IN THE MORTUARY AFFAIRS bunker, we could feel and hear the souls of the dead. They emerged at night and hovered above us, pressed down upon us, pushed us away from their favorite resting spots, watched us through the eyes of severed heads. That there was an afterlife was as clear to us as Iraq’s bright yellow sun, but what it entailed and who its inhabitants were and how one gained admission were more of a mystery than ever. There was a chapel on the base which I visited every now and then, but I would leave still unable to explain what was going on around me, and no more comforted than when I entered. One day a fellow platoon member handed an Iraqi man two black plastic bags. One contained the remains of the man’s wife; the other the remains of his four-year old daughter. My chapel visits did not help me to make sense of this or the many other atrocities surrounding me.

Two years later, sleeping on my father’s couch, unable to function, I sought advice from the youth pastor at our church. At his suggestion, I attended services regularly and donated time to the congregation’s children and elderly, but it too wasn’t enough to provide me with the grounding I sought or the conviction in the goodness of what we were doing, either in Iraq or here at home.

A hundred years after Emile Durkheim pronounced that the old gods had died and new ones had not yet arisen, I still could not find one.

We discussed war as an extension of politics and read Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” …

I had thought Al Qaeda hated us only because we were free, a concept they found repugnant, as the president and his spokespersons told us, but here Bin Laden was making the case that we attacked Muslims in Somalia and in occupied Palestine, that we shored up oppressive dictators in one Muslim country after another, that we did not adequately compensate them for—or we stole!—their oil, that we starved their children through the implementation of unjust sanctions, and on and on …

We discussed the interdependence of our social institutions …

I was beginning to feel the reality of our social institutions and to see how our economy and polity and our educational, religious and family systems worked together to make us, individually and collectively, who we are. If I detected a crack in one institution, a gap between its ideals and actual functioning, I could trace that fissure into and through the other institutions.

Marx said that the critique of society begins with a critique of religion. For me, it began with a critique of war. Initially an unarticulated discomfort with roots in my experiences fighting a war, it became a more informed analysis based upon readings that allowed me to connect my war to the structure of our society and world.

I concluded that too many of the myths surrounding war, more than a few of which are religious in nature, are malignant, and too few of those embracing life are robust enough to provide substantive meaning.

We discussed the nature of social institutions …

That course, titled “American Institutions,” invited students to think about the nature of our political system and economy and educational system and family system as well as our military, and to understand how we form them and how they form us, and how, if we choose, we can change them, and reinvigorate them with the ideals and virtues they long-ago held.

I graduated at the end of that semester with a clearer understanding of how a goal larger than the self—a possible antidote to life in modern society—must contain a concept of the common good that is embedded in our shared institutions. I came to see that individuals can fulfill themselves only within a community that actively maintains the norms of honor and discipline and sacrifice and democratic participation, and that, in a globalizing world, the goals of peace and justice and equality of opportunity must extend to all of humanity.

Jessica had been a silent student that semester, uttering not one word in class. It was through her written work that I understood that she was listening and reading and thinking. The semester ended and I did not see her for a year or so, until she one day appeared at my office door. During our chat she mentioned that she was behind schedule academically because she had served four years in the Marines. As our conversation wound down, I invited her to drop by again when she was next on campus. “Next time,” she asked, “can we talk about forgiveness?”

When I transferred to a four-year school I founded a group for veterans. Together we tried to make sense of what we had done and were doing. Beneath our shared experiences was an unspoken understanding that we hoped to nudge ourselves and the college community toward a conversation about social justice. After graduation I moved to Boston and joined its Veterans for Peace chapter. In what is, for many, the birthplace of American democracy, we worked to remind our city and nation of its historic ideals, while we sought repentance through helping dislocated Iraqi families settle into the area. Today I see the Occupy Wall Street movement as an attempt, however unorganized, to nationalize the efforts to revitalize our institutions, to realign their goals with America’s true ideals, to infuse the process of collective meaning-making with democracy, and to do so in a more global context.

This is how I am integrating my past with my present, myself with my country, my life with my ideals, my present with the future, my experiences with hope.

Jessica is a PhD candidate in the counseling program at the University of Buffalo. John Hearn teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. This essay contains passages from the authors’ book, Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq (Casemate Publishers, 2011).