Life in the Time of Warfare

I was born in 1945. My daughter was born in 1968. My two older grandchildren were born in 1995 and 1999. The younger three came along in 2012, 2014 and 2016. This means that neither me, nor my daughter, nor my grandchildren have ever known a time when the United States was not at war.

Some were major wars that involved coalitions of many nations—World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the current war on ISIL. Others involved only the US and one other country. Some, we said we “won.” Others, well…

Most were military engagements that involved US troops and firepower with or against other nations. There was also the Cold War – that persistent state of tension between the Western Bloc, the US and its allies, and the Eastern Bloc, composed of the USSR and its allies – that followed WWII. While military historians disagree on its exact dates, 1947-1991 is typically accepted. What I personally remember most about the Cold War Era is huddling in a terrified ball underneath my classroom desk in grade school when the sirens howled and we had air raid drills. I was certain that the images I had seen on jerky black and white newsreels of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would soon be images of the small town where I lived. Not necessarily logical, but kids’ fears often aren’t logical.

A recent report indicated that tensions between the United States and Russia are now at a level not seen since the Cold War Era. Are we headed down that path again? Will my perennially-cheerful, happy-go-lucky grandson come to know the terror I felt? Will my grandchildren face conscription?

Some wars were international in scope, while others entailed US participation in a civil war within a country. Some were high profile, while people barely realized others were going on. World War II, which ended in 1945, was the last war officially declared by an act of Congress – the only body authorized to do so. But the others were fought just the same. That in itself is a strange situation: there is a protocol in place for those times when it is deemed necessary to declare war. Yet, seemingly more and more often, the wars in which we engage are not “official” ones that have been vetted through that process.

There are, in other words, at least two, and in some families three, generations for whom there has not been a time of peace in their lifetime. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that we are a warrior nation, a nation that often enforces its desires and ideas with the use of military might or the threat of such use. I am not a pacifist, at least not in the usual sense of that term. I believe that there are, or may be, times when there are threats to the welfare of humanity that are so grave as to require the use of whatever force is necessary to subdue or at least contain them. I am, though, deeply disturbed by how facile we have become about launching into armed conflict, especially without Congressional action. It seems that military force is more and more becoming our first line of defense, not our last resort when everything else has failed.

The imagery of war also permeates our culture. We now have the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on the unborn (i.e. abortion), and the wars on poverty and cancer – not to mention the so-called “war on Christmas.” A high proportion of the computer games that are so popular and played by so many people are war-themed. Camoflague sells in both the world of high fashion and off-the-rack clothing.

One of my concerns with the multi-generational pervasiveness of warfare is that I wonder how generations of people who have no memory of peace can wage peace? What basis do we have for believing that peace is even possible? How can we believe that the prophet Isaiah’s stirring vision is anything more than a fantasy: “The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain” (65:25).

Another concern is the emotional and spiritual toll that living in a seemingly-endless time of warfare takes on people. The prevalence of modern-day technology means that war, wherever it is, is streamed into our living rooms and our bedrooms, as it happens. Every bit of it. Images of bloodied children. Images of the World Trade Towers falling in rubble. Image of soldiers cradling fallen comrades, providing what comfort they can in their last minutes of life. There are several generations of little kids who have never known anything else. Research indicates that people who watch more war reporting have higher anxiety levels, and at the same time, become numb to the images, disconnected from the reality they represent.

Related to that, the pervasiveness of war reporting normalizes war. We are no longer taken aback, no longer outraged, no longer dismayed that better solutions elude us. War has become “business as usual.”

I don’t have answers. I don’t have answers that are satisfactory for me personally, and I certainly don’t have answers that might begin to heal a world drunk on war. But I know we must try. We cannot let armed conflict remain the go-to solution.

~    Rev. Julia