Both Sides of the Fence: There and Back Again
From GI Joe, to CO, to Daddy-o--Leaving a Conscientious Objector and Coming Back again
One man’s confusing journey through individual and social ethics and the question of the morality of killing and war
CH (CPT)James R. Lewis, USAR; formerly USN
I grew up the youngest in the family with twin brothers a year and a half older than me, and a sister five years older. Growing up together with this crew, my interest in adventure and the military got an early start. The three of us brothers were typical rough and tumble boys, with the older sister that was sometimes a part of our mischief, though, being of the kinder, gentler sex (except when she was baby-sitting us!), she neither very well understood nor appreciated our boyish ways. It was her idea to bring a first-aid kit with us when we were exploring the jungles of Florida with our home-made machetes, bows and arrows. The stems of palm fronds—the kind with the vicious teeth running along the edges, made quite adequate machetes, and bayonet plants provided very good arrow points—but they didn’t sink in the skin very deeply. The one I shot at my brother barely went into his toe, and the one he shot at me only barely stuck in my belly; now darts, on the other hand, we found that they stick a lot better… Perhaps the fact that I skewered my sister’s leg with a fencing foil early on may have had something to do with her distaste for our ideas of “play.” For some strange reason, my parents took the set of foils away after that incident, and I never could figure out why they would never give us the BB guns we asked for at Christmas every year. We pretty much gave up on her joining us in our boyish fun when, in a last-ditch effort between brothers and sister, we discovered that Barbie and GI Joe just don’t mix. Come to think of it, I don’t think she was with us when we started shooting bottle rockets at each other either (the “stop, drop and roll” method, I’m very happy to say, really does work).
We somehow survived those early years, and as we grew in wisdom and stature, we matured in our ways. My favorite past-time in the following year was to either play with my little green army men, playing army and guns, or to play with my GI Joes. My Legos projects were also usually battle related as well. By this time, I was usually the instigator in our battle play, either with my brothers, our friends, or both. We had a vacant lot next door in which I dug a fortress for my little green army men, and we would have battles with the neighbor boys—we would set up some of the soldiers in the fort, and some in the rocks at the edge of their yard, and throw dirt clods back and forth at the little guys until they were all knocked over. We could also make some really cool “explosions” by driving a stick in the dirt under the men or fort, and the jumping on the exposed end as a lever (we’re talking real physics here—these activities were not just “play,” but “educational” in nature!). The “explosion” came from the buried end of the stick popping up real quickly, throwing up the dirt and army men on top with explosive force. We would rather have used real explosives, but my parents wouldn’t allow those either! I got into building models about that time too-- my favorites were warplanes and warships, with a generous sprinkling of battle tanks. On rainy days when we couldn’t battle outside, we would line up our ship models on the floor in convoy formation, climb up on the top bunk, and blow bubbles on them for our “bombs.”
Our family moved, and I became more sophisticated in my battle techniques. My brothers and I built a tree house in one end of the back yard, opposite a pear tree in the other end of the yard. The dirt clods thrown at the army men gave way to bigger and better battles when we moved. We discovered very quickly that pears make very good projectiles—unless, of course, you are on the receiving end. We also put in a zip-line from our tree house to the edge of the family house. I laid out small pieces of plywood on the ground beneath the zip-line that were my “ships”—“aircraft carriers” if I had just come home from church and made paper airplanes out of the church bulletins—and bombed them with clothes pins from above. My mom always seemed to be running out of clothes pins—I’m not sure why that was. All along during this time, my favorite kinds of books to check out from the library were always on the military or weaponry, which also fed my fertile mind and imagination. And nobody seemed to understand why I wanted to paint my bike a flat olive drab.
I really don’t know where this fascination with all things military came from. In the later years, my one brother was always more interested in sports, then girls. My other brother was more the tinkerer—he’s the one who even many years later thought it “fun” to buy an old Mustang—not so much because the car itself was cool, but so he could tinker with it and bring it back to life. The only military influence in my family is one uncle who was in the Navy many years before, who since that time had become a peacenik, and a distant great-uncle whom I never met, an Army pilot named Uncle Rudder. Yet my fascination, bordering on the obsession, continued. So it was really no surprise when I started looking into the military for what I wanted to do after I graduated High School.
I was also interested in tinkering, in building things, so I started looking toward one day becoming an engineer. As I started looking at how to get there, I saw the daunting prospect of figuring out how to pay for college, side by side with the Navy which promised not only to train me to get me started in my engineering dream, they promised to help provide monies later for college, AND pointed out that “its not just a job, its an adventure!” What more could a boy on the edge of adulthood ask for—education, money, AND adventure. I was hooked.
I grew up in the church, and have always had a strong religious and ethical foundation. Talk of peace and love, even love for enemies, was my bread and butter, as my dad was a pastor. At least to start with, he was, until he left his ministry to make love to his bottle—lots of them, actually. And since that’s neither the norm nor appreciated in most churches, the church didn’t want him anymore, which was fine with him, as he didn’t want the church any more either. We still had the strong religious and ethical foundation, and still lots of talk of peace and love, as the rest of the family still built our lives around church. I must point out that the churches we were a part of at that time showed a tremendous about of saving grace (quite literally) through these long and difficult years (THANK YOU to the United Methodist Churches of Tallahassee!). But the dad, who he is and what he does, is central to a boy’s identity. Imagine meeting somebody new—right after they ask who you are, they often ask about the family, central to which is “What does your dad do?” You tend to have a much stronger identity and sense of self if you can readily answer “My dad runs a church,” rather than “My dad’s a jobless drunk,” or “I don’t know what he does, I have no idea where he is.” So it’s little wonder than I was having something of an identity crisis at the time, and a disconnect between my strong foundations, and how I was making life decisions.
I was well on my way in my budding military career, preparing to ship out to Guam—I had requested to go to Europe, and I guess somebody was a little off in their geography, in thinking Guam was somewhere in the vicinity. I was excited about heading out; “I joined the Navy to see the world…” as the little ditty goes, and this was to be the beginning of my great adventure. During my leave before shipping out, I visited my brother at college—the one who had shot me years ago with a home-made bow and arrow, whose head proved that darts stick better than home-made arrows, the one who we set on fire with bottle rockets—you could say we had a special relationship. He had changed his ways, though, and was exploring becoming a minister himself. He was heading up the local Wesley Fellowship when I visited—the United Methodist campus ministry organization. I was to be visiting the better part of a week, including during the Wednesday night the group was to meet, and he asked me, “As the visiting ‘military expert,’ how would you like to lead a discussion on being a Christian in the military?” At the time I thought his asking my help was an honor; years later, after having spent several years at college with him, I realized that he was responsible for the group’s program, and had no idea what to do that week—he is my brother after all. Proof positive that God does work in mysterious ways!
So naturally I agreed to do the program for the group. We asked the college chaplain for some resources to help me prepare. He had some material on hand from the American Friends Service committee, and the Sojouner magazine that, surprisingly enough, just happened to have some helpful articles in it. Not that it was really anything new to me, as I had grown up bathed in church talk of peace and love. Hearing Jesus’ words again that you are to “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute and spitefully use you,” was nothing new, but this time it was different. I was no longer a kid, struggling with what it means to have a faith, which my dad the pastor, had turned his back on. I was no longer trying to find my identity when a key player in shaping my identity was a good-for-nothing drunk. I had put that behind me, and I was now making my own identity claims. One of which, though as a sailor, I hadn’t been doing a very good job of it, my brother was helping me claim: “As a Christian…” how do you make sense of this? Not “if” I were a Christian, but assuming that identity and the ethics and teachings that define that identity, how do I deal with this question. I was presenting to the group who was asking “How can YOU claim to be a Christian, who is to ‘love your enemy,’ yet at the same time be in the military, in the business of killing them?”
I was accepting my identity as a Christian; now the question was “how am I to live that out with integrity.” Of course there’s always the option of claiming one set of beliefs, and then disregarding those beliefs when it comes to living in the real world, as a lot of people do. Or claiming a set of beliefs and not really thinking out what that might mean for my life decisions. But this was no longer an option, as I was sitting in front of a crowd of people who were asking that tough question, not letting me ignore it anymore. The answer didn’t really crystallize for me during that meeting and talk, so I left my brother and his friends at college with a big “I don’t know,” and shipped out to my new life in Guam. I hate “I don’t know.” I mean, I really hate having to say “I don’t know;” I’m almost neurotic in that sense, so I couldn’t just let it go.
In the coming months as these questions bounced around in my head, I saw that I had two ways I could go with these questions. Being at the top edge of “Gen X,” personal integrity is a non-negotiable for me, so claiming one set of beliefs and living another was not an option. The choices I was left with then, were to either a.) give up my faith, or b.) give up the Navy—because the answer to the question was obvious: How can you claim to ‘love your enemy,’ yet be in the business of killing them?” You can’t. I’m still not sure if I “discovered” I was a CO, or if I “became” a CO. But the net result is that I was clearly a CO living in the Navy, obviously an untenable situation. So I talked with the chaplain, and went through the process that some of you are all too familiar with, and the rest, as the say, is history. Or not.
Two things always jump out at me when I think of that process—besides the fact that anyone going through this is treated like the “outsider” they have become, that no one understands, and there’s no one to talk to as you are made to feel like you have to hide the most important thing in your life at the time, that your whole life and future are thrown into turmoil, that you are thrown right back into whatever identity crisis you thought you had grown out of—besides those little, inconsequential details, that is. First, what the shrink who evaluated me said as I was leaving his office: “You know that holding very strong religious beliefs CAN be a sign of mental illness”—thanks for the vote of confidence, Doc! And second, the question they all asked, over and over again—it was central to the CO process at the time, I’m not sure how firm they are on this question now—“Even if someone were trying to kill your wife or your child—even then, you’re saying you wouldn’t kill them to prevent them from killing the ones you love?”
At the time I wasn’t married, and marriage and children were far from my mind, so it was all hypothetical, and I had to strain my imagination to answer. Of course I gave all the rationalizations I could think of with doing everything imaginable BUT killing to prevent that from happening. Then once we got past all that, and the hypothetical situation was that there’s nothing else you can do—you either have to kill the bad guy, or they kill your baby, or your wife, or all of them. And with all the sincerity I could muster, I said no, I would not kill, with the reasoning that any woman I married would also have a strong faith (kids the same), they’d have their tickets to heaven already punched, they would be good to go. Our hypothetical bad guy, on the other hand, was obviously not is as good a spiritual shape, and perhaps by not killing him, even if he killed my beloved, he might somehow be brought to see the light, find salvation and all that.
Though I’ve never really considered myself an overly religious person (even though I’m in the business these days) everything about my CO status both then and now, is wrapped up in my faith and my identity as a Christian. We all make our decisions—every one of them, based on some set of values, values based on what you believe is of ultimate importance, which then becomes your de facto “religion.” Even those who claim no religion live their lives and make their choices based on some ethic of what they feel is of ultimate importance; and at the heart of “religion” is that which we believe is of ultimate importance. So when a person says that taking a human life is “wrong,” that is a “religious” assertion, even if it is of a secular “religion.” Anyway, enough of my pet project of establishing the inherent religious nature of the human animal. MY decisions have all been based on the traditional religious values of love of persons, and love of humanity. I originally left the Navy a CO because of that love ethic, and I have returned to the Army because of that very same love ethic.
I left the Navy a CO, believing with all my heart that killing was wrong (even if it is only in the protection of my family), because I could not imagine how being a part of killing my enemy would be an expression of love. Whether religious or not, an awful lot of people in the CO world, perhaps even a majority of us, could express the beliefs that led them to their CO status in roughly the same way. (If what led you to where you are as a CO is radically different than this, I’d really like to hear it to broaden my understanding.) Yet I have come back to the military through that same love ethic. One might be led to wonder what in the world I’m talking about.
There have been a lot of years, almost 20, a lot of growth, and a lot of changes between my leaving a CO, and my coming back a CH. I left during the Cold War. I came back at the beginning of the War on Terror. I left a young single with marriage and family being furthest from my mind; I came back with marriage and family being closest to my heart. I left an idealist—believing firmly in a high sense of values, impeccable integrity, personal responsibility, and a suspicious eye toward the government. I came back an idealist—believing firmly in a high sense of values, impeccable integrity, personal AND social responsibility, and a suspicious eye toward the government. I left knowing that evil lurks in the hearts of men (moreso than women, though women are far from innocent). I came back with evil no longer lurking, but blatantly bombing babes and babies.
Central to the changes in my personal and spiritual growth since then has been a growing understanding of the reality of evil and human freedom of choice. I always knew of these realities, even as I was challenged by those officers way back when wielding those weighty questions. But there is a difference between knowing and really knowing. I knew about love and marriage before, but I didn’t really know love and marriage. I knew about death before, but I didn’t really know death before. I knew about evil before, but I didn’t really know evil before. I knew about freedom of choice before, but I had not seen it wielded so freely, so callously, with such malicious intent before. Though I am currently in Iraq and have been for some time, I thank God that I have not personally been splattered by the blood nor personally charred by the flames of the terrorists’ free choices. I have seen the inky black pillars of smoke just outside our camps though, of the insurgents (mostly foreign these days, so are they really indigenous insurgents?) burning innocent Iraqi babies in their efforts to point the way to God. I’ve not had to pick up the pieces and parts of blasted humanity, the innocent brain matter on car seats, the pieces of what had been simple mothers embedded in the walls of the buildings around the blasts. I’ve not been the one to pick up the body parts of hundreds of innocents blasted into eternity by the choices of the few who take it upon themselves to force their bloody perversion of an honorable faith onto the masses that don’t want it, but I’ve had to help pick up the pieces of soldiers doing their part to make the world a better place.
Now before we get side-tracked into some political tangent, let me clarify that I am not espousing any particular political bent nor candidate. EVERY politician has their strengths and weakness, none are perfect, all the politicians themselves, and all their policies and decisions can and should be continually prodded and questioned at every turn, especially when it comes to waging war. As a citizen, your job is to question and hold our politicians accountable, keep them ethical, and kick them out of office when they are not. But as a SOLDIER, my role is to follow lawfully given orders from lawfully established authorities (which is where the Revolutionary War came in, as the majority of the populace felt the authorities were being unlawful in their governing—but that’s a WHOLE different ball of wax, and while SOME people may have strong feelings about that… well, that’s a discussion beyond the scope of this work!). And as a Chaplain, my role is to remind people of the presence of God in the midst of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, wherever that Valley might be—politics of ANY variety are irrelevant to both my role as a soldier and as a chaplain, so please hold that thought if you are tempted to go off on that tangent!
I’m not arguing one way or another about whether we should or should not have entered this, or any other given war. I’m not arguing one way or another about the ethical viability of this or any war. I’m neither claiming nor refuting the “holier than thou” American Mission to the world. A very wise man once pointed out that wars and rumors of wars will ever abound. In other words “wherever two or three are gathered together,” there will always be disagreements and fighting which leads to war. If you want to be one of the ones who makes the decisions as to which wars are and which are not to be fought, then I encourage you to run for office, and I might even vote for you. (only one blind to reality could claim that ALL wars could be avoided --so it’s the choice of “when,” not “if,” we go to war-- what is and what is not worth fighting and killing for) But until something changes, we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death-- and I certainly encourage you to work for change, as I know I, for one, and most everyone over here I know, am eager to come home, and not eager to come back!
Regardless of one’s arguments as to whether this or any given war is a “just” war, living this life necessitates that “we” must sometimes live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That “we” being the “we” of our nation, our society, our civilization, our world. Any given individual MIGHT be able to find a way to opt out of living in the Valley of the Shadow; any given individual MIGHT be able to remove themselves from the front lines of battle with “evil.” I think it’s safe to say that most people, regardless of their religious or lack of religious perspective would accept the reality of evil. Take for example the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews during WWII. It’s probably safe to say that the weight of the world’s conscience, regardless or religious or irreligious orientation, would call that “evil.” That being the case, if evil on a massive scale can exist, and IF that massive scale of evil can be minimized—then we bring in the question of ethics.
Now I need to ask you to bear with me a little in a discussion of ethics and morality in general, as it both had in my original CO process, and has now in my current understanding of these same issues that brought me back into the Army, a direct bearing on my decisions. Ethics is the study of moral behavior. When discussing the behavior of “mere” animals, creatures that live by instinct, which, to the best of our knowledge, do not possess any sense of self-awareness, conscience, nor freedom of choice, “morality” is immaterial. So then the question arises, are humans the same as those “mere animals,” to whom any sense of morality is irrelevant, or are humans moral creatures? If we are “mere animals,” then there can be no “right” or “wrong.” If that were the case, what business have we of telling Junior “Don’t hit your sister”? If that were the case, there would be nothing wrong with my killing you, torturing you, raping your wife, eating your children, whatever. Few people are willing to go that far, even those who claim no sense of religion, even those who my cringe at words like “right” and “wrong” and “morals,” even those, I daresay, would still like to still claim some sense of morality, and the ability to hold a righteous anger toward anyone who would kill their friend or brutalize their mother or children.
So where does a sense of morality or ethics come from? For the religionist of whatever variety, the answer is simple, in that it usually comes in some way from their religious beliefs. But for the one who is not a practitioner of religion, where does it come from? That’s a discussion I truly love to get really deep into, but I’ve a feeling you are already getting bored with this, so to get to the heart of the matter, its probably safe to say that most people who claim no “religion” essentially come down to one of four perspectives, in roughly descending order of size and popularity (yet interestingly enough, the most “popular” is the least “noble” approach, and so on in inverse proportion). The hedonist—the most common of the lot—the “that’s what I was taught-ist” (for whom I don’t have an official sounding word), the Clannist, and the Altruist.
You are familiar with the hedonist. The hedonist is the one whose ultimate value is themselves, and what feels good at the time. The hedonist makes rules for their children based on what is most fun and most convenient for themselves. They might have rules like “don’t hit your sister,” but the reasoning isn’t out of any real concern for the girl, but because the hedonist doesn’t want to deal with her crying, and that’s the simplest way to be least inconvenienced by the children. The hedonist might decide it is fine and dandy to kill another, as it might be a fun thing to do. Or the hedonist might decide its wrong to kill another because it makes them feel bad to do so—after all, they probably grew up in a society that says its wrong to do so, adopting at least to some extent and as long as it is convenient, the ethics of the “that’s what I was taught-ist.”
The “that’s what I was taught-ist” (TWIwT, for short- the second “w” is lower case as it is “silent” when you pronounce the acronym, merely for pronunciation and short-hand use of the technical term, of course), is pretty straight-forward. There’s no real processing of the ethical guidelines. The TWIwT lives out of a mere rote regurgitation of the ethics they were raised with. When explaining their ethical behavior, the TWIwT will respond with some version of “That’s what I was taught,” (hence the name) or “that’s how I was raised,” or some other version of the same. These people are generally fine, upstanding citizens—they don’t steal, kill, hurt others, commit adultery, they usually follow pretty much all of the Big Ten (Ten Commandments), they like the Golden Rule, they are often very patriotic, they don’t speed any more than ten miles over the limit, you rarely find them in jail, they are generally pretty “good” people. They are fine, upstanding citizens like this, not out of any religious purpose nor high set of values, but because they are TWIwTs—the answer is “that’s what I was taught.” Of course if they grow up in a Nazi environment, they make good little unquestioning Nazis, if they grow up in a bigoted environment, they make good bigots, if they grow up in communist environments, they make good communists, if they are raised by radical terrorists, they will make good terrorists; because they are TWIwTs they don’t question any set of ethics-- their justification for both their highest moral victories, and their most despicably evil deed is “that’s what I was taught.” These are the silent masses—both within and outside of religious camps, who make any ideology workable—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and… in sickness, as there is no “health,” I would assert, to this approach (but then that’s merely my opinion, based on my admittedly religiously grounded value system).
The Clannist is essentially tribal in nature, either on the large or small scale, focusing on the distinction between “innies” and “outies,” or “us” and “them.” For the Clannish, ethics are derived from what is perceived to be the good of the Clan or tribe—whether that is small family group, “tribe” in the traditional sense, community, ideology, team, state or nation; so “nationalism” is clannish in the larger sense. The Clannish person might assert that to kill an “innie” is a terrible sin, as it diminishes the Clan—unless that Clan member is a problem child, in which case killing them might be good for the Clan, so you might have laws against murder, with a readily enforceable death penalties for convicted murderers and miscreants. Killing “outies” though, is not such a big deal, and can even be a very good thing, if it brings honor to the Clan, since they don’t really matter anyway. That ethic holds true unless, of course, your killing that “outie” brings undo attention or negative pressure on the Clan—if I kill or hurt an inconsequential straggler, its never a problem, but if I hurt or kill a member of another clan, that then raises that clan’s ire and energies against my clan, that can be a bad thing. But if that other clan can be bought off in some way to appease them, then the ethical issue is only as big as the pay-off price.
The Altruist often has little patience for the Clannish person, hence you have “citizens of the World” arguing vehemently against nationalism, regionalism, and various ideological or religious groups who are inherently exclusive in some way or other. It’s ironic that the Altruist would do so, though, as the Altruist is essentially a Clannish person who just has broader boundaries. The Altruist is merely broadening who is an “inny” and shrinking who is an “outie.” The Altruist, sometimes called a Humanist or Secular Humanist (look it up on the web for a more in-depth treatment of this group), builds their ethics on what is best for humanity, or at least the broadest range of humanity. You find most CO’s either within the religious camp, as is my story, or in the Altruist, or Humanist camp, as these two areas are where the most idealistic of folks tend to like to hang out. You rarely find CO’s in the other camps, as it is all too often more practical and beneficial to kill to suit those ethics than to go to the extreme of not killing.
Now of course there are other ethical systems out there, and people who would understand their ethical outlook in different ways. But if you really get down to it, the vast majority of people essentially fit within this range, and the vast majority of CO’s from what I have seen, either fit within the religious camp, and if so, their story probably looks a lot like my story, or within the Altruist camp. In the Altruist camp, the CO argument usually can be summed up by saying that, as human life is “sacred” (or choose whatever other phrase you would like that conveys the idea of the utmost worth of human life) killing is wrong, period, the end.
I go through all this discussion on ethics outside of the religious world merely to point out the immense similarity between both religious and a-religious morality and ethics when it comes to killing. Most in both the religious the Humanist worlds would hold to the ethics of the Golden Rule, and the “universal positive regard” of the Humanist that the religious might describe as “love of neighbor.” Of course there are always exceptions to these generalizations, but at this point we’re only discussing the majority report, as that’s where I fall, and this is MY story, after all.
When I initially left the Navy, I was a young single, with a mess of a family life back home that I was happy to be away from, bouncing around as an individual in the Navy, with no sense of community from the world I left, and no sense of community yet developed in my new world. Little wonder then, that I was approaching the personal and spiritual questions that led to my eventual CO status in the context of radical individualism. I was most concerned with my own personal integrity in living out my faith, which was central to exploring these questions, living out my faith as an individual divorced from any sense of the community in which I belong. So of course the question then became focused on how am I as an individual, to relate to my “enemy” embodied in the individual. If some individual bad guy were to be threatening some hypothetical individual whom I loved, how can I best live out the call to love that individual enemy? How could my killing that individual be an expression of “love” for him (pretty safe to assume that it would be a “him”) as my “enemy,” or any sense of respect for him in terms of universal positive regard? And my faith comes integrally into play here, in that I was willing to sacrifice my hypothetical loved ones to this hypothetical enemy, because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what kind of eternal home those hypothetical loved ones would have were they to leave this life. So for me as a person of faith, that potential hypothetical sacrifice, that while painful, was tenable. I’m not sure how a person outside the world of religion would deal with that end of the equation.
For living out my individual piety, being a Conscientious Objector made sense, and within a context of radical religious individualism, I suppose it still could. The same may well hold true for the radical humanistic individualist, as long as that humanist is still willing to sacrifice themselves and those they love for the high and noble ideal of universal positive regard. That humanist would then be so committed to their ideals, that the taking of any human life, even those who hold no respect for human life, would be considered “wrong.” That kind of Altruist would then be able to maintain their own “personal piety” as it were, to those lofty ideals, even at the expense of costing the lives of those they love at the hands of this hypothetical enemy, as well as all the other victims this hypothetical enemy would later harm. Similar to my radical religious individualism, that placed a higher value on my own personal piety that on the hypothetical lives of those I love, this a-religious altruism might also be called a self-centered Altruism (I know that’s something of an oxymoron), with its higher value on personal humanistic piety than on the hypothetical victims’ lives.
As I’ve said, much has changed in my life in the almost twenty years since then. My hypothetical wife of long ago, has taken on some very lovely flesh and bones. My hypothetical family includes now the cutest little eight year old girl you’ve ever seen, and the most devilish little ten year old boy you could know, for whom I am very worried, as I reflect on what I was doing when I was ten years old! I am no longer living the life of John Wayne-style radical individualism, but am a man of my community, of actually a variety of overlapping communities. I was right in my assumptions that mine would be a family of a strong and abiding faith. But I was wrong, in that my very real wife, with very lovely flesh and bones, does not see my potential sacrifice of her and our precious children to the evil hands of a hypothetical enemy in the same noble way that I imagined it long ago. She’s not THAT eager to get to heaven, and though she is a great lover of humanity, she really wouldn’t mind my taking the life of the hypothetical enemy who would do her or my children harm. In fact she rather expects that I would eagerly do so rather than risk their harm, and now that they are hypothetical no longer, I’m sure my noble ideals would quickly give way to my protective urges, and I don’t even think I would feel guilty about it.
How do you describe a glass holding 50% of its capacity? It would be accurate to describe it as “half empty,” just as it would be accurate to describe the military as a “killing machine,” as I did long ago. But it would also be accurate to describe the glass as “half-full,” just as it would be at least as accurate to describe the military as body of peacemakers, equipped, trained, and capable of using the weapons of war to bring about peace. When we consider what it means to “love” our neighbors, it is not merely a question of how we treat individuals, but also how we live in community, and deal with those relatively few individuals who would cause devastating loss to communities and countless individuals. Of course we try peaceful means first; but many of those who stoop to violence to promote their ideology, understand and are stopped only by violence and death.
I started coming back into the military before 9/11, but wasn’t sworn in until the February immediately thereafter. Knowing the devastation caused by those aircraft on that fateful day (and the devastation of the war following), it is no longer a question to me as to who was more loving—those passengers who sat harmlessly by in their seats, maintaining a “universal positive regard” for the terrorists guiding their craft to its target, hoping things would turn out alright in the end, or Todd Beamer, who led his aircraft to revolt against their captors with the now memorable words “Let’s roll,” directly causing the death of both his “enemy” as well as the other passengers on board. Who was the more loving to humanity as a whole? My Christian faith calls me not only to a personal piety, but to a corporate responsibility, a responsibility to love not only the individual, but the broader community. And while there is a facet of “personal piety” to Altruistic Humanism too, to say that the one human life of the one who willfully chooses to do evil is more valuable than the many innocents whom he will kill, flies in the face of universal positive regard. The question then becomes, “at what point does it balance out, the value of the life of the one who willfully chooses to do evil as opposed to the many innocents who die at the hands of the one choosing evil?” When the bad guy chooses to take the life of one innocent? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million?
There’s an old joke about a dirty old man, approaching an attractive young lady and propositioning her “Would you let me have my way with you for fifty bucks?” the lecherous man asks as he lustily leers and her lovely frame. “NO!” she exclaims in indignation. He then pulls out a briefcase full of bundled c-notes, shows it to her, and asks again, “How about for a million bucks?” The look of purity on her face quickly turns to greed, and she replies “well, now that you put it that way, I think I could be persuaded…” He then pulls back the briefcase, and counters “If you’ll do it for that much, would you do it for a hundred grand?” Her indignation quickly returns, as she exclaims “What kind of a lady do you think I am?” To which he smoothly replies, “We’ve already established THAT; now we are merely haggling over the price!”
If you admit that taking the life of one terrorist to protect the lives of a million innocents is a morally acceptable decision, then the question simply becomes at what point does the evil of taking the life or lives of the offender(s) become acceptable, like in the joke above. Such a scenario is, sadly, a much less hypothetical question now than ever, as it is quite conceivable that a single suicide bomber could somehow get a nuclear device in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the secondary question is then, how do we ensure that throughout that process, the end justifies the means? Enter the “Just War Theory,” or some version thereof, which probably needs to be revisited in light of our current technologies and tactics for violence. Again, I am not identifying any one instance, such as our current war, as being a guideline or case study. I’m just talking in theory. Applying the theory to any given situation is the job of the politicians (scary thought, but what alternative have we?), which needs to be continually evaluated by the voting public. As a soldier, I merely do my part to do the dirty work, so that YOU can remain free to argue about whether or not this or that decision regarding war is “right.” (If the military weren’t here to protect your freedoms to have such discussions, the whole point would be moot, as the freedom to discuss the issue, perhaps going against the ruling elite, would not exist.)
Of course, had I paid attention in my history classes when they talked about the development of religion and philosophy, and the many brilliant minds that have struggled with these issues over the millennia, perhaps I wouldn’t have had to struggle through rediscovering them for myself. But that wouldn’t have been as fun, would it? And, gee, I forgot—they took the study of religion out of the schools a while back anyway-- maybe THAT’s why I didn’t pick up on this lesson.
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