This is the time of year in which we reflect as a nation on the costs and sacrifices made for our freedoms, and express appreciation — both to God and to those who made the sacrifices.
I want to do the same, but from a different angle — in part because appreciation for the sacrifices made in blood and violence, if we are not careful, can easily degenerate into glamorizing the circumstances that led to making such costs and sacrifices necessary. (It’s a point my Anabaptist brethren have been making for centuries.)
Over the last few days, I have watched a couple of documentaries on World War II, including some that have conducted interviews with those who were there who are still living. The heroism, the extraordinary selfless sacrifice, the raw courage, is just staggering to observe.
As just one example, on D-Day (June 6, 1944), at Normandy, there was low-cloud cover and radar was a new technology, which means the bombs dropped from the air all landed harmlessly into French fields behind the German beach defenses. Meanwhile, the rockets launched from the ships at those same defenses fell short. Bottom line: the men disembarking at high tide from the amphibious landing craft onto the three hundred yards of open beach faced completely untouched German machine guns, mortars, and rifle fire. The first wave of American troops on the beach suffered 90% casualties
I’ve watched and listened to similar stories from veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, and Okinawa, and from veterans of Korea and Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars, too. The comments from the veterans of these vicious battles, when they are asked to reflect on broader principles, have a remarkable consistency about them. “War is stupid,” says one. “The people who get us into these things are never the ones there on the ground having to face the consequences of their decisions [to go to war],” says another.
And invariably, the veterans’ remarks seem to go something like this, “In the battle when you’re facing the bullets and bombs, you’re not fighting for America or for country or for cause. You’re fighting for your buddies, the guy next to you in the foxhole. It’s your buddies that you’re facing this with that you’re go to fight for and are willing to pay any price for, and die for.”
Interestingly, on that last point, when German veterans, Japanese veterans, Korean veterans, or Vietnamese veterans are interviewed, they consistently say something similar [!].
What to make of all this?
It would be fairly easy to draw the (very Anabaptist-sounding) conclusion from here: war is a terrible evil, and Christians simply should not engage in it ever. I have to say that, as time goes on, my respect for this position is rising. But, I’m still not to the point of embracing this position (at least not yet). I find myself still landing at a chastened, “just war position” which says that war is an evil, but sometimes a necessary evil, and the least bad of bad choices.
One thing we can see clearly in hindsight, for example, is that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime was bent on expanding their axis of evil until they met sufficient force to stop them and repel them. There is such a thing as incorrigible evil; and incorrigible evil cannot (or at least should not) be accommodated or appeased. To try to do so serves only to foster evil, not stand against it (or stand even in contrast to it). If anything, in World War II, freedom-and-righteousness-loving people should have entered into the fray sooner (and thereby rescued the Poles, the Czechoslovakians, and of course the French?) — not recoiled even longer.
I do come away from these reflections recognizing more strongly that the word “last” has to be taken seriously in the just war plank, “War must be taken up only as a LAST resort.”
I also come away with a higher appreciation for the costs and sacrifices made on the battlefields that serve, every 20-40 years or so, to form the fabric of American history. I also think, though: these are costs and sacrifices that never should be required of any person. Even if occasionally a necessary evil, war is an evil that really should be entered into as, at the very most, a last resort. Still, given the incorrigible evils that still sometimes confront us — and sometimes accompanied with weapons and armies of devastating potential — the stopwatch on when “last” is can actually be sooner these days than it was in the 1940s. . . .
I’ll stop there, and let you raise other points — or even argue with me. I confess: on these conclusions, I’m none too sure of myself. . . .
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