July 26, 2010

Supporting the Troops?

Craig Watts, pastor of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and co-moderator for the Disciples Peace Fellowship, asks important questions for pacifists and Just War theorists.

by Craig M. Watts
In a recent conversation about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I found myself echoing the words often spoken by antiwar folk: “I oppose the war but I support the troops.”  My conversation partner was quick to respond, “You really don’t.”  I replied, “So, you don’t think it’s possible to be supportive of the troops and stand against the way that are being misused in this war?”  He answered, “Perhaps that’s possible for some people.  But you’re a pacifist.  Even in the best of circumstances you don’t support the troops.  You may support the soldiers as men and women but not as troops.”

I had to concede his point.  I don’t support the troops as troops.  Since I oppose, not just the war in Iraq but war altogether, I oppose the very purpose of the troops.  While I do believe they are being abused as troops by placing them in an unjust war, I believe they are being abused as people – and abusive of people – when fighting any war.  I simply can’t square the purpose of troops with the purpose of Christians as taught by Jesus, and so I believe no Christian should be part of the troops.

Still what does it mean to “support” these men and women in the armed forces?  The language of support is often used but the meaning is less than clear.  A ribbon decal on a car bumper is trivial as an expression of support.  Surely there are some who have supported the troops in substantial ways: providing body armor, visiting injured veterans in VA hospitals, helping the children and families of soldiers, etc.  I’m not convinced these expressions of support are incompatible with opposing the Iraq war or standing against all war for that matter.

Many who insist that they support the troops often mean they affirm the efforts and sacrifices of the troops.  These supporters want to bolster and preserve the morale of the troops.  Even if misgivings about the rightness of the war sometimes stir within these supporters, they believe nothing should be done to compromise the resolve and focus of the soldiers in a time of war.  Consequently, for them supporting the troops and supporting the war can’t very well be separated.  Further, those who oppose the war are viewed as unsupportive to the troops.  First, because it will likely be discouraging to soldiers to see folks back home protesting the very endeavor they are sweating and dying for.  Second, because if questions about the justness of the cause infiltrate the hearts of the soldiers they are unlikely to continue fighting with single-minded conviction.

Sacrifice and courage are commendable.  However, sacrifice for an unjust cause is tragic and regrettable.  Offering morale boosting support for troops who are sacrificing for an unjust cause is inexcusable.  Such a sacrifice is misdirected.  We can and should, I believe, honor the well-meaning intention of the troops who are making sacrifices.  However, the particular expression and direction of their efforts deserves opposition.  Their sacrifices are being dishonored by a government that has put them in the service of an unworthy venture that should never have been entered into in the first place.  Any support that would encourage them to continue down the misbegotten path the government has placed them on lacks wisdom.

So what kind of support should be extended to men and women participating in this war?  Prayer is an appropriate first response.  Certainly prayers should be offered for the safety of those who are in places filled with hazard.  But physical well-being should not be the only focus.  Prayers should also be offered for the preservation of their emotional health and their moral sensitivity.  In the heat of conflict, acts are sometimes performed and condoned by soldiers that later can cause deep pain to their conscience.  The inward woundedness of soldiers who have been on the stage of deadly conflict can be as serious as injuries caused by bullets or bombs.  Offering a listening ear can be a meaningful way to offer support to those who have returned home.  When opportunity and resources allow, support groups for returning soldiers and their families can be provided.  Speaking up on behalf of expanding government sponsored veteran’s services is an important way to extend support. Numerous other things can be done.

Support of men and women in the military must not be seen as the exclusive province of those who support the war in Iraq or any other war. And the distinction between supporting the people who have fought in the war and support for fighting the war should be made sharp and clear. Any attempt to confuse the two should be renounced.


Peter A. Olsen said...


Thanks for this sensitive and insightful article. I can think of no better way to honor men and women killed or injured in combat than to witness truthfully to the injustice and cruelty of the conflicts that have destroyed their lives. How else can such unspeakable suffering be redeemed?

Peter A. Olsen

Mich said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Most pacifists in America actually do support the troops through tax dollars. To really be a consistent pacifist, you may need to move to Sweden.

Another question comes to mind though. Do/can pacifists support Christian police in the performance of their duty as policemen and women?

gentle cynic said...

Pastormack raises an important question. As one who sees the centrality of nonviolence as a hallmark of the Christian moral life and peacemaking as an integral practice of faithful Christian existence, one way to get at this is to see the reality of a tension for which even Jesus addressed with his disciples and people asking similar questions. In particular, we live in exile or as resident aliens; thus in the words of Jesus and Paul, we render unto the nation state what is due while rendering to God the things that are God’s. This in no way means we have to compromise the faithful and creative practice of peacemaking. The social ethic of the church is to respond with good and never respond to violence with violence. Faithful, serious disciples of the Way can render respect to people (e.g., local police in one’s community); and while not withdrawing from their community still develop resources to stand within the world bearing witness to the peaceable kingdom and thus rightly understanding the world.

Dustin Harding said...

I don't see this as a question about supporting troops or not supporting troops. Supporting the war and supporting the troops are 2 completely different issues.

In regards to the troops, the question to me is how are we fulfilling the great commission? As a Christian, we are called to love and minister to those around us. Our mission is to go unto the world and be Christ to them. Sometimes that means ministering in the inner cities in Africa, being a doctor in New Guinea or sometimes that means loving a man/woman who has been wounded in combat. To me this isn't a question about supporting a soldier but more a question about loving a person no matter what situation they are in. And loving them regardless of whether you agree with their choices or not.