Putting 'Collateral Murder' in Full Context: Rotten Fruit and the Tree From Which It Fell

By Josh Stieber 4-19-2010

100407-iraq-videoRecently, Wikileaks, an online whistleblower site, released a video which was dubbed "Collateral Murder." I write as a former member of the Infantry company shown on the ground in this video, but also as a Christian who, following my experiences in Iraq, has left the military as a conscientious objector. More recently, a fellow veteran of the same company and I have written a letter to the people of Iraq that we would be grateful if others would read and sign if they agreed with our words of responsibility and reconciliation. But this is not about washing my hands of the blood that was spilled; this is an opportunity to critically but constructively examine what this video means to us as Christians.

Since the release of "Collateral Murder," passionate responses of all types have filled newspapers, chat rooms, television programs, and personal conversations. The video graphically shows a combat scene from Iraq where children were injured and adults were killed, accompanied by audio of soldiers on the radio during the event speaking callously about the lives lost on that summer day in 2007.

The callousness toward killing as heard in Collateral Murder, though taken somewhat out of context, vividly shows the strong need for the love of Christ that we are called to embody. However, if we only say that the soldiers shown in this video are morally depraved and shouldn't joke about killing, then we're being short-sighted and missing an important opportunity. One of the most telling aspects in the aftermath of this video's release is that the Secretary of Defense and other top leaders have said that the actions shown were militarily justified. They've put their stamp of approval on it. On this point, I actually agree: given the full context which this video fails to show, these soldiers were responding exactly as we all had been trained. The challenge then is not only to see the rotten fruit but also the tree from which it fell.

Not only is the dehumanization that was illustrated in the video systematically instilled throughout military training, but its roots run throughout our society as a whole, the church included. In my history class at a Christian high school, I was taught -- as are most students, religious or not -- that decisions like the dropping of the atomic bomb weren't necessarily morally wrong nor did they stand in opposition to Jesus' priorities. At best, I was told that the bombings were strategically debatable. This is the very same mindset shown in Collateral Murder; it says that sometimes the taking of innocent lives and the hardening of our consciences is needed in the process of achieving our national goals of security. The atomic bomb crew was even blessed by a chaplain who later repented of his choices and became an active peacemaker; so the answer to the troubling problems shown in Collateral Murder run far deeper than saying that the gunner should have prayed as he sprayed instead of laughed.

This is where we need to look at how we may have contributed to the tree that produced this revolting fruit. Going back to my religious upbringing, my pastors diligently taught me that listening to non-Christian music and following the world's standards on dating would slowly rot my soul. But what about the world's standards on treating one's enemies? Clearly much of Christianity understands the connection between day-to-day decisions and the state of our souls when it comes to responding to the popular culture. But there was never any teaching that playing violent video games, shooting guns at church camp, or glorifying military practice in history classes at religious school or even at church -- that these things would slowly influence our souls as much as listening to sinful music would. Not only was this concern not raised, but the opposite is taught.

The wife and daughters of the founder of the popular mega-church chain that I grew up attending have a blog, widely read by those seeking to understand God's design for genders. According to this widely-read blog:

It's never too early to begin teaching our children about God's design for men and women. We're constantly telling Jack, "That's what boys do!" Boys hold the door for the girls. Boys play with army men. Boys are tough.

Again, if we can understand that listening to secular music may lead a young person down a road of sex, drugs, and alcohol, should there be any surprise that when children are taught to be tough and to simulate war as young as possible that they will grow up embracing the callous mindset which the Wikileaks video only begins to expose? This video no longer lets us use ignorance as an excuse; we need to ask if this video which represents what the military is supposed to look like, which has been justified by prominent government leaders, is the harvest we have sown while claiming to follow God.

I take responsibility for not questioning my religious leader's strong approval of warfare and for wholeheartedly believing, as did many of my army friends, that as I signed my enlistment papers, I was serving God and country. I was taught this would be an honorable example of laying down my life for my brothers; nobody I knew warned me that I might be asked to fire on children, intentionally or incidentally. Perhaps in my short-sightedness I missed the prevailing mindset that the ends justify the means.

When aspects of military training did trouble me and I felt my conscience hardening, I wrote home to leaders at my church and other Christian friends, asking how I could be following God while I was commanded to repeat war cries like "Kill them all, let God sort them out," or singing songs with lines like, "When I get to hell, Satan's gunna say 'how'd you earn your living boy, how'd you earn your pay?' And I'll reply with a boot to his chest, 'I earned my living laying Hajis down to rest.'" The answer these Christian leaders gave was simply that I needed to practice faith and patience because God is in control even though we can't see him.

Through all of this, my leaders did show me enough of Jesus' love that I eventually knew that how I was living and what I was being asked to do and think were poor representations of that divine gift. One night, I was on guard duty with a friend that I had attended church with before we were sent to Iraq. My friend started making threats toward a man we were holding prisoner. At first I told my friend that he was being un-American by not considering this man innocent until proven guilty. Echoing the racism we were trained with, my friend told me that there was no way that this man could be completely innocent: he was Iraqi. Then I asked him about all the things we had learned in church -- loving our enemies, returning evil with good, blessed are the peacemakers, turn the other cheek -- and my friend looked me in the eyes, saying with the utmost sincerity, "I think Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice, but he wouldn't have let anybody punk him around."

It seemed so obvious to me at that point that Jesus' mission was never to "not get punked"-- in fact he said that if we really followed him then we would get punked (though he used less hip terms). He lived and died and rose with a love that overcomes the worse "punking" that the world can offer. I came to the conclusion that even if I was legitimately threatened, that following Jesus had nothing to do with self-defense and it could no longer be an excuse to stop loving as Jesus loved me. Safety is an understandable priority, but one that Jesus never preached.

With the Wikileaks video now shown worldwide, we have the responsibility to stop twisting things like Paul's teaching that "we need to submit to the governing authorities." But by this standard, we have already violated that by removing Saddam Hussein, a governing authority. Paul kept preaching the love of God despite the governing authority's arrests, eventually leading to his death. Jesus, his apostles, and the early church never taught violent revolution, but lived out the example that we are most importantly citizens of God's kingdom and that may put us at odds with the kingdoms of this world.

The scene shown in the Collateral Murder video is not out of the ordinary and has been claimed as acceptable by the governing authority. Though the actions that harmed children may be justifiable in military terms, I find nothing in Jesus' teaching that advocates these policies, even if it means keeping our own children safer. The time has come where we must choose to which kingdom we pledge allegiance. I hope that part of this reexamined identity we seek means reaching out to the soldiers who have been asked to do our dirty work; restoring the love that they were taught to suppress.

As I have chosen to speak publicly and provide context to the video to help others understand my friends in the military, I likewise will not judge those who declare safety as their priority. I simply ask that you not attach the precious name of Jesus to this earthly cause, nor teach children that God blesses this. Please consider the strong warnings of Jesus as you wrestle with how to train the next generation: "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." (Matt 18:6)

If you trust in guns and bombs to protect you -- that sometimes hit the enemy and sometimes unarmed civilians -- and in the dehumanizing training that prepares soldiers to pull the triggers, please just say so. Our glory is in a man who was punked around and crucified as he showed us the transforming love that marks his kingdom.

portrait-josh-stieberJosh Stieber is a veteran of B. Co 2/16 Infantry and co-author of contagiousloveexperiment.wordpress.com.

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