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Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic - The Cost of Serving
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Article Index
Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic
Self-formation and the Ethical Military Professional
Moving Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality
The Soul as Ethical Substance
A Christian Military Ethic
The Cost of Serving
Conclusion: Honoring God by Living Up to His Standards
All Pages

The cost of serving

For societies, especially liberal democratic societies, to be able to function effectively and, importantly, defend their freedoms, they need to have effective armed forces. For the US, UK and many others this means, unless extraordinary circumstances arise, relying upon volunteer forces for the protection of the state and its interests. Individuals who choose to serve in the military do so for a complex array of motivations: the need for paid employment; to defend the state and its interests; in pursuit of some kind of higher purpose; to maintain a family tradition; to test oneself; and so on. In so doing the individuals who don a uniform and take up arms are granted special legal dispensation to take other human lives under particular circumstances. The corollary of that dispensation is that they make themselves legitimate targets for aggressors and must therefore be prepared to make great personal sacrifice: separation from loved ones, wounding, maiming, death.

Those who endure hardship, fight well and live to tell the tale have their actions recognised by the state: Medals are awarded and words like courageous, brave, honorable and self-sacrificial abound. However, there is a negative aspect of this valorising of the ‘brave soldier’ in that those self-same individuals can frequently be discouraged from voicing their doubts, fears, anxieties, grief, anger and so on: the unspoken ‘dark side’ of war. Prime time news bulletins that broadcast medal ceremonies tend not to dwell on the combatants’ deepest fears and regrets. It is, to use a loaded, gendered term, unmanly. On the one hand the prevailing approach in the various armed forces I have encountered can be summed up in some well-worn phrases: ‘Suck it up ... soldier on ... man up (whether the soldier is male or female)’ etc. Yet we deny the legacy of these emotions and the events on which they are based at society’s peril. A Christian military ethic needs to acknowledge the damage done to those who fight in our name and support those whose lives will never be the same after an encounter with death.

Augustine in his Confessions describes his devastation at the death of a friend, devastation expressed in terms of the pain the loss inflicted upon his soul:

So I boiled with anger, sighed, wept, and was at my wits’ end. I found no calmness, no capacity for deliberation. I carried my lacerated and bloody soul when it was unwilling to be carried by me. I found no place where I could put it down ... But when my weeping stopped my soul felt burdened by a vast load of misery.42

Augustine was obviously a man of a vastly different era to our own, yet his faith-based wrestling with issues of life and death, sin, grief, loss and despair helped to shape the vocabulary that Christians of all traditions still call upon today. His reference to his ‘lacerated and bloody soul’ provides the most profound description I have yet come across of the mental and spiritual consequences of traumatic loss, which I extend here specifically to the domain of war. In a previous professional capacity I have dealt with veterans of the 1982 Falklands War, the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the past decade, most of whom suffered some degree of mental trauma. My grandfather – a devout Christian – could not bring himself to talk of his experiences in the Royal Artillery in World War II, and scorned those who did.

Every individual reacts differently to the trials of war and life and death, and the same individual can react very differently on subsequent tours of duty. Augustine speaks to the modern Christian combatant because he lived, worshipped, ministered and wrote at a time of political and religious ambiguity against the backdrop of military violence. He knew that good people could do bad things, especially in war. He consoled himself with scripture, especially the Psalms: ‘Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me’.43

The Christian military professional today looks to the scriptures, still, in his or her struggles with the weight of their actions or inaction, or in thanks for a mission successfully concluded. For many the issues are fear or guilt; no matter how just the cause or how legitimate the action taken, the taking of life – and the way of self-sacrifice – weighs heavily. There is no magic cure. In the Old Testament King David struggled repeatedly with guilt, perhaps rightly so: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions ... Save me from bloodguilt, O God ... The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.’44 At Gethsemane Jesus himself reached breaking point as he faced death: ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death ... Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me’.45 Fear led Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus, while Augustine would later admit, ‘But when my weeping stopped my soul felt burdened by a vast load of misery. I should have lifted myself to you, Lord, to find a cure’.46 It is in a similar spirit that the Christian combatant turns to God as the source of faith and hope. Experience tells us that, as Jesus experienced in Gethsemane, the cup of pain is rarely lifted in response to a cry of anguish, no matter how deeply and painfully felt. However, the witness of men and women of faith through the ages, in times of war and peace, tells us that somehow they are able to endure. And perhaps that is enough, for now.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 13:17