I am posting this after Memorial Day because I do not want to take away from the honor due to those who we traditionally honor at this time of year. However, maybe glorifying war is not the best way to honor them. Maybe this is a good time to consider the cost and think about how we think about the institution of war.
As time goes by and I experience more of God’s grace, I continue to gain new perspectives on life. Fr Richard Rohr in his Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life calls this gaining second-half-of life-language. As I reflect on those who have given their lives in military service, I hope use some of that second half language to bring some fresh perspective to the human sacrifice that we call war.
Previously I posted a tribute to a shipmate Remembering the Sacrifice -ETC(SS) Hill who succumbed to the call of death that lurks at the door of everyone who takes up arms against another. In his case, death came at his own hand. This year I want to expand that to others.
As I ponder the loss of lives offered upon the altar of battle, I find it necessary to consider the process of death on the battlefield. Death comes to us all in stages, but war hastens the process exponentially.
“We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function. Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.” – Capt Ronald Speir – HBO’s Band of Brothers
The death of the Warrior begins the moment the hand is raised and an oath is taken. We begin to talk about virtues like honor, duty and courage. Yes these are virtues, but they begin prioritized in such a way that we begin to forget the higher virtues like love, grace, and mercy. By tapping the violent nature fear is overcome. Actions and thoughts that just months before would have been considered abhorrent have now become justified. The child that entered into military training rarely survives.
I honor all who raised the hand and sacrificed the innocence of childhood in defense of this nation.
“Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base. All men are afraid in battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty. Duty is the essence of manhood.” – George S. Patton
Since training is often viewed as a game for many, the child sometimes survives the first onslaught, but death is relentless. Death continues to take prisoners when the instruments of training become instruments of war. That moment when the object of war becomes real.
“The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. “ – George S. Patton
In an earlier post I Am Not Proud That I Am a Veteran I describe the struggle that may occur when confronted with reality of duty. When one realizes that the game is us vs them with lives are on the scoreboard. If training has been effective, death has claimed the conscience of the child, cowardice defeated, and our higher cause justified. On the other hand, training that has not accomplished complete death, must complete it on the field of battle.
“He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved to remain close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.” The Red Badge of Courage (S. Crane)
In Stephen Crane’s classic novel, The Red Badge of Courage we are witness to Henry Crane’s struggle against his former life. Everything that he believed true must be left behind forever if he would survive this new reality.
“He saw his vivid error, and he was afraid that it would stand before him all his life. He took no share in the chatter of his comrades, nor did he look at them or know them, save when he felt sudden suspicion that they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of the scene with the tattered soldier. Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance. And at last his eyes seemed to open to some new ways. He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. With the conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” The Red Badge of Courage (S. Crane)
Fear and horror sear the conscience; necessity drives out the individual; and he becomes “not a man but a member.” We are left to believe that Henry has won the battle with the “red sickness” and can rest in peace as a man of honor and duty. Death has completed its task.
I honor and mourn the loss of every life lost in the cause of war. I honor those whose lives were lost heroically in battle. We will never truly know their stories. We will never know when Death first began to claim these lives as his own. I believe that much of the warrior was lost well before last breath was taken.
I also would like to honor who have answered the call of death.
- Those who like Chief Hill could not endure death’s process and took their own lives.
- Those who could not make the transition to warrior and must live the life of a coward. (Many were executed in the field in past wars)
- Those whose life has been altered beyond recognition and walk the streets as the walking dead
- And those who were killed in training.
My hope is that we consider not only our decisions about the act of war, but also the process by which we prepare warriors. Is it imperative that we limit the number of young people required to answer this Death’s call.
For those who have answered the call of death but still walk among us, there is hope. It is not an easy road, but you can answer a new call of life. Resurrection is available for all who will answer that new call.
“But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?
It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!
With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” 1 Cor 15:51-58 – The Message