Friday, September 2, 2011
War Is Interested in You
Scribbled by Presbyter
In her poem Of a Forgetful Sea, Kelli Russell Agodon talks of the forgetfulness invited by the seashore:
Here war is only newsprint.
How easy it is not to think about it
as we sleep beneath our quiet sky,
slip ourselves into foam, neglectful
waves appearing endless.
Just before, however, there is an ominous note, as she writes of her daughter’s attempts to save the small creatures she finds from the threats she sees:
She tries to help them
before the patterns of tides
reach their lives.
She knows about families
who fold together like hands,
a horizon of tanks moving forward.
So, while “Here war is only newsprint”, one can’t quite forget it (or disintegrating families) even at the seashore: It’s out there – “a horizon of tanks”. Moreover, if we try too hard to put it out of our minds, we run up against the truth very loosely attributed to Trotsky (by Alan Furst, at the opening of his novel Dark Star):
You may not be interested in war,
but war is interested in you.
Indeed, the Lord warns us in the 24th chapter of Matthew that in this age, “… there will be wars and rumors of wars” (verse 6) and the history of the 20th century was surely replete with all of that: Most of Furst’s novels are set in the 2nd world war, a maelstrom which perhaps ended 50 million lives. Looking to a larger stage, Niall Ferguson sets his history War of the World in the period from the beginning of the 1st world war to the end of the Korean war, and apologizes for ending his tale even there.
So, whether or not it’s valid to tie the name of Trotsky (who certainly played a significant part in 20th century conflict) to the saying, it seems pretty safe to accept it as a truth worth remembering: “War is interested in you.” Having attended Jailer’s change of command ceremony early this summer, I’ve reflected a lot since then on that saying, and on the question it raises: How ought a Christian to respond to this, and, especially, how ought Christians in the military to view themselves in light of it?
One possible answer would turn on a dichotomy suggested by this truth: Members of some militaries (like Hitler’s Waffen-SS) were pretty unambiguously vehicles for furthering war’s interest. Others (like the modern Swiss Armed Forces) are pretty unambiguously vehicles for responding to that interest, should it intrude. So, while uncompromising pacifism certainly has its place in Christian history, it seems pretty straightforward that, if they are not pacifists, many Christians would feel comfortable about the role of the latter sort of military, but few would feel comfortable about the first.
But, given that a Christian may feel comfortable serving in a military which he views as existing to respond to war’s interest, how is he to respond if he finds the ground shifting under him? A case in point might be the more traditional German military, as events led up to the 2nd world war: Even during the early years after Hitler came to power in 1933, they might have viewed themselves as legitimate defenders of their nation. Then, suddenly in 1939, they’d have found themselves plunged into wars of aggression where, especially to the east, the populations they overran were to be regarded as literally sub-human (“Untermenshen”) and treated accordingly. We know how some did respond, culminating in failed assassination attempts, but most just went along. Many of the latter must have been believers. Had they been on a slippery slope for years before they became involved in atrocities? At what point ought they to have got out?
Closer to home, what is a Christian supposed to say about service in an “imperial” military? Surely Rome’s military during the Church’s early years was that, and there were many Christians who served in it. More to the point, the British military in the 19th century was surely imperial, and, though we may feel more comfortable with the term “hegemonic” than “imperial”, so is that of the United States today (and so has it been for over half a century). One point of view about this is expressed by Niall Ferguson in his book Colossus, where he urges the argument that the U. S. role as hegemon is a good thing (as was the British role before it), and that, were the U. S. to demit that role, the consequences could well be catastrophic. But a contrary point of view is that of the presidential candidate Ron Paul, who condemns U. S. foreign policy as “imperialistic”, and ties it (echoing President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”) to oppressive government and loss of freedom. (See Congressman Paul’s book, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship.) What is a Christian supposed to say about issues like this? Ought he to be indifferent to them? If not, are there lines he ought to draw?
As I said above, seeing Jailer’s ceremony just after reading Trotsky’s “quote” got me to thinking. Might events lead Jailer into the sort of bind in which some Christians serving in the German military found themselves less than a century ago? Short of that, and going back a bit more than a century, what would it take to precipitate the sort of situation where British soldiers herded Africaner families into concentration camps? Should that – or something like it – happen, how ought he to respond? Should he be, even now, in a role that might lead to that?