Columnists > Voices

Onward Christian soldiers

But is it wrong for a fighting man to enjoy his work?

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight," Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps said in a panel discussion in San Diego. "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you, I like brawling."

That admission, from a "fighting general" who led combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-including the Battle of Fallujah-caused an uproar. How terrible! How insensitive! The mentality that gave us Abu Ghraib! He must be disciplined! He should be thrown out of the military!

But if we are going to fight a war, we need to understand what war entails. The public supports our troops, but mainly by feeling sorry for them and their familes. We also should appreciate our troops' facility in fulfilling their purpose, namely, killing the enemy.

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There is a pleasure in battle. Yes, there is fear and desperation, but there is also excitement, exhilaration, and a fierce joy that go along with combat. At least that is the testimony of veterans and accounts of war that go back as far as the Iliad. "It is well that war is so terrible," said Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, "lest we should grow too fond of it."

The "fun" of combat is what non-warrior types pursue vicariously through entertainment. The competition of sports, violent TV shows, first-person-shooter video games, and a big percentage of Hollywood movies tap into the primal love of war.

Ironically, Lt. Gen. Mattis himself is the subject of an upcoming movie, No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah. Playing Lt. Gen. Mattis is Harrison Ford. Mr. Ford is an action star who in the movies entertains millions by shooting people and blowing them up. In real life, though, Mr. Ford joined other actors in a public protest of the war in Iraq. Perhaps the movie's producers will change the script to have Mr. Ford play a fictional character instead, now that Lt. Gen. Mattis has become so controversial. The makers of violent movies may find him too violent.

Lt. Gen. Mattis's love of fighting, though, is very different from the recreational violence of our entertainment industry. His violence has a moral context. "You go into Afghanistan," he said, "you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Mike Hagee, said that he had "counseled" Lt. Gen. Mattis that "he should have chosen his words more carefully." While Lt. Gen. Mattis may not be a poster boy for compassion toward Afghans, Gen. Hagee nonetheless refused to discipline him, saying that his commitment "helps to provide us the fortitude to take the lives of those who oppress others or threaten this nation's security."

But what about from a Christian point of view? Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?

Luther wrote a booklet titled Whether a Soldier Too Can Be Saved, taking up the issue of whether a Christian, who is supposed to love his enemies, should join the military, where he has the duty of killing them. According to Romans 13, Luther argued, God has appointed earthly rulers to restrain sin and has given them the authority to "bear the sword." The soldier, acting under a lawful chain of command under the authority of the state, therefore has a legitimate calling from God, who Himself acts through human vocations. Luther says the soldier should look at it this way: "It is not I that smite, stab, and slay, but God and my prince, for my hand and my body are now their servants." The Christian soldier, living out his faith in his vocation, loves and serves his neighbors by defending and protecting them. Yes, soldiers can abuse their license to kill. Luther goes so far as to say that soldiers should refuse to fight in wars that are clearly evil. But those who have the Christian vocation of being a soldier may fight "in good conscience." Before God soldiers should be humble and repentant. But before the enemy, they should "smite them with a confident and untroubled spirit." Soldiers, Luther says, should go "forward with joy!" As in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one's work.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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