It’s been a few months since I’ve written, and I’ve been storing up many wonderful things to share at some less busy time. Now is not that less busy time, unfortunately; it’s thesis week and I’ve pulled too many almost-all-nighters recently to spend time composing blogs.
However, I just saw something that I have to denounce. I don’t like denouncing in general, but some things need it:
If I have the facts right, this is a video of Americans celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. He was, for all I could tell, an evil person, misguided and ruled by violence. I can’t even say that the world was not right to hunt down and destroy him, if the motivations were those of grim necessity. But to see such unbridled joy in vengeance, such narrow-minded nationalism that equates the death of our enemies with the furthering of our own greatness, such confusion about justice… It gives me a feeling of nausea.
I am an American. I grew up there, and my wife and I will be moving back there in a few short months, and what I have seen of my fellow citizens has deeply shamed me. “God bless America” on the lips of those drunk with revenge is the worst kind of blasphemy, and the most pitiable kind of foolishness (for which civilization has God favored so much that it wasn’t eventually razed to the ground?). It is obvious these people don’t understand what they sing, because “God blessing America” doesn’t have anything to do with the death of America’s enemies (however much they deserve death), but rather the painful widening of the apparently tiny hearts and minds of America’s own citizens.
One of the topics which has really captured my attention over the last few years is “non-violent resistance”. I’ve been introduced to the concept largely through Walter Wink’s work on “the powers”, though Wink makes use of René Girard, whom I really like, as well. Additionally, attending a talk by Miroslav Volf gave me a lot of food for thought! Non-violent resistance is a complicated idea with a simple (and, from the viewpoint of many, absurd) moral logic: (a) evil is bad, therefore (b) we should name and resist evil, but (c) we cannot do this with violence, since it is evil and therefore counter-productive to the eradication of evil itself.
This brief moral statement has captivated me, not only because it seems to make a lot of sense, but also because of how infrequently such a morality is even attempted to be lived out on a large scale. Regardless of how things have been throughout human history, there is still in our world a great deal of “conflict resolution” which is really one party using violence or the threat of violence to get their way. Is there a different way, a third way which avoids the problems with both violent conflict and pacifist inaction? More importantly, how could such a third way be effective against guns? Needless to say, these kinds of deliberations deserve book-length treatment, and I’ll probably be unable to think fully about such questions in blog entries, however often I might muse about them.
Anyway, my thoughts about non-violence also typically lead to thoughts about armies, and the US Armed Forces in particular, whose fundamental purpose seems to be to pursue the aims of the US through violence or the threat of violence. I know that the forces are trained to do more than kill, and often engage in humanitarian activities; those, however, are incidental to the actual purpose of the military (otherwise, why guns?). Thoughts like these were triggered again a few days ago, when I was sent this Veteran’s Day video, originally found on the NRA’s website. You might as well watch it, since it’s what this post is about:
I don’t know if anyone else had this reaction, but I found the video deeply ironic. The climax of the speech was a story about a soldier’s heroism which was designed to evoke pride in the soldier’s action and therefore pride in our country by his representation. It did this very well: to think that a Navy corpsman would rush into a firefight in order to rescue a wounded enemy is extremely moving, and I am awed at the courageous act. The irony, for me, was that the action so lauded of this marine by Oliver North was precisely the kind of action I don’t imagine is military protocol: an action of non-violent compassion in the face of a very real danger of violence. We rightly take pride in our association by nationality with a hero like the one in this story, but I wonder whether he was acting fully as a dispenser of his duties? Maybe, on the other hand, the mutual recognition of humanity in the enemy triggered this heroic rescue?
I’m sure I’m very ignorant of actual battle protocol in the army, and maybe there is a command to merely disable the enemy so that they can be rescued, given medical attention, and imprisoned or rehabilitated. Something tells me, however, that US generals would be pretty concerned if all of their soldiers were in the habit of risking their lives for wounded Iraqi insurgents. My point is that the story is so powerful it got told at an NRA annual meeting even when the power in the story comes from the fact that the corpsman didn’t use his weapon!
It got me thinking: what if there were a force of women and men trained in almost all the same ways as Marines, such that they were physically and mentally prepared to run into dangerous situations to rescue others, but who were unwilling to do violence to anyone they encountered? Reason says they’d all get slaughtered, but… it’s also a really interesting thought.
So much of what the NRA video did was to evoke pride and respect at the various skills and disciplines involved in being a soldier: taking care of oneself, cleaning one’s gun, walking all day in 120-degree heat without complaint, sharing the last vestiges of life with a dying comrade, and so on. We are naturally drawn to glorify such skill and sacrifice, and I admit it is impressive. However, when is it appropriate to stop asking what the skill is used for?
Stories draw upon this natural awe at great skill all the time, and so we can root for the team of skillful thieves even though what they are doing is illegal, and if their theft was directed at us we would prosecute them. Likewise, it is easy to glorify the warrior because the warrior is talented, skillful, and disciplined. The process of becoming a warrior teaches valuable personal skills, delivers confidence, etc… But does our adulation of the skillfulness involved in battle cloud over the fact that what we are adulating, at the end of the day, is battle, i.e., people killing each other? Killing isn’t what the average soldier does on any given day, but let’s face it: what country on earth trains their army in every skill except for shooting people?
Essentially, what I’m saying is that the fact that somebody is well-trained at something doesn’t make that thing good! We might have well-trained rapists and murderers walking around, but that doesn’t making them any more honorable or less deserving of incarceration. I hasten to add that I don’t equate soldiers with criminals! What they do is legitimated by every nation in the history of our species, and at the end of the day perhaps necessary to procure a slightly greater amount of peace, or stop evil from taking over the entire earth. I’m not convinced of that, though admittedly I don’t know very much yet. I’m also not convinced that, even if that necessity has held in the past, it has to hold in the future. I believe that however necessary we think war is, we should always be deeply saddened by it and ashamed of it as a human race.
Another curious point from the NRA video is the connection North makes between warfare and faith. I’m not sure what he meant, but it sounded like he said most soldiers are in the armed forces because of faith. Is that faith in freedom, or religious faith? If it’s religious faith (and North only showed examples of Christians), I’m even more concerned: as I look at Jesus, I don’t see a whole lot to commend violence, whether as a first or last resort. Moreover, the connection between praying before battle and praying before football highlights another worry: in either case, do you think God wants one team to lose, one to win?
One parting quote from the Ring of Freedom website:
Think of the fearless men and women who put on a uniform every day to make freedom possible—because there are no freedoms, without those willing to fight for them.
This is one of the stickiest points of this whole business: isn’t freedom worth dying to protect? Isn’t it worth killing to protect? Isn’t self-determination so basic a human right we’re justified in exterminating those who hinder others from experiencing it? I just don’t know; killing someone sure seems like a good way to end their experiment in self-determination! The Marine who rescued the Iraqi soldier, on the other hand, gave him that, and more: the knowledge that an enemy from the other side of the planet cared enough about his humanity to risk his life making sure it didn’t end. Now that is inspiring!
PS: I think it goes without saying that I greatly respect the sacrifices of those who have selflessly given their lives for causes greater than themselves. I respect that the average soldier has nothing to do with the motivations which lead her country into war, and whether they approximate those of a ‘just’ war. And I respect that the cycle of violence thrusts violence upon citizens of the world when they do not deserve it. However, I do believe that cycle needs to be examined, and that sacrifice must be respected with a conscious understanding of the goal of that sacrifice! Lastly, I am acutely aware that, whatever the morality of the wars that secured my freedom, I do make use of a freedom which was gained by someone fighting for it, and I am indeed thankful for that freedom. I simply hope that we can find a better way to procure it! And that won’t happen if we assume what we currently have is good enough.