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For Veteran’s (Mon)Day

November 12, 2007

A vast array of young men fell on the battlefields; today we are here to honor their graves,” Pope Benedict XVI, “The Responsibility of Christians for Peace.”

Veteran’s Day is a day which we set aside to reflect upon and honor the heroic self-sacrifice of those who served our nation and the world with military service. Catholics know and realize the difficulty of being involved in the military, yet they know and realize that those who engage such service with dignity and moral integrity deserve our respect and appreciation. We must recognize the need for the military in a fallen world, but we also understand that soldiers can be put in difficult situations where they must wrestle with their conscience and decide if the actions they are being called upon to do are moral or not, and if they are not, they are required to follow their conscience even if it costs them their lives. In doing so, they honor the real integrity of military service and its rightful limits, because military service clearly has limits and if they are abandoned, then the soldier must abandon their post as Sts George and Demetrius did in the past (which, as a result, helped sanctify that very post).

One who desires peace does not have to be opposed to the military. They should respect those who take up service because that is exactly what it is, service, and service for the sake of others is a high calling reflecting in part the service Christ has done for us. That their service can be abused should not be used to denigrate the service itself. Catholics should understand all dualistic interpretations of the world are in error. What is good can and should be praised wherever it is found so that the good can increase. Of course, for the good to be good, it needs to be beautiful and united with the truth, and any privation of one is a privation in the good and shows what needs to be worked upon, that is, what needs to be perfected. But that is the point: we are called to serve others, to be for others in communion with others, and thus the noble soldier can be and indeed often is a great saintly image for us to look up to and imitate. Of course, as with all such figures, we must learn what it is that makes them holy and not imitate them in folly – no one would want to follow St Jerome in insulting St Augustine, I would hope—and thus, it does not mean we must do exactly as the heroes of old did. We must recognize what good their work aimed for, such as helping to provide a place in the world where human dignity could be recognized, and work for that same goal, perhaps with different means according to the different situation we find ourselves in. Yet it is in doing so, by continuing their good work, we do what is the best thing we can do to honor them.

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24 Comments
  1. November 12, 2007 3:03 pm

    That their service can be abused should not be used to denigrate the service itself. Catholics should understand all dualistic interpretations of the world are in error. What is good can and should be praised wherever it is found so that the good can increase.

    The problem is that Catholics are just fine with dualistic interpretations of the world when it suits them, and then accuse others of being dualistic when they take a serious stand against something like military service.

  2. November 12, 2007 5:20 pm

    A very nice post for such a important day

  3. November 12, 2007 5:24 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Henry. In this vein the following link will take you to a very moving series of videos about James Blake Miller, the “Marlboro Marine”. The video highlights the challenges that many of our veterans face when they return home from active duty.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/marlboromarine/?bcpid=1287043325&bctid=1281316231

  4. November 12, 2007 7:27 pm

    Good post, Henry. Thank you.

  5. November 12, 2007 7:32 pm

    Those videos are good at showing how military training and action completely dehumanize soldiers. It is demonic what we are doing to our brothers and sisters, all the while lamenting that “that’s just the way war is.” No. War is a choice, and we can choose to reject it. What is there to “honor” in any of this? We honor dead soldiers by not training new ones. No more war. No more veterans.

  6. November 12, 2007 7:56 pm

    Iafrate:

    “We honor dead soldiers by not training new ones. No more war. No more veterans.”

    Indeed, for Catholic doctrine demands that we have no military thereby ensuring that instead of dead soldiers we have dead civilians. Thankfully, the Magisterium has upheld just war doctrine thereby allowing people to defend themselves.

    While I’d agree with you that we have to be careful in the instruction given to soldiers in order to allow them to maintain and grow their morality, as the poster pointed out it’s not inherent in warfare to dehumanize. I think you’re being too quick to judge and condemn soldiers and charity would demand that you take a second look at the implications of what you just said.

  7. November 12, 2007 8:04 pm

    Michael,

    Nobody can be completely dehumanized. In fact, what is compelling about Miller’s story and what lies behind so much of his pain is his humanness. I won’t deny that warfare, and in certain aspects of modern warfare in particular, can be extremely psychologically destructive, but such considerations are not sufficient to abandon the principle, recommended by our Christian inheritance as well as reason, that self-defense and defense of the common good can render warfare just under certain circumstances (I’m not arguing that such is the case with regard to the present conflict). To abandon this principle seems to me to be irrational and dangerous, as it would hand over warfare to those who have abandoned any recognizable notion of humanity and the common good.

  8. November 12, 2007 8:15 pm

    …moreover, in a time when even some Christians are toying with the permissability of certian evil acts in the name of military victory, it is crucial, precisely at this time, to uphold, reflect upon and develop our Christian tradition of just war thinking in order to counterbalance these strong and demonic contemporary trends.

  9. November 12, 2007 9:09 pm

    Br. Matthew,

    Yes you are right that I should not have used the word “completely.” It is rare that a person would be “completely” dehumanized, and I used the word more for emphasis than in a precise sense.

    But as Lt. Col Dave Grossman, professor of military science at Arkansas State University, demonstrates in painful detail in his book On Killing, military training and action is itself a fundamental distortion of the human person. Killing, he shows, is fundamentally opposed to who we are as human beings. It is not “natural,” not human, for us to kill one another. Contrary to Denton, not only is warfare dehumanizing, but the very preparation for war is essentially dehumanizing.

    …but such considerations are not sufficient to abandon the principle, recommended by our Christian inheritance as well as reason, that self-defense and defense of the common good can render warfare just under certain circumstances…

    We need to keep in mind that “our” Christian inheritance includes the witness of those who reject violence in its entirety. The just war tradition is not the fullness of Christian tradition.

    To abandon this principle seems to me to be irrational and dangerous, as it would hand over warfare to those who have abandoned any recognizable notion of humanity and the common good.

    I’m not handing warfare over to anyone. I do not hold the erroneous view that Christians may not participate in war although everyone else is free to do so. War, and the preparation for war, is not good for Christians because it is not good for humanity.

    …moreover, in a time when even some Christians are toying with the permissability of certian evil acts in the name of military victory, it is crucial, precisely at this time, to uphold, reflect upon and develop our Christian tradition of just war thinking in order to counterbalance these strong and demonic contemporary trends.

    I don’t buy this… We have been talking and talking in circles about “developing” just war teaching because of contemporary trends in warmaking, but many Christians can’t even seem to get the basics down such that they would reject, clearly and without ambiguity, a war such as the “War on Terror.” The only thing that continued “reflection” on just war doctrine has accomplished is that we are better at justifying the demonic. It is crucial, rather, that we recover the nonviolent witness of the early Church and of the minority traditions throughout the Church’s history.

    Denton: I think you’re being too quick to judge and condemn soldiers and charity would demand that you take a second look at the implications of what you just said.

    Funny you should mention charity. What charity, understood as love, does not demand I be easier on soldiers or soldiering. Love demands that we stop killing one another and that we stop honoring the ongoing cycle of discipleship that is military training. No more war. No more veterans.

  10. November 12, 2007 9:36 pm

    Michael,

    Thanks for the response. I probably won’t be able to respond for the next day or two. I will be thinking about what you said though.

  11. Donald R. McClarey permalink
    November 12, 2007 9:59 pm

    A day in the life of a Catholic priest who is an Army chaplain in Iraq.

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHISTORY/priestiraq.HTM

  12. Nate Wildermuth permalink
    November 12, 2007 11:21 pm

    To characterize military duty as ‘noble service’ is to propagate a caricature of reality. If soldiers really did what everyone says they do – defend society and promote peace, then yes, that would be noble. But that isn’t what soldiers do.

    Soldiers don’t defend people. They kill people.

    Oh, I can already hear the arguments. But the truth bears repeating:

    Soldiers don’t defend people. They kill people.

    That is not, and never will be, noble.

    It would be wise to remember our Lord’s crystal clear words: “all who take the sword will die by the sword.” Defending the innocent by sacrificing our lives is noble. Killing our enemies with swords, guns, tanks, bombs or anything else – that is satanic. God did not make death, and desires no one to die. When we decide that we “have” to kill to defend ourselves, we make a mockery of the resurrection, we defy our faith.

  13. Blackadder permalink
    November 12, 2007 11:45 pm

    Some soldiers defend society and promote peace. Others do not. Whatever one thinks of the morality of war, I would think that much would be obvious.

  14. November 13, 2007 12:49 am

    Some soldiers defend society and promote peace. Others do not. Whatever one thinks of the morality of war, I would think that much would be obvious.

    This amounts to saying, “Think whatever you want about war; but you must buy into the myth of the noble soldier.” The fact is, no we don’t. That myth is an important piece of the general myth of war. I

  15. Blackadder permalink
    November 13, 2007 2:05 am

    One needn’t think that there is anything noble about being a soldier to recognize that, sometimes, the existence of soldiers prevents violence. One need only be willing to look at the world without ideological blinders on.

  16. November 13, 2007 2:14 am

    One needn’t think that there is anything noble about being a soldier to recognize that, sometimes, the existence of soldiers prevents violence.

    Yeah, and sometimes the existence of Daddy’s fist prevents whining children. Violence is the ideology, Blackadder, and I took those blinders off years ago.

  17. Blackadder permalink
    November 13, 2007 3:35 am

    To say that the purpose behind violence is morally irreleveant is to say that there’s no difference between a father who hits his children because they whine and a father who hits a man trying to molest them. Call that the absence of ideology if you wish. To me it seems rather absurd.

  18. Henry Karlson permalink
    November 13, 2007 8:28 am

    Michael

    If we would deny the dualism which makes monsters out of enemies and dehumanizes them, why should we accept such dualism when it makes monsters out of soldiers and dehumanizes them? That’s the problem. While I agree the first is in error, the second is just as much in error, and indeed, a problem which people like Thich Nhat Hanh saw within the so-called peace movement in the US, demonstrating that the movement was not about peace and engaged in self-contradictory rhetoric suggesting other concerns were behind the movement (fear, hate, etc).

    Nate:

    You should know not all soldiers are engaged in killing, and not everything in the military is involved with war. NASA, for example, is a military organization and yet the astronauts I would say are (as a whole) heroes beginning a journey that is needed (if humanity is to continue, we need to find a way to live elsewhere in the universe).

    However, we must ask ourselves if we are to be Christians:

    1) what is the connection betwen Christ and David and why is David seen as the ideal representation of the king in which Christ is to follow?

    2) Why does the NT itself use the image of the soldier to represent the Christian life?

    This does suggest as I have pointed out, there is something indeed noble in the soldier. This is not a discussion about war, just wars, when war should be/could be engaged; this is a discussion of people and that is where we must remember the discussion is to be: not to turn on the principles of peace by use of abstractions to denigrate people.

  19. Nate Wildermuth permalink
    November 13, 2007 2:01 pm

    Henry, thank you for the thoughtful response!

    The purpose of the military is to wage and win wars. Everything that every soldier does is directed toward that purpose. Even in medical units, soldiers that can be sent back into battle are given more immediate medical attention than those who are thoroughly maimed. So all soldiers, whether a desk clerk or a medical technician (all of whom, by the way, receive combat training), are working toward that fundamental goal: waging and winning wars.

    Now sometimes waging and winning war can be a good thing – as described by the just-war theory. Sometimes we must defend ourselves! But how do we defend ourselves? The United States military does not wage war in a Christian way. It wages war in a satanic way – by killing people. Every soldier in the military is trained in death-dealing, and is expected to use that training should the occasion occur.

    Nonviolent defensive warfare is very different than violent offensive warfare. Every bit of training that American soldiers receive is destructive, not defensive. We train them to shoot rifles. We train them to throw grenades. We train them to shoot-n-move. We train them to use all sorts of weapons – weapons whose purpose is to destroy. None of these things is defensive, none of these techniques save people. All of them kill and maim.

    This is using Satan to drive out Satan. Though we must drive out Satan, though we must defend ourselves, though we must wage defensive wars, we must do so in a Christian way. Our military has embraced Satanic means of waging war, and any soldier engaged in waging war cannot be told otherwise.

    Christ follows David by forgiving his enemies and loving them even at risk to himself and his family. (Saul, Absalom). But he goes further as the Son of David, the Christ who would abolish the bow and the sword, who would bring a true and lasting peace built on God’s love rather than man’s folly.

    The NT understands that we are in a battle, an epic battle of good vs. evil, a war between God and Satan in which we are foot-soldiers. Christ himself is God’s perfect warrior, and he shows us how to defeat evil. We conquer evil with good, not with evil. That is the Christian revolution, as Pope Benedict’s has said:

    “Love of enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution . . . Christian nonviolence does not consist in surrendering to evil — as claims a false interpretation of “turn the other cheek” — but in responding to evil with good.”
    – Pope Benedict (Angelus 18Feb2007)

  20. November 13, 2007 5:23 pm

    If we would deny the dualism which makes monsters out of enemies and dehumanizes them, why should we accept such dualism when it makes monsters out of soldiers and dehumanizes them? That’s the problem. While I agree the first is in error, the second is just as much in error…

    What I am saying about soldiers and soldiering is not meant to dehumanize them. In fact, what I am arguing, if you recall, is that military training itself dehumanizes soldiers. I am arguing that we should not dehumanize human beings by turning them into soldiers. I am simply pointing to the reality of military life to counter the absolutely idealistic and false representations of soldiers that we hear around these holidays that amount to warmaking hero-worship. The way we honor soldiers is by not making more. Most veterans (who have removed the “ideological blinders,” to re-use that term) will tell you the same thing.

    And to butt in on your question for Nate:

    1) what is the connection betwen Christ and David and why is David seen as the ideal representation of the king in which Christ is to follow?

    2) Why does the NT itself use the image of the soldier to represent the Christian life?

    This does suggest as I have pointed out, there is something indeed noble in the soldier.

    As you know, the Catholic approach to scripture is to resist using proof-texts simply to justify what we are doing in the present. Interpretations that “go against the grain” tend to teach us more about what is going on in a particular passage.

    1) Christ follows David in that he is the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hopes. If Christ were truly to follow David according to his manner of kingship, then Jesus did a terrible job. Christ fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel but also showed that messiahship was about much more than what they expected, and in some ways much different. This is a very basic point.

    2) The soldier images in the New Testament are, of course, speaking about a different type of “battle,” as Nate pointed out. Most of those passages in fact show the contradiction between earthly, literal war and the “battle” that is Christian life and salvation history. Most NT scholars will also tell you that these images — much like the Christological titles of “Lord,” Prince of Peace,” etc. — are meant to be subversive and precisely to criticize the empire, its warmaking, and its view of itself as ultimate. I think you are aware of this because if you were to encounter a Christian who today believed that we needed to have a literal war against Islam “because the NT talks about war,” you would undoubtedly make the same argument that I have made — that something else is going on in these texts rather than a simple expression of the “nobility” of the Christian soldier.

  21. November 14, 2007 7:20 am

    First, to Henry and all commentors thanks again for what is very challenging post and thread. A couple more small points:

    Re: Henry: If we would deny the dualism which makes monsters out of enemies and dehumanizes them, why should we accept such dualism when it makes monsters out of soldiers and dehumanizes them? That’s the problem. While I agree the first is in error, the second is just as much in error, and indeed, a problem which people like Thich Nhat Hanh saw within the so-called peace movement in the US, demonstrating that the movement was not about peace and engaged in self-contradictory rhetoric suggesting other concerns were behind the movement (fear, hate, etc)..

    Fair enough. I’m not familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s critique of the “so-called peace movement in the US,” but I would argue that both the Vietnam era and current movements never aspired to be peace movements at all (would that they did!), but anti-war movements — and that fact is no doubt reflected in the rhetorics they employed. As to being self-contradictory, driven by unacknowledged fear, hate, etc — well, they were movements after all, and movements are always and inevitably difficult ventures susceptible to these sorts of problems. Sometimes you have to move anyway.

    But what you’ve written here suggests that the anti-war movements demonized and derided soldiers coming back from the war. In fact, both the Vietnam and currentt anti-war movement are notable for rhetorically supporting the troops in the field, for reaching out to returning soldiers, and for the high-profile involvement of veterans. To be sure, returning soldiers have been marginalized in our society, but that can’t be blamed on the anti-war movements. Historical evidence and my own experience suggests that anti-war activists are much more sensitive to the difficulties of returning soldiers and willing to embrace them than the public at large. For historical evidence see the book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke, Vietnam vet and sociologist.

    But re: Michael: What I am saying about soldiers and soldiering is not meant to dehumanize them. In fact, what I am arguing, if you recall, is that military training itself dehumanizes soldiers. I am arguing that we should not dehumanize human beings by turning them into soldiers.

    I am with you completely on your concern about the way this holiday is used to idealizes and celebrates soldiers and silence any discussion of the moral insanity of being a soldier engaged in modern warfare. But I too take issue with your use of the term “dehumanize.” I am sure the soldier’s life would be easier if he or she actually could be dehumanized. But high rates of PTSD and other psychici trauma is evidence that they remain all too human. At most, I might grant you that military training intends to dehumanize, though even here I think that the military is chillingly aware and realistic about what humans are capable of, and how they can be motivated to do things that most humans in most circumstances would find unthinkably brutal. But we are never reducible to our worst actions. Let’s not speak as though we are.

  22. November 14, 2007 5:27 pm

    Prince,

    But I think you too are missing my point. I include PTSD and other trauma as part of or perhaps rather as evidence of the dehumanization of the soldier. Also, I would not reduce the soldier to his or her worst actions. I have friends that served in Iraq. I am pointing the blame not to the soldiers but to those who have perfected the demonic art of warmaking and those who continue to put it into practice.

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