Talking, Theology, and War

I’ve been told that I have the reputation of being pretty stand off-ish. I’m that guy, the one that doesn’t look like I want to talk to you. I have every reason to divert my attention when I move from place to place – I’m listening to music, I’m reading a book, or I’m staring off into space. Most people know I went to war, an off-putting subject to many, and I am very open about it (I even wrote two books on the subject). War is very present in my life, and newspaper headlines and Facebook newsfeeds alike suggest it is also still very present in the world at large. It irks me that so many people go on about their daily lives as though we aren’t at war, even as the war still rages inside me and continues to rage around the world.

Most don’t even realize that the way we fought the Global War on Terror, as it was called throughout my service, was historically unprecedented. In WWI and WWII, professional sports stopped. Food was rationed and people could not escape the reality that war required our attention. During Vietnam, men were drafted and even those with wealth had to at least make excuses about why and how they seemed to avoid being forcibly enlisted at the rates poor people did. Even as recently as the early nineties, the “First Gulf War” was televised and watched with at times breathless anticipation, but it ended and people came home. For me, there is no “my” war and there has been neither victory nor defeat; the modularity of it all means it belongs to nobody and it belongs to everyone at the same time. For me and my generation of veterans, much has changed and I feel very clearly that I am different from most others. I feel alienated from the American public and especially the academic circles in which I’ve invested myself for about six years now.

Making matters worse, I aspire to be an scholar, but there are very few theologians with the intimate and personal knowledge of war that has infected me. Exemptions for ministers and seminarians during the last draft means that few, if any, senior faculty at religious studies departments are veterans. There are few experienced mentors for Christians in academia who want to leverage their military experience for improving the Church’s thought and practice about war and peace. Sometimes I feel as though I have to make it up as I go along, which can be a very isolating and aggravating experience.

I’ve read enough theology to know that what “theologians” think is important about war is not what I think is important about war. Fellow students and professors read all kinds of very interesting material, none of which animated me as an artilleryman in Iraq or consoles me now as a veteran carrying combat stress home from war. It might be that I’m wrong and they’re right, but then what do we do with the idea that experience is our best educator? What do we do when people thinking about war are forced, by lack of experience, to derive “knowledge” exclusively from abstractions and second hand speculation? Current “theology” seems to me to be radically disconnected with the actual reality of war, unrelated to the things I discovered about myself, about God, and about living in the tension required of communion in the midst of conflict.

It is not that I don’t want to talk as I speedily traverse from one place to another. Quite the opposite; all I want to do is talk, to think deeply about shit that matters, about human knowing and being in this fucked up world for which the Church was called into being. But my default has been to withdraw after the behavior or words of enough students or professors suggests to me that what is important for them does not match up with what is important to me. I see a world at war, I hear blood crying out to God from the ground. Hell – some days it’s all I see and hear. Some days all I can do to get by is sink deeper into my distractions. Maybe that makes me just like everyone else.

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