Why the American church can’t talk about war (and why that needs to change)

fallows pictureBy Alan Bean

“The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.”  James Fallows

If we hope to think more deeply and more honestly about the American military, we must find the courage to think morally.  In his thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, Fallows notes that public confidence in the American military soared after 9-11 and has remained strong ever since.  And this while confidence in all the other institutions of society was plummeting.

In 1975, 68% of Americans reported “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion; in the latest Gallup survey, only 45% felt the same way–a drop of 23 percentage points.  During the same interval, public confidence in the military moved from a low of 50% in 1981 to a high of 85% at the time of the Gulf War in 1991.  After spending most of the 1990s hovering between 65 and 68%, confidence in the military soared to 82% with the invasion of Iraq and remained strong despite the utter failure of the Iraq mission.

Fallows wonders why Americans are so willing to celebrate the military regardless of its embarrassing failures, why we are willing to spend limitless sums on high tech armaments and why we find it so easy to ignore the human cost of our military misadventures.

Why, he asks, do the best soldiers in the world keep losing so badly?

Fallows can’t help but be impressed with the training, professionalism, dedication and performance of our armed forces.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive.  By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years.  No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

He’s right.  Soldiers are physically fit, responsible, highly disciplined, dedicated, courageous and passionately loyal to their comrades.  Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general, told Fallows that “the military constitutes “a better society than the one it serves.”

As Dunlap points out, in contrast to the World War II generation, very few Americans have a personal stake in the armed forces.

Fallows thinks most of us are indifferent to the plight of an increasingly insular military class.

People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America.  Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and in the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost.  Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.

And yet everything the American military touches turns to dust.  Soldiers return from combat with broken bodies and with shattered souls.  In far too many cases, they are dripping with PTSD. 

We are no longer fighting nation states with clearly identified standing armies.  After cutting through Saddam Hussein’s army like a hot knife through butter, we found ourselves in a counter-insurgency struggle we couldn’t possibly win.  It was Vietnam all over again and we it seemed we had learned nothing in the interim. Every successful mission produced more widows (American and Iraqi), more humiliation and more zealots desperate for revenge.

Unable to empathize with “the enemy” the American military, and the public paying the bills and waving the flag at home, was unable to anticipate the obvious consequences of sending an imperial invasion force into a foreign country.

Only compassion makes us wise, and empathy is an emotion soldiers can’t afford.  In their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini lay out the basic problem:

When imperial powers wage war against opponents, they must first demonize their enemy, using racist stereotypes to stir up fear and hatred.  These stereotypes are not images of real, complex human beings but a slurry from which an army constructs its own power and authorization for violence.  To stir up such hostility against an imaginary ‘other’ can, however, have devastating unintended consequences.

These consequences echo through the pages of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.  Critics on the left have assailed the celebrated Navy SEAL for using terms like “savages”, “bad guys” and “idiots” to describe the Iraqi people.  But Kyle’s skewed perception of the enemy was a direct product of his military training.

The authors of Soul Repair remind us that 75% of the soldiers involved in World War II failed to fire at the enemy.  They discharged their weapons, but rarely with the intention to kill.  In response, a military training regime was designed to overcome this natural aversion to taking a human life.  It has produced admirable results, but the downside is incalculable.

Chris Kyle provides the perfect illustration.  The “American Sniper” could hardly ignore the human wreckage created by American firepower, but he couldn’t let it reach his soul.

I’d see the families of the insurgents display their grief, tear off clothes, even rub the blood on themselves.  If you loved them, I thought, you should have kept them away from the war.  You should have kept them from joining the insurgency.  You let them try and kill us—what did you think would happen to them?”  It’s cruel, maybe, but it’s hard to sympathize with grief when it’s over someone who just tried to kill you. [Original emphasis]

If there is a thesis to Kyle’s book it is the slogan his team embraced as their own:

“Despite what your mama told you, violence does solve problems.”

And as Kyle’s narrative attests, violence did solve problems.  Lots of them.  But with every problem solved, three or four more cropped up.

Kyle had no problem with the high-minded rhetoric about nation-building when he shipped off to Iraq, but he quickly lost interest.  He was there to kill, not educate.

I didn’t risk my life to bring democracy to Iraq.  I risked my life for my buddies, to protect my friends and fellow countrymen.  I went to war for my country, not Iraq.  My country sent me out there so that bullshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.  I never once fought for the Iraqis.  I could give a flying fuck about them.

Nor was he supposed to.  Soul Repair highlights the glaring oversight in our military’s “literature of spiritual fitness.”  The military wants to produce men and women of the highest moral character, exemplary representatives of American democracy.  Religious commitment is highly prized because it undermines selfishness and encourages dedication to the team, the mission, and the greater good.  But this literature is ultimately amoral, the authors of Soul Repair argue, because it has no place for compassion of empathy for “the enemy”.

Chris Kyle couldn’t empathize with the Iraqi people and maintain the rigid us-them categories that made it possible, indeed “fun”, to pull the trigger.

The SEALs Chris Kyle fought with didn’t want to be loved or even respected–they wanted to be feared.  To that end, they adopted a cartoon character called “the Punisher” as their mascot.  “A real bad-ass who rights wrongs, delivering vigilante justice . . . the Punisher wore a shirt with a stylized white skull.”

So we adapted his symbol—a skull—and made it our own, with some modifications.  We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns.  And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could.

We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to fuck with you.  You see us?  We’re the people kicking your ass.  Fear us.  Because we will kill you, motherfucker.

The American military has created legions of disciplined, courageous, efficient, dedicated soldiers with the moral maturity of an adolescent.  As veterans mature, and as the fog of group-think lifts, the truth hits home.

The authors of Soul Repair lay out the problem succinctly:

Few major social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives of others better than the armed services.  And none works so thoroughly to compromise, deny, dismantle, and destroy the very values it teaches.  This is the paradox of war.

In the heat of battle, soldiers abandon the last shred of empathy with the enemy. Survival seemingly depends on it.  But when the battle is over and the soldier’s feet touch down on American soil, the symptoms of moral injury begin to flower.  It might happen immediately, or it could take years or even decades, but when the truth bubbles to the surface, the impact of moral injury can be crippling.

Across America, twenty-two veterans take their lives on an average day, a rate three times higher than in the civilian population.

Nakashima Brock and Lettini distinguish between PTSD (a physiological reaction to overwhelming trauma) and moral injury (which springs from the violation of a person’s core moral commitments).  PTSD is psychological; moral injury is spiritual, what happens when the dictates of moral conscience are grossly violated.

Such conscience is grounded in empathy and compassion for others and the capacity to recognize what is good and to know when something is profoundly wrong.

The military offers little assistance to those suffering from moral injury, the authors argue, because the military mindset can’t face the fact that Chris “American Sniper” Kyle is precisely the kind of soldier their military philosophy requires.

American Sniper bookIn the past week I read Kyle’s book and watched the Clint Eastwood biopic based on Kyle’s story.  Eastwood says he has produced an anti-war movie, and this may have been his intent.

Most of the scenes in the movie are adapted from Kyle’s book but Eastwood has little regard for the actual course of events.  He is very good at the revenge narrative; a showdown at high noon between a tough villain and a hero who’s even tougher. In the climax of American Sniper, Kyle kills a coldblooded sniper named Mustafa with a miraculous two-mile shot after the villain kills two of Kyle’s closest friends.  Mission accomplished.

Not so fast.  Although Kyle mentions a sniper named Mustafa in passing, Mustafa didn’t kill Kyle’s friends.  And Kyle didn’t kill Mustafa.

But that isn’t Eastwood’s biggest departure from the book on which his film is loosely based.

Chris Kyle and his wife Taya have given us a remarkably honest account of what modern warfare does to soldiers and the loved ones they leave behind.  Eastwood’s movie pays passing attention to Kyle’s struggle with PTSD throughout his four deployments to Iraq and particularly after hanging up his sniper rifle and saying goodbye to his SEAL brothers.  Eastwood has him drinking a beer in a bar.  Kyle is far more honest.

For some months after getting out of the service, it felt like it was plunging down a mine-shaft.  I started drinking a lot, pounding back beers.  I’d say I went into a depression, feeling sorry for myself.  Pretty soon drinking was all I did.

After a while, it was hard liquor, and it was all through the day.

By his own admission, Kyle got into a string of increasingly violent bar fights and it was a long time before Taya began to recognize glimmerings of the man she married.  She came to realize that her husband’s passionate love for his brothers in arms, and his love for the violence of war, had consumed his life.

As time went on, his job became more and more important to him.  He didn’t need me for family, in a way—he had the guys.  Little by little, I realized I wasn’t the most important thing in his life.  The words were there, but he didn’t mean it.”

Was Chris Kyle suffering from the kind of moral injury described in Soul Repair or was he merely experiencing PTSD symptoms on top of the well-documented sorrow of living without the deep bond that forms between fellow soldiers?

There is no way of knowing.  Chris Kyle was restricted to the moral categories laid down by his family, his military training, and a passing association with Texas-style evangelicalism.  His father divided the world into sheep, wolves and those who defend sheep from wolves.  Chris didn’t want to be a sheep or a wolf; he wanted to be a Punisher.

Jim DeFelice, one of the men who co-authored American Sniper, admitted that revisiting his time in Iraq frequently drew Chris Kyle into the shadows.  DeFelice chalks it up to “the paradox of war”.

In order to save people, Chris had to kill others.  He had to turn his world black and white so he could make a difference.  In the process, he temporarily lost part of himself.

Maybe not lost.  Definitely not lost.  But he stowed it behind so many walls that it was hard to reach.

When the American Sniper was gunned down by a veteran he was attempting to help, he was still recovering the parts of himself he had buried.  And he was in the process of discovering parts of himself he had never known were there.  Kyle didn’t have to turn his world black and white to make a difference; but the military that shaped him gave him little option.

When Kyle said he would be able to defend every kill he made in Iraq before his Creator, he was likely being sincere.  His critics dismiss him as a psychopathic killer, but that characterization is wide of the mark.  Psychopaths can’t empathize with anyone, and Chris Kyle’s empathy for his SEAL brothers was boundless.

But a species of psychopathy is evident in Kyle’s profound inability to identify with the people of Iraq.  He hated them all with a perfect hatred and he was proud of it.  That is precisely the way the military trained him to think and his religion reinforced this tendency.

My guess is that, had he lived, Chris Kyle was too emotionally honest to escape the ravages of moral injury.  The slightest movement beyond the simplistic us-them categories that shaped his worldview and it would have been all over.  And when that happened, the military would have no pills to cure his ills.

Soul Repair argues that veterans from moral injury can’t be helped by adoring crowds thanking them for their service.  If you know you have violated your core moral commitments it hardly helps to be hailed as a hero.  In fact, the authors hold out little hope of a simple fix; the symptoms of moral injury can’t be dispelled, they can only be endured.  Because the trigger can’t be un-pulled, the brokenness persists.

Although Chris Kyle claims to be a Christian, he admits that he knows very little about the Bible and I doubt he was ever exposed to Jesus’ teaching on non-violence.  No one ever told him that love for the enemy is a central tenet of his faith so he felt no qualms about hating the savages he slaughtered so mercilessly.  Kyle worshiped the God of Battles.

Evangelical Christians have flocked to see American Sniper because it validates Chris Kyle’s appraisal of the Iraqi people and the virtue of the American cause. Moderate-to-liberal churches neither endorse nor criticize the American military; either stance would offend a significant segment of the congregation.  Better to pretend the nation is not at war and that veterans aren’t coming home with broken bodies and crushed spirits. Silence offends no one.  It also ensures that veterans wobbling under the weight of moral injury will not be helped.

Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?  Because our inability to empathize with our enemies, to see the world through their eyes, makes it impossible to predict their behavior.  Our leaders believed that an invading force would be greeted as liberators; Chris Kyle and his brothers and sisters in arms paid the price.  When American Christians refuse to speak as prophets, innocent people pay the price in body, mind and spirit.

Throughout American Sniper, Chris Kyle insists that civilians are in no position to criticize the actions of soldiers no matter how extreme they may appear from the outside.  Consider this:

For some reason, a lot of people back home—not all people—didn’t accept that we were at war.  They didn’t accept that war means death, violent death most times.  A lot of people, not just politicians, wanted to impose ridiculous fantasies on us, hold us to some standard of behavior that no human being could maintain.

He has a point.  Only those who have faced enemy fire can understand the full reality of war.

James Fallows asks who is going to hold the American military to account.  It certainly won’t be politicians eager to win military contracts for their constituents and fearful of being painted as anti-military.

Armed with the non-violent teaching of Jesus and a nuanced just war tradition, Christians ought to serve as a counterweight to America’s penchant for unreflective militarism; but we are either leading cheers for the troops or ignoring the realities of military life altogether.

If Christians want to know what happens when we dehumanize the enemy in the fog of war we must talk to veterans who understand moral injury from the inside.  We shouldn’t be thanking them for a job well done, accusing them of war crimes, or pretending they don’t exist; we should be asking them for guidance.  Veterans learn to bear the burden of moral injury by working with other veterans.

But before that can happen we must admit that we have supported unjust wars and, in the process, dehumanized the enemy.  As things presently stand, the American faith community is the last place you should expect to find productive conversation about fear, compassion, war and the proper role of the American military.

And that must change.

7 thoughts on “Why the American church can’t talk about war (and why that needs to change)

  1. Who is more righteous in the sight of God? . . . “our” military machine or, at least lately, the ISIS terrorists?

  2. I’m not sure that’she the question we should be asking. Would ISIS exist if we hadn’t invaded Iraq? God knows the answer. Regardless of how we answer that question, we must empathize with the young men who are flocking to IS even though we cannot,and should not,sympathize with that despicable organization. If we don’t, history will repeat itself. God,in Christ, commands that we love our enemies. Our survival depends on it.

  3. Alan, you captured the problem in the phrase, “veterans wobbling under the weight of moral injury”.

    The world tends to divide itself into two camps, one that values individual freedom over conformity and one that values control more than freedom. That describes the difference between the West and Saddam Heussein’s Iraq and much of the Middle East. For about the first one hundred years of life of The United States, it, for the most part, stayed between its two oceans in Fortress America, but iniquity of humans drug the United States out of its fortress into two great wars and, ultimately, into assuming its role as a protector of the principal of freedom and democracy for the world. Vanity and the seductive idea of ‘nation building’ led us to our present predicament. How is that working? Should the United States retreat to Fortress America, under the nuclear umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction that existed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and Communist China? Maybe. How highly do we value individual freedom? A decision is needed. Jesus appears to have placed high value on individual freedom, but he did not address larger issues of nations, except to RENDER UNTO CAESAR THAT WHICH IS CAESAR’S, and inadequate guide for conduct of a powerful nation on the world stage. We need moral perspective of Jesus, but we have to live in the real world.

  4. It really bothers me that anyone would ask a question about which group is more righteous. Every drop of blood is one too many. My understanding of Christianity calls for us to be Christ-like. Would Christ be trying to justify or rationaize his followers murderous behavior by pointing the finger at another group who is also engaged in murder and mayhem? I doubt it.

    It has always bothered me that most churches won’t touch the subjects of fear, compassion, war and the proper role of the American military. My cousin who is a priest is anti-war, but he does not dare bring it up within his parish because of the militarization of the minds of too many parishioners. He fears loosing his flock and most importantly the flow of donations, which would cause him a problem within the archdiocese. He compartmentalizes what he knows to be the right thing to do with doing the job that is expected of him by other human beings.

    Thank you for writing this piece Alan. We must face these realities and finally make it a priority to learn from our mistakes so that our future can be more just, peaceful and Christ-like.

  5. This is a troubling subject. As I have written in response to other posts, our weekly church newsletter always has a list of people from our church who are in the military, asking special prayers for them. God knows they need our prayers. Our church also has a big display in the hall of the educational building with names and pictures of people in the military, but no display for the public school teachers who sacrifice for the sake of our children. Anyone who objected to that display would be castigated. But I think we could have a display of school teachers and retired school teachers alongside. That would make a subtle point. Or maybe not so subtle.

    I can remember the pastors who served on the Vigo Park Circuit during WW II. They prayed for the soldiers, and they also prayed for peace. I remember one pastor who in his sermon called out people who were saying they wanted the war to go on forever because economic times were so good.

    And I remember one pastor who came back for the annual revival shortly after WW II, denouncing the move for a draft and a large standing army. I remember thinking he was wrong. It was I who was wrong.

    I thank God for the memory of those pastors.

  6. While I agree attacking individual soldiers, accusing them of war crimes as an anti-war tactic is wrong, the opposite issue of Americans being unwilling/unable to consider that their country’s actions in war have been criminal, and call for prosecution of top ranking general officers and politicians who pressed those crimes against international law. There are reasons former President Bush and Dick Cheney don’t make lucrative speaking engagements beyond the borders of the U.S. and Canada, and it’s not that there’s not a demand for their speeches–they are afraid of arrest and prosecution for the unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq, without the approval of the UN.

    I agree with you that Chris Kyle was no psychopath. I wonder, though, how much input he had into the ghost-written “autobiography” that was made to sell. I believe that his main motivation was to stay alive, and to keep his fellow SEAL’s alive. I haven’t seen the movie, but my husband (a Canadian veteran) enjoyed it. Jesus’ teachings weren’t about humans divided into sheep, wolves, and Punishers; the Kingdom of God is different because love overcomes violence, that’s the message of Easter, that’s how the Church worked for the first few hundred years, that’s how non-violent resistance worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and still works today, that’s how restorative justice works.

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