*This is the first of many homilies prepared for my #VirtuesOfWar course.
Before I get too far, I want to acknowledge that I aspire to be a Christian. It is my understanding, after three years of formal theological training, that one cannot legitimately self-proclaim that title, because Christians will be known by their love. Insofar as I fail to love, I forfeit my membership in the church. But I do aspire to be a Christian. My aspiring does not, furthermore, obligate me to persuade or compel anyone to the same. I self-identify as a theological educator, and I take this as a pedagogical imperative; my loving you as I am called to as a Christian means I trust that you are capable of arriving at your own legitimate, thoughtful conclusions, even if they are not my own.
I come from a family of educators; both my parents have been teachers my entire life. Their example inspired me, and I have a very high view of education. I am the first in my family to complete a graduate degree, and the first to teach above a high school level. “Educate,” derives from the Latin educere, a complex word combining ex (out of) duce (to lead). If education involves being ‘led out of’ yourself, then it names an origin, but it does not name a destination, and therefor gives no direction. “Theology” does name a destination, God, and therefor also a direction and a journey, which has been called faith. I do not mention this to condemn non-theological education, but to register that you are ultimately in control of where your education leads you, and I think that is a beautiful thing. My favorite line in Christian scripture is from our Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, where the creator of the universe invites a human to debate, “Let’s reason together,” God says to the Prophet Isaiah in the first chapter of the book that bears his name. (v.18)
“Theological” also names my story, as I have a degree in theological studies from this very university. It was here, in fact, that I came to disagree with many of my own instructors, none of whom spoke from personal experience, about what it meant to be a soldier. Consensus within theological disciplines is that soldiers are fundamentally morally compromised, and many theologians are willing to say, and have, that the military is inherently evil. That may disclose, to careful observers, why I am not teaching in the nearby school…
My own six years of experience proved contrary to what I was taught by most of my professors. Having a …disappointing seminary experience is nothing new, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt let down by progressive German professors under whom he studied when they supported Hitler, especially Adolf Harnack, an eminent Church historian. Ironically, I’ve found something of value in Harnack that his own student did not, as Harnack was the first modern academic to tackle the scholarly question of military service in the centuries before Christianity was made legal in ancient Rome. Harnack’s Militia Christi, Latin for “army of Christ,” was the first book to apply historical critical analysis to the question of killing and service.
I believe, with what is a minority within the Christian community, and maybe also the liberal academic community as well, that “there are inalienable virtues which find their highest expression at least symbolically” in military service. (Harnack, 27) even as a pacifist, I am committed to investigating with intellectual rigor and theological and political nonpartisanship the paradox that no religion or moral philosophy “can do without the images which are taken from war, and on this account it cannot dispense with” soldiers. (28)
I learned I had a story when I was invited to write a memoir at just 30 years of age. I discovered quickly that my story, and the stories of many soldiers and veterans, often proves to be an inconvenient obstacle to the stories that others want to tell about soldiers and veterans. The dissonance between the story of military service as I understood it, with direct experience, and the story with which the American public was familiar, through degrees of separation, is a primary impetus for this course. This course itself has a story as well, which we may get to in time. But for now, let us consider why stories are important in the first place, even in the straight, white, phallic (and vaguely Christian) Ivory Tower we call academia.
Why Stories – MacIntyre’s After Virtue
Alasdair MacIntyre, a Scottish philosopher educated at Oxford, made waves in philosophical circles when his book After Virtue was first published in 1981, and you will be expected to read the chapters I provide to you in PDF format. The first half of his book focuses (too much for the purposes of the course) on his criticisms of “the liberal enlightenment project.” One of his favorite words is “interminable,” which he uses it to describe the differences between rival ethical traditions, between what we too easily call progressivism and conservatism. The total inability to of competing political traditions to even agree on terms and definitions is seen everywhere from conversations between friends on Facebook to the halls of Congress and the office of the President.
MacIntyre insists that a central defining feature of modern moral assertions and discourse is that the use (“understood as the purpose or function”) of moral language has obscured its (f)actual meaning, which is embedded in history. (MacIntyre, 13) The name that MacIntyre gives this problem is “Emotivism,” a state in which “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” (12, emphasis in original) Emotivism has created a world in which politics has become utterly meaningless because “in moral argument the apparent assertion of principles functions as a mask for expressions of personal preference.”(19) In other words, subjective use too often obscures objective meaning. As a philosophy, Emotivism claims to be an account of all moral judgments, which themselves are ultimately subjective and preferential. Emotivism it is ultimately an autonomous, individuated moral structure, a non-philosophy which dooms Western culture because it can “never be socially embodied.” (23)
As we begin this course I have asked you all to consider who and what you are. I want you to think about yourself in terms of the story you tell yourself and the story others tell about you. The stories that we inherit tell us who we are, where we came from, and what kind of world we live in. Stories that others tell about us can shape our own self-perception and influence what we think about ourselves as well as who and what (we believe) we can become.
What makes the stories told about you true or false, good or bad? What if elements of your story are true, but bad? Or, for that matter, good, but false?We may not prefer the former be said about us and, in the interest of moral self-preservation, perhaps we fabricate the latter. After all, who doesn’t want to be seen as a good person? It’s all those other assholes that’re the problem, am I right?!
At the end of the day, this is the only “social embodiment” Emotivism can manage to muster; a fragile and volatile mix of personally determined legal entities unable to negotiate conflicting interests because all they can imagine are their own. Any moral debates become interminable because values are finally subjective; morals would be relative to the individual and their own preference.
MacIntyre highlights “classical” Western cultures as those which possessed a morally consistent philosophy, cultures in which “the chief means of moral education was the telling of stories.”(121) Understanding characters within these social dramas “provided… a means of interpreting the behavior of the actors.” (27) Characters are centrally important because they are “the moral representatives of their culture… because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world.” (28) Emotivism fails because it cannot be socially embodied; there are no centrally defining features by which actual human beings are able to associate consistently in a world where “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference,” attitude, or feeling.(12, emphasis in original) The virtues necessary for a people to thrive as a political body are transmitted in narratives which provide
historical memory, adequate or inadequate, of the societies in which they were finally written down. More than that they provided a moral background to contemporary debate in classical societies, an account of a now-transcended or partly-transcended moral order whose beliefs and concepts were still partially influential. (121)
If stories provide a culture’s history, then modern western culture is one without a history, without a story. Or, more precisely, it is a culture in which everyone makes up their own story on their own terms, because we prefer to believe lies about being good and we selectively forget when and how we have done evil. Stories that complicate our individual and collective identity are often ignored or overwritten in favor of reductive, simplistic stereotypes. Where Emotivism prevails, stories are in danger of being co-opted by the next common denominator, be it consumerism or capitalism, which we will explore in the second section of this course. Being truly integrated persons within truly integral and integrating cultures requires that we align, as much as possible, the meaning and use of our words, our stories, and the lives which give our political union reliable historical memory.
You might wonder why I have titled these short lectures homilies. I’m aware that some of you may hear that word and think of particularly religious themes. But it is simply a Greek word, homilein, the singular form of which is the feminine noun homilia, meaning “conversations” or “intercourse.” It was adopted by Christians in the third century to mean something short sermons, but its historical meaning predates its Christian usage. Even though its modern use is so overwhelmingly religious, the Church adopted it, it did not birth it. Therefore we cannot say that the word “homily” ought to carry a distinctly religious meaning. Meaning is historically situated and can be traced, whereas use fluctuates over time and across space. The science of tracing the history of words is called etymology, from the Greek etymos, for true or actual, and I’ll use it often throughout the course.
Academics are beginning to acknowledge that history is not value neutral, it comes to us through fellow subjective, fallible human means. Recognition that history is political, that its transmission is subjective, has lead authors and academics to substitute a definite article, “The History of…,” with an indefinite article “A History of…” After all, if it is written by the victor, then history is not value neutral. The political nature of history influences the divorce of the meaning of words, which is to say origins and history, from their typical modern use.
Since stories are made up of words and are similarly transmitted via corruptible means, like ink and paper or human language, their cultural use often stands in contrast to their origins in fact. For this course, I ask that you pay close attention to the history of soldier stories, their words, and the people they describe. I will call attention to who does the narrating of these stories, and ask you to consider their credibility as narrators. In doing so, I hope you will learn to question which history you receive and whose meaning you assume when these stories, words, and people are shared. Some narrators will be shown to be more reliable than others. After all, one universally accepted criteria for credibility is direct experience. In this course, we will look at who it is that the American public seems to trust and/or desire to tell soldier stories. Together, we will also explore why that is and what it reflects about public expectations and narrative corruption of martial identity.
This course is, after all, about stories and their effect on people. We are going to be comparing actual stories, as they originate from primary source material, in this case military personnel, against the meaning those stories are given in transmission to and within a public, often by non-military narrators. Any difference between contextual meaning and social use will help us determine how soldiers’ stories are being used, and how that departs from their basis in fact. It stands to reason that the further from fact social stories are from their embodiment, the more questionable their transmitted meaning.
To drive my point home, I’ll leave you with a quote from the very first page of MacIntyre’s preface, which evokes a character particularly familiar to the military; “the Chairborne Ranger.” Here, he speaks of concepts of morality specifically, but I would argue the same is true of martial metaphors and morality as well, that
The notion that the moral philosopher can study the concepts of morality merely by reflecting, Oxford armchair style, on what he or she or those around [them] say and do is barren. This conviction i have found no reason to abandon. (xvii)