No one joins the military to die. No
one intends to be a sacrifice, though many soldiers know there is a possibility they will die if sent into conflict. Yet when soldiers die from a bullet or by a bomb’s blast it is not because they give themselves in sacrifice. Rather it was because their lives were taken from them by tragic violence. According to scripture, Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). No soldier legitimately makes this claim.
I write these words on Memorial Day weekend. There is much talk about sacrifice at this time a year. Much of it is misleading. Without a doubt many soldiers have faced serious hardship and dangers through the centuries. My father, great-grandfathers, and great great grandfathers were among those who suffered deprivation, emotional trauma, serious physical injury and/or imprisonment from World War II to the French-Indian Wars. They deserve honor for enduring what they faced.
Still I find myself drawing back when I hear some politician declare that those who died in war “sacrificed their lives for freedom” or democracy or whatever. They didn’t sacrifice themselves. They didn’t lay down on an altar and plunge a knife in their own heart. Not only was it not their intention to kill themselves in sacrifice, it was not their intention to place themselves in someone else’s hands to be killed. No, they didn’t sacrifice themselves.
They were sacrificed. Someone else did the deed. Even before they faced that final encounter with a bullet or bomb’s blast, a head of state or group of politicians decided to sacrifice the soldiers who ended up
dead. They were the ones who determined that a certain cause was worth the lives of the soldiers who would eventually die. They were the sacrificers. They were the ones who laid the soldiers on the altar, though others were the instruments that took their lives.
Not only did the soldiers who were killed in battle not sacrifice their own lives, their deaths usually had little or nothing to do with the reasons named by politicians for going to war. More soldiers have come to recognize this fact in
more recent wars. The slogan, “Freedom isn’t free,” has provided cover for national leaders who have sacrificed solders for reasons unrelated to freedom. Only about 4 in 10 among US soldiers who fought in Iraq post 9/11 believe the reasons for going to war justified the loss in blood and property. This majority obviously don’t believe defending freedom was the reason for the war.
Certainly, these soldiers recognize the courage and suffering endured by their lost comrades-in-arms. But the national leaders expended those lives, sacrificed them, for an unworthy cause. Instead of dying for freedom, they have died for business interests of various sorts. If the leaders were truthful about the causes for which soldiers are asked – commanded! – to die, fewer would be willing to allow themselves to be put in harm’s way.
Some years ago I walked in an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. alongside Celeste Brown, a mother whose son Sherwood Brown, a Pennsylvania national guardsman, was killed in Iraq. Later in a presentation to Disciples Peace Fellowship she represented the feelings of many Gold Star mothers who are repelled by the deceitful praise bestowed on the war dead who were
sacrificed under false pretenses. She forthrightly rejected the claim that her son sacrificed his life for freedom. Rather his precious life – and those of so many like him – were sacrificed by a misguided Administration who lied to the nation. Soldiers who have died in battle are not genuinely honored by the praise of politicians if they were not first of all honored while they were alive by being told the truth about the real causes for which they are told to fight.