Listening to the Losers:
The True Nature of War
For Sunday June 28, 2009
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15; 2:23–24
Psalm 130 or Psalm 30 or Lamentations 3:23–33
2 Corinthians 8:7–15
Some parts of the Bible are so gruesome that you wonder why the writers included them in a sacred book. In the Old Testament reading this week, David laments the death of king Saul. Turn back one page in your Bible and you learn why: "The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his [decapitated] body to the wall of Beth Shan" (1 Samuel 31:8–10; cf. 1 Chronicles 10:10).
With war crimes, "turn about is fair play." In last week's reading, David humiliated the Philistines by beheading Goliath and then taunting the enemy. Now the tables were turned, and the oppressed became the new oppressor.
Reading about the mutilation of Saul's corpse reminded me of an interview with Chris Hedges (War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) in which he recalled what he had seen in twenty years as a war correspondent. His war narrative is separated from king Saul's by 3,000 years, but the two accounts are eerily similar. In war, says Hedges, "routine death becomes boring. It's why you would go into central Bosnia and see bodies crucified on the sides of barns, or why in El Salvador genitals were stuffed in people's faces — mutilation, you know, the body as sort of trophy, the body as a kind of performance art."1
Nailing Saul's beheaded corpse to the wall of a Philistine temple, and the bodies of young soldiers to Bosnian barns, are horrific reminders of the true nature of war, whether ancient or modern. They belie the sanitized sound bites of embedded reporters or the patriotic propaganda of government spokesmen. So do My Lai (1968), dragging dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu (1993), torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib (2003), hanging the charred bodies of four American soldiers from a bridge over the Euphrates River (2004), and murdering two dozen civilians in Haditha (2005).
Origen of Alexandria.
You might explain these desecrations as rare exceptions committed by deranged individuals, but I believe that Hedges is right when he characterizes them as "an inevitable consequence of war." They peel back the rhetorical veneer of war to reveal its true nature as what he calls "almost pure sin." War turns some boys into men, William Sloan Coffin once observed, but it turns others into animals.
To learn what real war is like, says Hedges, listen to the losers. The vanquished are better guides than the victors:
They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war--death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.2
In a spiral of violence begetting violence, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, and the losers savor their bitter memories of the past in hopes of revenge in the future. This is why Slobodan Milosevic's war rhetoric reached back to Serbia's humiliation by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, or why when King David learned of Saul's death he executed the messenger who brought the news. Instead of waging peace David lamented the demise of Israel's military might: "How the mighty have fallen / the weapons of war have perished!" (2 Samuel 1:27).
Some wars are necessary, even unavoidable. For all his passionate opposition to war, Hedges admits that some wars are a "moral imperative." The gist of Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell is precisely that — the moral failure of the United States to intervene to stop genocides in places like Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur. When we lived in Moscow (1991–1995), Russian war veterans in their seventies would smile and grab our hands on the sidewalk at a metro station, thanking America for what we did in World War II — "we were allies against Hitler!"
But war as a regrettable last resort, when every eligible citizen-soldier does his/her part, is different than the unilateral and pre-emptive use of military force, when waged by the proxy of a professional army and as a de facto tool of diplomacy.
A growing number of observers have lamented what Andrew Bacevich calls "the new American militarism." Our military idolatry, Bacevich believes, is now so comprehensive and beguiling that it "pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies." We have normalized war, romanticized military life that formally was deemed degrading and inhuman, measured our national greatness in terms of military superiority, and harbored naive, unlimited expectations about how waging war, long considered a tragic last resort that signaled failure, can further our national self-interests. Utilizing a "military metaphysic" to justify our misguided ambitions to recreate the world in our own image, with ideals that we imagine are universal, has taken about thirty years to emerge in its present form. It is a problem not merely of the government or of any single administration, says Bacevich, but of American society at large.
Many of the earliest Christians repudiated the violence of war, military service, and even the state itself. For two dozen examples, click here. Origen of Alexandria (185–254 AD), perhaps Christianity's greatest early scholar, is representative. In his book Against Celsus, Book VIII, Chap. 73, he writes:
And as we — by our prayers —
vanquish all the demons that stir up war,
and lead to the violation of oaths,
and disturb the peace,
we in this service
are much more helpful to the kings
than those who go into the field
to fight for them.
And we do take our part in public affairs,
when along with righteous prayers,
we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations,
which teach us to despise pleasures,
and not to be lead astray by them.
And none fight better for the king
[and his role of preserving justice]
than we do.
We do not indeed fight under him,
although he demands it;
but we fight on his behalf,
forming a special army of piety
by offering our prayers to God.
Marble head of 40-foot
Colossus of Constantine.
Of course, many Romans considered Origen's words seditious. Things changed radically when Constantine became emperor and ordered Christian emblems on shields and helmets. But his celebration of war and exploitation of the faith was not always the status quo, and it need not be so today.
For further reflection:
* Cf. Tertullian (c. 200 AD): “What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?”
* What are the implications of the fact that 70-90% of war deaths are civilian?
* Would we think differently about militarism if we had compulsory conscription?
* How do we honor the sacrifices made by our soldiers while dissenting from militaristic ideology?
* See Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq; Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War; and David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal; Human Nature and the Origins of War.
 Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, January 31, 2003 Episode no. 622. See http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week622/hedges.html
 New York Review of Books, December 16, 2004.
Image credits: (1) PBS.org; (2) Wikimedia.org; and (3) Wikimedia.org.