The Taser's Edge

Matterhorn (Grove Press, 2010) by Karl Marlantes

When Matterhorn came out last year, I immediately knew I would read it. I’d love to know more about Vietnam, yes. More interesting than that was the author, Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine inVietnam and then spent three decades writing this novel.

Unsurprisingly, Matterhorn is an ugly experience. The opening conflict, for instance, is a man getting a leech inside his urethra on patrol; no one but a medic is available to help him, and that’s not the most comfortable of impromptu surgeries. The book shares a lot of its spirit with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and has a similar effect on the reader. I entered in more fully to both novels because I knew that they wrote out of their authors’ experiences. (For the record, however, Tim O’Brien is better than either Marlantes or Mailer at the actual craft of writing, and I’d re-read his stuff before any other war author except perhaps Hemingway.)

Matterhorn is a big book, and it took me a long time to get into it. I tend to be someone in love with the well-crafted sentence, while Marlantes is more in the powerful narrative school of writing (a la Graham Greene). By the end, however, Marlantes had me stylistically satisfied.

Beyond learning my history and spending my leisure time, I read war novels and watch war movies because, unsurprisingly, I came out of Duke Divinity thinking about Christianity and pacifism. If you read this blog, you’ve heard the following spiel:

Some activists are actually pacifists; some thinkers (Hauerwas included) are actually pacifists; however, no one under 30 is a real pacifist unless they’ve been through something extraordinary. Pacifism is too hard for someone that young to get.

Matterhorn is not an anti-war novel in the sense that Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. Full Metal Jacket says war is evil. Matterhorn says war is unavoidable because the world is fallen. It’s difficult to emphasize how strong of a difference that is, so I’ll try again.

FMJ shows that war is hell through showing what it does both to the “bad guys,” to civilians, and to the “good guys.” That, to me, is what most of the best anti-war art does and claims: War is hell, therefore we need to exercise non-violent means of change. Some of it just says, War is hell, full stop.

Matterhorn, however, says that war is not the problem, but the symptom. You can try fighting the symptom but it will always return because the underlying sickness continues on. The way that the nations and peoples of the world relate to one another doesn’t just make war possible; it makes war inevitable because it’s necessary.

So my question then is, Do pacifism and non-violence get at the underlying disease or are they just symptom management?

Veterans Day Ambivalence

(Jump to 8:05 for the pivotal internalized dialogue between York’s commanding officer and his pastor, but the whole thing is worth watching.)

Anyone who tells you that there is a continuous, harmonious witness from the Christian tradition for pacifism is not being honest.  Anyone who tells you that there is a continuous, harmonious witness for a ‘just war’ tradition or for understanding war as ‘”rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s” is not being honest.  Anyone who tries to make a table with two columns to see which view trumps the other is not doing Christian ethics.

Christians have good reason to be ambivalent about war.  Passages of the Old Testament urge war and then hope for a day of peace (and this is no simple Primitive Pentateuch vs. Progressive Prophets, but dissent within a single book or single chapter).  Before baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist attracts soldiers to the desert, but when they ask how “to flee from the wrath to come” he speaks to them of money, not of war (this in an occupied nation).

Jesus himself blesses the peacemakers, but then says he comes not to bring peace but a sword, urges his disciples to gather weapons, but then tells them, famously, that the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

What’s a Christian to do?  Well, here’s a bad idea: go out into nature with your Bible and figure it out, just you and God.  I’m being hyperbolic (as is the film), but that definitely should not be your first step.  God has plenty of experience drawing God’s followers into solitude and wilderness when that’s what’s good for us, but our first step to living Christian lives especially when wading through moral dilemmas that the Church as a whole has not agreed about, is to enter into community, a community whose members are committed both to Christ and to each other, no matter their differences.

Most people who will ever read this post have easy access to a pastor or Christian community who will argue for ‘just war’ as compatible with faithful discipleship in good conscience.  Fewer may have a local resource to engage with their own sense of dissonance between the practice of war (whether all war or particular wars) and the practice of their faith.  Either Christian Peacemaker Teams or Catholic Peace Fellowship (or plenty of other organizations) will at least provide conversation and resources and may be able to connect you with a local community.  The latter also has resources for becoming a Conscientious Objector, even if you already serve in the military.

For my own part, the more I have entered into the catholic tradition and learned from it, the more anti-war and anti-military I have become (although I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, because I don’t think I have enough life experience for that to be a realistic claim).  Today, for instance, has been the day the church has recognized the sainthood of Martin of Tours, patron of conscientious objectors, since long before 1918.

Yet even on a blog with as tiny a readership as this one, I still have a problem just posting an anti-war poem or prayer on Veterans Day that leaves no room for debate or understanding.  Hopefully this post has engaged minds and hearts before reflexes (such as knee jerks).

Still, I will close with one poem, “Peace” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.