This June, CT drew attention to veterans’ experiences in the cover story “Formed by War.” To continue the discourse sparked by that story, alongside the Centurions Guild, CT is hosting an online series called Ponder Christian Soldiers. (Read the introduction to the series here, and the following installments here, here, here, here, and here.)
On March 20, 2003, I watched a handful of countries invade Iraq under cover of American air power. I was both horrified and mesmerized—the strange mix of emotions a 19-year-old experiences at the sight of war. Three days later, standing at attention at the Air Force Reserve recruiter's office, I took the oath of enlistment, beginning my journey as a citizen airman.
Nearly 10 years later, in 2012, I leaned against the living-room wall of a house in Gloucester City, New Jersey, surrounded by 30 or so tattooed hipsters from the Philadelphia area. They had gathered to discuss war and what they called the “American military industrial state.” We were Christians, part of a growing community within the New Anabaptist movement, and the house was the hub of the intentional community in which I lived.
I loved that community, and some there were among my best friends, but I struggled that day. As each person took turns denouncing the evils of militarism, I realized I was the only veteran in the room. I felt ashamed for participating in the "war machine," but also annoyed with friends who were oblivious to their own complicity. While they talked about how to resist "war taxes" and frustrate the service system, they didn't mention their contribution to an economy that drives countries to war—not only through fossil fuel consumption, but also through purchasing goods in a system dependent on foreign oil for trade and transportation. Mostly, I was frustrated by my friends' seeming lack of empathy for military service members and for their sense of moral superiority.
Love Your Enemies...Then Bomb Them?
I remember thinking then, as I do now, there are many admirable qualities exemplified in military training and service. Sacrifice for a cause greater than one's self, serving others first, and courage in the face of great personal danger are all virtues valued in the kingdom of God. They were virtues drilled into me during my time as a citizen airman.
During basic training, Sunday was my favorite day of the week. The chapel was the only building on base where training instructors weren't allowed. One week, 1,000 of us trainees packed into the chapel for the evangelical worship service. We watched a video set to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)" that showed Air Force warplanes discharging their payloads into Middle Eastern landscapes, delivering fire, smoke, and destruction. Seeing that video in a Christian worship service troubled me. How could I love my enemies, as Jesus calls me to do, and also bomb them?
Because I never deployed, and because I didn't have a flight line job in air combat operations, it was easy for me to abstract my own involvement in the war, to believe that I wasn't directly involved in death and destruction. But the Air Force KC-135 in-air refueling tankers I was tasked with protecting were what allowed long-range fighters and bombers to dispense their payloads to the intended—and sometimes unintended—target. So the simple fact is that whatever my job, I was, however indirectly, delivering death.