Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.
By treaty the First World War ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour at the eleventh minute of 1918—the reason we honor veterans on this day. Though the orders for the cease fire arrived shortly after midnight, many commanders in the field mounted their planned sunrise assaults. Shelling continued. On the morning of the eleventh, thousands of people were maimed and killed needlessly. Then, at exactly the eleventh hour, an eerie silence fell. Then a curious rippling sound began that could be heard miles from the front lines and was described as sounding like a light wind. It was the sound of soldiers clapping and cheering, men on both sides in trenches that stretched from the North Sea to the Alps. It was the war to end all wars.
“What’s an armistice?” one British soldier is reported to have asked.
“The time we bury the dead,” answered another. And that unknown, common soldier, proved more prophetic than the world’s leaders of the day.
As Kurt Vonnegut says so well in this morning’s reading, the human beings at the front on that day experienced something transcendent—that’s why Armistice Day was sacred. For some, it was the voice of God. For others, it was the realization that the chaos and carnage that had very nearly exterminated an entire generation lay completely in the hands of human beings.
Though wars have devastated humanity throughout history, the First World War showed that we had taken a dangerous step toward large-scale annihilation through a new conjunction of technology and large, industrialized nation states. The First World War revealed for the first time the world all of us today take as a given. . .and often as inevitable. . .
WW II British leader Winston Churchill once said “War is the normal occupation of man. . . war and gardening.” Now Churchill was not an anthropologist, but there is something about his statement that rings true—the combination of the horrible and the mundane seems somehow to sum up the human condition.
I don’t want this morning to talk about our current wars; or our current century; or the present nation-states of the world. We’ve heard both too much and not enough about those things. I want instead to consider for a few moments the reasons for war itself.
As I see it, war is the result of both nature and nurture. Our genetic material has gone roughly 50,000 years without changing. Which means we have the emotions developed as hunter-gatherers. Our reasons for killing—our gut reactions—are those of hunter-gatherers.
But we have nurture as well. And that nurture is based on the development of agricultural societies some six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. In agricultural societies, certain things develop:
The idea of territorial integrity—because people want to preserve their crops.
The ability of society to stratify into farmers, and soldiers, and artisans to develop and produce weapons, and rulers who decide who to fight; and priests who tell the population the wars are or are not the will of the gods.
Despite the tanks and airplanes and poison gas and nuclear weapons, not much has changed since the development of agricultural societies. Of the centuries we have fought over economic systems, political systems, religious systems, but the basis of our warfare has not changed. And it won’t change until we figure out how to get food from someplace besides the ground. . .
I’m taking a long view to make a point: our nature is that of hunter gatherers but our warfare is that of farmers. How we feel and how we war are at—shall we say—war with each other.
This disjunction has been an important theme in Western literature concerning war.
In one of the earliest classics, Homer’s Iliad, we see two cultures locked in a ten year war of attrition, a slogging, murderous stalemate. Neither side wants the war: it is the result of human frailty, petty grievances, and prideful leaders. The warrior champions on both sides, Hector for the Trojans, Achilles for the Greeks, know that they will die miserably in the war. They have each been told their fates. They fight anyway, because that’s what warriors do: they do their duty, despite the stupidity of their leaders. This is the wellspring of our literary tradition concerning warfare and it sets a theme that has never changed.
From the northern, Germanic tradition comes the epic of Beowulf. Yes, Germanic culture was war-like, but the ancient Germanic peoples were not confused about the meaning of war. In Germanic poetry warriors fight because that’s what warriors do. Beowulf goes to fight a hideous monster to redeem his mis-spent youth. He is, the poet says, “un-doomed”. . .at least in that particular fight. Therefore he wins, yet in old age Beowulf must fight a dragon, knowing it will kill him. The stupidity and greed of others awoke the dragon, but Beowulf must die to stop it. The poet tells us at the end that the gold Beowulf gained will be useless to everyone. And that Beowulf’s tribe, after his death, will be hunted to extinction. Un-doomed has become doomed.
The Western tradition presents the brutal inevitability of war and the horror of fighting in a war. The tradition presents a world in which there is no heroism, only death or survival. Nowhere in the tradition are there silly platitudes. War is about killing; and the soldier who leaves is never the soldier who returns.
That is, of course, with one notable exception—the Hebrew and Christian writings we call the bible. The Hebrew scriptures describe war as the place the will of God works itself out most dramatically. And the Christian scriptures end with a description of a great military victory that ends the world and puts sinners in their places. The bible is, shall we say, out of touch with most of the literature concerning war.
The greatest work of fiction on war in our tradition is probably War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a veteran of the battle of Sebastopol, one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. At Sebastopol two-thirds of the Russian army was killed or wounded. Tolstoy survived to write a book about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In the novel Napoleon and other leaders are portrayed as egotistical fops, the puppets of inevitable historic currents. In the novel Tolstoy portrays a world in which there are no heroes in war, only survivors.
War vet Tolstoy dedicated his life to pacifism. One of his heroes was Universalist minister Adin Ballou whose books “Christian Non-Resistance” and “Practical Christian Socialism” convinced Tolstoy that the way to peace is. . .justice. Thoreau and Ballou inspired Tolstoy. All three inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s part of our religious tradition: if you want peace, work for justice.
Adin Ballou and Tolstoy took another message from the bible—they focused on the teachings concerning justice from the great Hebrew prophets and the words of Jesus who, they argued, instead of wiping out non-believers in some great apocalypse, taught that the meek and the peacemakers are blessed.
Now let me tell you about my father and his war.
Like Kurt Vonnegut, my father was rushed to the front as a replacement for the heavy casualties of the Battle of the Bulge. As a kind of cliché of the hillbilly mythology, my father had gone hunting often with one bullet and had become an expert marksman. He was sent to the front as a sharpshooter. He quickly decided that Jesus was telling him not to kill. This was not particularly good news to his superiors, and so he was given the option of being on a machine gun crew, an occupation with a life expectancy of seven minutes. My father took the job, and he survived five months of continuous front line duty. Unfortunately for him, despite his message from Jesus, my father did not avoid killing.
My father is a decorated veteran. One morning in April of 1945 his platoon was pinned down by a German machine gun and German artillery had zeroed in on them. My father and his sergeant mounted a frontal assault on the machine gun, something so startling that the Germans failed to fire. My father and his sargent killed fifteen of the enemy, for which they were decorated for bravery. Another day my father’s platoon was ordered to kill sixty unarmed German prisoners, which they did. This is NOT in my father’s military record. My father survived hand-to-hand combat; artillery barrage; and rocket attack. He will be the first to tell you his survival had nothing to do with skill or bravery. It was pure, dumb luck. He was twice the only surviving enlisted man in his platoon. In 1946, after the censors had stopped editing his letters, my father wrote this home to his mother: “It seems impossible that men could participate in such a dreadful and meaningless thing. But as always the people responsible did not take part.” My father, twenty-two years old and with a sixth grade education, could not have known that he was repeating the conclusions of great literature:
those responsible are NEVER there.
The reasons are never clear.
It is the role of the warrior to do what he’s told.
The survivors of the Second World War were expected to come home and be fine. I grew up on a farm where death is part of everyday life. I learned young that I had to bury the dead things: the smell of death sent my father into writhing convulsions. He had been pinned down for three days in an artillery barrage with the bodies of Germans and Americans rotting around him. Over the years, my mother has often woke up being strangled as my father’s nightmares take control. And the nightmares have gotten worse, not better, over the years.
Like many baby boomers, I grew up looking through old boxes full of war booty. Bayonets, hand grenades and bullet fragments. Buttons, badges, and patches cut from the uniforms of German soldiers. It took me years to understand the carnage that those antiques commemorated. A few years ago my father burned them all. For my father, those were not interesting antiques but talismans of carnage.
Last year I took my father, now in his 80s, in to the VA hospital. In the waiting room we sat next to a 24 year old veteran in a wheelchair. He had no arms.
We send our children to war.
Some come home.
Some do not.
But no one survives unscathed.
In war, EVERYONE dies somehow.
That was “the good war.” I’m not here today to discuss the merits of particular wars. That doesn’t honor veterans.
One of my fellow students in ministry is a Marine Corps major training to be a Navy chaplain. As he puts it, War is about killing people and breaking stuff.
We human beings in our tenure upon this earth have shown ourselves quite adept at killing people and breaking stuff. We have not shown ourselves nearly so adept at healing people and fixing stuff.
As a humanist, I have to ask myself—How can it be that our rationality is at its best in the organization of warfare and the development of technologies of murder?
Why is it that our greatest order and often our most noble selves go toward accomplishing a viciousness no animal has ever demonstrated?
Why is it we human beings kill without being hungry; kill without being threatened; kill even after the reasons for the killing are gone?
Why are we victims of our worst natures?
Yet in the case of war I can’t help wondering where human nature ends and human nurture begins. Yes, it appears that an argument can be made that humanity evolved in an environment in which those more warlike survived. Yet to that can’t we counter that those who cooperated survived even better? Still, the argument goes, cooperation is useful only in tribal groups. Between groups, only power can hold sway. Perhaps. Perhaps. Yet, in our world, now made tiny, wouldn’t it be better to cooperate, to be one tribe? Why is it we can’t manage that?
Is it only the primordial motives of territory, natural resources, and honor? And is a nation really like a tribe fighting other tribes? Or does the size and the slowness of nations and their governments mean we’re forever doomed to slogging wars of attrition that maim and kill youth and destroy the consciences of the governed? Not just in our blip of a century and of a nation, but for all time?
Thomas Hardy once wrote a poem about war that concludes,
"Yes; quaint and curious war is! You shoot a fellow down You'd treat if met where any bar is, Or help to half-a-crown."
Isn’t Hardy somehow correct about human nature—that our natures are more inclined to help a person; to kick back with a beer with a person rather than murder him or her? Didn’t my father, at age twenty-two, have far more in common with the young men he killed than he had with the president of the United States and the people back home, living in safety?
My Navy chaplain friend tell me that It is common among soldiers to carry pictures in their wallets, tucked away and hidden, pictures of parents, lovers, and children, that they took from the corpses of their enemies.
What does that mean but as a token of the terrible sadness concerning what we human beings do to each other?
Is it the human, or the governments that kill without being hungry; kill without being threatened; kill long after the soldiers and citizens tire of the killing? Is it the human or the human creations that govern them that are more brutal than any animal that has ever been.
By now you’ve figured out my answer to that. And agree. Or you don’t.
If I take your coffee cup away, you might get angry. That’s human nature. But are our wars natural aggression? The firebombing of Dresden that Kurt Vonnegut survived was not natural aggression; it was cold-blooded, technologically enhanced murder. So was the killing my father did with a .30 caliber machine gun. So was the killing around the walls of Troy reported by Homer. These were acts of aggression ordered by people who had no intention of fighting.
What can we do? For one thing, we can pledge ourselves to supporting the troops, long after the demagogues have forgotten the phrase.
One fourth of the homeless in this nation are veterans. That’s wrong!
Tricare is the health system for our veterans. It is tied to Medicare and it’s on the chopping block. That’s wrong. Call your US senators and say it’s wrong to cut the health benefits of our veterans.
How many of you are beneficiaries of the GI Bill? The current GI Bill requires a pay reduction while on active duty. That’s wrong. Call your senators and tell them that’s wrong. Anyone willing to serve this nation should have the full fruits of this nation when they come home!
Pledge yourself to helping our veterans twenty years from now, when it’s not popular any more.
This morning, my dad is in his WW II uniform in church. . .he has a mixture of pride and horror at what he did. That’s because, despite his lack of education, he has a moral conscience.
Kurt Vonnegut says “There are human beings alive who heard the voice of god.” I’m not sure there are any left who heard that quiet at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. That silence was long ago, early in the bloodiest century in human history. We are well on our way to doing worse in this century. I don’t know if it’s possible for us to stop offering our children to the gods of war. I do know we are creating yet another generation, some of who will not come home; some of who will; some without arms; some without legs; some without peace of mind. All of whom will need our respect and our love. I do know that it is people who do the sacrificing. And it is people who. . .sometimes. . . create the peace in which we can hear the voice of god. . .