Should Christians Serve in the Military?
Should Christians serve in the military?
Although early Christians acknowledged the need for secular government, they didn’t approve of Christian enlistment in the military. They saw a stark contrast between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of Christ, and they believed that the kind of obedience to Caesar required by military service would be an unacceptable compromise for a servant of Jesus Christ. (See the ATQ article, What View Did Early Christians Have of Involvement in the Military?)
Governmental use of military power didn’t change significantly when Constantine made Christianity the leading religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine and his Christianized Roman successors were often as corrupt and ruthless as earlier pagan emperors. Yet the church quickly began to identify with Caesar’s government and its need to impose order, forgot the distinction that earlier Christians drew between Caesar’s realm and the kingdom of God, and began to assume that military service under “Christian rulers” is identical to service for Christ. This perspective resulted in Christian involvement in military actions from the third century until today.
The fact that Jesus Christ was condemned and crucified by earthly political and religious rulers should make it clear that the goals and values of earthly governments are not necessarily in harmony with those of the kingdom of God.
Admittedly, there is a time for war. Christians who generally abhor violence don’t believe they are obligated to stand by and permit violence to be done to their loved ones or themselves. (See the ATQ article, Is Pacifism Always Best?) Many Christians believe that under certain circumstances war is justifiable. (See the ATQ article, When is War Just?)
Yet few wars are genuinely just, and the consequences of unjust wars are always worse than the circumstances triggering them. Even a brief review of the wars of the past century is enough to show how far nominally Christian nations have departed from just-war principles.
World War I began almost by accident when the actions of a lone terrorist unleashed a chain reaction of violence. After the United States was drawn in by propaganda and deception, President Wilson’s idealistic hopes for “a war to end all wars” were not realized. Sixteen million died, 21 million were wounded, and a cruel and unjust Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II.
World War II, in turn, set new precedents for the slaughter of civilians (over 40 million civilians died, along with over 25 million military personnel), created a Communist world empire, and motivated the production of weapons capable of obliterating most human life on the planet.
The commander of US forces in Europe during World War II, Five-Star General Dwight David Eisenhower, was elected President in 1952. “Ike” was troubled and alarmed by the changing relationship between government, military, and the private sector. In his January 17, 1961, farewell address, he warned of the rise of “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions, where none had existed before”:
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.1
President Eisenhower’s warnings were prophetic. High level intrigue, including the deceptions behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, drew the United States into a Vietnamese conflict that resulted in millions of deaths. A handful of major corporations gradually gained control of all major media outlets, and independent, unelected government agencies like the CIA also became deeply embedded in the media. 2 As in George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984, few US citizens realized how much their perceptions of historical and current events were being shaped by “spin” and disinformation.
We now know that fabricated reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and false linkage between the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan and the atrocities of September 11, 2001 were used to justify the United States’ invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, directly and indirectly killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nearly 6,000 American military personnel have died so far. After 9 years, no clear end to the violence is in sight.
President Eisenhower’s call for “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” has never been more relevant, but too few Americans seem concerned about whether there is a legal, constitutional,3 and moral basis for their nation’s military actions. This is tragic, as an idealistic young person who wants to serve his country without knowledge of the social and political realities behind political and military policy may find himself directly participating in naked evil. A soldier may have to take a stand that will risk his career or life.
According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the centurion who was held responsible to execute James had himself executed at the same time. On many occasions, a Christian soldier may be in a unique position to dispense justice, protect the innocent, and bring honor to the name of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, he will be subjected to greater pressures to conform to evil, submit to unjust authority, and remain silent to avoid punishment, court martial, or death.
Because of the legal and moral issues involved with national wars, young people and their parents need to understand the nature of a career in today’s military and its spiritual consequences. Because the goal of military training is immediate, reflexive obedience under stress, it can be dehumanizing. The circumstances and environment of military life can be degrading. Young people in the military often face overwhelming temptations and negative peer influences. (The introduction of women to combat units creates further potential for abuse.4) There is no way a young person can anticipate the reality of death, crippling injury, chronic debilitating illness (Agent Orange Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome), and the psychological trauma inflicted by modern war conditions (often referred to as “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”).5
If nations didn’t protect themselves with military force, nothing would limit the power of predatory states. On the other hand, there is a fine line between protection and exploitation, between a nation protecting its citizens against predatory states or becoming a predator itself. Given today’s political realities, a citizen today can’t simply assume that his government’s wars are worthy of unquestioning support. A young person should never consider enlistment in the military merely another option for employment. It is a commitment with profound spiritual consequences, and if done for the wrong reasons could have devastating consequences.
- President Eisenhower listed several specific areas of danger:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades . . .
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, January 17, 1961). Back To Article
- See, for example, Carl Bernstein’s classic article, “The CIA and the Media” (10-20-77) in Rolling Stone. Back To Article
- Although the Constitution isn’t the inspired Word of God, it was designed by people who generally held a biblical worldview. Human nature was viewed realistically, with awareness of our capacity for corruption and self-deception. Checks and balances were carefully set up to keep the new government from falling under the control of any one of its branches—or any powerful faction. Therefore, faithfulness to the Constitution is not unrelated to faithfulness to Scripture. Unconstitutional uses of governmental power and unconstitutional military actions are indications that basic biblical moral values are being violated. Back To Article
- A recent Time magazine article, “Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” reported that nearly a third of women in the armed forces have been raped or sexually assaulted, and quoted a Pentagon estimate that 80 to 90 percent of rapes go unreported. Back To Article
- The Rand Corporation report, “Invisible Wounds of War” reached this conclusion:
Assuming that the prevalence found in this study is representative of the 1.64 million service members who had been deployed for OEF/OIF (Afghanistan) estimate that approximately 300,000 individuals currently suffer from PTSD or major depression and that 320,000 individuals experienced a probable TBI during deployment. About one-third of those previously deployed have at least one of these three conditions, and about 5% report symptoms of all three. Some specific groups, previously understudied—including the Reserve Components and those who have left military service—may be at higher risk of suffering from these conditions. Back To Article