“…simply expecting a veteran to ‘adjust’ to civilian life, ‘is akin to asking Saint John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.’”
— Karl Marlantes
In my previous post on how Veterans experience anomie I stated, “war is a spiritual experience.” Here, I delve deeper into the meaning of that statement, as illustrated by Karl Marlantes, Vietnam Veteran and author of the book What it is Like to Go to War. In his book he argues that we need to consider the spiritual realities Veterans experience in war:
Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell.
The word “spiritual” and “sacred” conjures up images of purity, serenity, beauty, and light, just as the word “passion” conjures up images of joy, ecstasy, and bliss. Although these are important components of the concepts, they are only half of the reality. As argued in my article on the meaning of passion, “Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word. The Latin origin of passion is ‘pati,’ meaning ‘suffer’.” The same can be said regarding the concept of spirituality. Consider this argument by Karl Marlantes:
We don’t want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? Witness the demons of Tibetan Buddhism, ritual torture practiced by certain Native American tribes, the darker side of voodoo, or the cruel martyrdom of saints of all religions. Ritual torture or martyrdom can be either meaningless and terrible suffering or a profound religious experience, depending upon what the sufferer brings to the situation. The horror remains the same.
Combat is precisely such a situation.
This nuanced understanding of spirituality is not meant to justify xenophobia, racism, or any other form of in-group solidarity unjustifiably produced at the expense of the humanity of others. Marlantes states “…any conscious warrior of the future is going to be a person who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters.”
The more conscious we become spiritually, the more we must engage our conscience morally. Throughout the history of human evolution, our instinctual drives recede like melting ice, exposing the fertile ground of moral consciousness. Rather than simply responding to instinctual reflexes, we now have the conscious ability to contemplate the ethical consequences of our actions. But with this development, like the spring thaw, comes the increased responsibility of cultivation. As this moral consciousness expands to embrace an ethic of universal humanity, we must now consider others beyond our local group or nation. This consciousness forces us to readjust to a moral reality where we cannot simply label outside groups as subhuman.
One form of reaction to this increasingly globalizing world may be to simply deny an ethic of universal humanity, reaffirming a strengthened ethic of exclusion to bolster an identity based on hatred. But this merely works to cut ourselves off from our own humanity. By neglecting the humanity of others, we neglect our own humanity.
Another response is to embrace the ethic of universal humanity by seeing in ourselves and others a common humanity. But the ethic of ‘humanity’ is a double-edged sword. Consciousness of universal humanity opens up a dilemma of the conscience; how do we engage in military conflict against our brothers and sisters? Karl Marlantes illustrates this very issue in his book, by illustrating a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata, a sacred Hindu text:
Arjuna cast his eyes on the grand spectacle. He saw the heroes ready for battle, and he saw there all those who were dear to him. They were grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, dear friends, comrades. He was overcome with compassion for all of them. His voice shook with grief and he said: “Krishna, I feel an awful weakness stealing over me… Krishna, my head is reeling and I feel faint. My limbs refuse to bear me up… I look at all these who are my kinsmen and I feel that I cannot fight with them… I do not want to win this war… For the passing pleasure of ruling this world why should I kill the sons of Dhritarashtra? They have been greedy, evil, avaricious, covetous. I grant all that. But the fact remains that they are my cousins and it is a sin to kill one’s own kinsmen. I would rather turn away from the war. It will even be better if I am killed by Duryodhana. I do not want to fight.
Krishna eventually persuades Arjuna to fight by appealing to ‘justice’ by responding:
It is not right to stand by and watch an injustice being done. There are times when active interference is necessary.
To stand by and not intervene is to do injustice to ‘humanity’ since he would allow the violations to continue. Violent intervention is warranted so long as its goal is the protection of universal humanity against closed groups whose goals violate this concept. For example, it would be worth engaging in violence against groups who are in the process of committing ethnic genocide, as seen in contexts like Rwanda in the early 1990’s . Although the above dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna is from c.AD 400 in India, it illustrates a common struggle today that has even been been dealt with in Christian ‘just war’ theory. This ethic of universal humanity provides a good rational for engaging in violence, but it also increases the likelihood of moral injury.
The “conscious warrior” may have a good reason to serve in conflicts they deem just, but once on deployment, the fog of war can easily force the individual into a spiritually troubling moral dilemma. In an ideal world, wars are engaged with clarity and surgical precision. Since this is not the case, an individual may decide to fire at a suspicious person who turns out to be a civilian. The more a conscious warrior is committed to justice, the heavier they bear the weight of the moral conscience. The more our serving members are committed to an ethic of humanity, the more they will be forced into an internal conflict when faced with the fog of war, but the alternative of hatred and spiritual neglect is far worse. Preparing individuals for war means preparing them spiritually, as well as mentally and physically. As Marlantes states:
Warriors deal with death. They take life away from others. This is normally the role of God. Asking young warriors to take on that role without adequate psychological and spiritual preparation can lead to damaging consequences. It can also lead to killing and the infliction of pain in excess of what is required to accomplish the mission. If warriors are returned home having had better psychological and spiritual preparation, they will integrate into civilian life faster and they and their families will suffer less. But the more blurred the boundary is between the world where they are acting in the role of God and the world where they are acting in an ordinary societal role, the more problematical the reintegration becomes.
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