The military is the most respected institution in America. Americans associate military service with noble qualities and ideals, such as courage, strength, sacrifice, honor, loyalty, and heroism. Americans honor the U.S. military with special parades, ceremonies, monuments, and national holidays. We applaud American military exploits on television and in our films. Americans often go out of their way to thank soldiers and veterans for their service and for keeping us safe and free. On the one hand, there is a belief in the right to self-defense or a belief that war is sometimes necessary as a last resort; on the other hand, there is the unchecked glorification of all things military.
So, what’s wrong with militarism?
1. Militarism discourages serious reflection on the moral gravity of war.
A militaristic culture derives its power from a few basic assumptions:
- The military is a force for good;
- The military is only used in defense;
- Therefore military service is an honorable profession;
- Therefore supporting the troops is a patriotic duty.
We believe these are faulty assumptions.
When we thank veterans for keeping us free and safe, we reassure them that particular, current wars are good, and necessary to keep us free and safe. When we congratulate teenagers for joining the military, we discourage them from considering the spiritual and psychological consequences of violence, enmity, destruction and the taking of human life. When we champion the United States as “the greatest country on Earth,” we overlook the dark side of American history: American exceptionalism provides the rich soil in which militarism takes root.
Militarism creates a convenient blind spot for the terrible costs of war. At its most bold, it dares and encourages young people to sacrifice their lives, and possibly their souls, at the unholy altar of the State.
2. Militarism is a spiritual disease akin to the worshiping of idols.
The Ten Commandments reads Thou Shall Not Kill; Jesus Christ was the Prince of Peace; and Catholic tradition condemns war in the strongest terms. Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and Christian Nationalism have no basis in the Catholic understanding of the world. As explained by Cardinal Walter Kasper, an overly strong identification of the Gospel with a particular culture or nation is an “ecclesiological heresy.” Killing does not become okay simply because the killer was wearing the stars and stripes. The Bible makes it very clear that God judges people according to His laws, not Man’s laws.
“Obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29
“No one man can serve two masters.” Matthew 6:24
“Thou Shalt Have No God Before Me.” Exodus 20:3
Many Catholic leaders condone the glorification of the military and the aggressive use of military force, either through what they say and do, or through what they fail to say and do. Applauding veterans at Mass, draping the crucifix in the American flag, inviting veterans and recruiters to speak to youth groups, singing the National Anthem on the Fourth of July, praying for the safety of soldiers while ignoring the civilians who die as a result of their actions—all these things give tacit approval to the slaughtering of one group of people by another group of people at the command of the State. Something is wrong when we worship the Prince of Peace one minute and honor the military the next. Something is wrong when we equate the “sacrifice” of soldiers (whose power rests in their ability to use violence to inflict suffering on others), with the sacrifice of Christ (whose power rests in his willingness to renounce violence, take suffering upon himself, and love others, even his enemies, at any cost).
3. Militarism is sentimentalism.
Sentimentalism (n): the temptation to place affection (sentiment) above reason and objective truth.
Although Catholicism does not mandate complete pacifism, it places a heavy burden on any person wishing to engage in armed conflict. Ideally, such a person would undergo an intense period of spiritual and intellectual discernment before concluding that the end justifies the means. As far as we know, Catholic Churches, Catholic high schools and colleges, and the Catholic Chaplaincy offer no such pre-enlistment counseling services. A person today could receive 12 years of Catholic education without ever learning the first thing about Just War theory, let alone the spirituality of nonviolence. Few American Catholics have a solid formation in their faith, even fewer have any depth of understanding of the complex nexus of business, history, foreign policy, and geopolitical affairs.
Widespread ignorance, lack of rigorous spiritual formation, and a consciousness formed largely by State propaganda provides rich soil for militarism to grow, especially in our churches, by exploiting and perverting the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice. A militaristic culture short-circuits processes of intellectual and spiritual discernment guided by prudence. Once reason is clouded by sentimentality, brotherly love for all, to which we are called, is easily replaced with tribalism. The natural love one feels for one’s home and one’s countrymen can be turned into hubris. The natural desire to protect and defend what one loves is suddenly being used to justify aggression. A desire for revenge turns into bloodlust. Lack of information, the dissemination of misinformation and propaganda, and the use of “PsyOps” can even lead Americans to view entire countries or peoples as evildoers and the military as nothing but a benevolent Peace Corps — a benevolent Peace Corps with bombs.
When a militaristic mindset has firmly taken root, people can actually begin to love war. It’s exciting. It’s dramatic. It gives them a common purpose. Suicide rates historically go down during wartime.
Love of war should stop at church doors. Let love be our bind.
4. Militarism is lucrative business.
Military. Industrial. Complex. War is a staple of the American economy, a major jobs provider, and one of America’s few remaining exports. It’s no wonder so many Americans support their military; so many of them benefit, financially, from its adventures. We must not ignore the economic realities that contribute to a culture of militarism and those that make militarism more amenable to the Church. (What financial benefits, for example, does the Catholic Church receive when a priest becomes a chaplain?)
We believe the Church should stand apart from a militaristic culture. If the Church can’t stand up against it, by preaching peace and discouraging young Catholics from participating, it should at least refuse to do its bidding.
We’re not asking Catholics to “oppose war.” We’re merely asking that American Catholic Churches remain neutral spaces where public cheerleading for the military be disallowed and discouraged. We’re not “judging” Americans who join the military or support the troops. We’re simply pointing out the assumptions on which the militaristic mentality is based, challenging those assumptions, and calling attention to the vast gulf between Church teachings about violence, vengeance, and killing and the militaristic culture in America. Because it’s not always about what we do or about what we say, but about what we fail to do, what we fail say. Those of us in the pews who feel uncomfortable with militaristic displays in church, but who fail to speak up, must also be held accountable. Silence is collaboration.
Hopefully, putting pressure on those in our local churches to stop allowing demonstrations of militarism will be impetus for the thoughtful deliberation and discussion that this subject deserves.
This is a prolife movement. We care about the bodily lives of American soldiers and as well as their spiritual lives, both during and after deployment. We care about the lives of foreigners, who live in lands where American military action is currently taking place. We care about the quality of life for those who are left behind after the American troops have left their lands and gone home, dealing with the environmental and emotional fallout that goes hand in and with living in a former war zone. We care about the truth. We care about the collective life and moral integrity of this nation, and the future of life on this planet.