Category Archives: War Veterans

Teach Your Children Well

Our latest podcast, Episode 28, featured Sam Dean, husband, father of seven children, Catholic convert and former Army Officer (1988-2010). He talked about his quest to find answers to his questions about “Just War” and where that has led him. Here is a an essay he wrote which he has given me permission to share here.

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A CATHOLIC FATHERIN A PERPETUAL WAR SOCIETY REACHES OUT FOR HELP FROM THE CHURCH

by Sam Dean

I am the 50 year old father and primary catechist for my seven children and I need your help. I have come to a question on a Catholic teaching, a changeable doctrine, that I cannot answer. I’ve asked this question of my pastor, my bishop, and more than a dozen other Catholic orders, organizations, and even our Pope. I have received three responses. When I asked the question on Catholic blogs or radio the subject quickly changed or I got an answer to a different question. When I asked PhDs in Catholic seminaries I often received arrogance, obfuscation, anger, and finally and always, silence. The silence, as they say, is deafening.

What question could possibly elicit these kinds of responses? It has nothing to do with sex or the sexual abuse scandal. It has nothing to do with money or the banking scandal. It has nothing to do with some obscure doctrine that only someone who did his PhD dissertation on would know existed. The doctrine is hardly thought of at all, but is relevant to an American on a daily basis.

Before I ask you this question, I should introduce myself. I celebrated my 26th wedding anniversary this year. My wife is a cradle Catholic who married a rather poorly formed Methodist and finally, after more than a decade and a half of prayer, witnessed my entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2006. As I noted earlier, we have seven children, but we have at least four more we hope to see in heaven. I retired from the US Army in 2010 and currently work at a small Catholic seminary as the registrar. 

That question…? How does a man in my situation come to a question that causes such discomfort? For me and this question, it was quite by accident. In our parish, we are blessed to have the Order of Preachers, Dominicans. In 2011, I was walking down a corridor of the church with a perfectly wonderful priest. I suppose the topic of discussion related to my former career and his interest in military history. That fateful moment occurred when he commented that, in his opinion, those Catholics who believe in nonviolence were “just wrong”. He proceeded to describe a scenario that would allow a preemptive war against the Plains Indians in defense of Chicago. I had recently retired from the military as an officer and I played a mental game by using the military planning steps to evaluate his scenario. I played with this scenario for quite some time. In the end, I was left with a curiosity about the Roman Catholic Just War Doctrine (JWD) as his scenario had raised more questions than it answered. I decided that I needed to understand the JWD better as my children were coming of age and would soon be eligible for military employment.  I spent 20 years in the US military and didn’t know the JWD; my children would know their Church’s teaching on war.

Over the next months and years I read many books on the JWD. I discussed the JWD with the professors who teach it at seminaries and those who give lectures on the subject. I expected that my concerns about the JWD were that I didn’t understand it and that a simple explanation would be evident. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The more I researched, the more my concerns grew. My years as a military officer required me to study military history and as I came to understand the JWD, I began to question whether the wars I fought in and those that I had studied had met the stringent JWD requirements.

It helps me to understand an idea if I understand the larger picture into which it fits. The Roman Catholic Just War Doctrine has a knowable history. The idea of a “Christian” just war was first brought into the Roman Catholic Church by Saint Ambrose in the late 4th century and by his pupil, Saint Augustine, in the early 5th century. I had expected our JWD to have its genesis from the Gospel or New Testament, but in reality it is from Cicero, a 1st century B.C. Roman political philosopher. At a time when our parish priest would still discuss the JWD with me, I asked him if he knew the origins of the JWD. He didn’t, but asked the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C.. Their response was that it was from Cicero. I still remember the uncomfortable look on his face when he related to me the answer. I wonder sometimes if he still grapples with that answer. I know I do. It is not easy for me to reconcile the fact that my Church’s JWD is not based on the New Testament, but 1st century B.C. pagan Roman political philosophy.   

Now that we know the origin of our JWD, what is its purpose? The JWD defines when a Catholic may morally participate in the mass homicidal violence we call war. According to the JWD, in order for a Catholic to participate in war, the war must be “just”. In order for a war to be just, it must meet each of the requirements of the JWD before the war is commenced (Jus ad bellum) and while it is being prosecuted (Jus in bello). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states in 2309 that “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:” (emphasis mine) If any of the requirements of the JWD are not met, the war is unjust and a Catholic may not participate. Any homicide, the killing of a human, committed in an unjust war is murder. As we know, murder is intrinsically evil. In summary, Catholics may participate in a war as long as it is just and not if, at any time, it is unjust. In this aspect, the JWD is very clear and specific.

How certain do I need to be that a war is just? What I found was that the level of moral certainty to which the requirements of the JWD must be known before a Catholic may make a decision is very specific, but that it still requires a personal assessment. The CCC 2309 states, “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.” Clearly we Catholics must know that a war is just to a very high degree of certainty before we participate. A war is considered unjust until it has met and continues to meet all of the JWD requirements to a level of moral certainty that is measured with “rigorous consideration” or probabiliorism. I found it helpful to understand another moral decision that requires a level of certainty of probabiliorism – the decision to bestow holy orders on a seminarian. Our Church will only bestow holy orders on a person when it knows to a level of certainty of probabiliorism that he is prepared for priestly life. As you can imagine, this is a very important decision and one which our Church does not make haphazardly. Correspondingly, we must apply the JWD to the same level as our Church applies this certainty to its future priests. Of course, not all priests remain priests. Our Church recognizes that it cannot be perfectly certain (absolute tutiorism). We are not expected to be perfectly certain that a war is just. Our Church guards against weakening the standards of moral questions (laxism). No one wants a priest that is not prepared for the priestly life. Any attempt to weaken or apply the JWD in a manner not as strictly as the doctrine demands courts committing murder. Both absolute tutiorism and laxism are condemned by our church. In my research, I never found absolute tutiorism, but found laxism quite common with the JWD. 

I think two explicit examples from our Church may help us fully understand the gravity of this aspect of the JWD. Saint Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Spendor), “Like the natural law itself and all practical knowledge, the judgment of conscience also has an imperative character: man must act in accordance with it. If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience…”

The CCC 2242 states, “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:”

What are the specific requirements of the JWD? Again, our CCC 2309 gives the requirements to initiate a just war as: 

  • the war must be defensive;
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

The CCC states the following requirements for conducting a war:

  • 2312  The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.”
  • 2313    Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
  • 2314    “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes.

You can see, as I did, that it is extraordinarily difficult for a Catholic to justly participate in a war, as the requirements for the JWD are demanding. The JWD is not difficult to understand and shouldn’t be difficult to apply. I could see quite plainly that even the first requirement, that a war be defensive, would eliminate over half of all wars. Both sides of a war cannot wage a defensive war (certainly not to a level of moral certainty of probabiliorism), which eliminates one side of any conflict outright. In many wars, neither side is defensive. Because of the other requirements and the level of rigorousness of the JWD, reaching the level of “just” is nearly impossible. Remember, if ANY of the requirements are not met, a war is unjust and a Catholic may not participate or must stop participating. I felt confident that I could teach my children the Roman Catholic Just War Doctrine. Now what I needed were some concrete examples of our Church applying its 1600 year old doctrine. 

My search for that historical example was where the wheels came off of the bus, so to speak. As I searched, I asked the following question many times. 

In the approximately 16 centuries since the Roman Catholic Church adopted the JWD, when have the leadership of the Church within a state’s boundaries ever declared their politician’s or Caesar’s war unjust?

For the JWD to have any moral force, answers such as the following should be so numerous as to require many volumes to contain it. “Dear Prime Minister/President/Caesar, though we remain obedient subjects, we Catholics will not be able to participate in your war as it does not meet our doctrine for just wars.”  The only example I found was a pastoral letter published by Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Church. I would highly recommend reading his letter at (http://www.centerforchristiannonviolence.org/action-against-violence/). He understands and employs the Roman Catholic Church’s Just War Doctrine and passes his pastoral judgement on to his flock.

If well over half of all wars must be unjust from only one requirement, that is a stunning verdict on the JWD and those entrusted with the shepherding of the souls of their flocks. That is my question that elicits the responses that I described earlier in my article. Do you understand my predicament, fellow Catholics? If I am to catechize my family, the men of the Church owe me/us an answer.

My question for you readers, fathers, mothers, clergy, Catholics, is how can this be? If we are a “Just War” church, how can our doctrine always give us war? As a parent and primary catechist for my seven children, what do I teach them?

As I researched the JWD and searched for examples of our Church following her own doctrine, I came across a few noteworthy descriptions, responses, observations, and interactions. What I offer next may help you understand the pervasiveness and depth of the problem. 

The curriculum at most Catholic seminaries for the Master of Divinity degree includes one or two basic Catholic moral theology courses, one course on medical morality, one course on sexual morality, and one on the Church’s social teachings. The JWD is not covered in the basic moral theology course(s). The JWD, the Church’s moral doctrine governing the mass killing of humans is taught in the Catholic Social Teaching course. This seems somewhat out of place considering the intrinsically evil nature of murder and the “rigorous consideration” we demand for a just war. I would never have imagined that the moral ins and outs of sex would receive an entire semester course, but mass homicide would receive a few hours along with discussions on wages and housing. Could the fruits of this priority be seen in our Church? Many of our laity see sex as a social event and are nearly all completely ignorant of their Church’s requirement for justified human slaughter – the JWD.   

In 25 years of attending Catholic Mass, I have never heard a homily on the JWD. I’ve received many homilies on illicit sex, abortion, homosexuality, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, and many others, but never one on the JWD. I have learned that my experience is not uncommon.

I sent the letter to my pastor. He eventually commented to me that he had received the letter and that he would eventually respond once he learned more about the JWD. How could he have successfully passed through six years of Dominican seminary, many years as a priest, and become the pastor of a parish and not know the JWD? The United States has been at war in more years than it has existed and we have clergy who are unfamiliar with the precise doctrine that must guide our decision to participate in justifiable or murderous killing?   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      My family visited a Catholic seminary for a tour. On that tour, they were shown a statue and a painting of the founder, a monsignor. On the monsignor’s cassock are ribbons from his time in the Prussian military during the mid- to late-19th century before he became a priest. He fought in the 1864 war with Denmark and the 1865-66 war with Austria. These wars were not “just” according to the Catholic JWD. Each was a war of aggression and could have easily been avoided. That he participated in these wars is unfortunate; that he displayed the accouterments from these unjust wars on his clerical clothing is a scandal. That our Church still displays these ribbons perpetuates a laxist understanding of the conditions that must be met for a Catholic to justly slaughter humans in war. If he, instead of military ribbons, wore ribbons with the names of women he bedded (was victorious over) before he became a priest, would he have been permitted to continue once a bishop found out? I suspect he would have been censured and the ribbons removed. There would be no paintings or statues to perpetuate what the Church is willing to admit is scandal.   

The quote below is from an email response I received from a moral theology professor at a Catholic major seminary. This professor is a priest and is loved and respected by the faculty and the seminarians. In spite of his extensive education, years of teaching, and position of influence over future priests, he argues for a JWD that is measured by laxism. 

“As for the question of a just war. The Church has spelled out rather carefully the necessary conditions for a just war both in its initiation and in its prosecution. These are predicated on the idea that individuals and groups have an absolute right to defend against having their lives taken by unjust aggressors, and that it is morally permissible to save life, my own or that of other innocents, even by using lethal force if necessary. People can and do have differing opinions about whether these conditions are met in particular situations. There were in my view, too many people who were willing to state that they were not met in the Iraq war and that it was therefore an unjust war. They were never able to prove this claim and so what is gratuitously proposed can be dismissed.” 

Of course, a war must be proven to be “just” BEFORE a Catholic may participate and continue to be proven “just” each moment. For but one moment of unjust prosecution of the war and it is “unjust” according to the JWD. How can a priest, a teacher of moral theology, a holder of such an influential and learned position, so easily fall into a condemned form of moral justification (laxism)? 

I’ve included an excerpt from each of the three responses I received to the many letters I wrote. Each had a slightly different focus, but each had a theme that I found common to my overall research.  

– “I think you have answered your question regarding JWD. Through your research of this topic you could not find a clear answer to what makes a just war. Yes, the catechism gives some guideline to follow and questions that must be asked. However, in any conflict be that war or a family dispute there are no clear answers available; each individual is charged with the obligation to seek peace and restore harmony and for this to take place forgiveness is necessary.”

– “Applying the just war doctrine to a particular war is not easy. The just war criteria are very subjective. Over the years, the just war doctrine was applied to many wars, all of which were declared “just”. It is difficult to objectively define what is “grave”, “certain”, “impractical”, “ineffective”, “serious prospects of success”, or “disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”.”

– “…the application of any moral norm is always subject to interpretation. What does it mean, in the practical order, to be just, for instance? We may all hold justice as a value and have every good intent to live justly, but that in no way means what we all view a specific activity in the same way. What one person views as a just solution to an issue may appear unjust to another. We live in a gray world.”

If a Catholic does not know to a level of probabiliorism that a war is just, he cannot participate. That is our doctrine and has been for 1600 years. If our clergy do not have confidence in the doctrine, why do we pretend?

I called into EWTN’s Open Line Friday radio show on September 12, 2014. The topic was the Just War Doctrine and I was able to ask my question. The answer was a frantic hodgepodge of comments that avoided the question. I was told that the Church didn’t dare oppose the state and gave the example of what happened to the Dutch churches when they openly opposed the German wartime actions against the Jews in Holland. I was also told that Jesus had no problem with military action because He didn’t lecture the Roman centurion when He was asked to heal the Roman’s slave. And finally, that it wasn’t the role of the Church to make the decision of whether a war was just, but was the responsibility of the state. Let those sink in for a moment. We shouldn’t oppose the state because something bad might happen… so we are a Church of cowards? Jesus didn’t lecture the Centurion for his being a soldier therefore his conduct must have been licit…and what of the other sinners in the Gospels who didn’t have their sins lectured on? Are we to accept their conduct as licit? The state determines the morality of its own actions and we Catholics must blindly obey… abortion, anyone? Sadly, this episode of Open Line Friday is missing from EWTN’s saved episodes. Perhaps they will find it so you can listen to what it is like to ask that question. 

When I ask that question and the person remains in the conversation for more than a few minutes, he invariably offers the wars against Hitler or Mussolini as good examples of the JWD in action. Of course, if you read my question closely you realize that this too avoids the question. It is easy to state that some other country is pursuing an unjust war. Clearly, both Germany and Italy pursued unjust wars in the 1930s and 40s. The problem is that in 1940 40% of Germans were Catholic and 50% Protestant. If we Christians didn’t murder for the state, Hitler has no army, SS, Gestapo, or camp guards. When Bl. Franz Jagerstatter refused to fight for the German army he was confronted with priests and bishops all demanding that he drop his moral arguments and support the German state’s demands. He was martyred in 1943 for his stand; without the support of his “Just War” Church.     

The political ally of Hitler, Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia in 1935-1936. During this offensive war, the Italian military used poison gas on the Ethiopian military and civilians. This was a war that was completely and obviously in violation of the JWD. Why didn’t the Italian bishops instruct their flocks to remove themselves from this mass murder? Can we find the letter from the Bishop of Rome to his flock or to Mussolini informing him of our JWD? Italy was almost completely Catholic during this mass murder. Who does Mussolini command if the Catholics of Italy will not murder?

I’ll end with an excerpt from The Civilization of Christianity by Fr. John L. McKenzie, who is considered one of the preeminent biblical scholars of the 20th century. 

“Like all my contemporaries on seminary faculties, I had been reared on the ethics of the just war… We were all taught the traditional Catholic morality that while killing a person is morally neutral, bedding him or her is intrinsically evil. We may find reasons for doing away with a person, but we can never find a moral justification for bedding the person, except marriage. There is something fallacious about the thinking which finds illicit sexual relations intrinsically evil but killing people morally neutral: all you need is a sufficiently good reason. Why that does not work for sexual intercourse I do not know….(But) I never thought I would live long enough to see carnal intercourse become as morally neutral as killing. Modern science and philosophy have made of carnal intercourse a ‘meaningful interpersonal relations.’ To me the ‘meaningful interpersonal relations’ is just as phony a piece of morality as the just war theory. I call them both phony.” (p. 11)

Will my pastor, my bishop, or any of the many Church leaders ever step forward and answer a father’s question? Do they even care?

Knights of Christ or of Clinton/Bush/Obama/Trump

I recently received my newest edition of “Columbia” magazine by the Knights of Columbus. An article was about a Knight who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, besides a little about the prayer life of the man who received the medal, the Knights did not delve deeper on the morality and justness of the war in Afghanistan, especially after Osama bin Laden was killed (of course, in Pakistan and not Afghanistan), which is when the events occurred for this sailor to receive the award. Instead, we just got platitudes about defending freedom and doing your duty. Are my brother Knights of the Prince of Peace or Knights of the Military–Industrial Complex? Christ told us it would be hard to follow Him; it is too easy to go along to get along in general society, which celebrates militarism and war.

20 each day

Suicides by military or former military. The military is “concerned” about another uptick in suicides.

“If we just focus on the last tragic act in a veteran’s life as opposed to looking at the continuum of events that can lead to that — homelessness, addiction, mental health issues — then it’s just another federal report. It becomes a doorstop,” he said.

Washington Times, Thursday, August 29, 2019

The ongoing tragedy of military suicides is never blamed on the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds of war, moral injury, or anything of the sort. It’s “homelessness, addiction, mental health issues.”

And the ongoing problem of military suicides is never mentioned in rants about our “culture of death” by priests, bishops or conservative Catholic pundits.

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/aug/29/military-suicides-top-record-despite-national-spot/

On Coming Home

“The Catholic faith tells us that we are sinners loved by God. I am a sinner who is loved. I struggle with both halves. I don’t always want to admit I am a sinner. What I went over there to do felt righteous. I believed in the cause, and even if I didn’t, I believed in my brothers. I believed in America, and even if I didn’t or didn’t know what America was, I believed in the Marine Corps. I believed in violence, in purpose, in our community, our brotherhood. I wanted to receive the sacrament of confirmation in the military service. I prayed for the opportunity to kill.” — Peter Lucier, America Magazine

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/05/17/soldier-i-was-loved-my-sins-now-i-must-repent-them?fbclid=IwAR1xnUW1kz0HxEmynJVflXgXYFIZFXSmydJwjkDssm-9N5VqcHw9jgGH2xk

Podcast Episode 4!

John Carmody served as a 2nd Lieutenant Platoon Commander in Vietnam from 1967-68, in an area called Leatherneck Square, nestled near the DMZ. He talks about the “unbridled brutality of war” and explains why it is “a sick process.” He also talks to us about his work with PeaceTrees Vietnam, his thoughts on PTSD and Just War Theory, and how he came to be the Founder and Director of the Center for Christian Nonviolence.

Rank: Captain

Decorations/Medals (awarded):

  • Silver Star (The only medals that are more prestigious than the Silver Star are the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. Read his commendation below.)
  • Purple Heart w/2*
  • Combat Action Ribbon
  • Presidential Unit Citation
  • Meritorious Unit Commendation
  • National Defense Service Medal
  • Viet Nam Serice Medal
  • Viet Nam Campaign Medal
Lt. John Carmody’s Silver Star Citation

A Sheep Among Wolves: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Copyright © 2016 Ellen Finnigan

Originally published on November 4, 2016 on LewRockwell.com.

A Sheep Among Wolves

Desmond Doss was a real man but he seems more like the stuff of legend. Being a bit of a loner, small in stature, and meek, he was probably the last person anyone would ever peg for a potential war hero. He enlisted in the Army during the second world war because he believed in the cause. He only had one condition: He would not carry a gun. Make that two: He would not work on Saturdays. Though he did not receive an extensive formal education as a young man in West Virginia, he did receive excellent spiritual formation as a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church: He took the Ten Commandments seriously, all of them, without exception or qualification, including “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Keep Holy the Sabbath.” He wanted to serve his country but a way that was consistent with the Way (the Truth and the Life). He wanted to be a medic. The military assigned him to a rifle company, naturally, figuring the heat of peer pressure would iron him out. Clearly they did not know the depths of character, courage, and conviction in Desmond Doss. They could not yet imagine how a man who refused to touch a gun could put up such a fight!

The incredible Hacksaw Ridge, the new film directed by Mel Gibson, tells amazing story of Desmond Doss, his decision to enlist, his difficult training and his unbelievable feats on the battlefield, for which he was eventually awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. I attended an advanced screening of the film and had dangerously high expectations. I’m a Gibson fan, and I’d heard the film had received a 10-minute long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. I had watched the 2006 documentary based on Doss’s life, The Conscientious Objector (available on YouTube), and enthusiastically assigned it to my honors students after we read The Iliad and the The Aeneid this fall, thinking I had found the perfect thing with which they could compare-and-contrast the pagan idea of heroism.

With a few small reservations, I thought the film was excellent, but I have a few predictions as to how it will be received by the Catholic media, which has disappointed me in the past. My prediction is that the Catholic “Right” will promote this film under the banner of “religious liberty”, the Catholic “Left” under the cause of “conscientious objection,” but I believe both are reductive and shortchange the complexity of the film and the person of Desmond Doss. The “religious liberty” camp thinks that the great postmodern struggle is between Christians and secular society, but it was not the atheists, socialists, humanists, or communists who put Desmond Doss through hell in the military, who insulted him, persecuted him, and uttered every kind of evil against him, falsely. It was his fellow God-fearing, red-blooded Americans, whom we can assume were mostly Christians. While the other men were flipping through nudie mags in the barracks, Doss was studying Scripture. At first they dismissed him as a hick, a prude, a coward; grown men would throw shoes at his head while he was trying to pray. He was eventually ostracized, humiliated, harassed, and even beaten. His superiors tried to get him discharged for mental illness. They court martialed him. One soldier even threatened: “If you try to go to war with me, I’ll shoot you myself!”

“I don’t think I could have taken it,” said one man who knew Desmond Doss at boot camp. “I would have told them all to go to hell! But Doss—he never got angry.” In the documentary, his comrades recall Doss’ gentle demeanor, his lack of interest in retaliation, and his unwavering commitment to personal prayer. The actor who plays him, Andrew Garfield, should win an Oscar. He portrayed perfectly the endearing earnestness, quiet strength, and undeniable mystique of this most unusual man. Vince Vaughn adds the perfect touch of humor in his role as a sergeant who doesn’t hate Doss so much as find him incredibly exasperating. When Doss’ superiors would snarl and ask who the hell he thought he was and why he thought he was so special and why he wouldn’t just go home, Doss would respond, humbly, by saying that in a world that was falling apart, he didn’t see anything wrong with someone trying to put a small piece of it back together. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to serve them.

And this is where he doesn’t quite fit the profile of the typical “conscientious objector.” When the military tried to send him to a conscientious objector camp, he insisted on going to war! Doss believed that the United States was fighting for freedom, including religious freedom, and that it was an honor to serve his God and his country. He wanted to serve–but in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. His beliefs were very simple: He couldn’t picture Jesus killing people, but he could picture Jesus with a first aid kit. He preferred to be called a “conscientious cooperator.” He thought he could be just as good a soldier as anyone else, only: “Where other people are going to be taking life, I’m going to be saving it.”

This is what makes him a hero for our times. So many folks try to say that going to war or not going to war, which is always couched in terms of defending something or not defending something, is a choice between “doing something” and “doing nothing.” It’s the old false dichotomy of fight or flight. Either you fight, or evil runs rampant in this world. Jesus did neither and Desmond Doss shows us that a third way is possible. One of my favorite anecdotes in the documentary is when Doss says that his superiors tried to convince him of the errors of his ways by posing an age-old question, a hypothetical akin to: “What if someone was raping your grandmother and you had a gun?”

Desmond Doss replied simply: “I wouldn’t have a gun!

And that’s the truth.

To the screening they invited people from the religious community as well as the military community. The publicists who introduced the film explained, in warm, beige tones, that it was a film about faith — and heroes. Polite applause. It is understandable that marketing execs would want to cast as wide a net as possible, but to say that this is about faith is to gloss over the obvious challenge it presents to people of faith. Faith in what? In the words of Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the central question of all religion is: What kind of god is God, and what does God expect of us, if anything? The fact that Desmond Doss answers this question differently than his fellow Christians is the very thing that creates the conflict at the center of the story; it is the engine of the drama. We don’t watch Hacksaw Ridge, rapt, in order to find out if our hero will successfully vanquish the enemy, because our hero for a change has absolutely no interest in that, either the enemies he faces on the battlefield – the “Japs” – or the enemies he creates in his own tribe. We watch to see if our hero will be defeated and defeat seems likely: Either he will stand by his convictions, run onto the battlefield, and lose his life (in this world), thereby proving he is a fool, or he will pick up the sword, save his life (in this world), and admit that his convictions were foolish. What other outcome could we reasonably expect? What other outcome could we possible imagine?

“Nobody can understand what he did on that ridge,” said one of his comrades, “nobody.” I could talk to you all day long and you could never understand it. You would never believe it.”

In Guam, stories began to circulate about a medic who would doggedly pursue the wounded and try to help them– no matter what. (He was eventually allowed to go into battle as a medic unarmed.) It didn’t matter who they were, how badly they were wounded or how badly they had treated him. Doss would help them, often ignoring the rules of triage. His motto was: “As long as there is life, there is hope.” But the depths of bravery, compassion, and fortitude in Desmond Doss weren’t fully comprehended until Okinawa, where his actions on “Hacksaw Ridge,” a 400-foot cliff so named because of the Japanese ability to chop up Allied forces and spit them out, became legendary, maybe even miraculous.

After the screening, a man who was a friend of Desmond Doss’ spoke to us and assured us of the film’s accuracy. I trust it is accurate, but it didn’t strike me as complete. Obviously, every screenplay has limitations. They can’t include everything, but there are things in the documentary that were left out of the film, or at least not highlighted in the film, and they are important to understand the full picture.

In the film, Doss is shown being incredibly brave under fire, but the filmmakers do not convey just how impossible it was for him to survive or to do what he did. He was one of three men to hang the cargo net from the ledge of the Hacksaw Ridge. He volunteered. (In the film, if I remember correctly, he arrives and the net has already been secured.) You see: to hang the net was impossible, because you would have to get up on the ledge where the Japanese had clear lines of sight from their fortified positions. To maximize your chances of survival, you had to stay low to the ground, crawl, and even then, your chances were scant. There is a photograph of Desmond Doss standing up — silhouetted — on the ridge. He didn’t get shot. The guns were silent while he was up there. Why? How? Nobody could explain it.

The net allowed the Americans to scale the cliff, from which point they could try to take the ridge. They climbed up and got driven back down twice before they succeeded. On top, it was a bloodbath. Not only did Desmond Doss run out time and time again into enemy fire, defying all odds of being shot and killed, or captured and tortured, but as a man of slight stature, he did what Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t do in his heyday: He singlehandedly dragged and/or carried 75 men from up to 125 feet away to the cliff, secured them with a special knot, and lowered them down – again, singlehandedly — over the 400-foot cliff to safety. He saved 75 men in twelve hours, which meant he saved one man every 10 minutes. Desmond Doss’ friend who spoke at the screening said that Desmond once told him that after he had carried and lowered the first three men, he had absolutely no physical strength left. None. He just kept repeating the prayer: “Please, Lord, let me get one more. Please, Lord, let me get one more.”

The speaker at the screening also told us that Andrew Garfield, who played Desmond Doss, who is a lanky guy like Doss, was taught the “fireman’s carry,” which is the way Doss would have been trained to carry big, heavy, injured, helpless men. After the first few takes, they had to call in a stunt double. He wasn’t strong enough to pull it off take after take after take. As one of Doss’ comrades pointed out, many soldiers receive the Medal of Honor for one act of extreme bravery in war; but in Doss’ case, the Medal was awarded for things he did over and over and over again. There are stories about a Japanese soldier who remembered having the American medic in his crosshairs; when he went to shoot him, the gun jammed. There are stories of Japanese soldiers being found with American bandages on them.

What was happening on that ridge? How were these things possible? Could it have something to do with what Desmond Doss, as conscientious cooperator, was cooperating with, rather than what he was objecting to?

Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy begins his book All Things Flee Thee for Thou Fleest Me* with a quote by Jacques Ellul:

“God intervenes radically only in response to a radical attitude on the part of the believer – radical not in regard to political means but in regard to faith; and the believer who is radical in his faith has rejected all means other than those of faith.”

The question of violence is a question of means. Desmond Doss probably shared many of the same ends as other soldiers of faith: to stop evil, to stop evil from spreading, to save lives, to bring about peace, to save his soul, to get to heaven. But the difference between Desmond Doss and the other soldiers is that Desmond Doss rejected all means other than those of faith, specifically faith in the God, the God who is Love. This is because the Seventh Day Adventist Church had taught Desmond Doss that the means of violence were not available to him as a Christian and were not compatible with Love. When mainstream Catholics understand this about Desmond Doss, they understand at once that he is an “other” kind of Christian, with a different faith. Is it a different faith?

This is another important question.

The epic heroes of ancient literature are warriors and they are men of faith. Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, Aeneas: they believed in the supernatural, they had certain ideas about the nature of the divine, they engaged in religious rituals and practices meant to appease the gods and win their favor. Aeneas is described by Virgil as being “patently pious,” pietas being a Roman virtue that meant duty to man, God and country. The faithful and pious would be rewarded by the gods, often with military victories. The gods could be violent, deceptive, and vengeful; to be godlike was to partake of the awful power of the gods, to exercise might. When these heroes succeeded in battle, they believed the gods were on their side; when they lost, they assumed the gods had forsaken them. They had faith, but a certain kind of faith in a certain kind of god. The pagan gods could be drafted.

Desmond Doss was a social pariah until he became a kind of mascot. In Okinawa his Bible, his personal prayer, and his faith were no longer things to be laughed at but to be embraced and rallied behind. It is a fact that the third big siege on Hacksaw Ridge happened on a Saturday, May 5, 1945. The men asked Desmond Doss if he would go with them. Doss said maybe, but he would need time to pray about it first. The story goes that the whole unit, or company, was held up on account of Desmond Doss needing to pray. They waited, and hoped. After praying Doss decided that this was the kind of work he could do on a Saturday and he went with them. Perhaps I was being overly defensive, but in the film they almost made this decision look like a compromise. It wasn’t. Desmond Doss was tempted on various occasions to kill in defense of self or others, but he didn’t: He said that if he compromised once, he was likely to compromise again. The closest he came was when enemy troops threw a grenade into a ditch where he was trying to help some wounded men: He did pick it up and throw it back out. His decision to go with his unit on that Saturday was not a compromise: It was perfectly in line with the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

On that day they took the ridge. Many people attribute this victory to “faith,” either the faith of Desmond Doss or the faith he stirred in others after they began to believe that he had something like the power of God behind him. What’s wrong with this picture?

In the film, it appears that the very same God who Desmond Doss was praying to, who Doss believed would tell him, “If you love me, you won’t kill anybody,” who Doss believed he was glorifying with his works of courage, compassion, strength, and love, and who may have helped Desmond Doss to comfort, heal and save all those people, is the very same god who then turned around and helped Doss’ comrades to burn Japanese people’s faces off. If we are being honest about it, these are two different gods, and two different faiths. It is rare that they are seen in such stark relief as they are in Hacksaw Ridge.

Where one asks, “Please, Lord, just let me get one more,” and means save one more life, the other asks, “Please, Lord, let me get one more,” and means take one more life.

Where one says, “Love your enemies,” the other says, “Protect your friends.”

One says “Put down thy sword,” the other says “Pick it up.”

Where one says, “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind,” the other says, “Hate your enemy with your whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind.”

One preaches against enmity, the other assumes it.

To help the enemy in one is considered love, to help the enemy in the other is considered treason.

Where one relies on the power of prayer, trusting completely and totally in Jesus, and willing to love nonviolently both friends and enemies until death, the other relies on the power of violence, trusting in government and is willing to kill enemies even unto death.

To live in the spirit of one of these gods is to bring about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness; to live in the spirit of the other is to bring about what we see happening on Hacksaw Ridge.

The Catholic Church tries to tell us that these are the same faiths and the same gods, two sides of the same coin if you will. What makes this film so important is that it gives us a concrete portrayal of a larger conflict that has been going on within Christianity for 1,700 years, not only among different sects and churches but also within Catholicism itself. In “A Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace” (1993), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us: “The Christian tradition possesses two ways to address conflict: nonviolence and just war.” Where the Church sees a “dual tradition,” more and more people are beginning to see a house divided against itself. Insofar as the Catholic Church “possesses” the tradition of nonviolence, we agree with the Protestant denominations that have come to be known as the “peace churches” (The Quakers, Mennonites, etc.), but insofar as we teach what – frankly — Jesus never taught, by word or deed, namely, Just War Theory (now called Just Defense Theory), we part with them. The Catholic Church tries to tell us that there is no conflict between these two ways of dealing with conflict, that these two ways are not opposed to one another, nor is either way opposed to the Way of Jesus, in whom we Christians live, move, and have our being, that they are separate but equal, equally holy, equally good, equally acceptable. Yet, should one dare to speak out in favor of nonviolence, one would be no more welcome in the Catholic Church than Desmond Doss was in his rifle company. Trust me, I know!

This conflict is currently playing out at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. In April of 2016, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi held a conference, called “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” and included 80 participants from around the world who represented a broad spectrum of experiences in peacebuilding and active nonviolence in the face of violence and war. The participants called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence. The “Just War” Christians have been freaking out ever since in fear that the Holy Catholic Church, under the “leftist” leadership of Pope Francis, will abandon the teachings on Just Defense, which everyone knows provides a crucial loophole in Jesus’ teachings, through which the Christian can ensure the earthly protection of himself, his family, his friends, his country. It would be a nightmare to deprive Christians of recourse to violence, right? They would be sitting ducks with nothing but their “faith” to protect them in a hostile and violent world. And I believe in this context the Just War camp would put “faith” in quotation marks, because what kind of faith is that stupid and foolish?

Hacksaw Ridge is indeed a film about faith, but not in the way the publicists meant it. As Jacques Ellul puts it: “The appeal to and use of violence in Christian action increase in exact proportion to the decrease in faith…Unbelief is the true root of the Christian championship of violence.”

Let’s hope that the film Hacksaw Ridge can teach American kids what the Catholic Church has failed to teach them. One of my students, after watching the documentary, exclaimed: “And he wasn’t even a Catholic!” This sweet child imagined that someone so good and so holy could only be the product of the one, true faith. It took my whole heart, my whole strength, my whole mind to refrain from replying sarcastically: “Thank God for that, because if Desmond Doss had been raised Catholic, he would have had little to no chance of becoming Desmond Doss.”

Copyright © 2016 Ellen Finnigan

Boston CAM hosts Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich speaks at the Naval War College (from Wikipedia)

Andrew Bacevich speaks at the Naval War College (from Wikipedia)

For our readers in the Boston area, here is a chance to get involved:

Please join us on June 1 to hear a talk by Andrew Bacevich on the dangers of American militarism.

Andrew Bacevich is a Catholic historian and Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University where he taught for many years. He is also a Vietnam veteran who retired with the rank of Colonel after over 20 years in the US Army. He has written many books on American foreign policy including The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, and Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. His newest work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History was released on April 5, 2016.

Professor Bacevich is also a regular contributor to the Catholic magazine/website Commonweal and many other publications and websites. He has appeared on TV shows such as the Bill Moyers Journal and even the comedy show of fellow Catholic Stephen Colbert.

This event will be the first in a series intended to help American Catholics and others to confront the problems of militarism and perpetual war which exist in our country today. After the talk, we will have a “social hour” with a cash bar available. Relax, have a pint and make new friends. Discuss politics and religion. Even this year’s humdrum Presidential campaign! All the things you can’t talk about at work!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016
7:00 PM at:

The Hibernian Hall
151 Watertown Street
Watertown, MA

Free and open to the public. Ample parking. Doors open at 6:30.

Sponsored by Boston Catholics Against Militarism
Join our meetup. Oppose militarism and build Catholic solidarity!