The day after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, PA. After watching a short movie about the war in general and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, we went through the museum. To say that I was overwhelmed with information would be exercising the gift of understatement to its limit as display after display had quotations from period sources and historical players, uniforms, firearms, books and photos of farms and soldiers, crude but effective medical instruments and movies from the History channel. One rather significant item on display was a booklet entitled “Slavery Ordained Of God,” by Rev. Fred A. Ross of Huntsville, AL, demonstrating how some southern Christians defended the institution that brought wealth to both the North and the South.
We spent half an hour or so in the National Cemetery that pre-dated the war by several years and was the location of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863. This was the cemetery referenced in Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill where Union forces fell back under duress on July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, ultimately forming the upper curve of the fishhook shaped line that ran south to Big Round Top. It was this line that was unable to be breached by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, leading to heavy losses and injuries on both sides, but the retreat of the Confederates on July 3.
So fierce was the fighting that more than 4,000 were killed in one skirmish in “The Wheatfield,” (seen distantly in the photo above) while more than 5,000 Confederate soldiers were killed in a single hour during a maneuver famously known as “Pickett’s Charge,” an advance nearly a mile wide with soldiers. The three day battle, considered by most to be the turning point of the war, saw killed and wounded on both sides total more than 51,000 men and a few women.
Since the Civil War the United States has been involved in numerous conflicts worldwide and not a few wars. The century alone has saw World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War and this century joins with the ongoing War on Terror. (For the purposes of this writing, I’ll not include the War on the Unborn, which has claimed hundreds of millions of lives worldwide since its inception.) While Augustine argued that some war can be just (righteous), Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson called it, “The sum of all evils.” Augustine may be theologically and philosophically right, but the problem is that wars are not fought only theoretically and philosophically, but in reality and because they are fought in reality many times we find in them the sum of all evils.
Those evils often take place with suicides among the troops, intentional killing of civilians, rape of the defenseless and death by friendly fire. They also take the form of government cover ups to boost enthusiasm for the conflict for political means and ends. Perhaps this is the worst evil of all.
Who can forget the much publicized, though personally shunned, entrance into the Army Rangers program of Arizona Cardinals’ safety, Pat Tillman, in May 2002? Portrayed as a real American, an example of sacrifice and patriotism, Tillman refused all interviews or preferential treatment, even when he had an “Army excuse” for early discharge before the tour that eventually took his life. His entry and his death were used, against his wishes, by the Bush administration to bolster American support for the war, posits Jon Krakauer in Where Men Win Glory. Tillman’s death was due to friendly fire following a Keystone Kops episode of bad command decisions. The cause of death was hidden for months from his family, the press and the world so it could be used for political expedience. Former White House press secretary under Bush, Scott McClellan hypothesizes in his book, What Happened?, that the “permanent campaign” of politics makes it impossible for any aspect of decision making to happen without an eye to the polls and political ramifications and this includes, or, perhaps especially includes, war.
Since even a theoretically possible “just war” is often led and fought by unjust men, it would behoove Christians to be careful not to support a war simply because a liked president is “Commander-In-Chief,” or to oppose it simply because an otherwise disliked president is stopping the buck. Some Christians tend to make support for the war a test of fellowship or something as if lack of enthusiasm for an earthly military action is akin to renouncing one’s heavenly citizenship. Most seem oblivious to the fact that patriotism is a commitment to the constitution, not the ever-so-often selected first-chair occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave or that our commitment to the kingdom of God supersedes both.
While it is certainly a truth that Scripture gives governments the right to wage war in certain circumstances, Scripture also records that followers of Christ are to be wagers of peace above war. I don’t think this leads inevitably to pacifism, but it cannot mean less than our striving to seek peace from the playground to the boardroom to the battlefield. I think it was George Washington who said, “Sometimes you have to have war before you can have peace,” but Lee reminded, “What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!”