Monday, November 10, 2014

On Military Service

Reflections on Military Service
Weeden Nichols

I have been asked to comment on the problem of military service.  I say “problem,” as such service is problematic in many ways.  I do not believe anyone can speak or write objectively on this topic.  We all see through the lens of our own lives and times.

I should start out by saying that I was not quite two years old when the US entered World War II.  My memory goes back to 18 months of age (August 1941), and I learned to read at the age of three.  My worldview was formed in a time and a culture that did not question military service or participation in war.  I decided, while a small child during WWII, to be a soldier.  I was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that those who served were esteemed highly.  In some peculiar way, I know I was influenced by the death of the cousin I loved best, during the Battle of the Bulge.  (He was a hero, truly, but received only a plain posthumous Bronze Star – not even a “V” for Valor.  I received the same level of Bronze Star in Vietnam for merely doing my job.)  As I small child, I was not equipped to discern the distinction between the esteemed citizen soldier and the professional soldier who was tolerated as a necessity.  I did complete a full career in the US military, retiring from the Army over thirty-six years ago after serving in both the Air Force and the Army.

I remember vividly the World War II propaganda, particularly the propaganda in cartoon form, in which Germans, Italians, and Japanese were anthropomorphically represented as weasels, wolves, and the like.  I also remember seeing from my tricycle seat the truckloads of German POW's being taken from their camps to work on our roads.  They were mostly nice-looking young men, somewhat sad in demeanor, who waved back as they passed.


Continuing with the distinction between the professional soldier and the citizen soldier, citizen soldiers are valuable for a number of reasons.  We could not afford and would not want a standing army of professionals large enough, well trained enough, and well enough equipped to instantly prevail on our behalf, come what may.  The citizen-soldier experience, if the citizen-soldier survives, tends to equip the citizen with a more mature and balanced understanding of citizenship and its responsibilities.  If the children of the wealthy and powerful are subject to conscription, that fact flavors mightily the undertakings promoted and decided by the wealthy and powerful.  The down-side of reliance on citizen-soldiers is that, to get them to fight, they have to be psyched into hating the enemy and into seeing the enemy as less than human, or at least less human than themselves.  I have no doubt that many or most atrocities committed by our own forces, and probably most atrocities committed by the forces of other countries, are the result of conditioning the citizen-soldiers to hate and to see the enemy as less than human.

Ideally, a professional doesn't hate anyone.  He accepts his leaders' definition of who is the enemy, and he follows his orders as best he can, even to the extent of risking his own death or experiencing his own death.  He uses his own intelligence and strength to the full extent of his powers, but he does so dispassionately.  He may even respect and admire his adversary, but that does not affect how he carries out his duty.  Think of the US officers who had to make the choice between fighting for the Union, or defending what they understood to be their homelands.  They faced their friends, whom they loved and respected, on fields of battle, and still did their duty.  They certainly did not see their friends on the other side as less than human, and they certainly did not hate their former colleagues on the opposing side.

 When asked, I do not recommend military service to young people (except, perhaps, the Coast Guard), not because I think defense is unnecessary, but because of the ambiguity inherent in military service.  Here is what I mean by that.  All members of the US military are prohibited by law from obeying orders that clearly entail atrocity.  All are required to carry out orders that do not clearly entail atrocity.  There is a huge “gray area” between clearly so and clearly not, so much of what a soldier has to do under combat circumstances involves ambiguity.  Consider how having had to act under ambiguous circumstances affects the rest of the surviving soldier's life.

What is defense, and what is not defense?  I can answer that only by citing examples.  We were massively attacked and grievously wounded by the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  This was not war as we have known it, since the attacking entity was not a nation-state.  It was a new kind of war, not that terrorism is entirely new (that being a topic for another essay).  The entity that planned and carried out the attacks had training camps and headquarters in Afghanistan.  The then government of Afghanistan declared that the entity that attacked us, and declared its intent to do it again, was the guest of Afghanistan, and entitled to the protection of the government of Afghanistan.  To pursue that enemy into the host country was, for us, legitimately defense.  On the other hand, invading Iraq was not defense.  The rationale cited did not ring true in any way.  The statement that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, did not justify the invasion.  Think of all the cruel and exploitative national leaders who have come to power on the continent of Africa.  How many of those countries did we invade and wage war against, just because leaders were “bad men?”  I had no criticism against the Afghanistan undertaking, but I took a strong stand against the invasion of Iraq, regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was a bad man.  In retrospect, it seems clear that we have largely failed in Afghanistan because of the resources that were siphoned off in the Iraq endeavor, which also has been a failure.

It probably is unexpected that what most people would consider “religion would appear in this forum.  I would consider that what I will say falls closer to philosophy that to religion.  Whichever it is, I will say these few things.  Though I had always considered myself a Christian (most “Christians would consider me disqualified from that category because I am not a Trinitarian), it was only after retirement from the Army that I gave real thought, study, and reflection to teachings of Jesus.  It was only after retirement from the Army that I experienced any exposure to the peace traditions within Christianity.  It is my understanding that the highest calling of a follower of Jesus, relative to the matter of human violence, is to decline even to defend oneself (an ideal few could put fully into practice).  Early in Jesus’ ministry, he made it clear that one is not to return violence with violence and that one is even to do good to one’s enemies.  (I can go one better than that.  I don't think I have enemies.)  By the conclusion of Jesus' ministry, it is easy to see that he had arrived at position that involved refusing to defend himself and refusing to allow others to defend him.  I nevertheless cannot believe that either God or Jesus out-and-out condemn true self-defense.  We have been too well programmed to survival by our purported Creator to believe that.  I think it is possible that followers of Jesus should decline military service – obviously not possible in my case, as my service preceded this understanding (and it is entirely possible that, even with my present understandings, I still would see true defense as justifiable and even necessary).  Christians are taught that governments are part of God’s order for this world, and one of the primary functions of government is defense, so I believe the Christian should not actively interfere in governmental actions that constitute true defense (even though the Christian himself might decline to bear arms).  I believe the Christian or any other conscientious citizen should actively oppose governmental actions that are aggressive, or which exceed the requirements of true defense, or which are something other than defense, masquerading as defense.

There was great insight in “The Second Coming” (William Butler Yeats’ great poem written during the rise of the Third Reich):

…The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…


I’m neither the best nor the worst, and William Butler Yeats is my favorite poet – I think the best poet in the history of the English language.  However, it is appropriate to my purpose to further examine these ideas.  It is true that the “worst” can give up their individuality, their learning, their principles, their authentic religious faith and convictions, and be totally united in support of a party or a movement or a charismatic person.  The “best” have a responsibility to learn and observe, to develop proper values and principles, and to act accordingly – in concert with others when so doing does not violate their principles.

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