The Public Humanist

Into Harm’s Way

Several weeks have passed since President Obama delivered his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo; and, despite my strong admiration for him and my respect for his convictions, some of what he said still deeply troubles me. As Commander-in-Chief, his hopeful invocation of traditional just war theory and his outspoken commitment to “follow the rules of the road” are no doubt heartfelt, but inescapably hollow. His admission that “in today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers” renders just war theory sadly irrelevant; and, when the road is to war, the rules—kept or broken—matter less than the destination. Following the rules still means going to war, and there is the dark dilemma. He asks that we—a nation reinforcing our resolve to fight on—acknowledge “the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes (and that) There will be times when nations… will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” In these few words we see how short the logic, if not the road, to war can be. The truth is, however, that to admit we live in a violent world that is not likely to lay down its arms anytime soon is not the same as to concede that war is here and now, for us, necessary. But still more problematic is the leap from necessity to moral justification. The clear assumption here is that a war of necessity is by definition morally justified. But what if war can never be morally justified? What if there is no such thing as a just war? What could that possibly mean at this turn, when we concede in the same breath that this war appears necessary?

These doubts and qualms may sound inspired by earlier Peace Prize honorees such as Gandhi, Tutu, and King to whom President Obama gave a respectful nod after launching his apology for war; but in this case they are inspired by warriors not pacifists. It is today’s combat veterans who are bringing the greatest clarity to the moral cost of any war. It is they who have lived and suffered the inescapable contradiction between the necessity of violence and its inherent immorality. The nation that sends them to war sees them as heroes, deserving our enduring gratitude and esteem; but all too often they return from war unable to accept that gratitude and respect, finding themselves inwardly darkened and eaten away with guilt and shame. This reality is something we all need to understand, and this understanding will never come unless we listen to our veterans and learn from them, rather than from our political representatives and leaders, about the “rules of the road” and whether they matter for much in the end.

The truth is that many, if not most, combat veterans, who have followed all the rules, are haunted more by what they have done than by what they have endured. Those who work with veterans to help heal their inner, invisible wounds know that the deepest and most intractable PTS (Post-traumatic Stress) has its roots in what veterans perceive as the evil they have done and been a part of. They all too often see themselves as criminals. But how can it be criminal, we may ask, to serve your country in a just cause and a necessary conflict? Here we may find some simple but useful light in a well-worn concept—necessary evil. If war is at times a necessary evil, does that make it any less evil? I suggest we let our veterans make that call. “In theological terms,” writes William Mahedy, himself a Vietnam vet and a vet counselor ever since, “war is sin. This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier’s war were right or wrong. The point is that war as a human enterprise is a matter of sin.” War, in other words, is hell not because it is a place of physical torment but because it is place of distilled evil. Albert Camus, no theologian, reached the same conclusion after World War II. He saw the justification of murder as our most profound and consequential failing. He disallowed any distinction between killing and murder and argued that killing, even in self-defense, is never innocent, never without violation. “It should break your heart to kill,” writes veteran and poet Brian Turner. And it does. Taking a life breaks the heart and darkens the soul. Virtually every ancient and traditional society from India to Greece to Native America, however warlike, knew this. Our veterans know this. It is time for us as a nation to acknowledge it and to learn the rules of another road, the road to healing.

Commanders-in-chief of nations routinely and rightly acknowledge the grave responsibility and burden of sending others into harm’s way, but never have I heard mention of the full extent of that potential harm. Life, limbs, and wits—physical and psychological well-being—are all openly at risk; but soul injury and death never come to mind or speech, except afterwards, and then mostly in closed circles. One notable exception was when former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam combat veteran, revealed that “I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that’s the memory that haunts.” It is for us to ponder these words, to listen to our veterans, to stop using the convenient rhetoric of just wars, and to heal the wounded and the haunted.

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