Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Pictures of four U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters have outraged people around the world, and rightly so. Political and military leaders in the United States have denounced the actions of our soldiers. Afghan leaders see more evidence of disregard for their own citizens and now have another reason to deflect criticism of their own political corruption and dysfunction. Islamic radicals around the world have been handed fodder for their own propaganda. Rick Perry, desperate to start a fire under his campaign and separate himself from his opponents, announces that criminal charges are inappropriate in this case. To be sure, soldiers under fire face enormous pressures the rest of us can’t fully comprehend. But behavior that shames their country, undermines our military and political objectives, and endangers their comrades deserves criminal prosecution as well as outrage. As one Marine captain who recently returned from Afghanistan put it, “these Marines undid everything my unit spent seven months trying to accomplish.”
Sadly, there seems to be little energy for outrage at the war that has placed men and women in physical and moral peril. Had the episode ended with the death of the Taliban fighters, the soldiers would have been praised for their bravery and skill. Little thought would have been given to those whose bodies had been ripped apart by high powered ammunition, gaping holes torn in the flesh of young men who, regardless of their political views or ideological passion, are the beloved sons of mothers and fathers, the fathers of children, the husbands of wives. As much as we might want to depersonalize those we are fighting against in Afghanistan, each death rends asunder the fabric of familial love just as much as it does in the suburbs of Chicago when a National Guard soldier is killed. The human community is diminished every time artillery shells tear a Taliban fighter’s head from his shoulders, every time children are vaporized in a drone attack gone astray. Yet we seem to be able to pass this off rather easily as the regrettable collateral of necessary if lamentable warfare.
Our dead soldiers are returned home as heroes to their grieving families and given “full military honors.” The mangled bodies of the enemy they left behind in Afghanistan engender little passion in the American psyche. We’re bored with news stories about the war. Why is it that four soldiers pissing on the bodies of the enemy provoke outrage at this moral debacle when death itself, and sanctioned murder, does not? During the year my son was in Afghanistan I prayed daily that he wouldn’t be killed or injured. But I also prayed fervently, each day, that he wouldn’t be placed in a situation that required him to kill anyone and that he would not be caught up in the degrading behavior that war – any war – often seems to inspire. Thankfully, David returned home unhurt and no more morally debased by the war than those of us who sent him there.
Christians often forget that even the just war tradition begins with a fundamental moral presumption against war, a presumption that can only be lifted if certain clear and stringent criteria are met. Few modern wars come close to meeting those criteria, either for proportionality or protection of civilian life. Our technological capacity for destruction is simply too massive, our self-righteousness too inflated to check the level of violence. Conveniently the government, with media complicity, hides the magnitude of the violence. Self-deception enables us to imagine “surgical” strikes that aren’t accompanied by the screams of the dying and the wailing of the mourning. Even our military codes of conduct that make us squirm at the thought of urine spraying on corpses invites us to imagine the whole enterprise of war as some ennobling experience when in fact it is little but organized and sanctioned savagery.
The Christian voice today offers little outrage over the wars that have consumed lives and dollars and our moral capital over the last decade. Early outrage for some has grown impotent and weary, beaten down by the relentless assurance from our leaders that this is all somehow necessary, that the world will be better off eventually for this temporary descent into hell. Others appear preoccupied by the specter of global catastrophe brought on by “travesties” like gay marriages. Still others, blinded by their predilection to fuse cross with flag, sleep comfortably at night believing that God blesses our slaughter. Collectively, it seems, the church has failed its moral responsibility, as selective in its outrage as any.
We can certainly condemn the behavior of these four marines even as we understand why it would be unfair to ask a soldier to weigh the moral implications of war every time he or she is asked to pull a trigger. But it seems fair enough to demand of the civilian population and its leaders that we wrestle with a profoundly uneasy conscience. We ask our soldiers to pay the ultimate price and we are outraged when they pay it indelicately. Is there no price we are willing to pay? Even the occasional sleepless night? In the end the selectivity of our outrage may just be the ultimate outrage.
John H. Thomas