldier often turns to his chaplain for aid. But there are Mormon chaplains, 7th Day Adventists chaplains, Catholic chaplains, Jewish chaplains and many others. These friendly faces give soldiers a sense of security, but seldom do the soldiers stop and analyze who the chaplain represents. One example of this was at Ft. Stewart, Georgia, before I left for Iraq. I reported to an officer who was a Mormon chaplain. He was a nice guy and he didn't tell me he was Mormon, but as I looked around his office, I saw objects that pointed to his religious identity. I later attended Protestant services in which he preached. What he said sounded good—but I knew he was Mormon. Later on, he transferred to another base, so the officers and soldiers gave him a going-away party. All involved extolled his virtues and called him a great man of God. They fell into the trap of accepting him as another Christian of a “different” denomination. If this happens on a military base in the United States, how much more could it happen in a theater of war with all the extreme dynamics?


The lesson from Iraq is this: the stress of a hostile environment must be countered by encouragement and steadfastness, and deceptive enemies must be confronted with discernment. But it is just as important to learn these lessons in the battle that we Christians face daily. While the Iraqi “wolves in sheep’s clothing” injure and kill, false teaching in churches can have eternal consequences. We must not become “weary in well doing,” because in the end we will succeed “if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). We must always be ready to defend the faith from spiritual deceivers—not with bullets but with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Please pray for the American troops and their chaplains as we engage in the war on terror, and for Watchman Fellowship as we confront false teachers on the spiritual battlefield. Hoo-ah and Amen!

Don Malin is the director of Watchman Fellowship's Mississippi office and also serves as a military chaplain. As this Update goes to press, Don is being deployed to the Middle East. We would be glad to forward any correspondence to his military address.

This article was excerpted from the October 2004 Update

For more information on apologetics, doctrine, and church history, please visit our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.