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.

My Dad – “After the Yellow Ribbon”

My Dad was in the Air National Guard during the Korean War.  He had hoped that he would learn how to fly an airplane – he had grown up as one of the few poor kids in a very wealthy community – the sort of place where even in the late 40s a kid might have their own plane to mess around with.  Dad knew that the only way he would ever learn would be if the military taught him.  But he started to become nearsighted around the time he joined up, so he became a mechanic instead.  Because Korea was starting to ramp up around that time, he was on active duty for about three years.  Several times, his unit was scheduled to head out for the Pacific – but each time, the orders changed at the last minute, and he stayed Stateside.  The planes he worked on went, but he didn’t.  He sounded relieved when he talked about it – not that he didn’t have some harrowing experiences: seeing one airman stab another with an ice pick over a card game, being in a plane that went down in Louisiana and having to hoof it back to base several miles through a swamp at night… but he was openly grateful that his training in hand-to-hand combat had never been put to use.

I remember asking him when I was about nine or ten, “Would you have killed anyone, Dad, if you had gone over there?”  He looked sad, and shook his head, “I don’t know, honey.  I don’t know.”  In later years, I learned that he felt guilt over his involvement as a mechanic – he may not have fired any shots, but he did patch up targeting devices and bomb doors – he was part of the machinery of war, and as such could not pretend to himself that he had not participated in killing.

This is a time of year when I think of my father, and of other veterans.  As a child, I remembered my father’s birthday not in its own right, but as the day after Veteran’s Day.  I remember marching in the Veteran’s day parade through the small town we lived in when I was ten, as part of my Girl Scout troop. I had thought Dad would be excited or proud, but he grumbled that he remembered when it was Armistice Day.  That he was a veteran, and he didn’t want a day.

To round out this picture, I want to be clear that my Dad might have been registered as an independent, but had voted Republican at least since 1980.  He was an annual dues paying member of the NRA (until the “not my president” remark, which struck my military-trained father as treasonous.)  He told me that I was over-reacting when I protested that he and mom should not be popping popcorn and sitting in front of the television “watching the war” in 1991, as if it were just a TV movie.  He respected my own pacifist position, though having lived through McCarthyism, it made him nervous.  He saw war as a necessary evil, and thought it was naive of me to even consider the possibility that violence might not be necessary after all.  I considered pacifism to be a natural outgrowth of all he had taught me.  He hoped it was just a phase, and was always determined that I be careful that my own idealism not get in the way of me being sensitive to those who disagreed, and especially to those who went to war.  After all, he had lived through Vietnam, too.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parent’s church for my father’s birthday.  The pastor talked some about “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw would have it), and asked for all of the veterans of WWII to stand.  In front of me there was a couple, and the wife prodded her sitting husband, “Stand up!  You were there!”  He shook his head.  He didn’t want to be recognized for that, he told her.  But she kept pushing with her words, “You deserve it!”  Finally, maybe just to quiet her, he stood.  There were about 5 other sheepish looking older men standing, too.  Everybody clapped for them, but I didn’t see any of the vets smile at the applause.  They looked sad.  Then they sat down.  I remember thinking that that was quite a thing to put them through.  Sure, we don’t want to jeer at returning soldiers, the way some did after Vietnam.  But it’s not particularly helpful to clap for them either – simply cheering is one way of denying the reality of the losses that veterans experienced “over there.”

WWII was over before my Dad was old enough to fight, but several of my uncles fought – one in Europe, the rest in the Pacific.  One of them had been sent out to shoot a sniper hiding in a tree just outside of the camp. My uncle had been the third sent out after the sniper – the first two soldiers did not make it back.  When my uncle came back home after the war, he woke up in a panic one night, ran down the stairs with a rifle, and shot all the windows out of his brand new car.  I remember Dad telling me this story, and me being surprised never to have heard any of my uncles talk about the war.  “Why would they want to talk about it?” he asked.  He had a sense that, as a child, I was just looking for interesting stories.  And to turn war into a series of exciting and interesting stories is to strip it of all meaning.

This weekend, Milites Christe, a student group at Duke Divinity school, is hosting a conference called “After the Yellow Ribbon.” Their intent is to bring the Church, the academic community, and the military into conversation with one another, in order to better love veterans – in order to see them in all of their complex humanity, to listen to them and to stand with them in their most broken places – to cry out with them, “How long, O Lord?…”

Last year, this weekend took on another association for me, when my father’s body could no longer hold multiple myeloma at bay.  He died three days after his birthday – four days after Veteran’s Day.  He was a complex and often infuriating man, stubborn and full of contradictions.  And we loved one another fiercely.  I am so grateful that he finally felt assured in his last months that there was nothing he had done (nor could have done) that was beyond God’s love and forgiveness for him.  I pray that the conference this weekend might empower others to experience God’s grace for themselves and for all people – and to convey this grace with sensitivity and with power to all they encounter in the future – especially to those who have been wounded in the course of their participation in the military.