Jeff's Afghan Diary: "Dad, Why Do You Have to Go?"
October 10, 2006
“Dad, why do you have to go? Couldn’t they send someone else?”
A fair question, coming as it was from my 11-year-old daughter’s mouth. It’s difficult for her to understand why her father will be sent to a country far away for more than a year, while she feels she needs him at home. Of course, every daughter, son, wife, husband, mother, father, sibling, or even in-law could ask the same question. For the thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who have gone already, and for those who did not return, it’s a question that deserves an answer - not just from the government who sent them, but from those who elected to go by volunteering to join.
Today’s military is an all-volunteer force. President Nixon started it, and every president since has seen the wisdom of maintaining a professional military comprised of those who want to be in it. Vietnam showed our country that demanding citizens go and fight when they did not want to was a poor policy. This is not the case today. Every man and woman who proudly wears their uniform has chosen to do so. Including me. No one forced me to reenlist. In fact, I actively transferred from the Navy Reserves into the National Guard, increasing my chances of being mobilized.
The ongoing conflict in Iraq, part of the declared Global War on Terror, has become a considerable civic debate in this country. More citizens seem opposed to it than for it. Most people in America say they support the men and women in combat, but are against the war in general. And every citizen that also wears a uniform has to ask themself if it’s something they believe in, as well.
Unfortunately, I personally do not believe that the ideologues who perpetrated the horrible terrorist acts against our country will stop unless they are defeated. They hate us. They have hated us for a long time. Their hatred will not stop. Their hatred is not confined to our country - they seem to hate everyone and everything that does not acquiesce to their ideas of how the world should be run. They even kill those who profess to belong to their own religion. And they kill innocents - not just civilians, but women and children. Their ideology is brutal, on a level with Attila the Hun and Adolph Hitler. They are murderers.
Many papers, books and treatises have been written about what might constitute a “just war.” St. Augustine wrote about it, shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Other theologians have spoken out, including Rheinhold Neibuhr, the German theologian who urged the United States to get involved in World War II. My personal favorite is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who threw in his lot with the small German resistance movement in World War II. Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as evil, and decided to fight against it. He was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler, and was arrested, tried by the Nazis, and executed for treason. He was 41 at the time of his death.
When should we take up arms against our fellow human beings? Only when we have no other choice, and when those human beings will kill and continue to kill those who cannot defend themselves. This, to me, is the moral imperative - to fight for the oppressed.
In Abraham Lincoln’s time, our country was divided between those who considered slavery a moral outrage and those who claimed it as a right and law. Lincoln himself was ambivalent at first, but then decided slavery was immoral. However, the Civil War ultimately decided the issue, and now slavery is seen as an abuse of powerless persons, not only in this country, but across the globe.
Often, war changes how humanity sees itself. After the Civil War, America decided slavery was wrong. The war silenced any opposing voices, and now, it is almost universally felt that slavery was never right to begin with. But the war took a heavy toll of lives in this country.
War is often unjust, even when fighting for a just cause. The Allies killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Germany, and the United States killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese, including women and children, with the atomic bomb. It was considered the price that must be paid to win. However, today, the United States is taking greater pains to reduce what is called “collateral damage” in terms of civilian losses.
Military decisions are often based on more than simple strategic considerations. It may be easier to simply kill off anyone who may be suspected of collaborating with the enemy, but this tactic erases the moral high ground, creating even more enemies. Good leaders make good decisions, and our military needs good leaders who will choose what is right over what is expedient. If good and upright people avoid military service, the only ones left to make decisions will be those who will represent our cause poorly.
So I am committed to going, because I believe it is necessary. I hope I am doing the right thing. I hope I am the kind of person who will make good decisions while I am there. I hope that the results of our actions will make something positive in the world.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.