On Resistance

After two years off, I am working once again as a teaching assistant for Dr. Amy Laura Hall at Duke Divinity school – this time for her class on War and the Christian Tradition. The class is bringing together some of my longest held interests, and as usual when “precepting” (teaching assistants at Duke are called preceptors), the class is stimulating more insights than I have time to record.

Right now, the class is reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. I am adding it to my short mental list of books everyone should read. Grossman has been a soldier, historian, psychologist, and teacher – and he brings together a great deal of research with his own personal experience in this book. The theme of the book is that most people – up to 98% of soldiers – are not capable of remorseless killing even in battle. Like most other species, humans have a great deal of innate resistance to killing another of their own species. When face to face with a perceived enemy, we would rather run away, or stand our ground and try to scare them, or demonstrate how unthreatening we are, or simply disarm / disable them than we would kill them. So much of military history is the history of a handful of people trying to figure out how to get another group of people to kill a third group of people, when they aren’t all that interested in doing so.

Grossman notes a number of ways that this inclination can be overcome – by dehumanizing the “enemy,” by diffusing responsibility (sharing responsibility with a group, or being commanded to kill in the moment by a nearby respected leader), by increasing the distance (ideally so you don’t even see the person you are killing, or at least not their face)… but even these measures are not enough, and so modern military practice has been to practice – to make training as realistic as possible, so that a soldier will go into “auto-pilot” in the moment of killing. Some soldiers have been so well programmed that they go into a sort of dissociative state – where they relive the experience of their training exercises, and don’t realize that it was all real until after they have stopped shooting.

It was after World War II that the need for this kind of training was realized – and by the time of the Vietnam war, it was fully in force. The firing rate was extraordinarily high in Vietnam compared to World War II – a jump from about 20% to closer to 90%.

One of the things that made Vietnam different from prior U.S. wars was the sudden shift in public opinion from support to large scale protests. Furthermore, returning veterans appear to have been at the forefront of this uncommon and rapid disaffection with the war. Which makes me wonder – the Pacific war was horrible – why didn’t returning veterans put an end to that war? The Civil War was horrible – why not that war? War is, in general, horrible. How can any war continue without veterans returning from the front putting an end to it?

“Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” Click through to see this cartoon in it’s original setting on xkcd.com

It has been said that one of the biggest problems with Vietnam was how unclear it was why we should be fighting there. However, this was one of the great flare ups in the Cold War – domino theory (the idea that a single nation falling to communism would trigger a wave of nations falling, until finally the U.S. was itself at risk) had been convincingly sold to the American people. The Cuban missile crisis (1962) was still fresh in everyone’s minds when the first ground troops were sent to Vietnam (1965).

So I’m wondering about this anti-war movement – a movement that included the active participation of Vietnam veterans… were these veterans who in World War II would have fired over the heads of their enemies – or might not have fired their guns at all? Were these men whose resistance to killing had been overcome?

Because here is the problem with overcoming someone’s resistance to killing – you can make someone kill, but you can’t make them ok with it afterwards. Increasing kill rates means increasing the number of people haunted by having killed. It means overcoming the natural resistance of people whose own brains probably know best how well they will handle the trauma of seeing someone die knowing that they themselves are responsible for that person’s death. It means not caring what a young man wants to do, but instead reshaping him so that he does something that he would never do without being programmed. Which is the word brainwashers use to refer to brainwashing, not incidentally.

So I am wondering, when people complain that we won every battle in Vietnam but lost the war – when they say that it was the shift in public opinion that lost the war in Vietnam – who exactly should we hold responsible for that? Privileged students and dope-smoking hippies? Or the very military commanders who decided to try to “improve” war – to change it from an already miserable experience to an even worse experience for even more people? Perhaps these soldiers who were rendered incapable of resisting to killing in battle could cope only by reclaiming their agency – by resisting when they had returned to the States.

I can’t say for sure – I’m not even done reading the book, so maybe Grossman addresses some of these issues. But it seems to me that it has not been established that conditioning young men to kill provides any real gain in outcome (such as bringing a conflict to an end more quickly) – and neither has the subsequent loss (the emotional fall out from having killed against one’s natural inclination) been given sufficient attention. What does it mean to ask thousands of people in every generation to live with a horror of themselves and what they have done?

For me, the aims of the military could not be more clearly opposed to the demands of Christian love – no distance between myself and my enemy is too great for God to overcome, nor can I forget at any distance that every other human being is God’s own beloved child no less than my own self.

But for American Christians who still are immersed in the potent conflation of God and country that is (not exclusively, but especially) a remnant of the Cold War – can we agree on our love for the young men and women who serve as U.S. soldiers?  And can we agree that conditioning them to become more efficient killers over the resistance of their own minds may be damaging to them in the long term? And if so, can we agree that maybe we need to reconsider just how important killing is to us as a nation?

May God have mercy on us, and forgive us.

“We have met the enemy…”

It was tempting to head this one, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” – but I hope that I have more in common with Walt Kelly than Darth Vader.  Even today, as on the rampage as I have felt.

Good old Walt Kelly. I am getting a little lesson in Pogo today. Walt Kelly died the year I was born, so he was not on my cultural radar screen. Too bad. I was missing out.

He’s on my radar now, because I was trying to find attribution for that famous line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It seems to be the theme for the week. For the past couple weeks. The “We… us” I have been thinking about is Christians, and no one knows how to turn people away from Christ and the church quite like Christians do.

We have been reading Home and Jesus Land in Ethics, and that has a lot to do with the whole “Christians are their own worst enemy” living meme. The fictional Jack (in Home) and the real life Julia (in Jesus Land) are exemplars of people who received the bad news of their unlovableness (and of the unloving impulses of Christians) loud and clear. As Dr. Hall succinctly put it -we don’t have to worry about the atheists, folks – it’s ourselves we have to worry about.

And then there was the matter of my friend, Will, who was writing a sermon and having trouble finding a commentary that allowed for the possibility that Jesus might actually have walked on water. And Jodi, writing on the class discussion board about how we fail in Christian education, because we don’t let our children and teenagers ask questions. And given all of that, it seems to me that I could easily rephrase Pogo to “We have met the atheist, and he is us.”

I have a lot more to write on this than time allows, but it has been troubling me for some time that Christians of all stripes are so – SCARED. The fundamentalists among us too often don’t want to let anyone question anything, because if one verse does not hold up, if one thread of an idea is broken, their entire faith is likely to unravel.  God will cease to exist! The scripture has become an idol because God is not sufficiently real. And the liberals among us are quick to concede that, of course, this or that or any one of 50 things is impossible, because their reason is more real than God.  God has ceased to exist!

A God who is more powerful than reason, more powerful than scripture?  Do we REALLY KNOW God is real?  I do.   Most days I know it in my bones.  True enough, I have my atheist times, when I become convinced that I have been duped by my pattern-loving brain, and I am a fool, and what the heck are we all wasting our time on Sunday mornings for?  In the same way that as a child, I was afraid when the sun hid behind a cloud that it would be dark forever, that the sun would never be so intense again.  But, as the sun always returned when I was a child, the light of God is simply a fact in my life (praise God!), and the full force of God’s reality always returns, and God is so real that even though I have known the pain of doubting God’s existence, I do not fear losing God, or God being somehow diminished by God’s own creation.

I have to admit, I am starting to lose patience with the atheists in Christian clothing misleading others as to the character of Christ, more even than I have lost patience with the new atheists and their evangelical certainty of the non-existence of God, as if it were possible to have evidence of absence – irrationalists in rational clothing. Give me an honest agnostic any day. Give me the questions of a child and the sincere and open Christian friend admitting to their atheist days, weeks, and tendencies.

And as for those who are unaware that their lack of faith in God, and the ways in which they use their “faith” as a weapon against those who are truly seeking God – I want to assure you that GOD LOVES YOU!  God loves each and every one of us so much that you could not be in better hands.  It will be okay – you can shine that Jesus light in even your darkest, cobwebbiest, most dis-believing corner, and you will be okay.  In fact – if you let Jesus into those places you are too ashamed to risk revealing in front of your Sunday school class, you will be BETTER!  Praise Jesus, my impatience with you is not the last word – God’s love, greater than I or anyone else could ever love you – greater than any creature could ever love any other creature – promises to have the last word.

This week’s soundtrack

So I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture for Thursday, for Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s Intro to Christian Ethics class.  I’ll be drawing together themes from the books Home and Jesus Land. (Pray for me, folks.  Seriously.)

This is my internal soundtrack for the lecture so far – songs in no particular order – if anyone has other suggestions about songs that would prove to be helpful companions while thinking through these books, let me know.


Tori Amos “These Precious Things” and “Crucify”

Tracy Chapman “Change”

Billie Holliday “Strange Fruit”

The Impressions “People Get Ready”

Dar Williams “Mercy of the Fallen” and “Iowa”

Indigo Girls “Galileo”

M. Ward “To Save Me”

Counting Crows “Round Here”

Cake “Sheep Go to Heaven”

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide”