So many dead men. You just wouldn’t believe it.
- Donald Sutherland as Christ
Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
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For Veterans Day this year, I watched an anti-war movie. I figured this was a fitting tribute to those who have fought and died in wars. For what they and all of us want most is that we will never again have to send our children or grandchildren into harm’s way on some godforsaken battlefield.
I first saw this movie in 1972. It is Dalton Trumbo’s film version of his controversial novel, Johnny Got His Gun. It tells the story of a young American, Joe Bonham, wounded on the final day of World War I. A bomb fell near him after he had buried the body of a dead comrade. So severe were his wounds that he lost both arms, both legs, his face and all ability to of hear, see, and talk. However, Joe’s brain still functioned, keeping him alive, enabling him to move his head a bit, and, unbeknownst to the doctors, carry on a conscious inner monologue. It became his fate to simply lie there in darkness, thinking and dreaming.
This is the absurdity of war.
The anti-war message of Trumbo’s film does not come in didactic speeches, but in the story of this one unfortunate man. In vivid color, we enter Joe Bonham’s dreams and relive the past with him, delighting in the richness and complexity of his youth and relationships. In contrast, his current condition is rendered in stark black and white. To guard him from curious onlookers, he is cared for in a locked, bare utility room with windows closed. Then a caring nurse breaks through and human communication becomes possible once more for the helpless soldier, only to be stifled by those in authority. The room fades to black as Joe cries, “SOS! Help me!”
One recurring theme in Johnny Got His Gun is that of a carnival sideshow. The young man comes to feel that he should be placed in one. People should come and look at him. They should be amazed that “a piece of meat” can live.
Sometimes I wonder if our war veterans feel a little bit like that too. In Slaid Cleaves’ song, Still Fighting The War, he observes:
Men go to war for a hundred reasons,
But they all come back with the same demons.
None of us who have escaped our nation’s veterans’ experiences on the battlefields can ever truly relate to what they’ve seen and known. We pin medals on their chests, honor them with annual holidays, put them on public display at ballgames, and wax poetic about their sacrifices. No doubt many of them are proud of their service and grateful for the recognition. However, I wonder if they think the rest of us are just spouting a lot of public patriotic bullshit when we so often forget about them in private, where such a great number of vets are homeless, jobless, fighting PTSD and countless other war-related debilities, going through divorces, battling alcohol and drug abuse, and at high risk for suicide. It must make a person feel freakish when he or she can’t attend a patriotic fireworks display because the explosions are too jarring, too upsetting.
I have so many mixed feelings on Veterans Day.
First of all, I have little personal experience with the military. My father and my father’s father and I were lucky. Our lives fell right in the cracks between wars in the 20th century, and though they performed military service in peacetime, I did not.
I turned 18 in 1974, barely missing Vietnam and the draft. Some of you know what that time was like in the U.S., and I was one who was not in favor of the war, to put it mildly. I had no interest in the military in those days.
My sons and daughters now live in the age of the all-volunteer military, and none of them enlisted. I’m glad, especially given the extended wars we have fought over the past twelve years.
Second, I have made the acquaintance of many who have served, and who are veterans of wars. One of our churches was near Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. We had military personnel and families in and out of our congregation, and I visited patients in the VA hospital there. Since becoming a hospice chaplain, I have had the privilege of conversing with many veterans, especially from World War II. Most are loathe to speak of their war experiences in specific terms, and for good reason. I’ve met people who fought in most of the great battles of that war, which is to say, they have seen horror and human suffering on a scale and in detail that I can scarcely imagine. I have gained great respect for these G.I. Joes. In fact, I admire them, like them, and have grown to treasure learning from them. But it sickens my stomach to think of my sons or daughters or grandchildren going through what they endured.
Third, I am not a proponent of civil religion. I do believe that love of country is natural and good, a gift of common grace. I consider it a duty to show appreciation for those who sacrificed to make our lives better. I am also proud to honor the symbols of our nation and embrace the notions of liberty and representative democracy that they represent. But I do not give them ultimate value or worship them. The national flag does not belong in the sanctuaries of our churches — they are foreign embassies of a different Kingdom. I pray “God bless America” as a part of my intercessions “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1Tim. 2:1). A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says, “God bless all nations,” and I concur. Veterans Day is not a holy day on the church calendar, though at the same time, such remembrances do (and should) play a role as we think about our faith.
Fourth, all my life I have heard, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” What I’ve seen is that remembering doesn’t seem to help much either. We continue to fight wars, thinking they will bring peace. In fact, we are just wrapping up the two longest wars the U.S. has ever fought, and the possibility of future wars lies just beyond the horizon. The amount of resources we have expended to defeat our enemies over the past twelve years boggles the mind. The human cost has been and remains staggering on all sides. For generations, families will suffer because this generation felt it necessary to go to war. “Remembering” on Veteran’s Day must not only involve rituals of honor, but also a renewed commitment to care for those whose lives have been disrupted and devastated by war. And above all, we must pursue determined, diligent efforts to promote liberty and justice for all, the things that make for peace.
Fifth, when thinking about these things, I try to take my cues from the Bible and the best of Christian tradition. Scripture reflects the violence and conflict that is pervasive in a sinful world, even among the religious. Church history likewise. However, from both we also hear prophets’ voices above the din, bringing words from God, proclaiming and promoting shalom — human flourishing in a renewed and reconciled world. The ultimate vision of Christianity is a new creation in which the Tree of Life provides healing for all nations. Veterans Day provides yet another opportunity for the Church to proclaim this hope-filled Gospel, this message of the peace that was won when Jesus absorbed violence rather than exercising it. Losing the war, he won shalom for all. Eagerly, we now long for its consummation.
And how, on Veterans Day, shall we be messengers of that peace?