Only The Dead

Warning: This post contains strong language, as well as opinions that some might consider “anti-military.”

A few days ago, I saw a news story about a 25-year-old Russian soldier, who called in an airstrike on his own position after being overrun by ISIS fighters. I had 2 immediate reactions.

The first was the part of me that is a former soldier: “What a badass.”

The second was the part of me that is me: “What a fucking waste.”

I didn’t know this soldier at all. I’m not even sure where he was. But, I can imagine his last moments with a high degree of sympathy, because I know what it is to know, in your hearts of hearts, that you are about to die.

Sometimes, you walk away from that moment. You know that you’re going to die, and then the universe changes its mind about your demise. Sometimes, you know that you’re going to die, because you are about to die.

But, regardless of the outcome, that feeling is the same. The panic, the anger, the sadness, the sense of loss… and, finally, the acceptance of your fate and the resolve to make it mean something.

I read the transcript of this soldier’s final radio call (I haven’t checked the veracity of this, but I can tell you that the language and tone of it feel right.) As I read his words, I felt that chain of emotions that I just described in what he was saying. I won’t post it here (a quick Google search can find it, if you’re at all interested), because it’s not really important to what I’m trying to say here. I honestly only have the barest of ideas of what I am trying to say here. I just know that I need to say it.

A few weeks ago, a person that I deeply respect sat me down because they were concerned about my attitude towards the military, and that this attitude might rub off on the youth that I try to pastor at my church. This person comes from a military family, and is married to a retired military member. So, the ties to the military are ingrained since early childhood in this person, and these ties have only been reinforced throughout their life.

I was told that, no matter what happened to me while I was in the Army, that I needed to tone down my criticism in front of the kids.

I have avoided posting about this for weeks, even though I have felt a desperate need to speak my mind. I have avoided it, because the person that I’m speaking of – though I feel that I am going to great lengths to conceal that person’s identity – might see this post and feel angry or betrayed that I have written about a private conversation. They might feel that I am attacking their own deeply held beliefs about the military by post my own in a public forum, and using my conversation with them as a launching point.

My need to write this has overcome my caution about this person’s sensibilities. Because, even though I sat through this conversation with a (relatively) calm demeanor, even though I agreed (reluctantly) to avoid any topics that might touch the military… in my heart, in my belly, I was absolutely seething with anger. It’s an anger that has touched many of my thoughts over the last few weeks.

I live and minister in a military town. Our town contains half of one of the largest military bases in the country (the other half of the base is in Kentucky). As a result, we have a large community of active duty soldiers, veterans, and retirees. Many of the kids in my youth group come from families in which one or both parents are or were military, whose parents have been deployed multiple times to “hazardous duty areas”, whose parents are still deployed overseas to different bases and missions.

Of course, I try to be sensitive to the needs and situations of those kids. Hell, my own children are part of that population. I missed my elder son’s 2nd birthday due to deployment to a “hazardous duty area”, along with 2 Thanksgiving’s, 2 Christmases, multiple wedding anniversaries, and more “minor” holidays than I can count. I have spent weeks and months on field exercises, missed countless dinners, weekends, and fun excursions due directly to my military service. (This is not even touching what I have missed out on due to the way my brain was completely rewritten as a result of my time in the military.)

So, you can generally assume that I’m very fucking aware of the challenges faced by military families.

And it is because of, not in spite of that fact that I will never have a positive word to say about the military – especially not to teenagers.

We’re always told about how impressionable teenagers are. I always have that in mind when I speak to these kids. And, if I ever want to leave any single impression on a group of teenagers, it is that joining the military is a waste of their time, talents, and the very best parts of themselves.

My own kids know that joining the military would be the worst thing that they could ever do for themselves or to me. Unlike a lot of parents who went to war and survived (looking at you, Vietnam vets), I don’t sugarcoat my wartime service or refuse to talk about it. I want my kids to understand what happened, why it happened, and why it was a terrible, terrible thing for all involved. Of course, I’m giving them the “PG” rated version of events, but I will never, never attempt to water down the emotional toll of what happened to both the Coalition soldiers and the Iraqis that were affected by our military misadventures in the Middle East.

As I read these endless articles about this 25-year-old Russian father and husband, as I read the transcript of his final moments, I was struck again by how we are wasting some of the very best young people in a profession and cause that will only ever cause suffering and death.

Imagine, if you will, that this young man – this young man who had enough courage to give up his own life to accomplish his mission – imagine if this young man had been encouraged and guided towards doing something that actually helped people. Imagine that he worked as a humanitarian, or as a doctor, or as a political leader. Imagine someone who had that level of courage, that level of conviction, that he would be willing to sacrifice everything to aid those in need, to help and heal the sick and injured, to fight against unjust laws and for a better society. Imagine thousands of men and women like that being steered towards something better than fighting wars, and preparing to fight wars, and supporting those who fight wars.

When I was in Iraq in 2006… every time I heard one of our bombs being dropped, or heard the .50 caliber machine guns firing from our guard towers, I had the thought, “What if we just killed the cure for cancer? AIDS? What if we just killed the next Einstein, the next Saint Francis, the next Da Vinci?”

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of young men and women, just in the last decade have been thrown uncaringly into the meat grinder of war. All the while, they’re being fed a steady line of absolute horseshit about duty, honor, country. About becoming a man, caring for their families, keeping America safe and freedom secure. They’re being fed romantic lies about military service, and it all starts when they’re kids and teenagers.

These “military boosters”, from good military families, will always have those wonderful stories from their parents and grandparents about the “Band of Brothers”, all the good things about the military. But, no one wants to tell them about the other side, the side that you’ll see most often.

They won’t tell these kids about what it sounds like when someone screams for help after being wounded.

They won’t tell them what burning flesh smells like, and how you smell it everywhere you go afterwards.

They won’t tell them about how you are constantly afraid, and how that fear infects everything after you leave the “hazardous duty area.”

They won’t tell them that the military will discard you like a tissue once you stop being useful.

They won’t tell them that their families will be an afterthought, at best.

They won’t tell them that the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological wounds that they carry from their service will make everyone around them uncomfortable, and that they will receive the absolute bare minimum of care to help them.

Impressionable teenagers everywhere will be told a stirring lie, and people who try to tell them the truth will be told to sit down and shut the fuck up.

The truth is that I came to the idea of non-violence before I ever realized that it was a Christian concept. I came to the idea of non-violence when I realized the truths of military life, of warfare. But, my dedication to the Christian faith has reinforced my belief in non-violence, has reinforced my total rejection of the military and the system of lies and misinformation that convinces teenagers everywhere that it’s a valuable contribution to society.

The truth is that there is absolutely no room for a philosophy of violence, warfare, or nationalism in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, until we’re willing to put away our swords – both literal and metaphorical – we’re abandoning an important part of discipleship. We’re rejecting an important part of the message that Jesus came to bring.

The fact that I embrace a philosophy of total non-violence, the fact that I want to keep these people’s kids out of a destructive organization… that fact shouldn’t make me the most controversial figure at a local church. That fact shouldn’t give cause for concerned meetings about and with me. I don’t expect a ticker-tape parade for preaching one of the most basic tenets of the Gospel. I expect to be called out and denigrated by the American people at large. But, I have to admit to genuine surprise to be confronted about it in a Christian church.

George Santayana (not Plato) once said: “Only the dead see the end of war.” This has been used to justify mankind’s continued organized killing of one another for a long time. But, I call bullshit on such blatant fatalism. Maybe the American public can’t create a peaceful society (though we should continue to work for it, as part of our evangelism.) However, the Church – the so-called Kingdom of God on Earth – should at least be willing to reject the blatant nationalism of a society that is built on the bones of its own young people. Until the Church is willing to do this – until it is willing to break ties with the great Military Machine – we can’t really claim to be following Jesus.

8 thoughts on “Only The Dead

  1. Most real response to the military and war I have seen. Those of us that have been in the service and seen war I would guess would support your perspective. Those that haven’t are the ones that wage war, mostly too fast. I often have said that only a Veteran should ever be our Commander of Chief, for they understand. In lieu of this maybe a feminine perspective would combine the role of necessity with the probability of costs.

  2. Thanks for sharing that.

    The one thing I would ad to your rant…

    You did not mention the guilt a soldier brings home.

    It’s not the same for all vets, but it is true for plenty – and it is the thing that will haunt a vet and keep him (traditionally him) silent – and frequently results in alcohol/drugs and/or suicide. It is the same phenom that Victor Frankl speaks of in the opening pages of his book Man’s Search for Meaning. I am not quoting exactly, but he said something to the effect:

    Those of us who survived know that those of us where were really good did not.

    He makes the case that it was universal in the death camps, and I am sure it is not among our troops, but nevertheless persistently present. And it might even be a fellow soldier or a humble villager that gets murdered, sacrificed, or just shortchanged so that you can save your own skin… Like the mother of the infant smothering her baby when it cries to save the whole family when the enemy stalks nearby. Those choices – like Sophie’s Choice – sometimes come up in the heat of the battle and the survivors often cannot LIVE with them later. And that kind of stuff will clam up vets and never make it anywhere near a recruitment brochure! But it is real.

    What can I say? Patriotism is the opiate of the people.

    Thanks for unmasking the powers. It maybe the truth coming from anyone’s lips, but from a vet it carries more weight.

    God bless you.


    • There have been many times that I have been afraid to share something, because the story sounds like a war crime, once you take it out of the context of combat. It would still be a crime IN the context, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like survival. And, you’re absolutely right that you carry those things with you when you go home, and you realize what a despicable person you were in that context. And, you start to think that those who died were the better ones.

      “In war, there are no heroes. There are only survivors.” This is the truth that I brought home.

  3. War has always bothered me – from the kings in the OT to now. Bothers everyone I think. I don’t hear this opinion especially in written form in America. After WW2 it was romanticized. It brought about a new industrial revolution and a baby boom and new forms of upbeat entertainment and hope. The world is a terrifying place. Jesus brings peace and fulfillment no matter what. I’m not sure how to live in a world of war. What is the answer to defending ourselves practically? There are so many ways we go the world’s ways because we live here for now. Your words challenge me.

    • This is a really good question, and it’s definitely the hardest part of maintaining an attitude of non-violence in a world that is increasingly violent. I’m not going to presume to have the only answer, or even the best answer. However, I think that there is really good support for the Christian living a completely non-violent lifestyle. Summed up: “Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, and pray for those who hurt you.” The Christian has a responsibility to live a life of love for both neighbor and enemies, and the context in which Jesus spoke was so much worse than what we experience in the Western world. We have incidents of random, interpersonal violence (for the most part); in the Israel of Jesus’ time, it was the State that did violence upon the citizens. Obviously, we still see this in our own country in the form of police killings and brutality, but it’s not condoned by the law like it was in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century. So, when Jesus tells us not to repay evil with evil, He is speaking to a group of people who have evil done to them every day.

      While I reject the State’s narrative of violence and warfare, my plea is primarily for the individual Christian and the corporate Body of Christ. The State will make war no matter what we do, but we have to insure that they do it WITHOUT OUR SUPPORT. A vast majority of the citizens of this country claim to have some form of Christian faith. If everyone who claimed Christ were to emulate his stance of non-violence, the State would be forced to make war with a support of only the minority – rather than the majority. This probably won’t stop it, but it certainly can’t hurt. And, once Christians leave the narrative of military might and diplomacy by gun behind, we can start focusing on true peacemaking in our communities: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, assisting the poor. We can only make real progress on helping the people who need help when we stop devaluing the lives of “others” by deciding who we can and cannot kill.

  4. Really, really thought-provoking post. I agree with everything. I just don’t understand how to think about the need for protection by police and/or military from the evil that exists in people out there–people who would rape, torture, kidnap and kill our daughters and our families. This is the part that keeps me from being a total pacifist; that I do want protection from the terrorists out there…any thoughts as to how not to put the whole burden on non Christians to be in the business of protecting the population, but at the same time, not encourage our Christ-following youth to become part of the violence that’s in the police and military?

    • It’s certainly not an easy position. As I have said before, I don’t know that I have the only right answer, or even the best one. But, I’ll try to give you my thoughts.

      First, I think that part of the job of the police and military is to convince you of your need of them. I don’t think of this as a vast conspiracy, but simply as a case of corporate survival instinct. Threats will always be preached as both imminent and catastrophic. The leaders in charge of military and police deployment will always seek to deploy the maximum allowable forces. As the perceived threat increases, they will deploy more and more, which will increase your concern about the need. To my mind, it is part of the cycle of violence: increased need = increased presence = increased violence = increased need.

      I don’t doubt that there are honest threats to security, but my own experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom has led me to believe that the response to violence often causes more violence. There was violence in Iraq before we deployed there in 2003, but the violence increased significantly as a result of our bombing and invasion. Further, that conflict was the catalyst that led to the rise of ISIS and the destabilization of the region. From a domestic standpoint: think of the major demonstrations that have happened in the past few years. Did the violence increase or decrease in these cities after the deployment of additional police and military forces?

      So, even though there are threats to your security out there, history has shown us that a violent response to violent threats rarely stops further violence from happening.

      As to your initial question about expecting non-Christians to protect non-violent Christians: did the disciples ask for the Roman authorities to protect them? Is there any story in Scripture where one of the disciples (or the Apostle Paul) seeks protection from the State? One of the problems with the current state of the Church is that we see the State as a kind of demi-God, rather than one of the “principalities and powers” that we are non-violently resisting. We don’t seek protection from the State, because the State can’t protect us. Only God can protect us, and the protection that we seek isn’t protection of the body. I know that this isn’t practical. It isn’t the sort of thing that preaches easily. No one wants to feel exposed or vulnerable, but it’s part of what God calls us to in following Jesus. When we live out the principles of discipleship, we accept the risk to our safety in following those principles.

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