Thursday, November 11, 2010

moments of silence

Today's a lot of things: Armistice Day. Veterans Day. Remembrance Day. St. Martin's Day.

It's interesting that St. Martin's Day happens to fall on Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. In response, he decided that his faith prohibited him from taking another life, and told his superiors so--but he offered to go into battle without a weapon. It's reported that he said, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." (I find this interesting especially to contrast with Constantine, who used Christianity as a weapon, whereas Martin laid his weapons down after converting. Another post for that, maybe.)

My friend and former housemate Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Iraq vet. He was in Iraq for 14 months and, after a lot of thought, found that he couldn't reconcile his faith to his profession as a soldier. So he, like Martin, told his superiors that he'd go back to Iraq, but they'd have to send him back unarmed. (Logan, if you happen to read this, correct me if I'm wrong on this account.) They discharged him instead. You can watch his testimony here, at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War.

To be honest? I'm a pacifist. Or almost a pacifist. I think that there are certain things worth dying for, but I don't think that there are things worth killing for. You come up against strawmen a lot as a pacifist--the whole "what if someone were holding your grandma hostage and you had a gun" scenario (there's a lot of wiggle room in that scenario; for example, what if I misaimed and shot my grandma? I have shaky hands).

Call me naive, but I cannot, cannot, cannot believe in something like "collateral damage," because that "collateral damage" has names and faces and families.

It's hard for me, then, to take part in the ra-ra-ra-ness that comes with Veterans Day, or Memorial Day. I do think it's appropriate to take a moment of silence, or many moments of silence, to mourn for those who've died in war, and for those who have come back wounded physically and mentally. But also, I think we should remember to ask ourselves why we've sent people over to fight and kill and die, because the "why" might change the way we look at war.


  1. Observing, or even knowing about, St. Martin's day -- another thing you seem to have in common with my family!

    St. Martin's Day, or Martinmas, is of course a popular holiday in Europe. Here in the U.S., not so much. But my husband attends a German Lutheran church where they're trying to revive the tradition of the children's lantern procession. Although, in true American fashion, they're having their procession on Sunday instead of tonight: nobody will come to an evening event when there's school and work in the morning, I guess.

    Anyway, here's a St. Martin's Day/Veteran's Day poem for you.

    I won't call you naive; "collateral damage" is a shamefully weaselly term for the results of war. War is always a failure, a failure of hope, of justice, of community. I'm not so much of a pacifist that I'd deny that individuals and nations have the right of self-defense; sometimes at least one side of a war can be described as just, or necessary, or simply unavoidable. The current adventures in Iraq or Afghanistan do not qualify as any of those. So yeah, 11/11/2010 is not a day for rah-rah-rah. Shame is more like it, both for the damage done by the war itself, and the inadequate support for the returned veterans that we profess to honor.

    Bu my father fought in Germany and Italy in 1945, and I honor his memory today, and all those who feel that the only moral choice in their particular war is to follow the knight with the sword into the dark.

  2. @sarah: I didn't even know about St. Martin's Day, so thank you for the info.

    Also, I have the greatest of respect for your friend. The courage it must have taken to go and say that he, a soldier, would willingly go into harm's way with no weapon is astonishing. I myself am not that brave and well I know it.

    @Amaryllis: I agree with all you have said about the way Remembrance Day (as it is known in Canada) is being misused to give legitimacy to Canada's ongoing military adventurism in Afghanistan.

    My grandfather fought in Italy, though he never said much about it. But it's his small part in a larger war that helped make Canada as it is today. For that I honor his memory as well.

  3. @Amaryllis: I actually didn't know about the children's lantern procession, so thanks for that info!

    I, too, get a little sticky on the topic of self-defense--especially, for example, if we're talking about an oppressed people. I think that my views have been significantly influenced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because those are the only ones I can really remember (I wasn't even 10 when the first Gulf War happened). Both of my grandfathers were in World War II, but neither of them talk about it very much.

    I agree definitely about war being a failure of all of what you said, and I'd also add that war is a failure of creativity. We're remarkably creative beings, we humans, and we can't find alternatives to violence? I just don't buy that.

    @Pius: I too have a lot of respect for Logan. Since he got out, he's done a lot of advocacy work on behalf of soldiers coming back from the wars.
    He also helped found an organization called Centurion's Guild, which, among other things, is trying to provide alternatives for kids who want to go to college and see the military as their only option for paying for it. Hmm. I should put that on my sidebar...

  4. I've been reading Steven Runciman's work on the crusades, and he makes an interesting comparison to how the relationship of Christianity and war developed in the West compared to how it developed in the East. In the West, war was simply a way of life. Before the fall of Rome, there was the constant threat of barbarian invasion. After, it was hard to get people to stop fighting wars with each other. And the Church, not having the backing of a single stable Imperium, had to find ways to legitimize some wars in order to outlaw others, basically. They invented the truces of God, the days of the week and times of year when it was inappropriate to fight.

    In Byzantium, war was viewed much more soberly. It was often necessary, but a soldier was not glorified for fighting, and had to repent of those he killed. It's a contrast that has bearing on the crusades because it casts an interesting light on how Emperor Alexius was completely taken off-guard by the arrival of the crusaders. He was expecting a regimented, secular army to aid as allies and mercenaries; the first of the crusaders to arrive were a band of unruly, untrained, but extremely zealous peasants who promptly wreaked havoc in the Empire and then got slaughtered in their first real battle. The idea of blending Christian fervor with battle was a largely foreign concept to Alexius.

    It should also remind us, along with the example of St. Martin, that our typical American understanding of the relationship between Christianity and warfare (that they're entirely compatible) is only one strand of thought, which we happen to have inherited from a pack of rowdy tribal princes with no central government. I'm not saying just war ideas are inappropriate: although I think even in just war, killing should not be glorified.

  5. Yes, I should have said also how much I admire your friend. I wouldn't have the courage to volunteer for a battlefield even with a weapon, let alone without one.

    It was often necessary, but a soldier was not glorified for fighting, and had to repent of those he killed.
    Wasn't that true in the Western Church also? At least up until the Crusades, when killing unbelievers was considered not sinful, or might even be a form of penance for other sins. And moral limits on war, including bans on killing civilians, have been pretty much ignored ever since.

    I think we should remember to ask ourselves why we've sent people over to fight and kill and die, because the "why" might change the way we look at war.

    Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
    There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
    Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
    The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"
    And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"
    -Thomas Hardy
    And There Was A Great Calm
    (On the Signing of the Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918)