Some Thoughts on War for Memorial Day

Some Thoughts on War for Memorial Day May 21, 2016

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.

― Chris Hedges, Author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

If you’re going to have a military, especially one that is sent to fight as many wars as ours is, you need to desensitize soldiers to the value of human life, so that they will kill without hesitation or reflection.

But in attempting to form young men and women in that way, the military must work against something very powerful, very deeply ingrained in the human psyche. There is a very strong, intrinsically human revulsion to killing our fellow humans. You can talk all day about “it’s ok because it’s war” and “it was you or them” or any of the other lies Mother Culture tells you about killing in the particular instance of war, but unless you are a sociopath, the reality of what war actually is — hellish, brutal, murderous, senseless and soul-destroying — always trumps that, somewhere inside.

Hedges again:

If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining…

The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.

Sending young men to commit warfare is a heart-breakingly awful thing to do, when you peel away the rationalizations, legalisms and veneer of nationalist triumphalism. It may, very occasionally, be unavoidable – the Civil War and Second World War being two consensus examples – but no less evil for that. War ought always to be undertaken with a heavy sense of failure.

I vividly remember watching a report on MTV (of all places) during the opening weeks of the Iraq War, and the correspondent interviewed a group of infantrymen on a desolate stretch of Iraqi highway, leaning against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a pause in the action. One soldier, a young private who looked to still be in his teens, said the following to her: “When you first kill someone in battle, a piece of your soul dies with him. I don’t think you ever get that back.”

There was a saying half a century ago in the protests against Vietnam: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if you have the world’s most powerful military, then it will tend to be the card you reach for first: it seems your strongest suit.

I have a hard time with folks who try and wave off objections to war with some explanation like, “Well, what is one to do? In a fallen world, war will always be a fact of life.”

There is something to this – war is indeed a result of human brokenness – but I sometimes think that attitude lets us off way too easy.

What if war is there because we human beings in the world either support it, at least tacitly, or else we don’t do enough to stop it? What if it doesn’t have to be this way? Why can’t we Americans raise a generation who has no experience with losing friends in battle?

There is an important distinction between hope and optimism – hope being the belief that change for the better is possible, and optimism being the belief that change is inevitable. This Memorial Day weekend, as we ponder the 1.34 million American military men and women who have died in America’s wars through the centuries, maybe we can leaven our sadness with the hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pingback: A not-to-be-missed piece on meaning-making as peace-building | Quotations Treasury()

  • Agellius

    I agree that it would be ideal if we could get everyone in the world to agree not to fight wars all at the same time. But absent that occurrence, it would be foolish not to prepare ourselves to be able to fight one when the need arises.

    • Dr. Martin Luther King said that peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice. Working for economic and social justice builds the foundation for peace.

      • Agellius

        We should work for justice because it’s the right thing to do. We have no argument as far as that goes. But it boils down to the same point as in my last comment: Just because we’re committed to acting justly doesn’t mean everyone else is, so we need to be prepared for those who aren’t.

        • Just because we’re committed to acting justly doesn’t mean everyone else is, so we need to be prepared for those who aren’t.

          Which is a distraction from the point of my post, in my judgement. The point is this:

          (T)he hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.

          • Agellius

            I think that point is pretty non-controversial for the vast majority of believing Christians. As I said before, we should work for justice because it’s the right thing to do, and not merely as a means of avoiding war. And we should work to avoid and prevent war for the same reason.

            I wasn’t sure if your post was implying that there was something wrong with preparing ourselves to fight a war, lest we “desensitize soldiers to the value of human life, so that they will kill without hesitation or reflection”. If you agree that prudence dictates that we be prepared for war, then we’re entirely in agreement.

          • How can we build a world that has seen the last of war, Agellius? That is the question raised by this post.

  • Agellius

    By being good. How can we get people to be good?

    • Don’t you think that the imperial impulse in the foreign policy is a large contributing factor in the frequency with which this country commits young men and women to battle?

      Here’s Smedley Butler, 33 year veteran of the Marine Corps:

      But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.

      The profit motive and America’s imperial project go hand in hand. Do you disagree?

      • Agellius

        I’m not sure what exactly you mean by “America’s imperial project”.

        I don’t claim to know our motives in going to war. How do you assess the motives of an entire nation? Judging by what I know of human nature generally, I assume that sometimes our motives are good and sometimes they’re bad, and a lot of times it’s probably a mixture of the two. I doubt that they’re always purely economic.

        If you took the “profit motive” out of war, would that stop it? I don’t know how to answer that question. First, how would you do it? Would it mean not letting defense contractors make weapons and airplanes? Or, forcing them to fork over whatever profits they earn by making such things? If you did that, what would be their incentive to make them? Or is he advocating that we disarm ourselves? As stated before, I think that would be foolish.

        Or is he saying that we should never go to war for economic reasons? I can’t agree with that. If our economic interests are attacked, I think we should defend them. Part of the reason the world economy thrives, to the extent that it does, is that pirates (among others) are kept in check by the threat of force. Take that away and how many shipments of iPhones from Malaysia (or wherever they’re made) could we reasonably count on reaching their destinations?

        It’s terrible to fight over money. But if people wouldn’t try to take other people’s money, we wouldn’t have to fight them. So again the root of war is human evil, on one side or another. How do you make people not be bad?

        If what you’re saying is that the “American imperial project” is bad and is taking other people’s money, then by all means let’s condemn the American imperial project. But again, I don’t know exactly what you mean by that term so I’m not sure who I should be condemning. Is it Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg? Bill Gates?

        • Agellius – can’t you imagine a world different, and better, than the one we find ourselves in?

  • brian martin

    “How can we build a world that has seen the last of war, Agellius? That is the question raised by this post.”

    This is a nice theoretical question. I will give you a nice realistic answer. We Can’t. Sin exists, and because of that simple fact, war will exist.

    War does not exist because of American profit. War does not exist because of “America’s Imperial Project.” War exists because one man sees something he wants that someone else has, and takes it by force. It is as old as Cain and Abel.
    damn I’m kind of pessimistic today.

    • Brian – what if Christ’s victory over sin was and is far more profound than we allow ourselves to imagine?

      • brian martin

        Ahh..indeed. And it is our challenge. While we cannot achieve “Heaven” here on earth, we can strive to live a life closer to God. I understand that on a personal level, but on a national level? That is the question.

        • on a national level? That is the question.

          Racism, at practically every level of American society and in every region, is less of a problem than it was a hundred years ago. There is still progress to be made – plenty of it – but lynching (for example) is almost unknown in the United States now.

          The progress we’ve made has been more than individuals striving for virtue in their individual lives (though that is obviously necessary, even foundational). People used faith, hope and love to overturn the Jim Crow regime in the South, and they marched and accepted beatings without retaliation because they believed that change was possible, and knew that they had to get there together.

          That “together” included southern whites, by the way. Here’s Dr. Martin Luther King:

          I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

  • brian martin

    “But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war. ”
    How do you take the “profit” out of war when not all “profit” is material in nature? The profit for radical religious groups is often ideology based, not economic. Taking over land, forcing conversions etc is seen as religious imperative, not profit for a corporation.
    Now I will grant that it we take the money out of the war machine…if that were possible, to dismantle the global military industrial complex, we would certainly reduce the scale of warfare….but again, greed being what it is…sin…this is not likely.

  • Agellius

    Matt asks, “can’t you imagine a world different, and better, than the one we find ourselves in?”

    Sure, I can imagine it. It’s also described in Genesis chapter 2.

    • Agellius – keep in mind my definition of hope versus optimism. Do you believe that change for the better is possible?

      • Agellius

        Certainly. Things have been better in the past and they can get better in the future.

        • Not sure that answered my question, Agellius.

  • Agellius

    “Not sure that answered my question, Agellius.”

    Really? You asked if things can change for the better. Did I not say “they can get better in the future”?

    • You’re being evasive, Agellius, and not really answering the question I was asking. I’ll give you the last word in this back-and-forth and leave it at that.

      • Agellius

        I don’t have the slightest idea how I’m being evasive. I suppose it must be because I mentioned things being better in the past? I assume if I had simply said, “Yes, things can get better in the future”, you would have been satisfied. So I’ll explain why I mentioned the past: Because things having been better in the past proves that things can get better in the future.

        If that’s too confusing for you, then I will change my answer to simply “yes.”

  • Roger

    Mark,

    Your first and most critical error in judgment is quoting Chris Hedges. He’s wrong on so many levels. His words don’t belong in a “catholic” blog.

    • Whatever you think of Chris Hedges the man is irrelevant to the discussion. I quoted his words because they are powerful and true, in my judgement.

  • Tausign

    How can we build a world that has seen the last of war? That is the question raised by this post. If you’re thinking of an edifice of longstanding peace, then I would say we can’t. But if our goals are more modest, then indeed we can. Let me explain.

    Memorial Day is an apt title for this day of recollection, for it’s in the memory of the sacrifices made that our eyes are open once again. The work of peace is always in the NOW because the seeds of war and hatred are cast daily in our actions. Unlike some forms of knowledge (science, math, medicine, etc.) which accumulate and advance; the pursuit for long lasting peace is not a similar science…it does not advance…it ebbs and flows; rises and collapses. Each individual and generation must decide in their own lifetime which paths to choose. In spiritual terms we refer to light and darkness, and no individual, people or nation escapes the responsibility of freely ‘entering the light’, so to speak on this matter.

    My point is that when we do the ‘work of peace’, we do it for the ‘here and now’ (or the near future) and with an awareness of the fragile nature of peace. The same is true in combating racism or slavery. In a sense it’s very much like growing and harvesting food…it’s for each season, after which it spoils.

  • Julia Smucker

    To those invoking the existence of sin to dismiss the possibility of doing away with war: what would you say to someone who likewise invoked sin, or “realism”, to dismiss the possibility of doing away with abortion?

    • brian martin

      I would say they are right, likewise doing away with murder, rape, illness and death.
      This is why Jesus had to die for us. When in the history of humanity since the Fall has evil not existed? What theological basis is there to suggest that it can indeed be ended here on earth?

      • Julia Smucker

        OK then, let’s just throw up our hands and go home. Forget about the building of the Kingdom or the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s just go to heaven and live like hell until we get there.

        • Brian Martin

          I answered your question…how about actually answering mine. Then lets move on to the what then…and you and I will likely agree. Move ever closer to God. Be the hands and feet of Christ. Perhaps I am too literal when I respond to your question, but I hold that it is theologically true.

    • Agellius

      Julia:

      While I advocate abortion being illegal, I don’t have any illusions that making it illegal would do away with abortion, any more than theft being illegal does away with theft.

      • Julia Smucker

        I completely agree. The outlawing of any form of violence, while always to be desired, can never be a full solution in and by itself. Which is all the more reason to use any and all possible nonviolent means to eradicate any and all offenses against life. Of course we will never completely get there this side of the eschaton, but that’s no reason not to do whatever we can to build up a culture of life, even incrementally. Simply put, our work is never done.

        • Brian Martin

          And because “our work is never done” we keep on working…we keep on being Christ’s hands and feet. Not because we can create “heaven on Earth”, but because we are called to by the Holy Spirit.

  • Agellius

    By the way, Julia, I wasn’t arguing that we can never do away with war so let’s not even try. I agreed that we should do what we can to prevent and avoid war. What I disagreed with was what I took to be implied by Matt’s post, that preparing and training for war makes us more likely to go to war, therefore we should not do those things.

    Obviously being unprepared for war would make us more afraid to go to war, and therefore more desperate to avoid it. But would that be a good thing? Only, it seems to me, if we could rely on others not to take advantage of our weakness, which I find highly doubtful.

    • implied by Matt’s post, that preparing and training for war makes us more likely to go to war, therefore we should not do those things.

      You misread the point of my post. The point of this post, again, is to provoke discussion of the following:

      What if war is there because we human beings in the world either support it, at least tacitly, or else we don’t do enough to stop it? What if it doesn’t have to be this way? Why can’t we Americans raise a generation who has no experience with losing friends in battle?

      There is an important distinction between hope and optimism – hope being the belief that change for the better is possible, and optimism being the belief that change is inevitable. This Memorial Day weekend, as we ponder the 1.34 million American military men and women who have died in America’s wars through the centuries, maybe we can leaven our sadness with the hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.

      • Agellius

        Matt:

        I didn’t say that that was the main point of your post, only that I thought it was implied by the post. In other words, whether or not it’s the main point, it’s the part of your post that I disagree with.

        • Then you’re arguing beside the point, Agellius. Whether or not we prepare for war is irrelevant to my purpose here.

  • Trendi

    Gosh, it’s like you got passionate about something 13 years ago and haven’t been able to let go…

    Truth is, what you say about needing to overcome very deep revulsions is true when training surgeons too; it is not natural, emotionally, to cut chests open, remove organs, amputate limbs (and my god, so much blood!)

    Are we going to say that surgeons are all sociopaths or that a part of their soul dies on account of their desensitization.

    But sometimes a tumor is a whole person rather than just part, and we call the surgeons who remove them from the world-body soldiers or executioners. It isn’t that hard to understand.

    • Truth is, what you say about needing to overcome very deep revulsions is true when training surgeons too; it is not natural, emotionally, to cut chests open, remove organs, amputate limbs (and my god, so much blood!)

      Except the surgeon is training to heal, and the soldier is training to kill. Surgeons must overcome squeamishness; soldiers must go against something far deeper and more morally consequential.

      But sometimes a tumor is a whole person rather than just part, and we call the surgeons who remove them from the world-body soldiers or executioners. It isn’t that hard to understand.

      Oh, I understand you very well, but profoundly disagree with you. People are not cancer, no matter how bad their choices and actions may be.

  • Julia Smucker

    At the risk of opening another can of worms, this discussion is in some ways analogous to Jesus quoting from Deuteronomy, “The poor will be with you always,” which has often been misapplied to argue for defeatism. The passage he quoted from in fact goes on to say, “Therefore, open your hand to them.” It’s a perpetual mandate. His followers will ALWAYS be responsible for the poor and the vulnerable. Likewise the aborted, the bombed, the executed and the euthanized are with us always. All the more reason to take seriously our responsibility to them.

    And, to Matt’s point, also to those who have suffered the profoundly damaging effects of participation in violent actions that run deep against the grain of what they as human beings were created for (cf. Gaudium et Spes 27). Including, or rather especially, making every effort to prevent such damaging actions in the first place.

  • Tausign

    Being Memorial Day weekend I did want to reflect on your thoughts a second time. What’s interesting is how easy it is for those of us commentator’s to ‘talk past each other’ on this crucial topic. Skeptics of Christianity often point to our failure to eradicate the troubles of the world…war, slavery, famine, etc. We do make progress of course and then find that these difficulties arise anew in different circumstances and forms. The Pope has recently decried new forms of slavery. I think it’s fair to say that this is the problem of evil that reasserts itself again and again, in spite of the fact that the world has been redeemed. For my part, I tend to look at these issues from a perspective of faith (or its lack) and see their solution in an ongoing or deepening conversion; not just in individuals but in cultures and societies. My point from an earlier comment is that faith/conversion is never fixed and permanent. It always runs the risk of withering. This is not defeatism.

    There’s another group of skeptics of Christianity, who are more accurately described as ‘Christians who are skeptics of faith’. This group tends to rely on its own resources for security and prosperity. Rather than put themselves in God’s hands and following his ways, they serve and worship idols. In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols “have mouths, but they cannot speak”. [Lumen Fidei,13]

    Which is why we are always in need of prophets to shake us up.

    • Agellius

      Tausign:

      You write, “For my part, I tend to look at these issues from a perspective of faith (or its lack) and see their solution in an ongoing or deepening conversion; not just in individuals but in cultures and societies.”

      I agree with you. I think the best hope for ending war is to spread the Gospel. I think this is an unsatisfactory answer for some because they realize that the Gospel is not destined to convert everyone in the world or even a majority. And they’re right. But I also don’t believe that anything other than the Gospel is capable of achieving universal and lasting peace. This, obviously, doesn’t release Christians from the obligation to work for peace and justice to the extent possible.

  • Mark VA

    It seems that this discussion is converging on a few points:

    (a) War is one of the symptoms of the human capacity for evil;

    (b) The persistence of this evil obliges each generation and each person to oppose and contain it with love and truth – this too, is a persistent project;

    I would also like to remind that war can be imposed on otherwise reasonably peaceful societies. I think that in such cases, it is just for these societies to defend themselves and to disarm the evil, as much as possible.

    I would further propose that in these scenarios, it would be wrong for other just societies to sit on the sidelines, and not aid those justly defending themselves. As Americans, we should be proud that the United States did not sit the World War Two and the Cold War out, but did come to the aid of the suffering and the oppressed.

    In real life, as opposed to hypothetical discussions on this subject, these strands often weave complex situations which can sharpen the moral lens to a transcendent focus:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZl3-wFnSSw

    • Julia Smucker

      I like your phrase “disarm the evil”. I believe the best question to ask from this is how (not if) the evil can be disarmed without the effort to do so becoming the same evil it seeks to disarm.

      • Mark VA

        Evil camouflages itself as best it can. The Nazis used elementary euphemisms such as “hygiene”, “special treatment”, etc. plus they tried to physically conceal their murders. Next to the Communists, however, their grade of camouflage was that of rank amateurs.

        Witold Pilecki morally disarmed such tactics by exposing them to the light of truth. His trial, for example, is one great mediation on the powerlessness of evil when courageously confronted with truth. For this, he was (of course) executed by the Communists.

        There is a story in this vein about the young Karol Wojtyla learning this very lesson during World War Two from Jan Tyranowski: evil is powerless when confronted with truth, and its every emanation eventually destroys itself. So yes, the Devil always is his own executioner as well.

        As a footnote, it is interesting to note that Pilecki was inspired by the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis, whereas Tyranowski was a disciple of St. John of the Cross.

  • Agellius

    “Then you’re arguing beside the point, Agellius. Whether or not we prepare for war is irrelevant to my purpose here.”

    Perhaps you should demarcate in bold the parts of your posts that people are allowed to discuss.

    • Agellius – I’m trying to keep the discussion reasonably on topic. I would rather the discussion not go off on tangents.

      • Agellius

        I guess I just have a more liberal attitude about these things. ; )