Robert Kaplan has a fine essay over on the American Interest on the growing gap between the military and the civilian society. The military is increasingly a “warrior class” set apart. Kaplan is by no means the first to worry about this, but the intelligence of his worrying is refreshing. I got to thinking about this anew when in conversation a while back with a young man, an Ivy League graduate who had just returned from his second tour in Iraq. A soldier from the Ivies is today a very rare breed. Of his return to civilian society, he says: “It’s an alternative universe. People don’t know what I’m talking about, and I don’t think they really care.” He says he will likely reenlist in a universe that makes more sense. Of course there are Christians who don’t think Christians have any business being in the military to begin with. The thinking of two generations of Protestant clergy was formed by Roland Bainton’s 1979 book, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace . Bainton didn’t convert all of them to pacifism. Not by a long shot. But he entrenched the feeling that there is something deeply dubious about the morality of Christians in military service. Bainton’s history has been sharply challenged. Of particular interest is Louis Swift’s The Early Fathers on War and Military Service . Oliver and Joan O’Donovan’s From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Source Book in Christian Political Thought also has instructive material. There is no doubt that in the first century, Christians were ambivalent, to say the least, about serving in the Roman military and, for that matter, about the empire itself. Whether this had to do primarily with the morality of warfare or with idolatry is much disputed. Soldiers were required to take an oath to the gods of the empire and to the emperor, and such oaths were forbidden for Christians. All that changed dramatically by the fourth century and the dawn of what came to be called Christendom. The argument over whether Christendom represented a triumph of the gospel or the fall of the Church continues to this day, and probably will continue until Our Lord returns in glory. Refracted through the twists and turns of history, it has everything to do with today’s debates over religion and the political order in our society. The undeniable fact is that today hundreds of thousands of devout Christians serve in America’s armed forces. If, as some contend, pacifism is a mark of the Church, they are all guilty of mortal sin and are beyond the pale. With relatively few exceptions, and for good reasons both humanly natural and theological, Christians in America don’t believe that. This is not the place to engage all the arguments involved between pacifism and just-war doctrine. It is the place to note that what Kaplan and others call the “warrior class” is increasingly divorced not only from civilian society but from the society that ought to matter most, the Church. This is especially true of Catholics. Catholics are overrepresented in the military. There is a shortage of priests almost everywhere, but there is a desperate shortage of military chaplains. I have talked with deeply committed Catholics in the military who have not been able to attend Mass for three or five months at a time. During the years that Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, now of Baltimore, headed the military archdiocese, he pleaded repeatedly and fervently for bishops to release a priest, or two or three, for service in the chaplaincy. Some did and some do. But far, far from enough. The alternative universes of military and civilian life pose many problems for our country’s present and future, as Kaplan ably discusses. Although, please God, we need not choose between them, the Church is more important than the country. Non-Catholic Christians in the military are generally well served. For many years, the chaplain corps was dominated by Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. One thinks, for instance, of the Navy career of the late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York and of the army career of my mentor at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Arthur Carl Piepkorn. Today the majority of chaplains are from evangelical, Pentecostal, and independent bodies, where clergy are plentiful and the chaplaincy is a means of upward mobility. The last factor does not detract from their frequently heroic service, also in ministering to Catholics in the services. But for Catholics there is no substitute for a priest and those things that only a priest can do. The divide between the military and civilian societies is not new, but it has been greatly exacerbated by an all-volunteer military. When we had conscription, everybody knew somebody in the military and therefore people cared. Today military service is “their choice,” and the rest of us are free to go about our business. I’m not suggesting that we reinstitute the draft. But there is an ominous disconnect when those who fight the country’s battles are viewed as volunteer mercenaries. As I say, this is not a new problem. In the 1960s, when I was viewed as a man on the left, I was in the forefront of the protest against the Vietnam War. In 1964 the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and I were the first co-chairmen of what was then called Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, which became the largest sustained antiwar organization during those tumultuous years. I vividly remember an intense debate over a proposal that we take out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times declaring that American soldiers in Vietnam were participating in a criminal activity and were therefore war criminals. Heschel and I vigorously opposed the proposal and, I am glad to say, we prevailed, but it was a close call. I opposed that proposal and others like it for what I believe are sound moral reasons. The war in Vietnam, I believed, was a grievous mistake but it was not criminal. My thinking was also influenced by a personal factor. I had two brothers serving in the special forces in Vietnam. Of the six brothers in the family, all but I served in the military; one in the air force, one in the navy, and three in the army. The two in Vietnam were “lifers,” meaning they served twenty years. There was another personal factor, which was also a pastoral factor. I was at the time pastor of a large, very poor, and mainly black Lutheran parish in Brooklyn. At the height of the Vietnam protest, and my intense involvement in it, I had young men enlisting in the military. Except for one who was killed in Vietnam, it was one of the best decisions they ever made in terms of getting their lives together. For too many other young men of St. John the Evangelist, the path was dropping out of school, drugs, and crime. There were pastoral challenges in conducting a funeral for a fallen soldier one week and the next week holding a service at which draft cards were turned in. But this, after all, is the Church, the community in which all are called to act in conscience informed by moral truth as best they understand it. Read the Kaplan essay. If you are a Catholic, give a thought to writing your bishop and asking what he might do to ensure that those in military service are not denied the ministry of the Church.


I am told that CBC television in Canada will be airing a documentary on First Things and my other activities this Sunday. The program begins at 10 in the morning, with the pertinent segment coming on around 11. Those who have otherwise attended to their Sunday Mass duty and live within the range of CBC transmission might want to give it a look. Their people were taping here for several days and were very pleasant, but I have no idea what spin, if any, will be put on the story.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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