DAYS AFTER 9/11, a just war philosopher and I were interviewed on Christian radio. I’m a pacifist who served on peace teams in Nicaragua and Iraq. My co-interviewee called for waging war on “terrorists” because we must kill our enemies while loving them. My plea to listen to Jesus and victims of war was scorned.
Two compelling recent challenges to Christian justifications for war are Robert Emmet Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War and Stan Goff’s Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church.
Meagher, a humanities scholar, incorporates listening to veterans of war into his work. Goff writes as someone who was a soldier before being transformed by Jesus.
Three issues in both books—just war, masculine sexual violence, and moral injury—resonate with my peace team encounters with war. Through very different approaches, Meagher and Goff offer the best reflection on these concerns that I’ve seen; both rightly implicate the church.
First, just war has a sordid rather than sanctifying history. Meagher’s survey of ancient literature, scripture, and Christian history reveals its legacy as antithetical to Jesus’ teaching: “Since the time of Constantine ... just war doctrine has served to license and legitimize state and ecclesiastical violence and to draw a convenient, if imaginary, line between killing and murder.”
Soldiers know on a deep moral level that in committing great harm to others, they have committed great harm to themselves. They don’t need our society to project our demons of war — our own moral injury — upon them as we point the finger of accusation against them. Soldiers have suffered enough moral injury. We need to take responsibility for our own.
My Uncle Norman fought in Europe during World War II. An artillery observer, he didn’t return with many “heroic” stories to tell. When I was little, he would roll out some souvenirs from the war, and I’d be impressed: German military dress knives and lovely table linens. I don’t recall all of the stories or how these things became his, but I’m pleased to report the table linens were a gift. His war experience was hardly glamorous.
Uncle Norman did tell of one harrowing experience. He and his partner were identified by German artillery, and they experienced exactly the treatment they dished out. Out in front of their own unit, as they always were, they heard a shot go just overhead and explode behind them. Then one fell just short. Placing a shell a bit to the left and one to the right, the Germans had them zeroed in. Uncle Norman’s friend panicked, frozen, stuck to the ground. And in the last minute – as he remembered it – my uncle tackled his partner and carried him to safety. Pretty dramatic stuff for a kid to hear.
When Uncle Norman was much older, he came close to death after gall bladder surgery. That night he experienced profound nightmares, the Lady Macbeth experience of bloody hands he could not cleanse. The next day, he told me a very different story than the ones I’d heard before. I believe I was the first to hear of the time when he called in the coordinates for an intersection across which a significant body of Germans was crossing. For 30 minutes, he said, he watched the effects of the barrage he had targeted. And now, 40 years later, his hands wouldn’t come clean.