Veterans Day Meditation on War and Peace

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War and Peace

A Sermon in Conjunction with Veterans Day

Preached at Hanover St. Presbyterian Church

By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, III, Ph.D.

On November 12, 2000



2 Chronicles 15: 1-15

Ephesians 2: 11-22

Mt. 5: 38-48

In conjunction with our nation’s celebration of Veterans’ Day, Hanover Street Presbyterian Church invites you this morning to remember and honor our war veterans.  Who are our war veterans?  Not just the combatants, both the dead and the surviving, but indeed anyone whom the scourge of war has injured in body, mind, or spirit.

author with his granddaughter at “The Wall”

Visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. sometimes leave handwritten notes or snapshots stuck in the crevices between the black granite slabs engraved with the names of husbands, brothers, lovers, and friends whom the war slew.  Laura Palmer, a childhood friend of my wife, Alice, and former Vietnam war correspondent, tracked down some of the loved ones who left these memorabilia, interviewed them, and compiled their lamentations in a book called Shrapnel in the Heart.  Laura did not fight in the war, but psychologically and spiritually she is a war veteran.  Likewise, the loved ones whom she interviewed are war veterans.  They did not fight; but war nonetheless scarred them.  

Today we honor and commiserate with veterans of war in this broad sense.  And, because we understand veterans of war as all persons killed or scarred by war, instead of just those combatants whose service we now remember in the glow of patriotism, my sermon this morning will not, I hope not even by the slightest implication, glorify war.  I mean to honor veterans, but not to glorify the wars in which they fought.  

It is mostly those who have not fought in wars who think that the horror of war can be justified by some glorious cause.   Those who have been trapped in the daily meat grinder of having to kill or be killed will tell you there is no glory in it.  So, beware patriotic sentimentality.  In truth, war is not glorious.  It is humanity’s paroxysm of rage.

After service today we will hear from combatants in World War II, both on the Allied and Axis sides, and combatants in the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, we are too late to hear from combatants in the First World War.  Most have passed on.  Their oral history is lost.  It would have been instructive to hear from a survivor of the Battle of the Somme in France, for instance, where huge armies were arrayed in trenches not much more than a stone’s throw apart,  where 410,000 British, 190,000 French, and 500,000 Germans killed or maimed each other in a few days.  It would have been instructive, I think, because the wars we will have represented this afternoon, the Second World War and the Vietnam War, are remembered as good and bad wars, respectively.  World War II is regarded as America’s finest hour, a victory over the diabolical Fascist forces, whereas the Vietnam War is seen (most charitably), as a foreign relations mistake. Novelist James Jones, a U.S. Army veteran of World War II, wrote:

“If one is to believe the complete collections of [the servicemen’s newspapers] Yank  and Stars and Stripes, there were no bitter American soldiers in the whole of World War II.  Even the death shown (and one must show a little death, if one is doing a war) is generally “good” death, meaningful death, clean death.  All of this has given rise today to the idea, particularly among the veterans of the Vietnam War, that World War II should be thought of as a good war, a “pure” war.  (So strong still is our American firm and steadfast Puritan need for a “purity” in everything of value.)

It would be good, I say, to hear from World War I veterans, because, with hindsight many of them regarded the carnage in which they had participated as politically useless, neither morally pure nor glorious.  World War I British “dough boy” Herbert Read, in his poem, “To a Conscript of 1940,” imagines he is a soldier going off to the second world war when he meets a ghost of a soldier from the first:

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly gray;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

I shouted Halt!  and my voice had the old accustom’d ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed in the shrouded days

When I too was one of an army of young men marching into the unknown.

He turned towards me and I said:

“I am one of those who went before you five-and-twenty years ago:

One of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give–our brains and our blood.

We think we gave in vain.  The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop and the immemorial feud of rich and poor.

Our victory was our defeat.  Power was retained where power had been misused.

And youth was left to sweep away the ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

But one thing we learned:  there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnished braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

Theirs is the hollow victory.  They are deceived.

But you, my brother and my ghost, if you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use in all our sacrifice, then honor is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace, the self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered by salute

As we stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace.

Read’s poem speaks of a patriot’s false heart being repaired through disillusionment.  It is good for patriots to be disillusioned, for patriotism is often idolatrous.  Patriots often mingle love of God and love of country, making it nigh impossible for citizens to view their own nation’s actions critically.  So, to come to the realization that a war blessed by patriotism really hasn’t changed things very much; or worse, that it has brought about a worse state of affairs (which could rightfully be said of World War I), that certainly is enlightening.  It is indeed good for us to be so disillusioned.

But, I must say, I don’t agree with Read’s statement that “to fight without hope is to fight with grace.” That’s an overstatement.  To fight without the false hope which a chauvinistic patriotism instills, that alone cannot fit one to fight with grace.  I saw lots of G.I.’s in Vietnam fighting without hope of a positive outcome, without a shred of patriotism, but we certainly did not fight with grace.  We just slogged through, killed to stay alive, escaped the daily meat grinder “in one piece,” as they say, but came home like dead men walking.

To fight with grace–and here I am using the word, “fight,” in broad terms, to mean struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds–to fight with grace requires much hope.  Just slogging along, like the “dog face” G.I.s that James Jones wrote about as he described the “devolution of soldiers,”  weary automatons who got through hell by writing  themselves off as dead even before they entered battle, such fatalistic slogging cannot equip anyone to fight with grace.  Only hope can.  American fliers, shot down over North Vietnam in the late sixties, beaten and starved for six years as prisoners of war, could not have survived that experience without hope, hope of seeing their loved ones again, hope of living in peace.

This brings me to the second portion of my sermon, about war and peace. They are opposites, or so it would seem.  War occurs when conflict erupts into violence.  Peace, therefore, must be the absence of conflict, all quietness and rest.  However, understanding them in such abstract polarity is misleading.  

In this life at least, peace is not all quietness and rest.  Peace only appears as such in otherworldly dreams, like Isaiah’s peaceful kingdom, where the lion lies down with the lamb.  In this life peace always includes some degree of conflict, because conflict is inevitable, even in the most intimate of human relationships, such as marriage. Conflict will never be eradicated, because human beings have different and inevitably competing needs and desires. We can’t make conflict disappear, but we can learn to deal with our disagreements, even profound ones, without resorting to violence.  This requires a host of peace making skills and attitudes that we will never develop, however, if we seek to maintain peace solely by suppressing violent aggression with countervailing violence.

Despite the fact that I entered the ministry as a result of my wartime experience, distaste for war has not made me a pacifist.  I still believe that nations need to be prepared to fight wars, and that police forces need to be equipped to subdue aggressors.  But, if I could characterize these reactive forces as “peace-keeping” ones, let me add by contrast that my war experience has made me much more attentive to the need for peace making.  Peace keeping is subduing aggressors through violent means. Peace making is working very hard and consistently to diminish the conditions that contribute to anger and aggression in the first place.  

As a combatant I discovered that once you have entered into the insanity of war, there is no way out but through.  You cannot choose to love your enemy once you and he have set about to kill one another, because if you let down your guard, if you decide even for one day to opt out of the diabolical game, you risk be killed yourself.  No, if you want the freedom to love your enemy with some control over the risk involved, you must do it in the stage before peace keeping.  You must do it in the peace making stage.  You must do everything you can to promote understanding.  You must do everything you can to promote forgiveness and reconciliation.  You must become pro-active in kindness, doing good to those who are not kind to you.  Perhaps if more people had been working on peace making instead of peace keeping Hitler would never have risen to power.  Peace making would not have tolerated the anti-Semitism which became integral to Nazi ideology.  Peace making would not have allowed the punitive treaty of Versailles, which led to resentment in Germany, resentment upon which the Brown Shirts capitalized.  

Alas, though, I can not make Jesus’ radical love reasonable.  It is, in fact, not reasonable, according to the world’s way of reckoning.  He did not say love your enemies only in the first stage, the peace making stage, and if that fails, then you can resort to peace keeping:  “Praise God, and pass the ammunition!”  No, he said, “Love your enemies.” Period!  

A spiritual admirer said to William Penn that he was having trouble accepting Penn’s radical devotion to non-violence.  The aspiring one  said he was trying to follow Penn’s way, but he still had to wear a sword.  “Very well then,” said Penn, “wear it as long as you can.” This was a gentle way of saying that the teaching of Jesus Christ, and the example of Jesus’ choosing the cross instead of waging war against his enemies moves you and me to take off our own swords, and leave them off.  I’m still wearing mine, though I want to be like Jesus.  I wonder when I won’t be able to wear my sword any longer?

— TCDavis

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