War No More
By Dan Clendenin
From Our Archives
For earlier essays on this week’s RCL texts, see Debie Thomas, On Behalf of Everyone (2019) and then the essays by Dan Clendenin, To Convert, Begin Now (2016); “I Am Giving Thee Worship with My Whole Life,” (2013); The Last and Best Word (2010); and The Last Sentence of the Bible (2007).
On Monday May 30, Americans will observe the federal holiday of Memorial Day. It’s a day to honor our military personnel, and to remember those who died while serving in the armed forces. At its best, Memorial Day is an important opportunity for memory and mourning. We dare not forget the tragic costs and consequences of war.
This week I’ve remembered my father, who was a medic in World War 2 — the deadliest conflict in human history, with a staggering 80 million people killed from over 30 countries. Most of those who died were civilians, for in modern warfare there are always more civilians killed than combatants. I also remembered my wife’s step father, who helped to liberate one of the concentration camps.
Our neighbor told us about her father, who as a little boy in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation ate tulip bulbs to avoid starvation. Her grandfather saved Jews by hiding them on their family property. Another neighbor spent his career as a “submariner” and intelligence officer. And Brad was a navy pilot who flew out of Miramar Naval Station, which is only five miles from my house.
I’m especially proud to honor our JWJ staff writer Michael Fitzpatrick. Michael served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain’s Assistant with the 1st Cavalry Division, including two deployments to Iraq during 2004–05 and 2006–08. He’s now finishing his PhD in philosophy at Stanford.
Memorial Day is rightly observed as a solemn occasion, especially when you widen your lens and consider how war has characterized so much of human history — from Ancient Greece and Rome, to classical China, medieval Europe, modern America, the Middle East, and Africa (cf. the Rwandan genocide). War killed over 100 million people in the last century alone, and certainly led to the loss of religious faith for many.
Whereas the instinct to fight might be innate in human nature, war is different — it’s a vastly complex form of organized violence by the state, and in that sense it is a uniquely human activity. War has been the cause of horror, fascination, and most certainly glorification. As one of the defining features of humanity, says the Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan, we must never “avert our eyes from something we may find abhorrent. We must, more than ever, think about war.”
Few people have thought more about war than Andrew Bacevich. He graduated from West Point, spent twenty-three years in the military, and earned a PhD from Princeton. In 2007, his son was killed in action in the Iraq war at the age of twenty-seven. Bacevich’s former neo-conservative beliefs about the benign purposes of American power have so completely crumbled that he now considers them “preposterous.” His views about war have also been informed by his Catholic faith.
In a dozen books across the last twenty years, Bacevich has argued that instead of seeing war as a grievous last resort to be avoided at all costs, in America we now have the complete militarization of statecraft and the economy. He calls this “a condition of permanent national security crisis” or “semiwar.” We have developed military means of “staggering excess” to accomplish a “sacred trinity” of ends: a global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.
The Department of Defense admits that America deploys 254,788 (double that number if you include dependents) military personnel to some 800 military bases in 153 countries. That does not include numerous secret and officially “nonexistent” bases. Our own country is home to 969 separate bases in all fifty states. By comparison, Britain and France have a combined 13 overseas bases. Russia has nine. The United States allocates nearly two-thirds of its discretionary budget to defense, and spends as much on its military as the next eight countries combined.
Beyond the “stupendously profligate” costs in blood and treasure for our state of permanent war, Bacevich counts the many other costs that are just as real but harder to measure: “families shattered by loss; veterans bearing the physical or psychological scars of combat; the perpetuation of ponderous bureaucracies subsisting in a climate of secrecy, dissembling, and outright deception; the distortion of national priorities as the military-industrial complex siphons off scarce resources; environmental devastation produced as a by-product of war and the preparation for war; the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service.”
Our military idolatry is now so comprehensive and beguiling, says Bacevich, that it “pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies.” We have normalized war, romanticized military life that formally was deemed degrading and inhuman, measured our national greatness in terms of military superiority, and harbor naive, unlimited expectations about how waging war, long considered a tragic last resort that signaled failure, can further our national self-interests. If we ignore the “glaring contradiction” and hypocrisy of promising peace and prosperity while advocating permanent semiwar, says Bacevich, “over the horizon a shipwreck of epic proportions awaits.”
For those of us who have never experienced war firsthand, it’s all too easy to glorify and sanitize what it’s really like. I’ve found it helpful to read the memoirs of soldiers and embedded journalists who document what the violence and vulgarity of war do to normal human beings. I include here the journalists David Finkel and Chris Hedges, the soldiers Karl Marlantes and Anthony Swofford, and the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), who wrote the most famous poem of World War 1 (Dulce et Decorum Est).
These eyewitness accounts disabuse us of our tragically naïve and romantic notions of war, cloaked as they often are in the garb of patriotism.Their stories of the degradation and savagery of war belie the naive optimism about fairy-tale homecomings, and the jingoistic rhetoric that glorifies one of humanity’s most powerful inhibitions — killing another human being.
From a Christian perspective, nationalistic militarism is a repudiation of the life and teachings of Jesus. You shall not kill. Choose life. Love your enemy. Blessed are the peacemakers.
In last week’s lectionary, John’s New Jerusalem is populated by citizens from “every nation, tribe, people, and language.” All the nations of the world “will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” Everyone brings their unique gifts — “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.” There’s a “tree of life” in the New Jerusalem, reminiscent of the “tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden. But this heavenly tree is for “the healing of the nations” rather than for the fall of humanity.
The readings this week include the very last sentence of the Bible, which turns out to be a remarkably powerful summary of the entire gospel: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (NASB, Revelation 22:21).
Some textual variants in the original Greek propose a different reading for Revelation 22:21 that narrows the appeal for grace to “God’s people” (NIV) or “the saints” (ASV, NRSV). But the Gospel is good news not just to believers, but especially to unbelievers who haven’t experienced it. So, I like the reading of the New American Standard Bible, which retains the expansive nature of God’s grace by translating the Greek in a strictly literal if awkward way: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” Christians wish God’s grace for every person and country.
Psalm 97 is similarly expansive, which is remarkable when you consider that it’s an ancient liturgical text written for “the villages of Judah” (97:8). Nonetheless, it has as its purview “all the earth” three times (97:1,5,9), “the world” (97:4), and “all the peoples” (97:6). God’s shalom, without conditions or limits, for every person in every nation — that’s our message.
Last week I reread the wonderful and eminently readable Lives of the Desert Fathers, written toward the end of the fourth century. The anonymous author notes how despite their radical withdrawal from the world, and their isolation in the “vast trackless desert,” the Egyptian monks nonetheless embraced the whole world. He describes the monks as defenders and guardians of all humanity: “The people [in Egypt] depend on the prayers of these monks as if on God Himself… it is clear to all who dwell there that through them the world is kept in being, and that through them too human life is preserved and honored by God.”
To keep and guard the world. To defend and preserve humanity. To honor and protect the dignity of every human being. That is our call. And so the last page of the Bible in the readings this week welcomes everyone without exception: “Come! Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
Origen (185–254 AD)
from Against Celsus, Book VIII, Chapter 73
And as we — by our prayers —
vanquish all the demons that stir up war,
and lead to the violation of oaths,
and disturb the peace,
we in this service
are much more helpful to the kings
than those who go into the field
to fight for them.
And we do take our part in public affairs,
when along with righteous prayers,
we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations,
which teach us to despise pleasures,
and not to be lead astray by them.
And none fight better for the king
[and his role of preserving justice]
than we do.
We do not indeed fight under him,
although he demands it;
but we fight on his behalf,
forming a special army of piety
by offering our prayers to God.
Quoted in Water, Faith and Wood: Stories of the Early Church’s Witness for Today, by Christopher Smith (Doulos Christou Press, 2003).
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com
Image credits: (1) Dan Clendenin; (2) Michael Fitzpatrick; and (3) Dan Clendenin.
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