If “War is Hell,” What Do We Expect? GUEST OPINION

By Jaco B. ten Hove

Since Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales went on a rampage March 17, killing umpteen Afghanistan civilians in their homes, most of them children, I admit to having some trouble concentrating on my own life’s details. This latest military misconduct is yet another barbarous deed that will likely reverberate around the world for some time, echoing the edge I feel in my heart.

Early reports are that the fellow was “unstable” and “troubled” after three tours of duty in Iraq, including a head injury, and he “snapped,” perhaps encouraged by alcohol excess or improper drug prescription. As much as I might try to do as my church teaches, to “love without judgment,” it is indeed hard to find a place in my heart for someone who would resort to such random, deadly violence against innocent children. Or, for that matter, for the people in charge who allowed (or forced) him to serve so much time in harm’s way that he became Harm personified.

I know that the vast majority of military personnel perform with honor, and I will try to hold love for the perpetrator(s) of this insanity, but I think we are also called to use great judgment to discern a path that will both hold this person accountable and name the contributing context in which he acted so brutally. The two are essentially linked and simply prosecuting an actor will not really alter the horrific storyline.

As has been famously noted, “War is Hell.” And when decent people go there, some will become, perhaps inevitably, hellions. Part of me believes behavior of the sort we are reeling from now is in no way acceptable and should certainly be eliminated from the human repertoire.

Another, more historical part of me suspects, however, that it isn’t just recent wars that are Hell. I do not doubt that there has been parallel ugliness—spontaneous wickedness, willful ignorance and contrived brutality—throughout the annals of war.

Now, however, those annals are much more visible and accessible, thanks to our global media and 24/7 news cycle. (I can even recall how, when I was of formative age, the Vietnam War came vividly to my TV screen nightly.) What else has changed is our weaponry. The violent inclinations of unstable hellions now have much more lethal handmaidens.

And is 100-percent psychological stability even reasonable to expect? Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome seems to be rampant. Many warriors come home incredibly and understandably distressed and damaged.

If “War is Hell,” what do we really expect of people who go there, or of those who design the fierce, fiery warscapes? Who are we kidding? The already vast military budget now will have to expand even more to accommodate all the tremors of war that ripple through lives and families for decades afterwards.

I’m no pacifist, but another stirring adage reminds us how “violence begets violence,” which has perhaps never been more apparent—and gut wrenching. This feels like a watershed moment, when our society has to look in the mirror and truly see the consequences of our complicity with a ready resort to force and weapons. Trying to preclude harm or solve dilemmas — let alone complex, inter-cultural ones — through sheer power is once again exposed as the often unfeasible and destructive excuse for diplomacy it is.

“Security” is much more elusive than temptingly simplistic responses suggest, and the staggering costs of our current armed tendencies will shock the senses of anyone not already numb from avoidance. We are an inherently creative species; we must find a better way beyond war. Bring back the idea of a National Peace Academy.


Jaco B. ten Hove is co-minister of Cedars Unitarian Universalist Church, current president of the local Interfaith Council, and a Winslow resident.

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