Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States encouraged many American Catholics to reflect on their faith. Speaking about the tendency of many practicing Christians to ignore the teachings of the Gospel that challenge their daily practices and desires, the pope proclaimed that “[a]ny tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.” He noted that this ought to prompt some soul-searching about materialism, exploitation of the poor, failure to recognize the sanctity of human life and sexual practices that undermine the sacrament of marriage. His words have also led me, a Catholic soldier, to carefully consider my chosen profession. Is Christianity compatible with war?

War is a terrible thing. When political goals clash and violence erupts, we often avoid a consideration of the horrors of war by arguing that our actions are just. We say that war has been forced upon us by our conscience, that there is a moral imperative to react violently to a threat, to defend our existence or to advance a cause that is inherently good. Everyone who participates in war seems to make an argument along these lines, so every soldier and belligerent on the battlefield, on every side of the conflict, is convinced his or her actions are appropriate.

But the reality of war challenges this way of thinking. Sooner or later, the righteous soldier finds himself in a firefight where he must take the lives of others. How can he or she kill while respecting the sanctity of human life?

Or consider the ongoing argument about interrogation. One arrives at an ethical dilemma even before the question of torture is raised. The fundamental premise of interrogation is that a prisoner must be convinced to divulge things he is fundamentally opposed to divulging. He must betray his cause – his comrades and his beliefs – to satisfy the wishes of the capturing army. Though the interrogator knows he must resist questioning if captured, his job is to manipulate others into answering his own questions.

Very few people doubt the necessity of interrogation. Gaining information from detained enemy soldiers and belligerents is an important function of intelligence services. Does that mean that manipulating another person to act against his or her own principles or interests is moral? Is it just?

These are difficult questions, and I am inclined to say that the answer is no: It is not moral to kill or manipulate others, regardless of the circumstances. But that does not mean I believe we should refrain from war or intelligence-gathering. Part of living with integrity in a world full of corruption and evil is accepting that we will be corrupted by it. It is important that we realize this, so we do not fall into the trap our extremist enemies in al-Qaida have fallen into: thinking violence is commanded by God.

Some say they could never participate in war because they do not have the “flexible morals” of people like me. Others say that they would gladly participate in a war they personally determine is just, but not in wars like the ones in Vietnam and Iraq. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who think this way. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to accept that I am capable of violence against other human beings. But we all are. It is not a question of capability, but a question of the level of enthusiasm with which one engages in acts of war.

It is important to consider carefully the question of one’s enthusiasm because I do not want a person who finds killing enjoyable on the front lines, nor do I want someone who finds manipulation amusing to sit down with detainees in an interrogation booth. I want the army to be full of people who understand the terrible nature of war and are concerned about treating others with dignity and respect. Thankfully, I serve in an army that is full of people like that. The abuses at Abu Ghraib and the killing of unarmed civilians in Haditha are especially shocking because they are out of character for our military. The conduct displayed in those incidents ran contrary to the institutional values of the Army and Marine Corps.

Holding up an anti-war sign is an expression of individual conscience, but it does not have a direct effect on Iraqi lives. Soldiers’ actions have that direct effect. Not everyone has the power to decide when and why we go to war, but everyone who allows him or herself to become involved with the military has the power to decide how we conduct war.

The pope told us that faith should permeate every aspect of our lives. War is part of all our lives, and we should allow our faith to permeate that aspect as well. But we must do so knowing that the world will not allow us an easy answer. Even as we accept that we will be corrupted by the world, we must resist corruption. As humans, there is only so much we alone can do in our effort to live justly.

So, is war compatible with Christianity? I think so, but not because wars can be fought in an entirely moral manner. They are compatible because Christianity challenges us to seek justice in all things, even the most horrible aspects of our world.

William Quinn is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and a former staff sergeant in the United States Army and a cadet in Army ROTC. He can be reached at quinnthehoya.com. This is this semester’s final installment of AIMLESS FEET.

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