Folks, this might come to you as a shock, but I'm seriously considering some sort of pacificism – albeit not one which will include an absolute refusal to bear arms or defend the country. I am a military man, after all, and always will be, even after I retire.
How can this be?
Someone once observed that true military leaders are the most reluctant to use force to resolve conflicts because they intimately know the cost of war. I refute the popular caricature of the military man as the greedy warmonger always in a quest to satisfy some bloodlust, for nothing else because warmongers seldom wear the uniform to serve their countries, but as an attempt to fill their bottomless egos. This is why there is a difference between someone like Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph Stalin, George Marshall and Adolph Hitler, or Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, and Saddam Hussein.
I think I may start describing myself as a "military pacifist" without fear of the obvious tautology. Loren Cobb, a Quaker pacifist who has participated with the U.S. military in various peacekeeping and nation-building endeavors, described the phenomenon well on an essay, A Quaker in the Military: Reflections of a Pacifist Among the Warriors:
During this time, I also became aware of a different form of pacifism — one that I never knew existed. This is "military pacifism," a phenomenon that sometimes occurs among officers who have experienced combat and know the price of war. It turns out, to my surprise, that a significant minority of American military officers are absolutely passionate about peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, even while serving an institution designed for war. Their politics and personal ethics differ from mine, and they are clearly prepared to obey all legal orders, but it would be the height of foolishness to discount them. The military "pacifists" that I have met are informed and intelligent people, whose unusual views are seldom expressed in print. They form a fascinating but hidden military subculture, and led me even more to feel that strict black-and-white thinking about war vs. peace can blind us to the subtleties of understanding and communication that are necessary to finally achieve an end to war.This is beginning to describe me: that I want to pursue peaceful means whenever possible and for as long as possible; but remain ready and trained for war and when called, to prosecute the war in the most expeditious manner possible and with the highest sensitivity to causing unnecessary loss of life and suffering on combatants and noncombatants alike.
War is a fact of life and most tyrants have not fallen due to non-violent resistance (pace Gandhi, Cori Aquino and Violeta Chamorro), but by military force of arms. To borrow a metaphor I read in the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col Dave Grossman: Most people are sheep, but there are wolves among them who lack a conscience and prey on them. To prevent this, you need sheepdogs. We in the military and in the police and emergency services, we are the sheepdogs. Some sheep will make a conscious choice not to fight for themselves but that is fine, the sheepdogs will do the fighting so that the sheep don't have to face the horror they dread and denounce. In this world of wolves and sheep, we sheepdogs are the indispensable breed.
If these thoughts are my primary guiding thoughts, why even try to define myself as a "military pacifist" or a pacifist at all? What about this desire to learn more about how to pursue non-violent resolutions to conflict at all levels? Because it is hard not to if I am to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ seriously.
I can't attend Holy Mass and be hypocritical to the call to give each other "a sign of peace" and not really mean it when I give it. I can't pray the Liturgy of the Hours and ignore the constant petitions for peace and justice contained therein, heartfelt even in those "militaristic psalms" where the psalmist seems to harbor murderous intentions against his enemy—the truly discerning reader can detect in them the reluctance and shame the psalmist feels at entertaining such thoughts and his pining for a peace that would make such desires unnecessary.
Moreover, I can't remain impervious to the appeals of my Franciscan and Benedictine preceptors — "Peace and Good" was St. Francis' favorite salutation while "Pax" ("Peace") is a favorite Benedictine motto without subsequent explanation or deconstruction — and go on through life without heading the demands of peace. I can't read Thomas Merton and ignore what he wrote about peace in favor of what he wrote about contemplation, as if one had nothing to do with the other.
A Christian needs to give serious consideration to the imperative of peacemaking. Prophet Isaiah hails the Messiah to come as the "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6); the angel Gabriel salutes Our Lady with the Hebrew expression Shalom which means "Peace to you!" (Luke 1:28, which we once explored here). Of course, upon His birth the angels sang Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:14) and then on the mountain He proclaimed that peacemakers were sons of God; the only verses in Scripture where Jesus elevated someone else, if not to his exclusive nature as the unique Son of God, definitely to His dignity as such (Matthew 5:9). The last invocation in the Litany of our Lady is to the "Queen of Peace."
Warmongers, hatemongers, murderers, killers, terrorists, destroyers of any kind need not apply. The challenge of peace posed by Jesus in the Gospel is a serious one. Christians cannot set it aside when it is not convenient, even for reasons of state.
Choosing "peace" is not a passive act. Christian peace is not merely refraining from killing, or insulting, demeaning others, including one's enemies. Peace is not the mere absence of conflict. Instead, peace is a positive, affirmative action in which we not only choose to refrain from doing harm but also to positively, affirmatively love one's enemy. This crucial difference sets the Gospel apart from other systems of religious ethics where such love is not only not required, but also frowned upon.
The key to Christian peace is Christian love.
Yet, there is so much evil in the world that those beguiled by it are often unable to understand the demands of Christian love and they are more than willing to kill you if that's what it takes to show you the "error" of your ways. So, we Christians in the military exist as the expendable buffer between those who can't or won't fight on one side, and those who only want to see us expire in the other. We even fight on behalf of those who reject the demands of Christian love and even Christ himself because, we reckon, they too have a right to disagree with us in that crucial respect.
Love is only possible in freedom.
Like some sort of physical singularity or cosmic string, the Christians in military service find themselves right on the boundary between opposing realities: morality and immorality, shadow and light, death and life. We don't only face death, sometimes brutally, but also the cognitive dissonance and even the contradiction of having to kill in order to prevent a greater evil and secure a more lasting peace.
The price of peace is blood, always. Just look at a Crucifix if you are not convinced of this simple fact. The Lord lived and died in the same boundary between realities that the soldier experiences in the battlefield. No wonder why the Psalms are so attractive to military men and women. They reveal those feelings exactly; no wonder why Christ himself prayed one while dying on the Cross. Those who have been in that boundary understand each other perfectly.
A particular crisis of conscience arises when one begins to know and understand when the leaders of one's country adopt courses of action and enter into wars which are questionable, sometimes downright wrong in terms of "just war" theory. In retrospect, the War in Iraq is such a one, for its original justifications were all proven wrong.
I have learned a very bitter lesson on misguided patriotism and my easy fall into a kind of lemming mentality, naively believing that it was all for the common good. The bitter experience has bred a new skepticism in me towards our elected leaders, and even on my own seeming inability to make informed values in accordance to the values I say I believe in.
(Parenthetical remark: Nevertheless, "we broke it, we own it", as Colin Powell has said. It is our moral obligation to set the situation right in Iraq. I don't advocate any kind of unconditional withdrawal from that country. Leaving countries in shambles never earned us any friends and a credible policy argument can be made that it is our traditional post-conflict "you are on your own, buddy" kind of indifference on our part what has contributed more to create us more enemies than anything else we have done. It is our duty to help rebuild what we shattered with the best of intentions. But I digress.)
As a military pacifist, keen on reorienting my life according to the Gospel, I hereby resolve to show great skepticism at any attempt by any administration to bring us into discretionary wars against other countries and regimes. I hereby reject all but the most narrowly delimited definition of military "preemption" – only when a preemptive attack against a nation-state is strictly and necessarily defensive to prevent imminent loss of life here or to an ally and friend, only then will I support it.
I pledge to learn to wage peace as energetically as I have learned to wage war.
And I pledge to start the quest for peace at myself, to quell the anger caused by the very personal wounds of the past, to ask the Lord for the healing of these wounds, to learn to return good for evil and a kind word for every unkind one; to forgive unconditionally and to love others as He loves them, and to subsume my anger with His joy.
I know that when that happens I would have found the perfect balance between the demands of war and the demands of that Gospel which will judge every human heart according to the Law of Love.
I realize that I may not achieve these goals until my death, but sooner or later I will attain the perfection that Jesus intends for me. That's his promise to me and to all of us.
And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)