Archived Sections, Reviews

Are Lutherans to wage war?

What it is like to go to war. Karl Marlantes. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 256 pages. Cloth. $25.00. www.groveatlantic.com.
Wisdom about war and non-violence: Helping Lutheran youth make a prayerful and conscientious choice. Lowell Erdahl; Duane Kamrath, ed. 2012. 36 pages. Softbound. $3. To order: 507/665-6460 or duane kamrath@gmail.com. www.fairwaypress.com.
As we approach Veterans Day on November 11, it is appropriate, during the parades and memorial services, to talk about issues of war: loyalty, valor, patriotism — and the consequences of armed conflict. Two recent publications address these issues. They explore two separate dimensions of war-making, and invite Lutherans into the conversation concerning what’s appropriate behavior.
Karl Marlantes, who grew up Lutheran in the Pacific Northwest (with ancestors who were Swedes and Finns), writes about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. Reflecting on his involvement decades after reintegration into civilian life, he intends his 11 chapters to serve as a sort of reality test for young men and women facing combat.

How can a reasonable human being stand by and not prevent violence being done to innocent, defenseless people?

Marlantes deals with key issues: what it feels like to kill someone; dealing with guilt created in the war zone; coming to terms with one’s “shadow side”; two kinds of loyalty (what soldiers owe their superiors; what the superiors owe their soldiers); and the damage that participating in violence can do to a person’s psyche.
The book overflows with stories from Marlantes’ tour of duty in Vietnam. They are not easy to read. His language at times is rough and raw. (He takes the reader right into the thick of the fight and doesn’t spare the expletives.)
Marlantes assumes that war is probably unavoidable. His argument is straightforward: How can a reasonable human being stand by and not prevent violence being done to innocent, defenseless people? He admits some wars don’t really meet this criterion and are ill-conceived, as was, he admits, the one in which he fought.
It’s almost scary reading his description of how brutalizing an enemy in war can give a soldier an adrenaline high like no synthetic drug or other thrill-inducing “high” can. He doesn’t celebrate this fact, but he wants those heading to war to be aware of it. He is also candid about the remorse that can follow.

Are there other options?

By contrast, the brief publication by Lowell Erdahl and Duane Kamrath counsels seeking nonviolent alternatives to war. Kamrath engineered the publication, which contains 30 day-by-day short reflections by Erdahl.

Erdahl asserts that an honest reading of the New Testament gives the reader no real option other than to embrace nonviolence.

This booklet is intended for confirmation- and high school-age kids to read before they have to make a decision about whether or not to participate in the military draft. It is also intended for use in families with young people.
Among other things, Erdahl reminds the reader that “war is a colossal failure of imagination” and, quoting Twin Cities teacher/theologian Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, affirms that “redemptive violence is a myth.”
Erdahl makes the interesting assertion that an honest reading of the New Testament gives the reader no real option other than to embrace nonviolence.
Here is an interesting question for adult forum discussion: Did Christians in Germany respond properly to the Nazi menace? Marlantes says taking up arms against Hitler was a no-brainer. Erdahl suggests the dictator could have been defeated if German Christians had simply responded nonviolently and refused to fight his wars for him. (He admits there might have been a few martyrs at the outset, but then the tidal wave of righteous resistance would have come.)
Let the thoughtful, discerning Lutheran reader decide.

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