Fighting to Die: Confusion About the Purpose of Martyrdom
Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience (InterVarsity) was not the book Logan Mehl-Laituri, an Iraq War veteran, wanted to write. As he recently wrote on his blog,
After a few months in seminary, it became clear to me that God was calling me to write about Christian faith, military service, and national identity. In the spring of 2011, I submitted a proposal to a number of publishers that would profile a number of soldier saints and patriot pacifists. I was excited about it, put some good energy into it, and then I got rejected. A LOT.
Friends told him that he should instead share his own story, so he "wrote up a brand new proposal, sent it out and had an 'embarrassment of riches in enthusiastic publishers who gave this new project the green light.'" The reaction is telling, though not surprising. Editors—including acquisitions editors—tend to be bad at math, which is why, given the opportunity, they would reject a book profiling a dozen stories about "patriot pacifists" and publish the singular tale of an individual patriot pacifist.
Had he been able to include stories other than his own, Mehl-Laituri might have been able to achieve his goal of presenting a compelling case for pacifism. He does make the attempt, but despite being a talented and sensitive writer, he lacks the willingness to adequately engage the long and robust theological history on the subject of whether Christians can engage in just warfare. At least a half dozen times in the book, Mehl-Laituri notes an engagement on the issue with a pastor, chaplain, or Christian soldier. Each time he dismisses their view as inadequate without providing any explanation for why they are wrong. His personal story is only slightly more compelling. Despite being a combat veteran, his experiences are largely unremarkable and his turn toward pacifism, while obviously sincere, is not entirely coherent.
While his memoir covers the six years from his enlistment to his discharge, the main story occurs within a span of seven months. During this period, Mehl-Laituri has a "crystallization of conscience" against war in any form, applies to be a noncombatant conscientious objector, leaves the Army after his request is granted, and travels to Israel with a group of Christian peace activists. Although he includes several appendices which explain his views in more depth, the questions about his own story are the ones we want answered. Why was he expecting to deploy with his unit to Iraq in the same month when his enlistment was set to expire? Did he really expect to be deployed to a combat zone after a psychiatrist deemed him "unfit for deployment"? If he really wanted to serve as a noncombatant, why did he choose to leave the Army after being granted his request?
The most troubling question, however, is whether Mehl-Laituri, who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of a traumatic experience on a previous combat deployment to Iraq, had a theologically inspired death wish. "I never thought explicitly about taking my own life," he writes, "but it is clear to me that I didn't have a sincere interest to live." His lack of interest in life may be why he talks incessantly in the book about seeking to be martyred as a pacifist.
For instance, as part of his application to be classified a conscientious objector, Mehl-Laituri was interviewed by a psychiatrist. "Dr. Leonard may have understood that I wanted to go back (to Iraq), but he also knew that doing so could be interpreted as a sign of mental illness." Such a diagnosis would be understandable considering that Mehl-Laituri appears to have told the doctor that one of the reasons he wanted to return to a combat zone was that "I was ready to die because I had discovered something to live for: love for God and neighbor; love for my country, but also for my enemies." Not surprisingly, the psychiatrist wrote in his evaluation, "The [adjustment] disorder is of sufficient severity that [service member] is not expected to remain fit for duty in the Army. … Patient is not deployable."
Yet despite this assessment, Mehl-Laituri seems genuinely surprised and frustrated when his superiors do not disregard the mental health evaluation and send him to a combat zone. When a superior officer tells him there was "no way the unit could deploy an unarmed soldier" since the Army would have a "public relations nightmare on their hands" if he were hurt, he appears chagrined. "I thought he was joking or something," writes Mehl-Laituri. He doesn't seem to comprehend why anyone would want to prevent him from going to Iraq and dying for the sake of his conscience.
Fascination with Martyrdom
Mehl-Laituri may not have had a "sincere interest to live," but his brothers-in-arms would have had a sincere interest in keeping him alive. Despite his compassion and introspection, he seems not to have given a moment's thought to how it would affect soldiers in his unit if he were to be killed—or if someone else were killed protecting him.
This fascination with being martyred colors every aspect of the book, including his experience of being baptized. Although he doesn't fully comprehend the purpose of the rite, Mehl-Laituri agrees, with hesitation and trepidation, to be baptized on the Fourth of July at a campus ministry group barbeque (hence the title of the book). He admits he didn't have "a good idea what purpose a baptism would serve" other than as a public witness to his new faith in Christ. Six years later he appears to still be confused about its purpose: Mehl-Laituri considers it a sign that he is entering into a community that would "hold me accountable to the good I would need to discern and choose every day for the rest of my life." As with most everything else in his book, this "rebirth" is viewed through the lens of martyrdom: "My movement toward baptism was not unlike my preparation for deployment; I was embracing death in each, but in very different ways."
As with baptism, Mehl-Laituri appears to be confused about the purpose of martyrdom. The apostle Paul was willing to sacrifice his life because he recognized that he was an unworthy sinner whose very existence had been redeemed by the blood of the Savior. "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain … ," said Paul. "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil. 1:21-23). But Mehl-Laituri's inordinate concern over "whether I was a good person" raises the question of whether he seeks martyrdom as proof of his goodness. No less than five times does he raise the question of whether he is a "good man," despite the fact the answer has already been provided by Jesus: "No one is good—except God alone" (Mark 10:18).
Nothing to Prove
Mehl-Laituri gives the impression that he thinks dying for his conscience would prove not only that he was a "good man" but also a faithful follower of Christ. "Recognizing God's sovereignty in the face of your own murderer is perhaps the greatest test of faith," he writes. Being willing to die for Christ is certainly noble. But in his enthusiasm for martyrdom, he appears to forget that to achieve his desire would require someone to commit the sin of murder.
Earlier in the book, before it becomes apparent that his quest to have the Army send him to be martyred will be both brief and quixotic, Mehl-Laituri makes a revealing admission: "I was just naive enough to think it could work." There is no doubt that this former solider is sincerely, heartbreakingly naive. But even more concerning is the fact that Mehl-Laituri seems unaware that he doesn't need to give his own life to assuage his guilt. There's no work he needs to do. The only "good man" in history, the perfect martyr, already paid that debt.
Joe Carter is an editor with the Gospel Coalition and a former Marine.