Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Being at Peace After Waging War

It is often said that a particular war is being waged to secure the peace. We've all heard this sentiment lately in regards to Afghanistan, Iraq and the "war" on terrorism. I've thought about this concept a lot over the past few days. And, to be completely honest, I think it's not all it's cracked up to be.

As anyone who's visited this blog before should know, I'm a pacifist. I've never been a soldier in the armed forces. I don't own a gun, not even an airgun or a water pistol.

I have shot a gun before though. Back in my teens, I briefly used a .22 that had been handed down from my paternal grandfather. I shot at tin cans a few times. However, like Atticus Finch remarked in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, the urge came to shoot at something that was not stationary.

So one day, I shot at a few crows. I hit the second one I aimed at. Shot it right out of the air! I watched it drop like a sack of rocks. I went over to examine my kill and discovered a lifeless creature. Yes, I had killed it for no apparent reason except for my fleeting enjoyment.

I returned the gun to my father. I've never held nor shot a gun since!

Shooting that crow left me with a very hollow feeling. I had unilaterally ended its existence. I had snuffed out its life. In the name of sport, I had committed murder!

Imagine this feeling multiplied by a thousand times. This, I believe, is the kind of feeling a soldier must harbor who returns from war. The soldier has been responsible for killing people, sometimes hundreds of them.

Now, I realize there are some differences here. The soldier has most likely been shooting at people who concurrently were shooting at the soldier. Still, whether speaking of sport or war, the person who has ended the life of another has committed murder. One is sanctioned as a sporting endeavor and the other is state-sanctioned, but both are pre-meditated acts of ending some being's life.

I know that as a youth I had a hard time living with myself after shooting the crow. I had trouble looking myself in the mirror. This one act is what led me to become a devout pacifist.

How must the soldier feel? I'm sure that, in many ways, the soldier is horribly confused. On the one hand, each must feel proud that they did their duty for God and country. Yet, on the other hand, they must live with the fact they've killed one or more people they don't even know! People who aren't THAT different from them.

While the people killed represent the ENEMY, they still put on their pants the same as you and I. They go to the bathroom, eat, sleep, make love, worship their religion and have families they cherish and who cherish them.

How does a person return to a normal life after participating in carnage and mayhem? How does a person resolve everyday conflicts without shooting anyone they might disagree with? How does a person live in peace after having lived in deadly war?

Obviously, SOME people are able to make this transition. Unfortunately, just as obvious, a significant number of returning vets are NOT able to navigate the transition well or at all! Their relationships fall apart. They lose their jobs. They lose their homes. And, far too many, lose their grip on sanity.

These are the vets that become homeless and/or addicted substance abusers and/or wife beaters and/or child abusers and/or non-state-sanctioned murderers. They seem unable to reconcile their lives as trained killers with their lives as loving sons/daughters, spouses, parents or co-workers.

In the end, for far too many people, there is no peace after waging war. The war never leaves them. It follows them wherever they go and it leads to never-ending torment, guilt, depression and sorrow.

Though they've returned to their homes in one piece, they remain a horrific casualty of war. They remain physically alive but spiritually dead (or dying).

In other words, for far too many soldiers and their families, waging war does NOT secure peace. No, it only secures a constant state of war within themselves. Sadly, it's a war that few ever win.


  1. I had a similar experience with killing a bird, back when I was ten or so. Growing up in rural California the normal progression was BB gun, to pellet gun, to 22, and on to higher calibers. I had just gotten a pellet gun.

    Walking around with a neighbor boy, shooting at anything that moved, I hit a bird sitting in a bush. It fell over dead, instantly. Like you, I never shot at another living thing again. I've fired guns, and own a few for self-defense, but never have pointed one at an animal.

    It's strange, really, how we reacted. Or maybe not so strange. Naturally I wasn't a vegetarian at the time (that came when I was 18). I hadn't had any exposure to any philosophy or religion that espoused non-violence. It just seemed horribly wrong to kill the bird, even though the whole small-town culture that surrounded me considered it to be just fine.

    Conscience springs naturally from within. Morality is enforced, often unnaturally, from outside. We both experienced the force of conscience, I suppose.

  2. I think that people also need to think long and hard about what it means to kill people in the service of a state. Instead of building countless shrines to those brave souls who have fought and died, perhaps we need some monuments to those who have walked away from the battlefield, feeling that the battles being waged ultimately lead to only more violence.


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