Fair Questions: Do soldiers need penance for being in just wars?

This article from Brookings is one of the best I’ve ever read on the social implications of how we view military service and the moral hazards of being in the military, especially during combat operations.

One of the issues discussed was the matter of the moral implications of being part of a war effort and how we help our veterans handle those moral implications.  Even if we could imagine a case of war in which it is clear that there was a just cause and that just means were used in combat and that the winner of the war took care to try to re-establish a just society for the people in the war-torn lands, a person who has killed may well still feel the blood on his hands.

So how do we help him process the grief and guilt he feels, especially in cases in which it is clear that the war was not fought for a just cause and did not utilize just means?  The author points us to an ancient Christian practice of doing penance upon returning home, utilizing the disciplines of the Church and the corporal works of mercy to help the soldier process his sense of guilt and simultaneously contribute to his own community.

And many veterans do something similar today; they may get involved in charitable works and try to share their experiences so as to help others understand the moral hazards of war more fully.  They may dive deep into their existing religious tradition or convert to a new one as a way of working out their guilt (and perhaps salvation) with the fear and trembling that comes before peace in the face of what is transcendent.

Regardless of whether we make the ancient Christian practice of penance the default strategy of helping them or not, it’s clear from the high suicide rate among veterans that we who are not citizen-soldiers owe it to them to find a way to fight to maintain their lives and freedoms so that their sacrifice for our lives and freedoms is not in vain.

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One Response to Fair Questions: Do soldiers need penance for being in just wars?

  1. Jack says:

    I have a good friend with whom I served in Iraq who gave away his entire salary for the entire time he was in Iraq (roughly amounting to 8-9 months of E-5 pay with hazardous duty allowance tacked on, and all untaxed–quite a sizable sum). He said that he felt like he shouldn’t make any money from being in a war. Although not outwardly pious in many ways, he is a Catholic who takes his faith seriously. At the time I was serving with him, I didn’t even know he was doing this. He told me about it years later. Although I never thought of doing penance in the strict sense, I did strive while I was serving in Iraq to behave like a servant rather than a conqueror. For example, we were actually permitted to take modest war trophies (for example, Iraqi gas masks and other pieces of small military equipment other than weapons/munitions), but my conscience got the better of me and, after possessing it for about a week, I left my Iraqi gas mask behind in one of the compounds that we had occupied temporarily. I figured that the Iraqi military would need to reorganize eventually, and that it would be better to leave some usable equipment for them to use rather than to steal useful items from the Iraqi people (In spite of this, I don’t claim that my behavior over there was always perfect–I should have done a lot more to check the behavior of other soldiers who did act like conquerors).

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