John Alan Turner

Writer, Theologian, Consultant, Speaker, Teacher

Conflicted Applause

Today I flew home from Denver and had a strange experience in the Atlanta Airport. A group of military personel were flying out -- maybe 40 of them. As they walked through the airport in a group, people started spontaneously applauding. I saw young men slowly turn red and break out grinning in spite of themselves. I saw young women staring intently straight ahead lest they turn to look and catch someone's eye. They looked sheepish and humble. There was no strut in them, but there was the unmistakable tinge of youthful embarassment. I normally walk through the airport quickly and with my head down, but I stopped and watched and clapped my hands along with everyone else.

Well, almost everyone else.

There was a family who did not applaud. They had dark skin. They looked Middle Eastern. The children started to applaud, but the adults quickly stopped them. The adults didn't look angry or frightened; they looked sad.

I stood there for a moment and thought about what was going on. And I found myself conflicted.

There was a part of me that wanted to clap and shout and go pat those young men and women on the back and say how proud we are of them, and how we're all praying for them. There was another part of me that wanted to yell, "Don't go! Stay here with your moms and dads and husbands and wives and kids!"

Of course, I respect these young people and their willingness to put their lives in harm's way to protect innocence and spread freedom and democracy around the world. I believe we are a safer nation because of our military, and I want to honor that -- especially the weekend of Veteran's Day.

But there's so much about the whole "military mindset" that I don't like. I realize I am woefully unqualified to speak on this, and I want to learn to speak more intelligently about this subject. As a starting point, I want it to be known that I have tremendous respect for the military and want to show proper respect, but I also have some major qualms about exactly what it is we're supporting.

I don't like the fact that we take young people and program them to stop thinking individually -- breaking them down and re-training them to practice group-think. At its worst -- in scandals like Tailhook or Abu Ghraib -- it takes on a distressing kind of mob-mentality that leads to grotesque violations of human rights. I sometimes wonder if boot camp itself isn't a violation of human rights.

And I don't like the fact that these young people are trained to kill. To some extent, they are taught to stop considering the value and dignity of human life and see only targets. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that's stuck in my head. It's simplistic and reductionist, but I can't stop thinking about it. It said something like: "Maybe when Jesus said we should love our enemies he meant we shouldn't kill them."

I understand the biblical arguments for the Just War theory. I've always considered myself a Just War advocate -- in a true Augustinian sense.

I also understand the biblical arguments for Pacifism. I was raised in a church that had strong roots in the pacifist movement. From earliest childhood I was taught how to explain the phrase "conscientious objector".

I understand the arguments for Pre-emtive War -- though I must admit I find very little that is biblical about them.

I don't mean to start a new thread here to unpack all of this. But I wanted to share with you my feelings this afternoon as I watched those young men and women -- so full of youth, so full of promise, so full of hopes and fears and anxiety. I don't know if they'll come home or not. I don't know if they'll kill anyone or not. I don't know if their mission will be successful or not. I'm not even sure if this whole thing is necessary or not.

I'm sure there are folks who have thought through those questions. I remain unconvinced of a lot of the answers I hear coming from various sources, so I'll continue to search out the wisdom of God on this matter.

Until I figure it out, though, that'll be me in the corner listening to the sound of my own conflicted applause.