Reaction: Ring of Freedom

Non violence sculpture by carl fredrik reutersward malmo swedenOne of the topics which has really captured my attention over the last few years is “non-violent resistance”. I’ve been introduced to the concept largely through Walter Wink’s work on “the powers”, though Wink makes use of René Girard, whom I really like, as well. Additionally, attending a talk by Miroslav Volf gave me a lot of food for thought! Non-violent resistance is a complicated idea with a simple (and, from the viewpoint of many, absurd) moral logic: (a) evil is bad, therefore (b) we should name and resist evil, but (c) we cannot do this with violence, since it is evil and therefore counter-productive to the eradication of evil itself.

This brief moral statement has captivated me, not only because it seems to make a lot of sense, but also because of how infrequently such a morality is even attempted to be lived out on a large scale. Regardless of how things have been throughout human history, there is still in our world a great deal of “conflict resolution” which is really one party using violence or the threat of violence to get their way. Is there a different way, a third way which avoids the problems with both violent conflict and pacifist inaction? More importantly, how could such a third way be effective against guns? Needless to say, these kinds of deliberations deserve book-length treatment, and I’ll probably be unable to think fully about such questions in blog entries, however often I might muse about them.

Anyway, my thoughts about non-violence also typically lead to thoughts about armies, and the US Armed Forces in particular, whose fundamental purpose seems to be to pursue the aims of the US through violence or the threat of violence. I know that the forces are trained to do more than kill, and often engage in humanitarian activities; those, however, are incidental to the actual purpose of the military (otherwise, why guns?). Thoughts like these were triggered again a few days ago, when I was sent this Veteran’s Day video, originally found on the NRA’s website. You might as well watch it, since it’s what this post is about:

I don’t know if anyone else had this reaction, but I found the video deeply ironic. The climax of the speech was a story about a soldier’s heroism which was designed to evoke pride in the soldier’s action and therefore pride in our country by his representation. It did this very well: to think that a Navy corpsman would rush into a firefight in order to rescue a wounded enemy is extremely moving, and I am awed at the courageous act. The irony, for me, was that the action so lauded of this marine by Oliver North was precisely the kind of action I don’t imagine is military protocol: an action of non-violent compassion in the face of a very real danger of violence. We rightly take pride in our association by nationality with a hero like the one in this story, but I wonder whether he was acting fully as a dispenser of his duties? Maybe, on the other hand, the mutual recognition of humanity in the enemy triggered this heroic rescue?

I’m sure I’m very ignorant of actual battle protocol in the army, and maybe there is a command to merely disable the enemy so that they can be rescued, given medical attention, and imprisoned or rehabilitated. Something tells me, however, that US generals would be pretty concerned if all of their soldiers were in the habit of risking their lives for wounded Iraqi insurgents. My point is that the story is so powerful it got told at an NRA annual meeting even when the power in the story comes from the fact that the corpsman didn’t use his weapon!

It got me thinking: what if there were a force of women and men trained in almost all the same ways as Marines, such that they were physically and mentally prepared to run into dangerous situations to rescue others, but who were unwilling to do violence to anyone they encountered? Reason says they’d all get slaughtered, but… it’s also a really interesting thought.

So much of what the NRA video did was to evoke pride and respect at the various skills and disciplines involved in being a soldier: taking care of oneself, cleaning one’s gun, walking all day in 120-degree heat without complaint, sharing the last vestiges of life with a dying comrade, and so on. We are naturally drawn to glorify such skill and sacrifice, and I admit it is impressive. However, when is it appropriate to stop asking what the skill is used for?

Stories draw upon this natural awe at great skill all the time, and so we can root for the team of skillful thieves even though what they are doing is illegal, and if their theft was directed at us we would prosecute them. Likewise, it is easy to glorify the warrior because the warrior is talented, skillful, and disciplined. The process of becoming a warrior teaches valuable personal skills, delivers confidence, etc… But does our adulation of the skillfulness involved in battle cloud over the fact that what we are adulating, at the end of the day, is battle, i.e., people killing each other? Killing isn’t what the average soldier does on any given day, but let’s face it: what country on earth trains their army in every skill except for shooting people?

Essentially, what I’m saying is that the fact that somebody is well-trained at something doesn’t make that thing good! We might have well-trained rapists and murderers walking around, but that doesn’t making them any more honorable or less deserving of incarceration. I hasten to add that I don’t equate soldiers with criminals! What they do is legitimated by every nation in the history of our species, and at the end of the day perhaps necessary to procure a slightly greater amount of peace, or stop evil from taking over the entire earth. I’m not convinced of that, though admittedly I don’t know very much yet. I’m also not convinced that, even if that necessity has held in the past, it has to hold in the future. I believe that however necessary we think war is, we should always be deeply saddened by it and ashamed of it as a human race.

Another curious point from the NRA video is the connection North makes between warfare and faith. I’m not sure what he meant, but it sounded like he said most soldiers are in the armed forces because of faith. Is that faith in freedom, or religious faith? If it’s religious faith (and North only showed examples of Christians), I’m even more concerned: as I look at Jesus, I don’t see a whole lot to commend violence, whether as a first or last resort. Moreover, the connection between praying before battle and praying before football highlights another worry: in either case, do you think God wants one team to lose, one to win?

One parting quote from the Ring of Freedom website:

Think of the fearless men and women who put on a uniform every day to make freedom possible—because there are no freedoms, without those willing to fight for them.

This is one of the stickiest points of this whole business: isn’t freedom worth dying to protect? Isn’t it worth killing to protect? Isn’t self-determination so basic a human right we’re justified in exterminating those who hinder others from experiencing it? I just don’t know; killing someone sure seems like a good way to end their experiment in self-determination! The Marine who rescued the Iraqi soldier, on the other hand, gave him that, and more: the knowledge that an enemy from the other side of the planet cared enough about his humanity to risk his life making sure it didn’t end. Now that is inspiring!

PS: I think it goes without saying that I greatly respect the sacrifices of those who have selflessly given their lives for causes greater than themselves. I respect that the average soldier has nothing to do with the motivations which lead her country into war, and whether they approximate those of a ‘just’ war. And I respect that the cycle of violence thrusts violence upon citizens of the world when they do not deserve it. However, I do believe that cycle needs to be examined, and that sacrifice must be respected with a conscious understanding of the goal of that sacrifice! Lastly, I am acutely aware that, whatever the morality of the wars that secured my freedom, I do make use of a freedom which was gained by someone fighting for it, and I am indeed thankful for that freedom. I simply hope that we can find a better way to procure it! And that won’t happen if we assume what we currently have is good enough.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit for more.

8 thoughts on “Reaction: Ring of Freedom”

  1. Good comments that merit our attention, Jonathan! Interestingly, I am about half-way through Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace”. I highly recommend it!

  2. I didn’t get through reading the whole thing, but since it seems to be based off the video, I thought I should clarify that the guy the soldier was rescuing was not the enemy. He is part of the Afghan Army that the US and other armies are training so we can pull out of Afghanistan without leaving a power vacuum to only be filled by the Taliban. The point of the story was to show that the Brits wouldn’t have helped a wounded comrade, but an American would, no matter the comrade’s uniform. Okay now I’ll finish reading…

  3. Ah, thanks for clarifying that, Rachel! I did misunderstand that; I’ll make a note in the blog text. I guess it does change my points about what people naturally approve of, and the nature of the corpsman’s help, but I think the reflections my imaginary situation spawned are still interesting!

  4. No, Jonathan, I’m pretty sure you were right the first time. The soldier is Iraqi Army–of the early invasion sort and not a comrade.

    What that marine did is not some crazy outlier of a story. It’s the story of this entire campaign. When I was in Iraq, every day I rolled outside the wire armed with soccer balls, notebooks, water and big wads of cash. EVERYday we did, effectively, what that marine did: put our lives on the line to spread goodwill. EVERYday we willingly exposed ourselves to get shot or blown up for the sake of bettering the lives of rural Iraqis. EVERYday I risked American boys–from places with names like “Ohio” and “Indiana”–to make Iraqis’–from towns with names like “al-Jirah” and “Tal Afar”–lives a little safer and a little less tragic. What that marine did–throwing his life away for an unknown man from a foreign land–is what these wars have effectively turned into at an operational and strategic level. It’s what the military does now everyday.

    We had a guy from my old company die a month ago on a joint patrol with the Afghan National Police. He got blown in half by a deep-buried IED trying to teach Afghans how to govern their country with civility, rule of law and a respect for a basic form of human dignity. That boy died in what-will-probably-be a futile campaign to help a country develop in such a way that young girls don’t have to worry about having their noses cut off if they resist rape or forced marriage.

    Our entire existence now in those campaigns is sacrifice–not destruction. And I think that’s where you get this wrong. The problem is, as you’ve implied here, is that there is no alternative. There is only non-violent resistance and violent resistance. Is waging war evil? Sure. Is it evil for a soldier to squeeze his trigger at an enemy combatant and kill a man? Sure. It is an evil. I don’t disagree with you on that.

    But let me tell you, no one hates war quite like a real veteran hates war. When you’ve sat through and run as many funeral services as I have, you would learn to hate war in ways you cannot imagine.

    So why the guns? Because we still live in a Hobbesian world. We can wish it were not so. We can develop government institutions and an international legal framework to make war increasingly less attractive to leaders of countries, big and small. We can create and sell iPods, blue jeans and music and hope that we are building bridges across cultures and not creating enemies.

    But, at the end of the day, we are still not on Perelandra. This world has fallen to sin, and we must do the best we can in the aftermath. We cannot fundamentally alter the laws of this fallen world–namely, that man is born crooked. Leaders and political theorists do not accept the concept of a “realist” world because they like it; they accept it because it is the most accurate diagnosis of the human condition.

    We can pretend we can live in this world–as gang-run north Sudan prepares to crush southern Sudan, as Islamist-fascist groups wage their ongoing war against the fragile government in Somalia, as North Korea reminds us of its intent to capture South Korea (or destroy it trying), as rebels seek to overthrow and control Yemen, as the president of Iran continues his nuclear programme in the hope of using it to “wipe Israel off the map,” as Israel continues to dominate, harass and generally continue a slow but consistent ethnic cleansing campaign of the Palestinian people, as Russia continues to flex its muscle on little Georgia’s borders, as the civilian death toll in Mexico’s drug wars reaches a frenzied pitch, as increasingly spectacular terrorist attacks by groups like the Tamil Tigers continue to destabilize the nations of Southeast Asia, etc.–and we can tell ourselves that violence cannot be wielded for anything but evil. But ultimately, that path leaves nothing but destruction for everyone.

    We have not moved into post-history yet. Europe’s example–from a state of constant war for centuries–to an almost supranational entity is inspiring. And I will shake your hand on that day when all nations reach that stage of enlightenment and violence is obsolete. But for now, I will acknowledge the world as it is in this moment, and I will do my part to manage the world’s anarchy and violence as best as God allows.

  5. Matt, thank you for joining the discussion (and for further clarifying the background of the video). I was hoping we would get your perspective, since after all your knowledge and experience of what actually happens in day-to-day situations of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict surpass (I would imagine) that of anyone else reading this. I’m really glad to hear that the story of the current conflict is not just combat but equally (or moreso) building infrastructure, helping schools and villages, etc…

    With regard to violence vs. non-violence, I’m impressed (though not surprised) by the candidness of your response, and it is easy for me to believe that my distaste for and sadness about war are nothing compared to the experience-driven hatred of violence expressed by those veterans who have seen too much of that kind of evil. I want you to know that your position as you’ve expressed it is entirely respectable to me.

    Your basic point–that a less evil response to great evil is often simply the only realistic option–is hard to counter, and it has a lot of force for me too. In my own reflections on this subject, it is easy to imagine dilemma situations where the only options appear to be (a) letting unmeasured violence run rampant over innocent victims, or (b) using judicious and targeted violence against those who have no regard for the dignity of human life, in order to preserve the lives of the innocent. Even Bonhoeffer chose option (b) in the face of Nazi domination. Likewise, despite my allegience to cultural self-determination (i.e., we shouldn’t follow a policy of cultural imperialism), I believe strongly that such self-determination should be limited by a robust-enough morality. What happens to women in some Muslim countries, for example, is not ok, and something needs to be done about it! These kinds of situations are exactly where I have no sympathy for pacifism, which doesn’t ultimately “turn the other cheek” but simply turns the gaze elsewhere, ignoring the evil which requires a just response.

    From a purely human perspective, I can think of no convincing argument that the “third way” I hypothesized will always be available. My questions about the effectiveness of non-violence are not, however (and crucially!), from a human perspective. Non-violence might sometimes work in the face of violence because of the way it unmasks the machinations of supra-human “powers”, thus allowing people to see humanity in one another from across enemy lines. In the case of Hitler, even this unmasking would be, I imagine, futile. What I wonder, from a theological perspective, is whether choosing non-violence might open up a third way—not a human way, but a channel through which divine assistance might be delivered. For some reason, if God exists and is an active agent in the world, he/she has decided to allow humans to do violence to one another, in horrible and dehumanizing ways. But surely God is not impaled upon the horns of the dilemma I mentioned in the previous paragraph! If he/she wanted, any conflict could end with bullets turning into snowflakes and missiles to flowers. The question becomes, under what conditions will God choose to “show up” (with miracles obvious or hidden), when from a human perspective we are forced into the dilemma of violence vs. selfish cowardice?

    Obviously there can be no definite formulation—Jesus was martyred, as were all his disciples and many early Christians. Figures who stood for peace and the furthering of human rights have often been assasinated. Jesus was resurrected, but his followers weren’t, and no one else that I am aware of; early Christians stood up to segments of Judaism or the Roman empire non-violently, and were pretty much killed. Clearly, even from a theological perspective that believes strongly in God’s proclivity to act when his/her servants engage non-violently, there is no guarantee of mortal security. Still, I can’t help but wonder if choosing to believe in this third way might indeed give God more room to act, since in that case we would be neither taking ultimate judgment into our own hands nor turning a blind eye to evil. This resonates with everything I think I know about the kind of God I think is worth believing in. Unfortunately, I am afraid right now to put myself into situations where I might put this reflection to the test, especially because, as I pointed out, even if I’m right about all this, it doesn’t mean I won’t end up dead. That’s kind of a scary thought to me right now! Hopefully, as I grow older, I will grow more comfortable with thinking about the point and limits of my life, and more prepared to hold it loosely if I ever end up in a situation where the philosophical dilemma becomes real. Per Aslan: he’s not safe, but he’s good. At the moment, I fear that in such a situation I would have neither the courage to respond with measured violence nor the faith to respond with active non-violence. Either one would be better, I think, than sitting idle while an innocent person is victimized. Perhaps we agree at least on that much?

  6. Jonathan, I’m happy you responded and gave me the chance to hear your follow-up thoughts. I do not have much to add, for I feel you’ve addressed much of my concerns about the third way–namely, that waiting for God’s intervention is a significant gamble (as He is not tame, as you wrote).

    As a coincidence, a copy of C.S.L.’s Weight of Glory I ordered arrived today, and I could not help flipping to his sermon, “Why I am not a pacifist.” He brings up a fair share of healthy arguments, not least of which is the concept that, if war was so abhorrent to God, it is highly likely God would have been more adamant about non-violent resistance in the literature that best reveals his character (Scripture). We could debate what “turn the other cheek” means ad nauseam–it’s not my intention to suggest we duel biblical references. My point is, the code for which you are suggesting should typify human behavior–a very binding code–has scant precedent or proponent whether from the mouths/pens of Paul, Jesus or Aquinas.

    As far as breaking the argument down to a question of identifying the greater evil: (1) action or (2) inaction in the face of a reasonably-interpreted greater evil/moral imperative, I will, again, defer to Lewis, as reading the following passage felt like the words I have been too ineloquent to say:

    “I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made.”

    Though I do not necessarily agree with the decisions made by white-haired, out-of-shape men in the halls of the White House or the Pentagon in launching and continuing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, I do believe I have contributed to the cause of man, to the causes of peace, dignity and justice by becoming involved in that inevitable conflict/evil regardless of my “larger picture” feelings. (I assure you, in Iraq, my capabilities, manpower and material resources to do good far outpaced any aid worker or journalist.) By conducting ourselves as leaders and images of civility in uncivil times and places, in warzones created by powerful men who’s decisions we cannot hope to alter, I believe good soldiers do God, humanity and peace a great service–perhaps, even, the greatest service one solitary good man can offer.

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