This morning while driving around doing errands I was listening to a story on the radio about World War I veterans. There are just a few left – one happens to hold the distinction of the oldest man alive in the United States, 113 years. Those who were able spoke about their experiences. This was profoundly moving to me.
The story prompted me to think about war. We know casualties cannot be avoided in a war. While we immediately think of those who were physically wounded or killed in battle, we overlook the psychological and the emotional wounds. Earlier today I heard a story on NPR’s told by a veteran who was at Pearl Harbor. He’s in his 80s now. He described the attack in very graphic terms and then indicated that he’s had nightmares and difficulty sleeping ever since. Sounded like PTSD.
But war’s casualties have an impact on families of those who were killed or came home wounded, too. Long deployments have strained and broken marriages and families. War’s casualties include civilians in the war zone, euphemistically called collateral damage. Some have had their homes destroyed and others were forced to flee, becoming refugees. Some were killed. Some wounded. Some survived with their own PTSD scars.
That war is terrible is an understatement. Yet, as a nation we’ve been involved with too many armed conflicts. Consider that since Vietnam and not counting our current wars a partial list of nations where we committed troops includes: Iran, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Lebanon, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia. Our military is second to none and our ability to project military power across the globe has no rival. However, such strength comes at a price. The Department of Defense consumes half of the discretionary portion of the federal budget, which is one-fifth of the total budget. Arguing that our foreign policy is organized around war is not hard.
I couldn’t help to think that we have glorified war on some level. We have tended to embrace war as an answer rather than recoil from it and work harder to find an alternative. War is a distortion of the gospel. I wrote in a sermon I preached last year, “War satisfies our sinful desires. The late William Sloane Coffin wrote, ‘Christians forget that it was the Devil who tempted Jesus with unbounded wealth and power. And it is the Devil in every American that makes us feel good about being so powerful.’ War is toxic to true community….War can tear communities apart and the scars it leaves when the shooting stops can have a life of their own; witness what Vietnam did to this country and the Iraqi war does now.”
As I listened, I began to wonder how long we will have to wait until this nation has no more veterans who saw battle. That this nation entered World War I in 1917, 94 years ago and there are still men alive who can recount the battles they saw, tells me that we will have to wait a very long time – certainly not in my lifetime.
After my errands, I went to Pittsfield’s Veteran’s Day observance. As my daughter is in the high school band and they had to play, I went. The observance takes place a local memorial dedicated to the veterans of World War I. Various local officials and dignitaries attend along with veterans from the city’s various veteran’s groups.
The city’s mayor, James Ruberto, delivered some remarks and asked that we hope for that day when there will be no veteran who has served in war. I thought that remark was exactly right (and far better than the opening prayer delivered by one of the local clergy).
While we should honor this nation’s veterans this day, we should also pause to reflect deeply upon war itself. We should ask why do we go to war? Is there another way? How do we achieve true peace? I ended that same sermon with these words:
“We are not without recourse despite the enormity of living in a nation on a perpetual war footing. We begin by realizing how war has been this nation’s organizing principle for generations both in foreign and domestic policy. Like Hosea, we have a prophetic voice that we can raise to make those around us and those in power aware of the ways that war distorts the gospel. We can be honest patriots who can have a lover’s quarrel with our nation. We need to trust the bread and the cup as a pathway towards peace because implicitly love begins at the table and goes out into the world. Gathered at that table we form a covenant with one another to love each other as God loves us. And we need to remind all who will listen that it is love, not war, that gives our lives real meaning.”
 Coffin, William Sloane. Credo. Westminster John Knox Press:Louisville, KY. 2004 Page 80