Following is a condensed version of an address I gave to my home church three years ago on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, in which I explain the roots of my antiwar philosophy:
Text: Psalm 3, James 4:1-6
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we honor those who have given their lives for their country – or more specifically, those who have given “their last full measure of devotion” on the field of battle.
Those of us who have never been in combat have no idea just how horrible it is; but from all accounts, combat is a stinking, sickening, gory business. It is revealing that, whenever this nation has considered going into a war, it is the military who have shown the most reluctance to enter into it.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who hailed from nearby Lancaster, had a few things to say about the reality of war:
In a letter to the mayor of Atlanta as his forces were about to enter that city, he wrote:
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices than any of you to secure peace.”
Fifteen years later, he told a graduating class of cadets at the Michigan Military Academy:
“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!“
And this was before machine guns, poison gas, the Holocaust, and nuclear weapons!
As Americans, we would like to believe that we are a peaceful people – that we reluctantly enter into a war only when it appears that our nation and our way of life are being seriously threatened – and sometimes that has been true. Surely, we were threatened when the British invaded the young United States in the War of 1812 and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. And we can certainly argue that waging war with Germany was justified when they sided with the Japanese and declared war on us. We entered Afghanistan to remove a sanctuary from al Qaeda following 9-11.
Our justification was less clear in Korea and Vietnam. We were afraid that Communism would sweep the world – but in hindsight, it seems questionable that either war addressed a direct threat to our national life.
Then there were wars that were just plain unnecessary. Mexico was no threat to us in 1845, but we wanted a third of their territory, and it was an easy win for us. We knew at the time the Civil War could have been prevented – Britain and France had peacefully freed their slaves a generation earlier; and we could have negotiated a similar settlement here – if the issue was really slavery. If the issue was tariffs working hardship on the South, we certainly could have addressed that in Congress – but instead, we killed more than 600,000 troops and thousands of Southern civilians to “preserve the Union.”
The Spanish-American War was hyped in the press so we could pick up some colonies; and I have never been able to figure out just how it was in our interest to enter World War I. I’ll spare you the discussion on Iraq. We have all heard enough already. Then we have our government’s near-extermination of the American Indian prior to 1890, leaving their descendants with injustice that continues to this day.
I realize that this recitation of history is unpleasant to hear. It goes against much of what we were taught in school – and if I hurt your feelings, I imagine that I sound treasonous or hateful to you. Please bear with me. I really do love my country, and I hope this will soon become evident to you.
We need to remember that, while we Americans have some very special gifts, we are also vulnerable to the same temptations as anyone else. Nations want to bypass law and justice and fairness, just as individuals do when they become greedy for power or wealth.
In a 1952 campaign speech, Dwight Eisenhower said, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
This is pretty depressing stuff. We might be tempted to conclude that evil has permeated our government, and our day of greatness will soon be over.
Maybe evil has permeated our government; and we must bear responsibility for having elected it; but that government is not us. Remembering that is the key to the question, “But what did they fight and die for?”
We face a paradox. Politicians drive us into wars to satisfy the lusts of their supporters; but our troops are in the trenches, in the air, and on the high seas to preserve our freedoms and our customs. Today, all of our troops are volunteers. They are not stupid, nor are they naïve. They go to war because they believe in everything that is good and noble about America. Their struggle for life in the killing fields brings out a nobility of character that cannot be found anywhere else. They understand honesty, trust, risk-taking, and teamwork in ways that those of us who have never been there can’t even imagine. They are defending our country. The suffering and dying that we commemorate on Memorial Day has not been, and never will be, in vain.
Because they really are defending our freedom, not only from the powers that want to destroy us, but from our own softness, human cowardice, and selfishness. When the troops come home, they cherish and practice citizenship the way our Founding Fathers envisioned it, because they understand on a very personal level what it costs to maintain it. They inspire us to live up to their vision; no, our common vision, of America.
War is indeed a great evil, but God’s grace causes great good to emerge from such evil. We still need to do everything we can to secure peace, but we also need to remember that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
So, remember those who have fallen and pray for the families who mourn for them. Thank God for their blood that refreshes our tree of liberty, and pray that we may become worthy of their sacrifice; so that when our children and grandchildren ask, “But what did they fight and die for?” we can confidently say, “So we can remain a free people, by the grace of God!”