Veterans’ Day—Be Very Careful

I woke up yesterday to a Daily Olympian headline that read “Attacker ignored cries of ‘We are children,’ Afghan witnesses say. The article described the trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a nighttime rampage on March 11th.

After skimming that news article, I started pancaking while listening to a story on National Public Radio about the Obama administration’s 300-person Al-Qaida Yemeni “kill list”. A few years of pilotless drone bombings later, there are around 1,000 members of Al-Qaida in Yemen.

To many military readers and listeners those stories were more evidence of the media’s anti-military bias. The implication being we’d all be better off if the media just reported on all the good the military does.

Then I went to adult Sunday school where Melinda, our young intern, was leading a discussion on our church formally becoming a “military friendly” congregation a designation that requires meeting a few criteria. I like Melinda. Married to a three tour Iraqi war veteran, she’s personable, articulate, and  a huge NASCAR fan.

She shared a story about a veteran who returned to a church that strongly condemned him for his wartime activities. Understandably, people were dismayed. Melinda added that now he is among the “most anti-Christian people you’ll ever meet.”

It’s more common she said for churches to fail veterans through a debilitating silence, which they interpret as negative judgement. Logically then, the only option is to proactively and positively embrace military veterans and their families.

I did the unthinkable. Asked a question. Unless my attorney has a better one, my defense is maybe the maple syrup went to my head. You would think I would have learned by now that you can’t question the military, especially on Veteran’s Day. The bumper sticker “Dissent is patriotic” is what liberals wish was true. You cannot question the size of the military, military strategies like the drone program, or even the effects of war on its victims without raising the ire of the pro-military super majority.

The default thought process is you can’t question the military because we’re all indebted to them for our freedom. Unquestionably, that’s been true in the past. Between 1941 and 1945 we were indebted to all Allied forces for our freedom. Apparently, once true always true. The specific thinking being that current military campaigns against Yemeni Al-Qaida or Iraqi insurgents keeps the U.S. safe from foreign invasion and/or terrorist attacks, preserves our constitutional government, and makes it possible for dovish bloggers to question the military. To question is to be ungrateful for their sacrifices including extended separations from their families, risk of serious injury or death, and endless challenges upon return. The ancillary question is “What have you done for your country?”

I told everyone that I understood the aforementioned church silence of which Melinda was critical because I interpreted it as confusion which I share. A few people pushed back because it’s not even okay to be confused. You have to be all in, all the time.

Our military, I added, is fueled by nationalism which doesn’t factor into the New Testament. More specifically I asked, “How do we embrace the Beatitudes, which I think are the essence of the gospel, and the U.S. military whose values are often antithetical to the Beatitudes?”

Some of the Beatitudes from Matthew Chapter 5:

4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.

Had there been one large cartoon cloud above everyone’s heads, it would’ve read, “No he didn’t!”

Melinda replied confidently. Too confidently. “Lots of military are anti-war. My husband is anti-war.” The message being that one has to separate individual members from the actions of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines more generally. On the surface that’s sensible, but as could have been predicted, a few people questioned my question, and Melinda elaborated. The gist of her message was it’s okay for people in the church to be anti-war as long as congregations are pro-military.

The inherent tension in that seemed lost on her. It seems to me, truly anti-war servicemen and women would not re-enlist or they’d band together to change the military’s culture and mission.

We need anti-war military personnel to take the lead in creating a new military. A multilingual one that is steeped in the social sciences. One that’s smaller, less misogynist, more knowledgeable about world religions, more transparent, and more adept at winning the hearts and minds of people intensely wary of American power.

There’s little hope for reinventing our military without impolite questions and uncomfortable moments in adult Sunday schools around the country. My hope is some of you will join me in breaking the silence and daring to be impolite.