On the occasion of Syria: Timeline of a peacenik

I am a senior in high school. I am eating mozzarella sticks in the cafeteria. A fellow student sits down across from me. He wants to talk about an anti-war poem he found in our English textbook. He is a pacifist.

I stonewall him. I do not like this fellow student because he is scruffy. He smokes. He takes art classes. He is an atheist. He sleeps with his girlfriend. I identify all this with weakness. Therefore pacifism is weakness, and so I am not a pacifist, Q.E.D.

I am a college freshman and it is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center disappears, and the world metamorphoses, on a cloudless sapphire Tuesday morning. I walk across my silent, mostly deserted university campus to Latin class. I wince when a military jet roars over my head. It is the only thing interrupting the no-fly zone above the Chicago lakefront.

It is September 14, 2001, the feast of the Holy Cross. I attend Mass celebrated by a Jesuit. He says governments have a right to defend their people from threats like Al Qaeda. But individual Christians should aspire to be as defenseless as Jesus was, even to the point of crucifixion.

Complexity hacks its way into my thinking. Suddenly I can break patriotism and Christianity apart. I can analyze and compare them. I can pit God against Caesar and not assume they work together. Yet my new talent lies dormant for a while.

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Memorial Day: “Both saved and sinner”

On Memorial Day, Dad and I always drive the five minutes to the local war memorial. It’s on a leafy boulevard a couple of blocks away from where Dad grew up.

We stand under a catalpa tree, bowing for the prayer and listening to the speeches. Depending on the confidence and advanced age of the speakers, we may or may not hear most of what they say. We watch while the veterans, fewer and fewer each year as they process through their eighties and nineties, lay a wreath near the electric bulb serving as an eternal flame.

I know I must go to the ceremony. I know I must also feel awkward about it. I have learned to live with that.

Both sides of my family served in World War II and I grew up immersed in that legacy. Anthony, my maternal grandmother’s brother, fought in the Red Army of the Soviet Union and died. My maternal grandfather was in the Polish army when Hitler invaded. He went to Germany a prisoner, hoeing vegetables and picking fruit for years until the Americans freed him.

On Dad’s side, Uncle Eddie went into the U.S. Army, Aunt Alma into the WACs, and Grandpa and Uncle Harold into the Navy. All were listed on a huge wooden plaque in their Lutheran church, along with everyone else in the congregation who went to war. It’s still there and I like looking at it.

Grandpa rose to aviation machinist 3rd class and served in the Pacific Theater. Once, while refueling a plane, he was abruptly engulfed in flames. His chest bore a giant scar for the rest of his life.

After the war Grandpa promptly joined the local VFW and American Legion. Uncle Eddie was for a time the VFW commander. Grandpa lived long enough to receive a certificate from the Legion celebrating fifty years of membership. We display Grandpa’s flag, provided for his funeral in 1996, in the living room.

Military service seemed of one piece with all that made my family dignified and honorable. Back stateside, they served in the church when asked, volunteered for the fire department, got elected to the school board, and were steelworkers and carpenters. It all apparently ran together, connected by a straight line from their enlistments onward.

I was much older when I learned another side of war, one of gamesmanship and manipulation. I learned that claims of weapons of mass destruction, wielded like a cudgel to get us into Iraq in 2003, were false. I learned we had bases where we trained Latin American troops to work for dictators, to keep their own people down. For three Novembers I went to Fort Benning, which houses the since-renamed School of the Americas, to protest this injustice.

I learned that “just war” or not, everyone who returns leaves dead friends behind, as did my buddy who went to Iraq. And I learned that you return with scars seen and unseen, also like my buddy, who gets headaches.

Meanwhile I probed another side of the Christian tradition, one that would never have placed a giant wooden plaque in a church. The early followers of Jesus took his injunction to “put down your sword” literally. According to the Canons attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome, Christians could not become soldiers by choice and were never to kill, even under orders. If they did, they were barred from the sacraments.

In the fourth century, Christianity became the Roman religion. Church and military grew more congenial toward each other. But even then, the future bishop St. Martin of Tours resigned from the army, saying: “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

“In theological terms, war is sin,” writes Father William P. Mahedy, a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, in his book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets. “This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier’s war were right or wrong. The point is that war as a human enterprise is a matter of sin. It is a form of hatred for one’s fellow human beings. It produces alienation from others and nihilism, and it ultimately represents a turning away from God.”

I take every bit of this with stone-cold seriousness. But I have no illusion that there was some other way to stop Hitler. And I respect soldiers for being mission-oriented, self-sacrificing, and equipped with finely-tuned B.S. detectors.

My Catholicism accustoms me to ambiguity, to a church that is simul justus et peccator, both saved and sinner. I accept the ambiguity of war and peace. I will keep going to Memorial Day observances. I also expect to protest at the SOA again relatively soon.