This Memorial Day weekend has been fabulous so far. The excellent weather at last (!!) is a great treat. We’ve been working like mad on the inside and outside of the house, playing with the dog, and enjoying time with friends. We have paint in our hair and the smell of bonfire smoke in our clothes. I have a steady stream of cold lemonade in the fridge and fresh strawberries on the counter. (It’s too early for a local crop so they’re probably from Belize or something, but who cares?) We’re relaxing and celebrating. But when you know what it means to lay down your life for your country, even when you’re one of the lucky ones who got to pick it back up, there’s a somber side to these celebrations, too.
I cry a little bit every year on Memorial Day weekend. I’ve overbrewed coffee, burned eggs, and even excused myself from church services because of this. I have a list of friends I contact every year on Sunday or Monday, and I have to send my love and words honor for their fallen loved ones electronically because I’m usually not composed enough to speak to them above a whisper without hiccuping or entirely losing it. We share the history of sending people we loved to war, but I got a homecoming where they had funerals.
One friend sets a plate for her cousin at every family dinner. He volunteered for a mission while in Afghanistan, which his buddies said he did often. Thanks to sniper fire and a kevlar vest that shifted just the right (wrong) amount while he dove for cover, that seat stays empty.
Another lost her brother several years ago. “It ripped my entire family apart,” she said, “and after a few years, just when it started to feel like God might be real again, I almost died from complications after delivering my premature baby, who was stillborn.” Tolkien was indeed right to say that “the world is full enough of hurts and mischances without wars to multiply them.”
Those of us who had the homecoming have our own sets of adjustment challenges, to be certain. The rates for divorce, addiction, debilitating anxiety/depression, and suicide skyrocket for veterans in the first 5 years after a combat deployment. (I believe the risk goes down a little bit after that, but always remains significantly higher than average.) In addition to a host of other things I won’t go into now, I’m not sure Aaron slept or laughed between his homecoming in 2007 and some point in 2012. A person once confessed to me that her uncle killed himself shortly after returning from a deployment, but they tell everyone he didn’t come home because it’s easier to explain. I think the story they tell is closer to the truth than they realize. Facing combat always results in mortal or moral injury, and I see exactly what it means that “only the dead have seen the end of war.” (I think Plato said that. The internet is not always the best way to track those things.)
As a Christian I don’t have lots of good answers about war. Sometimes I dabble in pacificism, since it’s better to turn the other cheek and all that. There is a part of me that reflects on the horror of war and says we should never, ever, in a million years, even think about doing anything like that in any form, at any time, in any place. But I also read of horrible things in this world, where bad guys systematically oppress an entire group of people, raping, burning, overpowering, ethnic and religious groups living under constant threat of death or torture. I have watched old recordings from World War II, with Nazi SS officers gunning down Jews in Poland and publicly dancing on their bodies. And I wonder how anyone could call themselves human while allowing such atrocities to continue, even if it takes combative interference. There are no easy answers; war is hell.
Honestly, I think most scripture passages are extremely confusing on this topic; the Bible does not always shed the light I wish would come here. War is good. War is bad. War is God’s will. War is not God’s will. I think you can twist various verses to say anything you want about war.
“Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty; The Lord, mighty in battle.” (Psalm 24:8)
“His name shall be called… the Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9)
“He trains my hands for battle; he strengthens my arm to draw a bronze bow.” (2 Samuel 22:35)
“He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear.” (Psalm 46)
We have to look at it all together instead of playing verse roulette on this one. These conflicts all stem from the original conflict in the fall. War exists primarily as the result of the first war: mankind setting itself against God in the earliest days. God’s response to the Fall explains the enmity that causes all these wars, and the eventual everlasting victory of his promised Messiah.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
The solution to the problems of does not come in ignoring the cost of injustice, regulation or deregulation of arms, or the promises of politicians for new foreign policy. (Not that those things don’t matter, or that I don’t have opinions about them. But a quick glance of history shows various groups have unsuccessfully tried to eradicate war since the beginning of time. It hasn’t happened and it will not, no matter how excellent our government.) Instead, it comes individually for now: “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) It will come corporately when all is made right, when the 46th Psalm is fulfilled: “He makes wars cease.”
This weekend we can celebrate Memorial Day, which honors those who died in military service, because many were defending the cause of the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17), they were acting in obedience to their civil leaders (1 Peter 2:13), and they cared more about the interests of others than themselves (Philippians 2:4). We can mourn with those who have lost someone dear. We can try to emulate those virtues in our own lives. And most of all, we can rest in the truth that war (and the resulting horrors and lost lives) does not have the “final say” in anything.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death… Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I Corinthians 15)
Today, we are grateful for this homecoming and especially honor those who did not get one. (Also we look like babies.)