It’s occurred to me, as I am after all writing a dissertation on just war, that maybe they’re doing it just to bait me. Or maybe it’s a conversion effort. But whatever the reason, particularly on any of the several occasions that Americans use to mark the sacrifice and efforts of our military community, friends tend to send me links to articles espousing pacifism or lamenting the latest jingoism supposedly inherent in Veterans or Memorial Day observances and the like. One such essay landed in my inbox yesterday.
The piece, “When Soldiers Become Saints,” written for the Huff Post Religion blog by activist Shane Claiborne on Veterans Day last year, while blessedly free of the shrill stridency too often characterizing such work, nevertheless provokes comment –and though a year late still timely. In it, Claiborne writes that he cannot think of a better way to honor America’s Veterans than by sharing with them the testimony of an infantry soldier turned conscientious objector who lays down his rifle as he takes up devotion to Christ, believing that his new found faith requires the renunciation of war. The essay traffics in simplistic binaries: positioning one who follows Christ against one who goes to war; one who loves his enemy against one who kills him. As Claiborne makes no indication that this personal testimony is simply recording one convert’s call to pacifism rather than claiming an injunction incumbent upon all believers, we are left with the impression that the honor Claiborne bestows upon the Christian veteran of the United States armed forces is, ultimately, to suggest that they are failing in their walk with Christ. In the face of such a suggestion, I can think of a host of other ways to better honor them. Here, I will suggest just one: remembering what it we must never forget on Veteran’s Day.
In describing the idea of Armistice Day (later, Veteran’s day) Woodrow Wilson called for the occasion to be one for “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died.” It is a time for solemnity – for grave, somber, pensive, and, yes, if even awe-inspiring remembrance. In his own proclamation for Veteran’s Day this year, President Obama echoed Wilson in encouraging us to “to recognize the valor and sacrifice of our veterans,” to “pay tribute to our wounded, our missing, our fallen, and their families—men and women who have known the true costs of conflict.” To read this is to understand that Veteran’s Day asks us to remember not just those soldiers who went into the breach for the cause of liberty, justice, and mercy but to call to mind the evils of war as well. The context helps give meaning to the valor. Would that we and all others reflected upon these evils more often, always, and with full comprehension of their horror and their decimating ruin of that which is good. It just might make for lasting peace. But this has not yet happened.
Some years back, Professor Nigel Biggar, in a Remembrance Sunday sermon at the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, recalled a visit to the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof - the German military cemetery – at Maleme, in Crete, where, in 1941, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek troops fought against invading German paratroopers. There, an exhibition tells the story of three brothers, two who, one still in his teens, “hero-worshipped the older one” and followed him into the elite paratrooper regiment. In Maleme, all three were killed on the same day. It is, Professor Biggar remarked, “A heart-breaking story. A very tragic story.” But it is not the whole story. The exhibit, Biggar continued, draws from this story the conclusion that “war is evil, war is the great plague, war it is that which we must resolve to avoid absolutely and everywhere.” Against this conclusion Biggar thought to himself, “Well, yes…but no.” Among other things, absent from the exhibit was any consideration of why it was that young German paratroopers were dropping out of the skies over Crete in the first place. That question, Biggar points out, raises the sharper question of precisely what it was that those on the ground were supposed to do in response if, in fact, war is that thing which we are to avoid absolutely.
All this raises for me similar memories. I spent twelve years in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. A good part of this time included leading occasional informal lecture tours through the ash lands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was here that I was finally and firmly made aware that neither harsh language, nor persuasive words, nor even expressed prayer, would, alone, have been enough to drive the Nazis from those lands. They, they themselves made plain, would only have left Auschwitz when there was no one left to kill. But for all the ready supplies of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Leftists, Dis-abled, non-Aryan POWs, Homosexuals, and non-fascist resisters, among others, who would have come into the reach of the Reich while the rest of the world avoided war at all costs, this killing would have taken some time to abate. Even as it was, Auschwitz remains, quite probably, the single largest cemetery and crime scene in the world. Immediately following the commemoration ceremony observing the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, the names of the dead began to be recited over loudspeaker. Imagining for the moment that they were able to read all the names of the estimated 1.1 million killed there, and imagining that the recitation proceeded at the pace of one name per second, it would have taken nearly thirteen days of continuous reading to say aloud the names entire. Veterans Day, it seems to me, is a right occasion to recall that it was the allied counter-force applied by the veterans of that war that prevented a fourteenth day of recited names, a fifteenth, a sixteenth, a month of names, a year.
Too many of us, and far too many of us in the church, have learned the wrong lesson from the history of the 20th Century and have come to believe, like that exhibit in Crete, that fighting is evil rather than having learned the lesson I would have thought the 20th Century made clear – that evil is to be fought. Naturally, many will point at non-resistance to evil as a way of fighting it. And in particular places under particular circumstances it has worked. The “last resort” criterion in just war reckoning compels us to embrace non-violent resistance whenever such an option is viable. But it is regularly not viable, and sometimes through no fault of our own. Too often, the choice is not between violence and non-violence but rather is a matter of deciding against whom violence is going to be visited – the victims alone? Or their victimizers as well? The specter of an endless succession of recited names suggests to me the that war, in Biggar’s phrasing, “with all its undoubted and great evils, might still be the only effective way of stopping even greater evils. War as an instrument, a terrible instrument, of justice. War as an instrument so terrible that we should seek to avoid it at great cost-but not at all costs.” Just War thinking, rooted in the scriptures and carried forward by such thinkers as Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin, teaches us that when Christians justly commit themselves to war they do not do so out of sin or a desire for the death of their enemy but rather out of justice and neighbor love.
But what of the enemy? There is a declining confidence in Christian communities that the taking of a human life is compatible with love. Increasingly, love is maudlin, sanitized of anything we find uncomfortable, including the necessity to stand in judgment. But love wills the good of the other and is willing to cause suffering and unhappiness if these are the only means to achieve this good. When our enemy is employed in the performance of those “greater evils” than enemy-love requires our interest in seeing our enemy restrained from the performance of this evil, not only for the sake of defending the victim, but because we know that the person most affected by evil is the doer of evil themselves. Augustine reminds us that, “Just as it is not an act of kindness to help a man, when the effect is to make him lose a greater good, so it is not a blameless act to spare a man, when by doing so you let him fall into greater sin.” Lethal force is the last resort. But when everything else has failed, lethal force might be the only option love has left. Contrary to the testimony lauded by Claibourn, it is possible to both embrace your enemy and eviscerate him. That it is a terrible possibility makes it, at times, no less a necessary one.
Our national embrace of our military veterans for the performance of justly aimed and justly executed martial deeds does not make us militaristic nor leave Christians in dereliction of faith. Naturally, the need for caution abounds. We admit the tension – Veterans Day is a day for both sorrow and joy; it is a day to be both ashamed that a better way could not be found but also to be proud for doing that which is morally necessary – even while we lament that it is morally necessary. Claiborne insists that war has been conquered. The news articles I read at lunch leave me skeptical. We work for peace but, all the while, I remain grateful to live in a nation that possesses the resources and the resolve for just wars. This does not presume perfection. But we stagger on, the best we can. On this past Veterans Day I prayed for a day when there will be no need for new Veterans. Until then, may God grant faith and favor for those who rush into the breach for love’s sake, once more, and again, and, I pray, every time, for the final time.
Marc LiVecche is a PhD student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.