I am convinced (it is well known) that the New Testament expects a strongly countercultural lifestyle for followers of Christ. Part of that strange discipleship is a renunciation of violence, in principle if not in fact. By that I mean that perhaps “heroic exceptions” exist to such an expectation, but that as a matter of lifestyle, Christians should refuse to be put in positions, such as the military and police, that legitimate the use of force. The center of the gospel, after all, is the God-man who would let his enemies kill him rather than make himself king by force.
I realize that not all Christians are so convinced. And part of being committed to nonviolence is being committed to dealing generously and honestly with those who disagree, on their own terms. It would be a form of rhetorical violence to propose terms and say, “We speak along these lines or not at all.” For that reason (and others), I take the just-war tradition very seriously. Often I feel like I take it more seriously than those who claim to hold it as a position. And for that reason I take seriously the claim that a Christian can be a soldier in wartime without violating the clear aspects of Christian discipleship: love of neighbor, love of enemy.
I take the claim seriously, but I am not convinced it is the case. Even if we ignore the matter of violence entirely, war is problematic for Christians. Following is a handful of reasons, drawn more or less at random, why I find it difficult to accept that Christian discipleship can fit well within the U.S. military.
The Office of the Surgeon General of the United States has for a long time maintained a Textbook of Military Medicine. In this textbook, it gives general descriptive and proscriptive advice for military command to institute in the armed forces. These guidelines are not law, but are generally highly regarded.
Radiation from a nuclear explosion or a dirty bomb can be fatal, of course. Initial symptoms of radiation poisoning are headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Most who die from radiation poisoning die within two weeks. Here is what the Textbook of Military Medicine states in regard to soldiers in warfare who have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation:
Fatally irradiated soldiers should receive every possible palliative treatment, including narcotics, to prolong their utility and alleviate their physical and psychological distress. Depending on the amount of fatal radiation, such soldiers may have several weeks to live and to devote to the cause. Commanders and medical personnel should be familiar with estimating survival time based on onset of vomiting. Physicians should be prepared to give medications to alleviate diarrhea, and to prevent infection and other sequelae of radiation sickness in order to allow the soldier to serve as long as possible. The soldier must be allowed to make the full contribution to the war effort. He will already have made the ultimate sacrifice. He deserves a chance to strike back, and to do so while experiencing as little discomfort as possible.
From this official prognosis, it would appear that soldiers are stripped officially of their humanity. We as individuals may not know how to respond to someone who has only weeks to live, but we know that they are people and not tools, that they are to be related to and comforted, not in order to “prolong their utility,” but because that is the thing humans do for one another.
This prognosis also assumes something about “the soldier” that Christians cannot embrace: the desire for vengeance. For the soldier who is a Christian, “a chance to strike back” can never be an end in itself. Acts of warfare must always be waged to prevent some specific wrong; they must be “justified.” Retaliation in itself is not justification.
But there’s more. Part of basic training is “stress inoculation,” which attempts to make training as much like actual combat as possible, which is to say that combat becomes as much like make-believe as possible. The military attempts to replicate the light, sound and intensity of combat. One Army Ranger who fought in Somalia (1993) recalled
I just starting picking them out as they were running across the intersection two blocks away, and it was weird because it was so much easier than you would think. It was so much like basic training, they were just targets out there, and I don’t know if it was the training that we had ingrained in us, but it seemed to me it was just like a moving target range and you could just hit the target and watch it all and it wasn’t real.
Of course, even with such inoculation, killing feels unnatural to healthy people. Only about two percent of the population are considered “natural killers.” According to U.S. military sources, this two percent actually account for up to 50 percent of the kills made by a unit.* For the other 98 percent of soldiers, there is a natural resistance to killing that must be overcome.
The remorse and revulsion that a soldier can experience after killing, especially at close range, can render soldiers unable to kill again. Dave Grossman describes the experience as a “collage of pain and horror:”
[M]y experience was one of revulsion and disgust… I dropped my weapon and cried… there was so much blood… I vomited… and I cried… I felt remorse and shame… I can remembering whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up.”
The military uses a variety of means to overcome this resistance to killing in its recruits. Instilling hatred of the enemy into soldiers is at the center of these means. Veteran officer J. Glenn Gray wrote that, “Professional officers consider part of the psychological training of their troops to be training in hatred, and this becomes more systematized and subtler as the war goes on.” Obviously, propaganda plays a part in this, as does ethnic and cultural stereotyping. Dehumanizing terms like “gook,” “kraut” and “sand nigger” are employed, as are euphemisms for killing such as “knocked out,” “lit up” and “engaged.”
If Christians must kill (which, of course, I do not grant), this killing cannot be accompanied by hatred, or be done without regard to the image of God found in all people, whether neighbor or enemy. Yet the military, in order to be efficient, relies on hatred and dehumanization of the enemy. At the very least, this presents make the idea of Christians serving as soldiers difficult, and I believe the burden is on those within the just-war tradition to explain how soldiering as a profession is within the realm of Christian discipleship.
*Statistic presented in David S. Pierson, “Natural Killers: Turning the Tide of Battle,” Military Review, May 1999