Thoughts on War and Peace

Firefighters regularly go door to door or to community events to talk to people about fire safety and to install smoke detectors. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Police officers go out to schools and community events to explain the laws and educate people about them. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Search and rescue professionals go out and teach kids and adults how not to get lost or get hurt. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Emergency room doctors go out and speak to the public about the dangers of drunk driving. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

So why is it so weird in our culture that a soldier might to out and promote peace in the hopes of having to do their job less often? Why do we assume that if one is in the business of war, they are pro-war and anti-peace. No one accuses the fire fighter of being pro-fire or the doctor of being pro-injury.

I easily admit there are folks in the military who are pro-war. Often on some quest to prove their toughness, avenge a perceived wrong, or simply to see if they can do it. There are those in all these fields who have a misguided desire for hero status.

Case in point #1, a reserve soldier I know recently said on social media in response to someone commenting about concealed carry laws: “I don’t carry a gun because I want to shoot people. That’s crazy. I carry a gun so I have the option of protecting myself, my family or the weak and innocent from the forces of evil.” Admittedly, I’m not sure how much “evil” lives in his small rural Midwestern town.

Case in point #2, a police officer I know who has a hard time walking away from his job. When he is off duty he still reads emails and listens to his radio and then laments that he wasn’t there “on that bust” or “on that call.” As opposed to lamenting that it had to happen in the first place and spending his free time trying to keep it from happening.

But the folks with this pro-hero mentality aren’t all or even most of the people I’ve encountered. The problem is, we let them dominate the conversation. We in the military and first responder community let those folks get away with spouting off those things. And then we begin to think that we are the minority. And then we start to think that those of us who are perfectly happy only having to use our skills as a last resort are the few and far between. We aren’t. We are the silent majority.

That impacts how other people see us outside of our agency as well. The military is the worst about it because so many veterans claim to speak for the the entire military and say absurdly pro-war things. The the anti-war veterans remain quiet. Or worse yet, some of the biggest pro-peace, anti-war advocates I know, are veterans but don’t mention their veteran status and don’t include it in their biographical info. Because they too have succumb to this idea of thinking they are a minority. And they think it will detract from their message.

We need to change this thinking. We need more military leaders who say “this war isn’t a good idea” to the President, Congress, and public. We need more military folks invested, passionate, trained, and leading in the peace process. How do you expect to establish peace with a bunch of folks that only know war and don’t see peace as part of their job? The principles of establishing a lasting peace have to be part of the conduct of war not the opposite of it.

“Good policing” can not be based on the number of arrests. It has to be based on the lack of crime.

“Good war” can not be based on the number of kills. It has to be based on the lasting peace.


Memorial Day: The Cost of War

There is a paradox between Unitarian Universalists and the military that may never be resolved. While there is both strong history of Unitarians and Universalists in the military, since becoming UUA there has been a cultural chasm that seems to have developed. There are a few of us sitting in the bottom of that chasm, existing somewhere between the two.

Memorial Day began in the United States after the Civil War as a means to recognize the sacrifice and high cost of war on both sides. It was not then a commercialized three-day weekend or nominally-patriotic outing to a park. Decoration Day, as it was often called back then, was practiced by laying flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, even in places where the disdain for the issues of the war had been as high as Columbus, Mississippi. Various locations observed various dates, but it was Union Veterans themselves who argued for May 30th as the date, since it therefore didn’t coincide with any particular battle either won or loss. Because it was about recognizing the loss on both sides. It was about holding a place for death and loss and grieving.

Memorial Day is the time that we should recognize and consider the high cost of war. Not the billions of dollars spent but the number of priceless lives lost. The children who will grow up never knowing their parent. The mothers who will never see their children graduate college or start families. The brothers and sisters who will forever keep a picture on a mantel.

That cost of war is so high, that we cannot and should not go into it lightly. Memorial Day should not be practiced as a day of pride about military conquest or blanket glamorization of all military deaths, but as a day of remembrance about the cost of war. A day to recognize the price we pay as a people for the failures of our politicians. Failures for which they are rarely held accountable, but ones which every battlefield commander is judged by.

To those who want to advocate for a national day of recognition for all the civilians and non-combatants killed in war, I support you. To those who think more should be done to recognize the courage and impact of Conscientious Objectors, I agree as well and you have my vote. Conscientious Objection is as old as the first colonies in the US and is an important part of the American military and political landscape. But don’t let your desire for these things react to the blind nationalism and commercialism to which Memorial Day often succumbs. Allow yourself to recognize the cost of war paid by the blood of those who served, willfully or unwillfully, in the military.

We used to say in the military that “War is not about dying for your country. War is about making the other guy die for his.” US military deaths are not the price of “freedom.” They are the price of war. War in our country has rarely been about freedom. But war is always about death. Memorial Day is about those deaths and the legacy of pain and suffering they leave for the families, the friends, and the fellow soldiers. And no amount of patriotic, nationalistic, jingoism will ever fill the spaces left by those deaths.

There is no way to make you feel better about this.

There is no happy ending to this story.

But for this moment, sit in your gloominess and melancholy.

Know that hundreds of thousands of families, friends, and surviving veterans, live in this state on a regular basis, some for the rest of their lives.

This too is part of the cost of war.


The moral struggle of killing – one soldier’s perspective

How does one overcome the intrinsic urge that killing is bad?

Like many countries, we Americans, take eighteen year old people and send them off into conditions where they have to kill or be killed. What does it take to develop that mentality and then un-develop if when they come back?

Let the bodies hit the floor

               Beaten, why for

               Can’t take much more

               Here we go, here we go, here we go now

               …nothing’s wrong with me

               …something’s got to give

These lyrics are from a song called “Bodies” by the band Drowning Pool.

It is a popular pre-mission song in the military that troops listen to in order to psych themselves up before going on patrols or out of their safe areas. The idea of a self-selected military soundtrack and the role of music in motivating troops is a concept that dates back to at least the fife and drum units of the American Revolution and Civil War. The concept became prominent in military culture during the Vietnam era when music became much more portable. Today it is the mp3 player or smart phone.

Help me if you can

               It’s just that this, this is not the way I’m wired

               So could you please

               Help me understand why

               You’ve given into all these

               Reckless dark desires

From “The Outsider” by the band A Perfect Circle. A song about having to watch someone destroy themselves “one bullet at a time.”

Like athletes getting pumped up before a game, these songs prepare the mind and for some the soul, for the things they may have to do on their mission.

Another mission, the powers have called me away

               Another time to carry the colors again

               My motivation, an oath I’ve sworn to defend

               To win, the honor of coming back home again

               No explanation will matter after we begin

               Unlock the dark destroyer that’s buried within

               My true vocation and now my unfortunate friend

               You will discover a war you’re unable to win

From “Indestructible” by the band Disturbed.

I didn’t cherry pick these songs. In fact, they are a far distance in choice from my own pre-mission playlist. I took them from a list in an article on a reputable website about military life that surveyed military members to develop the list. And although I knew that many struggled with these issues, it was the first time I had seen some wide spread popular culture reference to the struggle.

So back to my first question, how do we get those in the military to overtime the intrinsic belief that killing is bad? I am not sure that most of them ever do overcome that belief. I believe these songs illustrate that those “boots on the ground” combat troops struggle with these issues every day and in very deep ways.

They have accepted the struggle as their lot in life, their “true vocation” and “unfortunate friend.” So where does that leave them after combat? Where does that leave them when they return to civilian life?

Some lock it away in a trunk. Put it in the garage or attic. And try to find a new vocation. Maybe a select few are able to rationalize it and see some situational ethics as involved. Some seek parades and accolades from others in hopes of justifying their actions as righteous or necessary. They need to know that the violations of their own moral standards was for the greater good.

They will forever carry the burdens of what they have done and be unsure of why they did it. And our culture is quick to thank them for their sacrifices but often without realizing the invisible, psychological sacrifice, that goes unrecognized, no matter how many bumper stickers you put on it. Even when we expect them to come home and suddenly return to their previous morals. Many never do. The scars and trauma of service will continue to live with them. We have many Vietnam vets still living who can attest to this.

War creates more peace advocates than war hawks. I’m talking about the mentality of the boots on the ground, the front line troops here, not the upper levels of the Pentagon or especially the politicians who send them off to do these things. What I offer is the argument that you can’t take your average college-age soldier and get them to go off and kill people very easily. They each struggle with these moral and philosophical issues in their own way. Some will come back and question the reasons for which they were sent. Some will come back and seek affirmation that their actions were for a greater good or higher cause. As a culture, we need to do as much to help them come to their own answers about this as we did to prepare them to go over there in the first place.