Christian Soldiers

by Alex Patico

Returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan

A recent issue of the University of Minnesota’s alumni magazine noted that over five hundred of that university’s current students are veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan. The U’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (named for a public servant whose career may have stopped short of the presidency primarily because his association with an earlier, divisive war) has embarked on a project in oral history to preserve the lessons of transition back into civilian life.

Done in collaboration with Minnesota’s National Guard, the project has found that the transition is often fraught with difficulty. Many of those who return find they have come back “a different person” — different both from those who did not experience war, and different from their own former selves. The relative invisibility of the war stateside is troubling. “There’s ordinary people dying and being blown up and burning to death while we sit here drinking coffee,” said Ross Hedlund, who served a year in Iraq. “I don’t think,” said Hedlund, “very many people care. The question,”Did you kill anyone?” is one that alarms the returnees, though it comes up often. This story is being repeated across the United States and, to a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom and other countries that have sent troops. [See: "From Combat to Campus," by J. Trout Lowen, in Minnesota, Sep/Oct 2008]

Mennonite Project

Transforming the Wounds of War (TWOW) is a two-year project for religious leaders working with returning military veterans and their families building on programs already established at Eastern Mennonite University and its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, including the Seminars in Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) and the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

An Army-funded study found reports of “severe aggression” against spouses ran more than three times higher among Army families than among civilian families. Domestic violence shelters find that rates of domestic violence have risen. Incidents of child abuse and neglect by the noncombatant parent are three times normal rates when one parent is deployed. Although veterans of all wars constitute 11% of the US population, they represent 23% of the homeless. Veterans’ rates of alcoholism and drug addiction are significantly higher than among non-veterans. While the military does not track suicides once a soldier has been discharged, investigations of veteran suicides have discovered that in 2005 there were at least 6,256 suicides of veterans of this and past wars. This is a rate of 120 every week and an average of 17 every day for 2005.

This initiative will enable communities to develop skills and programs to assist veterans to work through the spiritual issues they face as a result of participating in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to facilitate their successful reintegration back into American society. Once fully funded, this two year project will train 300 religious leaders in 15 communities across the US, and will support a pilot community-wide integrated faith response in a large community.

The leader of the project is a PhD psychotherapist with experience in dealing with trauma, who has also worked as a hospital chaplain. [Contact: Center for Justice and Peacebuilding]

*The title is not to deny that many members of the military are atheists, agnostics or adherents to other faith traditions, but only to focus here on Orthodox Christians who may be in that status.

Forest Talk

At the recent OPF-North America Conference, OPF international secretary Jim Forest gave a presentation on the response of Orthodox Christians in times of war, beginning with Christ and the apostles. “The only one of his disciples to shed blood, a brave action performed in Christ’s defense by Peter,” Forest pointed out, “was immediately admonished by Jesus, ‘Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ His last miracle before his crucifixion was to heal the wound of the man whom Peter had injured. This compassionate gesture provides a powerful example of what Jesus meant in commanding love of enemies to all those attempting to his follow him.”

Forest quoted Hippolytus, one of the first bishops of Rome: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If…ordered to, he shall not carry out the order..If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” He cited the theologian Origen: “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.” And, Clement of Alexandria: “The Church is an army which sheds no blood…In peace, not in war, we are trained…If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” He talked at length about St. Martin of Tours, who came from a military background and yet came, by the age of twenty, to a point where he told the emperor: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ…I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The talk traced the winding road of steady, but gradual dilution of the principle of non-combat. Even under the Emperor Constantine, who was a protector of Christianity, canons like this were written:

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators are categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but are barred from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers…But those who take the matter with indifference, and who think the form of not entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.” (Canon XII, Council of Nicea, AD 325)

Forest talked, too, about St. Augustine and the “Just War” doctrine, which has actually never been embraced in the Eastern Church. Fr. Stanley Harakas, long-time professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, studied the patristic record of many centuries and concluded, “For the Eastern Orthodox tradition war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.” Forest ended with the admonishment: “Whatever choice we make, we must always bear in mind our responsibility to love even our enemies and to recognize Christ in the stranger.”

P.O.V. Documentary: Soldiers of Conscience

By special arrangement, through their community involvement outreach program, the documentary series P.O.V. (Point-of-View) made available to OPF a copy of one of their latest offerings, Soldiers of Conscience, for viewing at its late-September conference in Maryland.

This powerful documentary, by filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, treats the question of conscientious objection in the context of the current war in Iraq. A project of Luna Productions and recipient of a Sundance Institute Documentary Fund grant, Soldiers follows several men who opted to reject their role in the military and to accept the consequences. While the focus is largely on what led each of them to make that determination, the producers were diligent in including other voices — representatives of U.S. Army public affairs, a gunnery sergeant charged with training recruits, a West Point professor who grapples with the moral and philosophical issues that grow out of the prosecution of a war. Footage of Iraq war combat depicts both the herding of frightened civilians out of their homes and the blowing up of a U.S. vehicle by an IED on a Iraqi street. The viewer is thus made to look at the issues from every side. (One can say that more of the victims of bombs or bullets shown are Iraqi, but of course that is also the reality of the overall conflict in Iraq.)

Note*

The individuals introduced to the viewer include:

* Josh Casteel, a self-described “cradle conservative” and former president of his local Young Republicans who served in the 202nd Military Intelligence unit. A graduate of ROTC and West Point, Casteel, still in his twenties, is now speaking against the war. “War is not fought,” he reminds us, “by or for ideas; it is fought by individual persons who possess human will.” (He interviewed prisoners in Abu Ghraib several months after the scandal over prisoner treatment erupted.) His application as a CO was eventually approved.

* Kevin Benderman, a mature man who served during the First Gulf War (though not in combat) and re-enlisted for the present conflict, has a long family history of military service. Two grandparents served in WWI, his father in WWII, an uncle in the Korean conflict and cousins in Vietnam; indeed, Benderman said, members of his family have been in the army “since there’s been a country.” He will serve 15 months in prison and be given a dishonorable discharge for his conviction on “missing movement by design” (failing to ship out a second time to Iraq, where he had served in combat).

* Specialist First Class Aidan Delgado was signing papers to enlist in the Army at the very time that planes were crashing into the twin towers on 9/11. Serving in the 320th Military Police, Delgado saw first-hand the techniques of interrogation that have been examined and re-examined in the press and in Congress. His CO status was recognized by the military.

* Camilo Mejia, a well-spoken Hispanic-American, was in Iraq with the 124th Infantry Division. Joining the military at age 19, he also took part in routines that included sleep deprivation, threats of death and other abuses before reaching his fateful decision. He was interviewed by Dan Rather on CBS’ Sixty Minutes while still on active duty. Mejia was later court-martialed and sentenced a year in prison and a bad-conduct discharge (he was released after less than ten months — for “good behavior”).

As affecting as the very human situations shown certainly are — the face of a nine-year-old girl terrified by a house-search conducted by rough and profane coalition soldiers with big guns, the shock of the up-armored humvee being smashed by a planted explosive, or the wearing tension of sniper duty in an unfamiliar city — the documentary also presents contextual information that is vital. It cites the first recognition of conscientious objection, in one of the first laws passed by the Continental Congress on July 18, 1775. The voice-over and shots of relevant documents make clear that the soldier must object to all war, in order to stand a chance of being granted status as a conscientious objector. We learn that in present-day Germany, which has a provision for mandatory public service, over half of those called now opt for conscientious objection, rather than entering the military of that country (80,000 out of 150,000 in 2004).

A particularly eye-opening segment quoted Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, Historian of the U.S. Army, in his finding that only one-quarter of the soldiers who were in a position to shoot an enemy in World War II actually managed overcome their reluctance to do so. Responding to that fact, the Army improved its conditioning of recruits, instituting “reflexive fire training” that would “by-pass the moral decision” that gave pause to the person with his finger on the trigger. By the time Korea came, 50-60% made (from the view of the military) the “right” decision; in Vietnam, shoot-to-kill rates reached 85-90%. Feedback from military commanders in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that “people are more lethal than they ever imagined” possible.

What will stay with many of us who watched the documentary are the soliloquies of the objectors:

“I looked at [the detainees] and I saw my own unit, but with brown skin. I was not able to make the jump to turn those people into subhumans, but it is the nature of war to turn them into subhumans.” [Delgado]

“I found myself in the region that the historians say might have been the Garden of Eden. I asked myself ‘why am I carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden?’…We figured out that human sacrifice was wrong. We decided that slavery was wrong. Maybe we will finally say that war is wrong.” [Benderman]

And, the voices of new recruits, responding to their boot-camp drill sergeant cheer-leader:

“Kill, kill, kill without mercy!!! Blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow!!!”

[Soldiers of Conscience will air on most public television stations on October 16th at 9:00 pm (check local PBS listings for P.O.V.). For more information, visit: www.soldiers-themovie.com ]

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