Category Archives: Peacemaking

War and the Stories We Tell

I would rather call it Armistice Day, truth be told. I’ve got nothing against veterans. I simply want us to celebrate the coming of peace, even through the horrors of war, rather than celebrate the fighting. I wonder if we called it Armistice Day our “thank you” to vets and troops might not sound so hollow and trite. I wonder if we as civilians might have a better sense of what these men and women have done, what the nation has asked them to do, and what it all has done to them. Today we have heard the stories of vets today, and some have even told the lesser known stories of Conscientious Objectors.

I have been an objector to war for about as long as I have had to think about it. I am a child of the first Gulf War. I can remember the press conferences shown on school televisions where the generals commented on the videos of smart bombs crashing into buildings and bridges. “Here you are about to see the luckiest guy in Iraq,” one general said as a car moved across a bridge that was dust seconds later. I even found myself in debates about the merits of war and the Christian response on the bus rides home.

We are told that today’s army is a professional one. My father’s generation is the last one to see a true draft. Since then all our combat has been carried on the shoulders of those who supposedly choose to fight. Even when I signed up for selective service there was no place to signal my objection to war, no box to check, no line on which I could make my case. Yet I signed up anyway, putting the letters CO in the upper corner in the unlikely event of a draft. It was meaningless really. Two letters out of place would not really signal anything if my number did come up. I know of others who refused to sign up altogether. I calculated the risk, thinking a draft would never come in my lifetime. And so far, several wars later, my calculations have proven true.

And yet, I just spent my late nights writing the story of a soldier. My wife’s grandfather served as in a tank destroyer battalion as a gunner in the last years of World War II. He crossed into France less than six months after the horrific battles of D-Day, and joined the push east towards Berlin. He witnessed the V-2 rockets pulse overhead, saw the trees shatter in the snowy Hurtgen Forest during the Battle of the Buldge, endured shelling and hid from snipers, and even met the Russians as they neared Berlin. After peace came to Europe he stood guard over German Prisoners of War on their way to Nuremberg.

I poured over After Action Reports that calculated the progress of war in map coordinates, shells fired, and the nameless tallies of the wounded. I read unit histories that recounted the decisions of combat and the movement of troops. And I learned the names of the young men of his unit awarded stars for valor and of men killed. Honestly, I tried to tell a war story as a labor of love. I wanted to find out what this gentle and loving man experienced as a soldier in the second great war. And I wanted to do it as an objector.

When I talked to Fritz and asked about his military days I never sensed a spark of pride. It was simply what he did. He seemed never to want thanks or praise. He had fired that large gun on the destroyer, and seen his friends wounded. His story never seemed to be one of glory, just truth. Even the few hand written pages of his service are matter of fact, no details beyond the dates and places. I told a similar story, as a historian, without judgement so that those of us who love him as a milk truck driver, loving father and grandfather, might not lose his story to the passing of time and his memory.

In his book “The Things they Carried,” Vietnam veteran Tim O”Brien says that “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes a cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, expect maybe ‘Oh.’” (84)

That is how I feel after hearing the war stories of Fritz and the Conscientious Objectors. It is true, I can only say “Oh.” For many on either side of the decision to fight these stories are a rally cry. Through their celebratory moralizing these story tellers try to stir in their hearing a similar passion, for either peace or war. I find no such moral in either story. In fact, I mourn either kind. For there are many whose conscience knows no choice. Some men fought and some others served in other ways. Neither seem to have had the same luxury of choice as I did when I wrote those two simple letters on my selective service card. They did what they thought they had to do when nations fought nations. I don’t know if Fritz would have chosen otherwise had he known the stories of war objectors, just as I don’t know if those objectors would have chosen otherwise if they hadn’t heard of other options. Yet I am not sure if they really had a choice to begin with. All they could do was follow their conscience and pray they came out on the other side when the fighting stopped.

Today, we appear to have a choice. Some serve in other ways while others join up. Yet, it seems that there are still no options. Nations still war against nations, and the threats to life and prosperity still remain. And in it all fear runs deep.

I have three sons who I pray will choose not fight, even when there seems no other option. I pray they too will write those two meaningless letters on their selective service registration. Yet I want them to hear the stories of both kinds of heroes that had no choice— those who objected to fighting and those who fought. For in hearing the moral-less stories of war and alternative service, I want them to choose to conquer with love, and the towel that dries feet, rather than sword. I want them to build rather than destroy. And yet, I know they have no real choice. I want them to ask for another story.

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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.

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