Monthly Archives: October 2015

When “they fight for each other” just isn’t good enough

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 11:1

In 2009, I left the “Marne Express” (so called because the 3rd Infantry Division was one of the most deployed divisions in the Army back then and to be stuck there was to be on the “Marne Express” going back and forth to Iraq) and “took a knee” as an Advanced Individual Training (AIT) chaplain at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL.

It was the first time I came face to face with the “military industrial complex” outside of a combat zone.

In Iraq, the contractor support was everywhere but seemed necessary – in Huntsville, it is the economic reality of that city. Driving into the city, one passes large building after large building all dedicated to researching war and producing the material for more of it.

Benjamin, my brother, once came to visit while I was station there. He remarked on a sign he had seen and the memory is still with me. The sign was some large contractor praising the American “Warfighter.”

“Warfighter. As though it’s a career path. As though war never ends.”

Growing up, I idolized “warfighters.” These myths and legends of the books and movies I consumed were brave, always right, always in charge, and never quailed in the face of the enemy. I relentlessly imagined myself in their shoes; the enemy out front, the brave few holding the line, and with all the righteous indignation born of absolute truth, we would defeat all comers.

Of course, in my 11th year of Army service, I know the fallacy of youthful idealism. History has a way of bursting bubbles, facts have that unfortunate effect of bringing shades of gray to an otherwise easy, black/white perceived reality and my idealism was traded for the hard, nuanced truths of life.

Only empires have “warfighters.”

One of my favorite characters in fiction is Cornewell’s Richard Sharpe. Here’s a warfighter if ever there was one. He spends his life pursuing the goals of the British Empire. He is at once a very fallible man but also brave and kind in his own way. He is what I what I experienced in my Army. Brave, kind, generous, mean, cruel, and vindictive. We all carry the ability to be at our best and at our worst. Sharpe was a warfighter. A man talented at really one thing, winning battles.

In American history, there was a deep and established caution regarding standing Armies and professional Soldiers. After every war, the Armies were disbanded and those who fought them left to find their way in the Republic. But somewhere along the line, we became a nation that expects war. Expects that every day, someone, somewhere, is going to have to do combat with an enemy for “defense.” Who does that? Only people with enemies. And empires have enemies.

So we have warfighters.

Why does this matter to me? After all, I am a professional Soldier, a chaplain providing religious support to our Soldiers and family members around the world. I’ve had two combat deployments and am about to go on a third. It matters to me because of the narrative, because of our willingness to be honest about who we are as a people and nation.

Warfighter chaplainSo, the traditional narrative, the one I grew up with, cast America as the “land of the free and home of the brave.” It casts all military actions as the last possible measure. “We didn’t want war, but by God, if you bring it to us…” sort of thing. Our military industrial complex is labeled “the defense industry.” The capitalist corporations whose only existence is to develop and produce the weapons of war are labeled “defense contractors.” Incidentally, as I write this, I just finished my favorite MRE (meals ready to eat): chili mac, crackers and cheese, with a dessert of lemon poppyseed pound cake. So good. Thank you defense contractor in Evansville, Indiana for my wonderful, shelf stable meal!

Do we want peace? Of course. Do we want justice? Yes. Do we want our GDP to continually grow necessitating open markets around the world and why communism (and the closed markets it creates) is a threat to us? Also, yes. Do economics drive our warfare? Of course. Does idealism impact our willingness to fight? Yes. Do we go to war for political reasons? Really, do you even need to ask?

Turns out, our wars are just convoluted at the British Empire’s. Especially the recent ones.

So, now, here we are going back to Iraq. Soldiers, once again, moving to contact in that place. It makes sense. At least in this case, we can say that we made the problem and thus we’re the ones that need to fix it. We, the United States, broke that place and now it’s a hell-hole. So many have died. Tens of thousands have died on that altar of our fear and what do we have to show for it?

Debt. Death. Destruction. Division.

War.

There is a time when nothing will fix the problem except war. Nothing will get through but violence. But it is always bad. There is no good war. There is only death. Even in 2 Samuel, there was a time when kings went out to war.

Regardless of what we see in movies and TV, violence only begets more violence. It does not bring peace, it just shoves the problem deeper. So we try to fight small wars, limited conflicts, air campaigns (which is a nice way of saying killing thousands to people, innocent and guilty, from the air, far away from our sensibilities), and strategic initiatives. Violence might bring temporary peace but desperate people will fight back. Eventually, all the chickens come home to roost and the problem is worse.

War is the great human tragedy. It is the failure of humans to be human. It is absolute failure of the human race to be civilized and talk through their problems. It is sin. It is the brokenness of our people. War is terrible.

But we love it so much. We love the parades, the strength, the honor, the bravery.

We love the violence.

We fight because we want to. We fight because it makes us feel good. We create narratives and call them the “great cause” to justify it. We paste ethical names to it. We create offenses, straw men, faceless enemies, and throw all our blood and treasure at it. We call it beautiful, artistic but its just a fancy way of killing. We would rather our our people go hungry and live without than defund our beautiful, artistic, and brutal engines of death.

We call it just.

We claim that God is on our side, right is on our side, justice is on our side. And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, we could at least be honest about it and own that war is death. It is nothing else. If we’re going to do it, then own the animal nature of it and get it over with. Maybe that’s the narrative I want, honesty about the violence we pay for. Call it what it is. Own your stuff.

In the years before I commissioned, two movies came out that profoundly impacted me. They told stories that cemented in me the need to join up and be a part of the grand tradition of the Army. Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers told, in all it’s gritty detail, the stories of bravery, sacrifice, and honor that accompany war. They both had this theme, a theme that has become more and more popular as the “Cause” gets more and more convoluted and opaque:

“Soldiers don’t fight for the cause; they fight for each other.”

11 years in, I attest to the truth of that statement.

However, when that is the narrative, it releases those who run this great institution (i.e. – all of you who vote and influence elected leaders) from the duty of asking the question, why are we sending our Soldiers out to fight?

It is the duty of Soldiers to “fight and win America’s wars.”

It is the duty of the citizen to decide what wars are worth fighting.

I have stood by the greatest people I will ever know in battle. I have eulogized heros who gave everything for what they believed in and the person next to them. I have worked countless hours and ingested more caffeine than I thought humanly possible to effectively conduct warfare on behalf of the people of the United States.

I wonder how much thought they have given to their duty to hold their elected leaders accountable for how they expend American lives. I wonder how much thought you have given to it.

I’m not a pacifist. I toyed with the idea for a bit but I have guns and would use them to deadly intent on anyone who threatened the life of my family. I wear my uniform with great pride. I have, through blood, sweat and tears, earned every shiny thing on it. I am grateful to be a part of a great and honorable institution that has done so much good in the world. Though I sometimes question the cause, I always saddle up, grab my chaplain kit, and move to contact when called upon to do so. I have been a volunteer far past my initial swearing it. I will continue to stand by the greatest generation of millennials on the planet as they sacrifice over and over again for you, the American people.

Here’s the thing, “fighting for each other” just doesn’t cut it any more. There has to be a better reason. Causes matter. As a Soldier speaking for himself, I don’t need anyone’s thanks or for you to pay for my meal – I need you to take seriously the duty of deciding when and where you want to spill American blood.

I need you to ask the question – is this war worth the life of my child?

Because, if I’m going to stand on the doorstep of more mothers and fathers to tell them that their sons and daughters were killed in lands far away, I need to know that it’s going to be worth it. I need to know that it matters. I need to be able to say, the world is a better place because they died.

You need to as well. For their blood is on your hands. Their blood is in your hands.

I will own my place on the battlefield to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. I need you to own your place on the battlefield to ensure that when we send American boys and girls out to fight, its because there is no other way.

If “warfighter” is going to be a career path in the United States, then let’s ensure that every war is worth fighting and maybe someday, we’ll live in a world where “peacemaker” is just as viable a career field.

*Given the nature of this post, please hear again that this is MY opinion. I do not represent the Army, the Chaplain Corps or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I represent me. 

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Ministry by Inches

Years ago, a teacher joined the Army chaplaincy. He was idealistic, hungry, and ambitious. He dreamed of adventure and glory. He had visions of going to war, preaching – Billy Graham style – and flocks of war-torn Soldiers would come to Jesus. If he was really honest, he kinda hoped he’d get a chance to shoot a terrorist or two too. He was a wandering fundamentalist. He had been through 9/11 and had grieved those days. He had been denied entry to combat troops but waited his turn, bided his time, went into seminary and found a place in the front lines as a Chaplain.

He believed the rhetoric that Iraq was a just war. A war to defend the homeland.

So he went. And he learned. And he fought. And he returned a different man. He was changed. He saw the world differently. He came away disenfranchised and disillusioned, haunted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as he had been told. Maybe, just maybe, this was a hollow sacrifice.

He had seen so much death. So much destruction. So much sacrifice and so much heroism. Men who laid it all on the line for the men under him. Women, leaving traditional gender roles and heroically owning their space on the battlefield. He saw an America he didn’t think existed. One funded by massive amounts of cash. An America that seemed happy to contract out essential services and creating a proxy second class. A class that bowed their heads  and got off the sidewalk when Americans walked by. A real, no-kidding two class system with haves and have nots. It shocked him. He didn’t know what to do with that. He experienced the American Soldier, at once a hero, the best of their country, and also terrible, awful people capable of all manner of evil. Over the years, nose to the grindstone, he witnessed a country unsure of what to do with their sons and daughters who became warriors. They seemed to care but abdicated their role in holding civilian leadership accountable for sending them to war. It seemed all to easy to focus on killing the marginalized in some other place and thus ignore the chaos brewing at home.

The tension exploded in him. The fundamentals of his youth did not answer the questions swirling in his head. His journey brought him to this conclusion – violence only begets more violence.

He toyed with pacifism. But it wasn’t for him.

However, he saw truth in the ancient Zoroastrian thought, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community or peace.” (From Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker)

But his life was at the margin of violence. Sometimes, he was in the middle of it but mostly, he operated on the margin. Men and women for all sorts of reasons (few having to actually do with defending America) had volunteered to do violence and his role was to ensure they had the free exercise of religion while they did it. He was also expected to advise commanders of the morale and morals of their Soldiers while being the voice for ethical prosecution of said violence.

It tore at his soul.

Who am I kidding? It tears at my soul. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating to know the power at the disposal of the US Army. It is empowering to know what kind of violent force can be brought to the table by a battalion of Soldiers. But, oh the tension. The pain in my heart when I take seriously the teachings of Jesus and the reality of my work.

How does serving as a Chaplain in the most effective expeditionary land Army the world has ever seen mesh with “bringing Soldiers to God and God to Soldiers?”

For me, its only possible in the inches. When I step back and look at the meta, the over all strategy, it is overwhelming and sometimes depressing. When I focus on the steps in front of me, the inches and the margins, I see great ministry. I see God walking with Soldiers as they muddle through. Sometimes, its me doing the muddling and my Soldiers revealing God to me.

guitar on the roadThe crowds never happened for me. Most services I do are very small. Today I did four. At two of them, it was me and one other person. That is the nature of this work. Its one at a time. Person to person. It’s me walking from gun crew to gun crew, a troubled marriage here, a struggling spirit there. This one wonders if the God of his youth is still worth believing in. This one has the heartbreak of a poor choices impacting her life. This one wonders if they were just crazy joining the Army and are, frankly, frightened of what comes next.

They speak to me in the darkness, in smoke breaks, and walking along the trail. Drinking a hot cup of coffee, they sigh deeply and wonder aloud if any of their sacrifice and effort are worth it.

Its a question I ask.

I’m not sure I know the answer but I know the path to find it. I know grief and I know sorrow. I know the inches and the margins.

And I’ll walk with them. Every step of the way.

Perhaps that is the ministry I seek from the Holy Spirit. To walk with me in the inches and margins.

Every step of the way.

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