Notre Dame Summer Scholars 2013

**The below is the transcript for a talk I gave on the subject of critical thinking for Notre Dame’s Pre-College programing, called “Summer Scholars,” before 250+ (predominantly Catholic) high school aged men and women considering higher education, given July 4th, 2013. 

I was eight months into being 18 years old in 2000, and had just stepped off the bus at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, ready to start nine weeks of grueling training to prepare me for military service. I was the last buzz-headed enlistee to step off the vehicle, so I turned to shut the door. A drill sergeant yelled at me from the tarmac to get moving, so I instinctively turned to reply, timidly, “Drill Sergeant, I just thought…”

“Y’aint paid to think, private!” he screamed. The drill sergeant seemed to know what he was talking about, so I took him at his word. Or so I thought.

Shoot, there I went again, thinking. I’d have to work on that.

It was my first week of basic combat training, better known as Boot Camp to civilians, so named for the footwear to which you are required to quickly acclimate. Failing, you’d have to learn quick how moleskin worked.

No, not the notebook you see people in Starbucks with, but rather the adhesive-backed felt pads that you buy at drugstores to treat or prevent blisters on your feet. I thought ahead though, and brought several packs of it, in case… crap! There I went again, thinking.

I thought I’d had practice in not-thinking. I hadn’t thought much about enlisting seven months before, not long before my high school graduation. Sensing, like you, that college was my next step in life, I had attended a weapons system exhibition at the casual invitation of my best friend, Ryan. He had signed up for the Army Reserves, and the exhibition was being held at the place where his monthly drill occurred. His older brother, a guy we looked up to, had matriculated at Tulane University in New Orleans on a full ROTC scholarship, and would later go on to fly helicopters.

It was peacetime, so I didn’t have to think too deeply about military service. Do two years, get out, and use my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. It was simple. Or so I thought.

At the processing station in Los Angeles, I was asked if I wanted to attend airborne training and jump out of airplanes as a paratrooper with the 82nd Division out of Ft. Bragg, NC. I shrugged my approval. The $150 extra per month was a no-brainer. I was young, dumb, and full of… ambition.


Five and a half short years later, I had a combat deployment to Iraq under my belt and the whole not-thinking thing wasn’t doing me any favors. Reflection forced itself upon me, sometimes in the middle of the night. I’d awake in a cold sweat, heart racing, images of battle buddies’ mangled limbs and severed body parts seared into my brain. All the money in the world couldn’t keep me from thinking then.

All the training the American taxpayers had funded on my behalf did little to prepare me for the stark and brutal reality of modern warfare. Little did I know that after WWII, combat training had begun focusing on desensitizing soldiers’ moral conscience. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the official military historian of the second world war, had found that the rate of fire among frontline soldiers in WWII was less than one in every four infantrymen. That meant that only one trooper in a four-man team actually shot at the enemy. The rest fired over their heads or had to be commanded, in person, by their superior officer. General Marshall saw this as a problem and sold it to the military that way. Never did he stop to ask why our firing rate had to increase after a war that we had overwhelmingly won… But I don’t want to slip and start thinking again…

So starting in the 50’s, the military moved away from simple marksmanship drills toward realistic combat scenarios in which trainees were taught, basically, to shoot first and ask questions later. The name that the effect of this training took was “reflexive fire,” for it encouraged not reflecting upon the unique situation in which an infantryman might find him (and now her)self, but on pure instinct. Targets that presented themselves on the firing range were ALL supposed to be “put down.” Psychologists have a name for this kind of goal-oriented training; they call it “operant conditioning.” Personal reflexes are trained to shoot as quickly and as accurately as possible, without engaging one’s moral conscience. This “reflexive fire” is rewarded by things like expert marksmanship awards.

Accuracy is not measured on the range, at least not precisely. If the one foot by 3 foot cardboard silhouette goes down, it counts. When a human-shaped silhouette appeared, you fired, regardless of their status. The more I killed, or, as I was trained to say, “engaged,” the more likely I was to earn my expert marksman badge and therefore more likely get promoted above my peers. After all, the targets were silhouettes, who knew if they were civilians or enemy? Who had time to ask, my stomach is growling and I just heard the chow truck pull up.

So it went with my fellow soldiers and me. Uniformed and uninformed we proceeded, like wind-up toys, on to war.


It sometimes happens similarly in the Church in reference to war. We read the Catechism and swallow theology hook, line, and sinker. Elaborate and thoughtful theology is the job of people either trained or ordained, like priests or seminary professors, right? The place of the laity, isn’t to think, we might ironically think. We learn that at some time long ago, someone smarter (and probably holier or higher paid) than us already thought about war and violence as it relates to theology and determined that a “just” war is one in which

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain,
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective,
  • There must be serious prospects of success, AND
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition[1]

The moral consciences of Roman Catholics in regards to war are formed around these four principles. One of my subordinate soldiers knew them almost verbatim. This young, devout catholic who had considered the priesthood before enlisting, would eventually lament to me that he did not feel prepared theologically or mentally, to go to combat. Just war doctrine, for all its moral authority, did not, and could not prepare him or me to go to the hell that is modern war. He knew by proactively reflecting on the demands of our faith (by thinking critically), I on the other hand, knew only by experience. Before I had deployed, I don’t recall having any idea what the rich tradition that is just war was about. My faith was not as deeply rooted as his, not nearly as identity-constituting. After all, I was not catholic.

Moral formation for war must be something that seeps down to our deepest sense of self. We must truly believe that we are capable of war in order to conduct them justly. But to know what we are capable of, we need trusted guides, just men and women who have journeyed ahead and can reflect with authority upon the ultimate demands of war on the human soul and psyche. What we have in their stead is The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan,  Band of Brothers, Battleship, or Pearl Harbor, and I for one do not trust these guides. Movies like these treat their viewers like children, as though war is something to be admired. But to go to war requires men and women, not boys and girls. If war is something like hell, the image of Jesus harrowing hell could not be adapted into a children’s book… Taking war and warriors seriously requires solemnity, true strength of character, and a firm resolve to come all the way home from the battlefield – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.

Coming all the way home is never easy and rarely accomplished without staggering complications. The best of my number, of war-wearied veterans, always bring a bit of hell back with them. Their stories make us wince in their striking obscenity and visceral honesty. They cannot sugar coat their experiences without tarnishing the integrity of their friends who did not make it home.

I trust those who have been there, like Medal of Honor recipients Alvin York or Audie Murphy, each of whom wrote first hand accounts of their service. York initially applied to be a conscientious objector and went on to effect the surrender of over 130 German soldiers in France in WWI. When he came home, he shunned public attention and on his deathbed many years later, asked his son if God would forgive him for having to kill the 28 Germans who refused to come peacefully.

Murphy, who saved his unit from being overrun by jumping on a burning tank in order to use its large caliber machine gun, described his service in his autobiography, To Hell and Back, as a “brand.” …like one he would have given his cattle as a boy on his Texas ranch …or one that God left with our forefather Cain. Murphy writes “When I was a child, I was told men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency?”

Now hear Cain, who cries out in Genesis 4, “My punishment is too great! I have been driven away, and from God’s face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”[2]

Do you hear them call out in one voice? Men separated by millennia but who share the common bond of having taken lives that God had created. Lest you think these are isolated or strictly historical accounts, a Vietnam Veteran I’ve worked with, Camilo Bica, crafted the following poem, based on his tour as a Marine Captain;

I fear I am no longer alien to this horror
I am, I am, I am the horror!
I have lost my humanity
And have embraced the insanity of war
The monster and I are one
The blood of innocents forever stains my soul!
The transformation is complete,
And I can never return.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Moral conscience, which the catechism explores in Paragraphs 1776-1802, requires deliberate and at times intense formation in order to withstand the moral beating it receives in combat. Your will is tested to its limits, and if all you have to rely on is operant conditioning and reflexive training, if you shoot first and ask questions later, the thinking will catch up to you, as it did me. But temptation is a universal fact for Christians, perhaps you too have been tested. Maybe you gave in because you temporarily forgot who and whose you truly are; you took that drink, you puffed that smoke, you told that little lie. You and I are alike in our mistakes, but we are also alike in our baptism. For in war, or under any temptation, if you do not have a strong sense of self in place already, if you do not know how Christians, or even people of goodwill, respond in times of crisis, you will be lost. Your identity will fragment.

In war, the intensity of moral challenges you face will leave you scarred. Decisions that will remain with you for a lifetime must be made in split seconds. When your training insists, over and over again, that in convoys any delay will increase the chance that an enemy will take the opportunity to exploit the situation to your disadvantage, you learn that you never stop, no matter what. Lives depend on it, and not just yours. Then, when a child chases a ball in front of your two thousand pound Humvee, you’ll have less time to react than it took for me to read that sentence to you… and a lifetime to reflect on it later.

Trust me, when that time comes, your body and mind will react on instinct, not intellect, on habit, not on heart. The habits you have formed, or that have formed you, will take over. If those habits have been “kill, kill kill!”, as any and every young enlisted private who endures boot camp likely are, you will fail your conscience. Military training will fail you because war is hell and it has no coordinates. Another Marine Captain, Tyler Boudreau, a veteran of Iraq like me, reflects

Hell aint got no coordinates. You cant find it on the charts because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all [he’s beginning to sound a bit like Augustine, the doctor of the Church, who insisted that evil is actually a non-thing], so when you’re there, you’re nowhere – you’re lost. The narrative, that’s your chart, your own story. There are guys who come home from war and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost.

Cain echoes on the breath of his spiritual progeny, wondering and wandering, never certain what the future holds, or if it will hold at all. Their sails are limp and they’re taking on water, unsure if they will survive the dark night and the abyss.


The naves of early churches were deliberately shaped like capsized ships, sailing this upside down world together as a people of the right-side up Kingdom. Never quite at home in the nations of the world but never without our God, the cross is our mast and we wander wonderfully as one people, one Body of Christ. Soldiers’ moral pain is no different than the anguish we all feel when we fail to be the people we were made to be. If we are one, it means that soldiers are not alone, that they were never alone. In mass, when we re-member the Body of Christ, we witness to this very unity – many bodies come to the table and are made one Body. We remember those among us who are broken and in need of the unifying love of God. Church is the place we go to continually be put back together, and it is our duty as Christians to concern ourselves with the moral and social plight of soldiers and veterans.

The Latin word conscientias, from which we derive the word conscience, means “mutual awareness,” to be “with knowledge.” We learn to be who we are by modeling the behavior of those we trust. Our earliest moral authorities are our parents, and if we are baptized as infants and attend mass regularly, our parish forms another strong moral authority upon which to learn what it means to be a person of goodwill and to follow Christ. The habits we gain in Church are not for the purpose of just memorizing creeds, but to learn and internalize the church’s moral teachings.

Imagine for a moment that you grew up under less than ideal circumstances, or that you did not have strong parental figures in your life to teach you who and whose you are. It is disproportionately poor families and communities who contribute to the local recruitment quotas. Having to develop personally under such circumstances leaves many a good person with inadequate moral formation, with less than they need to face war and return in one moral or spiritual piece.

They may not have the knowledge of their goodness upon which to fall back when they choose the lives of their friends over the life of that child who stepped in front of their Humvee. They may believe the voices in the back of the minds that tell them they are horrible monsters and do not deserve to live. War leaves everyone who enters it with an indelible stamp. Every person who enters hell is changed, none return completely unscathed. Even Jesus brought his scars back with him…

It is no coincidence that Augustine never spoke of war in formulaic terms, as we do now. Instead, he received letters from military personnel like Boniface and Marcellus, who wrestled with what it meant that they were Christians who had blood on their hands. With Cain, they cried out to a trusted theologian, a pastor, “our burden is too great to bear!” The saint from Hippo responded by reasoning with them, by thinking alongside them how their actions might be justified. But he also knew to never call what they did “good.” The doctor of the church encouraged Christian soldiers to repent and seek reconciliation with and from the catholic church. For centuries following his early teaching, during even the most reprehensible crusades, parishes would require that warriors refrain from taking the Eucharist for various periods of time, determined by their moral proximity to death and destruction that war carries with it. After all, even Cain’s cry was heard, and God’s mark upon him was not for punishment or shame, but protection. His curse to wander lasts less then five verses, as he settles in Nod and takes a companion to help guide him on the journey all the way home from the death he had caused.

The Church needs to reconsider the centuries old debate about war that abstracts it from the lived experience of those we have sent thereto. War forces those who enter it to confront ultimate concerns of life and death and everything thereafter. If they have not already given critical thought to who they are and why they act the way they do (and don’t), war will make them decide in the heat of the moment. All the superficial concerns of the world come crashing down when you hear the zipper-sound of that first bullet racing by your eardrum.

I know because it happened to me. It was eleven months into my deployment, and we were assisting in a rescue effort at a crash site in northern Iraq, not far from the city to which Jonah fled the call of God. The temperature was a chilling 50 degrees when a Humvee full of soldiers flipped over a ravine, throwing men and equipment into a small reservoir. Over the course of many hours in the dead of night, we worked to free a small number of fellow soldiers from the wreckage. One soldier’s leg was twisted obscenely out of place, caught between the cold metal of the wreckage and the brittle concrete of the reservoir barrier. With the help of morphine, he was slipping past shock to disorientation, alternating between screaming agony and whispering sweet nothings to a wife thousands of miles away. Beside him, another young man lay unconscious and without a strong pulse, being ushered quickly to death, soon to make orphans of his two young daughters. Our efforts did not help him and he became one of the 4,804 American fatalities of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died, like so many others, in the land of our forefather Abraham of Ur, just East of Eden where Abel’s blood cried out from the land between the two rivers. His death was not like the ones I had watched in movies or on television; it was purposeless and unnecessary.

Another Christian soldier and Iraq veteran, Kevin Benderman, remembers his tour in similar terms;

My father, who fought in WWII, tried to tell me, “War is not as glamorous as they make it out to be.” But I was too stubborn and bull-headed to listen. When you’re young, you want to get all that experience for yourself… and boy, I asked for it.

I saw more than I ever wanted to see… you see how war affects civilians in the area. Every house you look at has bomb craters or bullet holes in it…

[I found out] we were in the area of Iraq that was supposed to be the Garden of Eden, the cradle of civilization where mankind began. I had to ask myself, “Why am I carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden?”

In the days and weeks following our failed rescue attempt, I questioned who I was that I had watched and was affected by this young man’s death, but not by the countless others I witnessed in the ten months prior. Who had I become? I thought I was a Christian (or at least a good man), discriminate in my fire and compassionate in my demeanor. But I had wept only for those with whom I identified; the American military was my community, not the church universal. I had not loved my enemy as myself, I had cursed and not blessed those that had caused me harm. I had placed my country before my faith, and I had failed to see it until it was too late.  I wanted to believe I was a person of goodwill, I thought that I was a Christian, but war had proven me wrong, it had exposed my hypocrisy. It would take many years, innumerable tears, and immeasurable heartache, but I would eventually come to thank God for breaking my hardened heart that night so long ago in that bullet-riddled and holy land.


After coming home, I was left to reflect on my reflexive moral failure. By the grace of God, I found resources hidden in plain sight, finding that the church has a curious history of soldier saints and patriot pacifists that did not think simplistically about war. Their lives refused to be reduced to formulas and abstractions, forcing the church that canonized them to critically engage the issue of war and peace more deeply than it often does. By their witness and the strength of the Holy Spirit in interpreting our scriptures, the Church has the ability to correct its course on issues of war.

If we want to think about war, let the just war doctrine be just one of many resources to which we turn for guidance. Let us follow the examples of the saints who have come before, who rarely lead us where we expect to go. Francis, for one, whose prayer graces the offices of military chaplains often, turned his back to war in 1204 A.D., on his way to the 4th crusade. He had been a prisoner of war and suffered symptoms akin to modern post-traumatic stress disorder; he wandered the streets at night, battled nightmares and hallucinations, and attracted others with similar struggles – eight of the first ten Franciscans were veterans of the same war he fought against Perugia. It is Francis, after all, who undercut the crusades to regain the Holy Land by bringing holy land to local parishes – you know them as the Stations of the Cross.

Or consider Ignatius, who was wounded in battle and whose vanity made him undergo great pain to avoid having a limp (which our father Jacob himself was not so proud as to hide). Before he went off to seminary to found the Jesuits, he abandoned his sword and the vestments of a knight at the foot of the Virgin Mary at a monastery in Spain. To this day, his order is known especially for the obedience not to a flag or to a sovereign, but to the successor of the perhaps most fumbling apostle, Peter.

But a more poignant example for us here at Notre Dame cannot be found in anyone but Marcellus, a third century Roman centurion of the Trajan legion. He too had a crystallization of moral conscience, seemingly out of the blue, when during a national holiday, he openly declared that Rome worshipped “deaf and dumb idols.” His sedition could not be tolerated, so he was killed on October 30th, which is his feast day. The day he took his stand is just weeks away, though, on July 21st.

Martial influences abound not just in our traditions, but also in liturgy and scripture. Before every weekly mass, after the priest enters in persona Christi by uttering the words of institution, he does not consume the host until after he enters in persona Milites by quoting the centurion of great faith from Luke and Mathew; “Lord I am unworthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” In John’s gospel, tradition unites the soldier who pierces Jesus side with the centurion who confesses “surely this man was the Son of God.” He is given the name Longinus, from the Greek word longche, the long spear he carried for war and that insured Christ had died, pouring forth blood and water signifying that the sacred heart of Jesus had broken for us, sinners like these men. But Longinus is paradoxically counted as a saint, for he went on to become a monk (as converted soldiers frequently do) and was martyred for his faith.


These are the forefathers of Christian soldiers, and these are our most trusted guides through the valley of the shadow of death that is war. The true story behind Saving Private Ryan is based not on an Army Captain and his squad of elite Rangers, but one courageous chaplain who never touched a weapon in his entire career. Father Francis Sampson is our trusted guide, not PVT Jackson, the uber religious sniper that Spielberg inserted into the story for dramatic effect. He and other Christian soldiers, including Alvin York, Kevin Benderman, and Camilo Bica, who know the path because they’ve walked it, should be our guides in more fully grasping the reality of war.

It is by these examples and others that the Church can come to comprehend war more fully. Relying on things like movies to tell the tale of war can be very misleading. The Pharisees in Matthew 23 were called hypokrites, pretenders of the faith, and the Roman world would have heard it as an allusion to acting. Without strong moral formation before war, we risk being formed by collected habits, absorbed from public narratives that succeed in being the loudest or the most entertaining presentations about the moral life. Instead of simply internalizing Hollywood’s narrative, for example (though there are many others), Christians must form habits that can collect us into a unified and coherent moral person. Fragmented and incoherent moral persons have a name in scripture, they are called “hypocrites” and “a brood of vipers.” God’s work in the world is to collect us all into him, to make us integral people who mean what we say and do, who practice the humility, patience, and virtue that we preach.

To be such a people, we must think critically about how our scriptures and traditions shape us, and be on our guard against the world shaping us by default. God invites us, in Isaiah 1, “Come, let us reason together.” Augustine heard and saw the image of God in Roman soldiers that he ministered to, and for this reason he is known as the father of the just war tradition. It is only by reflection that we can come to know and reason with God, to gaze upon him so that we may become more like his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Though we may not be paid to, it is our duty to think, our unique responsibility as moral people in immoral societies to make it a habit to think critically and act faithfully.

[1] Catechism, paragraph 2309

[2] paraphrase, Genesis 4:13-14

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