Vets for Peace

What Does It Mean To Serve As An

Honorable Christian Soldier?

By Larry Johnson

I grew up in an extremely conservative Lutheran Free Church, which stayed out of all the mergers because “Lutherans were getting too liberal”. We couldn’t dance, drink, swear, or go to movies, but we were taught, almost violently, that God demands we go to war to defend our Christian freedoms from godless heathen who would try to take those from us. I was so serious I read the Bible through, cover to cover, three times before I was out of high school, and I believed that we were part of the small group of Christians who really believed and followed the Bible as literally true, in our case better than the Baptists because we had Martin Luther as an additional guide.   By 1966 I had a degree from the Lutheran Bible Institute and was doing evangelistic work with young people in trouble with the juvenile authorities. I was also in college, and like everyone else, facing the prospect of being drafted to serve in the now escalating Vietnam War. An encounter with the “historic peace churches” (e.g. Mennonites, with same conservative theology, except for refusal to kill in warfare because of Jesus’ teachings) led me to being drafted with a conscientious objection provision of serving as a medic with no weapon, but I did serve, and I have some strong opinions of what it might mean to serve honorably.

LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. War and the military brings out different ideas about what this means, but its pretty clear that being a Christian means loving God and one’s neighbor in some way. My first sergeant at Fort Sam Houston was one of the finest human beings I’ve been around in my life. It was clear that he cared about us as people, something rarely evident in general treatment by drill sergeants and first lieutenants.   I know two career sergeants, now retired, who speak with pride about getting all their men back alive. I also know of people trashed by the military system for refusing to obey what they considered unlawful orders. One of them was a soldier who refused to kill a young girl who happened to be a part of the “enemy” country. Being a follower of Christ and living in love is hard anywhere, but especially so in a milieu where drums beat everywhere that “God is on our side”, even when it’s “Christians” on both sides. All the official military rules say its OK to kill enemy soldiers, not civilians, but civilians are mainly who gets killed in war. Serving honorably, at the least, means taking notice of that.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR RELATIONSHIPS. I got married in college, and was drafted shortly after they eliminated the marriage exemption. The military is hard on relationships, and that marriage didn’t last.  My wife now, a psychologist, often reminds couples it takes time to reconnect even if just separated for a week. Military service takes one away from family, friends, lovers, marriage partners and children, often for long periods of time. Staying connected and faithful with family and love relationships is hard, but so important. You’re alone, in danger, far away, and swimming in temptation. Letters, email, and phone calls back and forth with those you care about is often the best you can do. As a Christian, prayer is equally crucial to your being able to be strong and honorable, gathering energy for yourself, as well as sending it back home.

GET TO KNOW THE OATH YOU MUST SWEAR. When a soldier enters the military, he or she is required to swear an oath to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of the President and other superior officers, according to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is extremely serious, but I think most still just take the oath, without much examination. I had researched my position on not being able to kill, but it was many years before I looked at what I’m about to say. The Constitution says that the President cannot declare war. Only Congress can do that and then allocate funds to fight it. This was done to make it difficult to enter into such a horrendous endeavor as war. Our last several wars, including Vietnam when I was drafted, have not been declared, and therefore in violation of the Constitution we swear to protect. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is full of provisions against rape, drunkenness, adultery, premarital sex, as well as specific military issues like being absent without leave. Soldiers are obligated to obey “lawful” orders, and to refuse and report those that are unlawful, but the reality is that too often soldiers are in deep trouble when they refuse and report. The argument is always something like, “We’ll deal with it. If we bring that out publicly, it will destroy morale”. The brave women soldiers who have begun to step up and report the horrendous abuse and rape, mainly of women, by other soldiers have served extremely honorably. Yet they’ve taken much abuse for bucking a system that should never have been tolerated.

DON’T SIGN UP IF IT’S NOT A JUST WAR. This was difficult under the draft, but even now, one must think deeply. For 300 years after Christ, the early Christians refused to enter military service, because of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. In the 4th Century A.D. Constantine made Christianity a state religion and theologians devised the just war concept, making it OK to go to war if the cause was just. What generally does not get taught is it’s not a just war if you aggressively attack another country. A recent argument has been, “We have to attack and stop them over there, before they attack us here”. I’m not the only one who sees that as trying to make an unjust invasion sound like something else. A main tenet is also it’s a just war if no civilians are harmed. Luther generally believed in Just War, but still in Luther’s time, war was mainly one army going up against another. It wasn’t like today when bombing and other new weapons systems make 90 percent of those killed or injured in warfare civilians. Ask yourself, “Could I go up and drop a bomb on a city if ordered to do so?” Know that you would more than likely be prosecuted for refusing a lawful order, because our general conduct is to operate on slogans like, “It’s a Just War”, without paying attention to the official definition.

KNOW THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS. These are international treaties, signed by many, but not all countries. It was the strongest class I had in the military, with a drill sergeant pounding out, “We abide by them. They don’t”. Two of the main tenets boil down to it being a war crime to kill civilians and to torture prisoners of war. There are still two sides arguing about the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. One side argues the bombs ended the war and saved a lot of lives. The other side argues Japan had already surrendered and the bombs were unnecessary. Rarely is it stated straight out that those bombs, by their very nature, are a violation of international law because they kill scores of civilians. During Vietnam, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson saw soldiers slaughtering old men, women, and children, in a little village called My Lai. Acting on his understanding of the Geneva Conventions, he and the two men with him, stopped an already horrendous situation from getting worse. The problem was the system tried to cover it up, harassing Thompson for his honorable work for the rest of his military career. In modern warfare Civilians are killed en masse and we call it “collateral damage”, rather than being honest and saying “International law says this is a war crime, so we must find another way of doing the mission”.   During the war in Iraq we began the same kind of slippery interpretation on torture, and the question really becomes, as a Christian soldier, what would you do if ordered to torture detainees, or kill civilians?

LET THE TRUTH MAKE US FREE. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”   Luther said, (What Luther Says, Concordia, 1959) , It is not right to start a war when a frantic lord takes it into his head to do so . . . he who starts a war is wrong.“ About 15 years ago the Secretary of Defense during Vietnam (30 plus years after the war was over) stated publicly, “We knew at the time we were wrong to be there. I’m sorry.” This means that he and others around him lied to cause the deaths of over 50,000 American soldiers and countless civilians. Christians believe Jesus was executed for being the truth and being pardon for all the lies we live. Often these days people say to a Veteran, “Thank you for fighting (or dying) for our freedom”. There’s always difference of opinion on that, but too often it’s fighting because someone lied to protect the freedom of a small group to profit from making weapons. We need the truth to keep us free from warfare waged to benefit the shareholders of large corporations that make weapons, and I believe serving honorably means being cognizant of that. I’m not willing to give my life, or the lives of fellow soldiers, for a lie. However, there are many examples, amidst the horror of war, of soldiers, in the moment, living the words of Christ, “Greater love has no man than this, that he give up his life for his friends”. Perhaps the most famous is the “Immortal Chaplains”, caught on a 1943 ship, torpedoed by a German submarine. As the ship sank, the chaplains, Jewish, Catholic, Quaker, and Protestant, helped people stay calm and get into lifeboats. When it came down to the end, they each gave their lifejacket to someone else, and were last seen linking arms in prayer and singing hymns as the ship went down.

DETERMINE TO COME BACK AND CONTINUE HONORABLE SERVICE. I think some of the greatest honorable service today* is being done by people like Chuck Hagel, Vietnam Veteran/current defense secretary, who served in the military and is trying to change the problems in the system. Whether it’s rampant, unwarranted sexual assault by fellow soldiers, or wasting vast amounts of money on weapons systems even the Generals don’t want, there are things to be done. Many people believe the greatest international security risks are now things like cyberwarfare and the problems caused by climate change. Too often we more easily spend money on weapons systems made for the past, than we do to fund the means to stop new problems and attending violence, before it escalates. Equally sad, we continue to neglect the needs of returning soldiers. How unconscionable is it that that Vietnam Veterans are among the highest percentage of the homeless population, and too many have died or are still dying without being treated or adequately treated for Agent Orange exposure. If you go in the military, determined to serve as an honorable soldier, know that you’ll have little freedom to change anything while you’re in, and you could get in trouble, unjustly, for doing the right thing. Whatever happens, hopefully you will come back, knowing the system inside and out, and willing to fight to correct it.

*This essay was written during the tenure of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, 2013-2015.

Larry Johnson declared his status as a conscientious objector when drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and was sent to be a medic. He continues to advocate on behalf as veterans and is a leader in Vets for Peace.