“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is a line from a Roman poem that can be translated “It is beautiful and honorable to die for you homeland.” But I notice that it does not say, “It is beautiful and honorable to kill for your homeland.”
I just watched the Clint Eastwood film Letters from Iwo Jima (I have yet to see its sister film, Flags of our Fathers, but I hope to watch it tomorrow) and I found myself reflecting on something as the story unfolded: can there really be any honor in war? For those of you who do not know, Letters from Iwo Jima is an account of the battle from the Japanese point of view (making the film almost entirely in Japanese). I greatly appreciate what Clint Eastwood sought to do with this film: put a face on the enemy. Of course, now, in the year 2009, the Japanese are not considered the enemy (nor have I ever considered them the enemy, having not been alive during WWII), but for all intents and purposes, as an American watching this movie, it was a movie about the enemy. And in this movie, the enemy fights with honor, the enemy has families and experiences before the war that make them just like you and me.
For those who know me, it is probably no secret that I am a proponent of nonviolence. I will even go so far as to say that I am a pacifist. This is not a popular thing to say around most people, especially in this part of the country. Nor is it a popular thing to say even among my friends and family who may agree with me on many issues, and yet will not claim the name pacifist. I can’t help but feel that they think I’m a bit naïve in my pacifism, and perhaps even a bit cowardly. Because pacifism just doesn’t seem very practical (or very strong), does it? And it may not be. (Practical, that is. I’m not for a moment going to concede that it pacifism is not strong.) But that is not what I am seeking to argue today. No, what I want to lift up is the notion of honor in war. Because this film made a point of illustrating the honor with which the Japanese fought (of course, as is the case in most films, there were some soldiers who fought with more honor than others). And of course, we believe that the American soldiers fought with honor as well. However, I was struck with the notion during a particular scene that perhaps, when you really get down to it, honor is not actually possible when fighting a war. Because in order to fight, in order to be able to shoot and kill the enemy, you must first dehumanize that enemy. You must make them less than you are, less worthy of living, less justified in their fighting. And I fail to see the honor in that.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to belittle the sacrifices that so many have made by serving in the armed forces. It’s just that I think we have done too much, as a nation and as the human race, to make the taking of life acceptable. We have done too much to justify violence and glorify war. And, to put it quite simply, the taking of life is not acceptable. Violence should never be justified and war is putrid and messy and horrifying and heartbreaking and hell on earth, and to pretend it is not any of those things is what is truly naïve. And arguing that war is a necessary evil seems to me unimaginative and surrendering to the very worst in human nature. I recall the dilemma Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself facing when he collaborated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He felt justified in participating in such a plot because killing Hitler would result in so many lives saved, but at the same time, he also believed he was committing a sin by working towards the death of another person, no matter the evil deeds perpetrated by that individual. And he did not for a moment believe that God smiled upon him for working towards the death of another. It would behoove us to consider Bonhoeffer’s conviction that God did not condone the taking of life and approach such action with great fear and trembling.
And so I go to bed tonight with the quiet piano melody from Letters from Iwo Jima haunting my dreams, goading me with the knowledge that we clothe atrocities with honor, grieving me that, after all this time, we continue to fail to live another way.