Friday, May 28, 2010

Soldiers, Christianity and War: A Memorial Day Weekend Essay

Let’s get to the heart of what we – as human beings – should be doing in this brief time we have on earth.

We should, if at all possible, avoid killing other people. (Just wait – this will naturally be explained in a deeper context. We’re starting with basic concepts and developing frameworks in due time…)

There are many sins in the Bible and in the realm of recorded history; Saint Paul mentioned the sin against the Holy Spirit, which might understandably occupy a prominent place for a good many Christians. However, it’s hard if not impossible to conclude that the worst thing human beings have done to each other since we first walked the earth is that we kill each other. A lot.

Whether it’s an all-out war, or just one-sided, blood-soaked repression of a people by a ruthless dictatorship, or localized gun violence by gangs or a criminal element, human lives are always being cut down by others. What’s instructive to note is that human societies, over time, show little to no sign of being able (or even willing) to stop cycles of violence and put a halt to patterns of endless antagonism and distrust. The Israelis and Palestinians, Pakistan and India, the Sunnis and Shiites, and various other groups engage in a punch-and-punch-back cycle which continues relatively unabated precisely because no one of stature insists on a different way of being.

In a better world, a world dominated by Christian principles and a Christian way of life, we will identify with the One who – in the hours before his very death – told Peter, “those who live by the sword shall also perish by it.” Peter thought he was doing the right thing by lopping off the ear of the corrupt and evil high priest’s servant, but Jesus told the always-overzealous and excitable Peter to put the sword away. It’s not a rewriting of history (or of Scripture) to identify the narrative of cross and crucifixion as a study in nonviolent resistance to power. That is in fact a portion of the way in which Jesus of Nazareth laid down his life for the world. It is only a portion, but a true and unvarnished one.

Jesus did say he came not to bring peace, but a sword; naturally, though, that sword was not a physical one, but a metaphorical one. Jesus’s words point to the piercingly difficult challenge offered by the Gospel, which – as Saint Peter showed in his “dive into an empty pool basin before bothering to look” kind of life – is not very easy to live out. No one ever said that following the true path of Jesus Christ – an innocent who did not complain about the cruel and wrongful death he endured - was ever going to be easy.

This is what brings us to the political tension that the United States Government – and we, as citizens of it – must confront.

One of the more vigorous anti-war voices in the blogosphere and Twitterverse is Steve Hynd of Steve regularly offers copious links, postings and analysis of events taking place in the world’s major national security and foreign policy theaters – the Middle East, Persia, and Af/Pak in particular. As America’s presence in Afghanistan becomes only more entrenched, it’s been revealed that secretive night raids – which I had previously understood to be very rare occasions – are actually conducted with an appreciable degree of regularity. The killing of civilians in a mistaken raid is something that, as Mr. Hynd points out – happens far more regularly than the global community seems to appreciate.

I realize that I’m engaging in a certain degree of both simplification and reductionism here, but it’s not a fundamental distortion to say that the frequency of mistaken raids is one reason Mr. Hynd has cast a critical eye toward the conduct of American soldiers in Afghanistan. I’m simplifying only because the purpose of this blog is not so much about policy specifics as it is about mending the deep wounds between Left and Right, which are perfectly illustrated in this issue, namely, the conduct of American soldiers in foreign war zones.

In my (now) 13 months on Twitter – and those who follow my Twitter feed know that since the turn of the year, I’ve truly begun to include a number of politically conservative voices in my retweets – one thing that strikes me is how deeply aggrieved a number of conservatives get whenever anything is said about the conduct of U.S. soldiers in a botched raid or a misunderstanding with a convoy at a checkpoint, two very common sources of civilian deaths. I think it’s fundamentally accurate – at least on an emotional level if not as a reflection of a fundamental posture or stance – to say that American conservatives view these citations of accidental killings by American soldiers as indictments of the soldiers themselves. There is an enormous amount of frustration, fatigue and – I’m groping for the right term here – “wounded-ness” on the part of the American Right in response to the reality that our nation’s soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line, could be criticized.

At least, that’s the way conservatives feel about such criticisms, on balance.

[SIDE NOTE: People on the Left, in my opinion, do need to go out of their way to be clear on this point: Criticisms of accidental killings are reflections on the nastiness and awfulness of war, not of the soldier... at least in 98 percent of cases (and even then, the soldier who snaps is a person who deserves and demands our prayers; having one's mind and heart ground down to the breaking point is a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone).]

What Steve Hynd has pointed out is that soldiers have the right and the ability to refuse to participate in night raids (the convoy checkpoints are a much more dicey matter; I don’t know his stance on that) on the basis of “law of war” or “rule of war” principles. Mr. Hynd – and this is where we get back to the word “should” again – raised the point with me on Twitter that soldiers “should” know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up to fight in wars. Therefore, we “should not” be so quick to absolve soldiers of blame when one of these accidents happens. I understand why this point is made and where it comes from: a desire to see an absolute minimum of killing, particularly of innocent civilians in war zones.

In accordance with Christian principles, I agree with the bottom-line insistence on seeing a minimum of killing. However, I arrive at any and all opposition to killing from a slightly different vantage point, with important implications for how we process political criticism in the most wrenching situations on the most contentious issues of our time.

I wouldn’t exactly say I’m all for giving soldiers a blank check or a free pass with respect to their conduct in war zones, but I will readily admit that I’m strongly inclined to be lenient with individual soldiers on the ground, at the bottom of the military’s larger structure. One reason to be lenient toward soldiers is that – as Mr. Hynd himself pointed out to me a few weeks ago – American soldiers receive 1/4 of the “law of war” training that a German soldier receives, and that U.S. soldiers are getting less and less training on the rules of war, something which flows from the top levels of military and political authority.

With that said, I’d be inclined to spare a soldier withering criticism and disapproval for other reasons, even if I hadn’t known the shameful extent to which soldiers are deprived of a proper military education. There’s a political reason for this, and there’s a cultural reason for this as well.

Let’s begin with the political reason.

On all issues under the sun – not just foreign-policy considerations – the experiences of my life have led me toward the realization that leaders and all people in positions of pronounced authority bear the overwhelming weight of responsibility for actions taken and results (not) gained. The president of the United States, along with leaders of Congress and top military brass, live in a rarefied world different from us commoners. They breathe different air, but they’re also given briefings and insider reports which expose them to the levers of power and the geopolitical chessboard.

Phrased much more simply, leaders have access to information and decision-making capabilities/mechanisms that you and I don’t enjoy from our cramped apartments or our modest middle-class dwellings whose second mortgages might still be outstanding at this time. Leaders – through their proximity to situations and their access to both information and experts – are in a position to see and understand the implications of their actions. For this fundamental set of reasons, they are responsible for deciding whether or not the United States (or any other nation) wages war. Soldiers might sign up to go to war, but leaders sign up to make the decisions that shape and reshape our planet. The corridors of power are the places where accidental civilian killings can truly be averted.

Now, the cultural reason why I don’t centrally blame soldiers, on balance, for civilian deaths in war zones: American culture – perhaps not writ large but certainly in some parts of the country – has written a narrative which an 18- or 21-year-old soldier-to-be is not sophisticated enough to process or overcome.

First, consider all the violence-drenched video games and big-budget movies that fill our entertainment-industrial complex. Second, consider how little you really knew about the world when you were 20 years old and trying to make sense of college.
Third, take simple note of the fact – and it is a fact (perhaps not in the way 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact, but certainly on a real cultural level) – that a significant portion of Americans think that our troops are “fighting for our freedom.”

The purpose of mentioning that last phrase – “fighting for our freedom” – is not to agree with it or disagree with it. The point of invoking that phrase is to show that if a 20-year-old man views military service as a freedom-defending enterprise, he has already identified military service as a supreme calling, the noblest and most honorable thing he can possibly do with his life. Once that fundamental decision – with all its emotional attachments and cultural roots – has been made, it’s highly unlikely that a military signee’s attitudes will be reshaped in his first few years of military service. Only when the ugly, messy complexities of war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, guerrilla warfare, and the Islamic world emerge in full relief might a soldier (might, not definitely) begin to reconsider the implications of the decision he once made as an eager 20-year-old intent on making a positive difference in the world for the country he loves so much.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem in which the moral blame, weight and scrutiny should fall first or most heavily on the soldier. To understand this point in a fuller context, it’s time to come full circle and return to the beginning of this essay.

What should we, as human beings, be doing with our lives? For any of us who call ourselves Christian, we should be dedicated to reducing killings of all kinds. Yet – and this also applies to issues such as how to treat violent 19-year-old sex offenders who were born to a crackhead mother and an absentee father and had little chance in a life dominated by the grittiness of the inner-city streets – we are constantly confronted with tensions between the Christian ideal and the need to inject some human realism into our policies and approaches.

I encounter this sentiment so often in any political debate I enter, and it is voiced by both the Left and the Right: “Well, it’s nice that you have such high standards, Matt, and are such a purist, but this is the real world. These decisions aren’t easy. We have to be tough. We have to make ourselves safe.” One of the reasons why so many people – including those in my own family – continue to defend Barack Obama on many fronts, including and especially in Afghanistan and the use of drones in the Af/Pak region, is that “change can’t happen overnight.” Another favorite phrase that people on the Right will knowingly and rightly snicker at is, “He (Obama) inherited a terrible situation.” As though that gives Obama license to make more terrible decisions and make the situation worse.

My question for everyone on the political spectrum is this: If Christian faith really is as life-saving, as salvific and terrific, as it is supposed to be – I am a Christian, after all – why does it seem that the pseudo-religion of American nationalism, as promoted by the National Security State under presidents both Democratic and Republican, seems to hold much more emotional weight in our culture and in our national narrative and mythology? If Christian ideals and principles truly hold sway in America, why are we not following the words of Jesus and laying down our swords, knowing that the one who lives by the sword shall also perish by it? If we are truly a people of cross and resurrection, of dying to our sinful human ways so that the mind and heart of Christ might be born again in our hearts and live anew so that God’s will – not ours – may be done on earth as it is in heaven, why do we persist in fighting wars?

Why do we persist in having the death penalty?

Why do we not transform and overhaul our prison system into places where repentance, forgiveness of sins, holistic restoration, and appreciation for life are cultivated?

The American soldier does not deserve to be heavily criticized for what happens in war zones. I want my friends on the Right to know and understand that whenever I cite an accidental killing, I am pointing out the futility and hopelessness of war, with its extraordinary complexity. Soldiers are not 100 percent immune from blame, but they’re certainly placed in virtually impossible positions… first, by a president who made the fundamental choice to pursue war as a solution to a problem; second, by military commanders whose bodies aren’t vulnerable the way a frontline grunt is; third, by a national or at least semi-national culture which promotes military service as a high calling. In the grand scheme of things, American soldiers are highly sympathetic figures who deserve superabundant amounts of compassion, understanding, care, concern, and prayer.

It’s our leadership and our nation which deserve withering scrutiny and a fair share of condemnation. The Right is right to feel fatigued, exhausted and overwhelmed when soldiers are criticized, and it’s up to people on the Left to make sure that citations of civilian killings are seen as indictments of the enterprise of war itself, not as judgments against the soldiers placed in impossible situations.
What all of us as Americans must do in response, however – and this applies to anyone, liberal or conservative, who carries the banner of faith in Jesus, the crucified Christ – is to hold Christian principles as having primary importance, over and above the siren song of American nationalism and the hypermuscularity of militarism which so often accompanies it.

For the Christian believer, it’s God – and the Christ who died to advance God’s glory – first, America second. American governmental and military leaders, Right and Left, might give the impression that being a soldier is the highest form of service (and that funding war is of absolute national importance), but the life and example of Jesus clearly and unambiguously point us to a higher and decidedly different standard. Jesus used spiritual violence to the very last breath of his life, but that very point underscores the extent to which his life was free of physical violence toward other human beings.

As we contemplate the meaning and value of war, treatment of prisoners, and so many other issues under the sun, we ought to reconsider what it is we really “should” be doing with our lives on earth as American Christians.


  1. Two points: #1, I don't understand how you can write an entire column on avoiding unneccessary killing without even mentioning abortion. It reduces the credibility of the rest of your post, IMHO, to omit the most obvious and glaring practice of brutality on the planet. (I say that in terms of the discrepancy of power and innocence/guilt between the one doing the killing and the one being killed. Not to imply that it's 'worse' than another killing of an innocent, but in that the victim is surely more helpless and more innocent.)

    Second, I think it's a mistake to take Jesus' words directing how we should live our lives and apply that to the State. This is one of the biggest and most egregious twisting of Scripture that the Left makes, I think. It happens, not only in this context, which necessarily means that a nation must turn the other cheek if it is attacked, but also in the context of charity. Surely we are directed to give to the poor, to take care of the despised and the needy. But it does not follow that Jesus' directive of personal charity gives the State the right to take from you to give to me.

    I make these points, not to justify unneccesary war, but to say that Jesus' teachings were directed at you and I as individuals, not at the State.

  2. John -

    This was/is a Memorial Day-themed post on war and soldiers. Must abortion - as much as I do abhor it - be part of the text?

    As for your second point, I'd say that Jesus would not want individuals to have different standards of behavior for nations compared to localized communities/families/households/clusters of people. What we do as individuals should be modeled and replicated by how we behave as larger collectives/groups.

    Jesus's life, example and testimony - especially his "my kingdom is not of this world" witness before his crucifixion - offers a powerful testament to both his resistance to entrenched linear political power and - moreover - his utter distaste for it. Jesus did not concern himself with political power structures - that's not how he thought, and that's not how his Father's kingdom is organized.

    Philippians 2's famous crucifixion chapter sheds light on this dimension of Jesus as a person who didn't play traditional political hardball and didn't follow the rules of linear political powerbrokers. We are to live our lives by God's standards, whether we are leaders of nations or working-class individuals in small towns. Political structures and the presence of the State are not part of Jesus's thought process.

    Maybe, John, many secular leftists view this as important. I don't, and I hope that other progressive Christians would join me. (I don't know if they do or not. That would be an interesting follow-up exploration.)

    And as for "turn the other cheek," I trust you're aware of the deeper symbolism attached to that action and what it really meant within the social context of Jesus's times.