Friday, September 2, 2011

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War Is Interested in You


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?

7 comments:

  1. Very valid questions. We're all on a slippery slope in one capacity or other, retired or working, training or fighting, joining or resigning... There is either a solid foundation beneath us or sinking sand that shifts with each new tide. And how might we stand, if He does not hold us? How might we fare if He will not protect and guide us? And how shall we know, unless He saves us to place our cares and trust in Him, and to keep our minds stayed on Him and His Word.

    Blessings, my friend!

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  2. Interesting. I recently heard this quoted, but it was attributed to Winston Churchill. No doubt he was quoting this poem.

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  3. By the way, I wondered in reading this if you were recalling this part of my speech to the men and women of the Honor Guard:

    "So you represent the American Airman, and in so doing you embody the principles of a most remarkable nation. Not a perfect nation, but an exceptional one ..."

    The point of this was to bring out the tremendous blessing we have here in America to serve in our military with a clear conscience.

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  4. I remember the speech well, but the nickel hadn't dropped about the meaning of that part. One evidence of the truth of it lies in the fact that Congressman Paul has quite a bit of support in the military, this despite the fact that he characterizes our "remarkable nation" as being addicted to "warfare and welfare" and sees them as two sides of the same coin! Our men in uniform seem to be able to serve faithfully, even when they question the immediate cause. I suspect that's especially true for the Christians among them.

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  5. In support of Petra's comment, I recommend Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: It took a while - years! - for him to fully come to terms with the choices that the rise of the Nazi state demanded of him, as it did for many in the Confessing Church. Was there some formula he could have used to do it all at once? No, all he could do was to stumble along at times, looking inconsistent and trusting the Lord to sustain him.

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  6. Wouldn't the best response be to accept a dishonorable discharge? Unlike Americans during the Vietnam War, Germans during WWII, etc., Americans right now don't have to worry about being drafted to fight a war they find morally questionable. They're in the military by free choice, so they should get out if they find themselves in a compromising situation. Any delay on their part means that either (1) that they don't really believe there's a moral conflict or (2) that they're too concerned with their veterans' benefits and reputation to do what they think is right.

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  7. On Jenny's comment: Look at the example of Bonhoeffer. He saw the moral conflict, but what he couldn't believe was that Germany wouldn't act to put an end to it, until he was driven to believe it. Bonhoeffer wasn't in the military, but had many contacts among the older Prussian families - who despised Hitler. When they began to report what was going on in the east, he knew he had to act. With hindsight, we can see he ought to have known long since, but we know all about hindsight, .... As for clinging to material advantage, he was long past that by the time he acted.

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