The reality of war and our proper response

by Tony Flood

Having seen Steven Spielberg’s hit film Saving Private Ryan, I am struck with a few thoughts and considerations. First, I was impressed by the movie itself. It is a dramatic portrayal of the horrors of World War II and of war in general. In order to give due remembrance to the American soldiers who fought against the Nazi/Axis powers, Spielberg employs the effective and convincing tactic of stark realism. The reality of war-at least in the trenches where it is fought-is suffering, destruction and death. Insofar as cinematography has the capacity to capture and convey experience, Spielberg manages to give the viewers a shocking taste of that reality. In this way, the film serves as a notable memorial to the sacrifices of the soldiers-not a monument of marble or stone, but an unforgettable glimpse of what they actually went through.

From this consideration, we cannot help but ask what response ought to be given to the sacrifices made for us. The response, I propose, is twofold.   First we should show reverence and gratitude-gratitude for our freedom, and reverence toward the men who underwent such unfathomable experiences to win it for us. The second level is more complicated.  

Allow me to preface my explanation with the following point: I do not contend that the “more perfect union,” the establishment of “liberty and justice for all” envisioned by our forefathers has come to fruition in Amercia today. In fact, my views on this matter are quite the contrary. However, it would be an injustice (not to mention fallacious reasoning) not to honor the memory of the many who died on the battle field, just because the country they fought for does not presently embody the ideals upon which it was founded and for which they fought.

With this in mind, what is this second type of response?   This is the response of maximizing the gifts and opportunities we enjoy as a result of these sacrifices. Yes, we need to recognize the errors embodied by this country’s way of life, but this in no way entails a state of indifference or apathy to the positive attributes it possesses, thanks in part to the soldiers of war. We should acknowledge and cherish these blessings, and manifest them in our very selves by flourishing as persons. This not only gives the greatest tribute possible to those who sacrificed everything for these opportunities, it is also our duty as sons and daughters of God

My final consideration issues again from the portrayal of WWII by Saving Private Ryan, a portrayal I am assuming is accurate. It is apparent that many of the commanders and soldiers were hardly striving for a life of perfection in Christ. This can be seen by their illicit sexuality and their profane use of the name of God and things sacred. This fact may cause some Christians to question whether we ought to show gratitude and reverence to men who fell so short of the ideals we cherish.

All of this points to the reality of the two spiritual cities that St. Augustine portrays in The City of God. There is the city of man, inhabited by those who love themselves to the contempt of God, and the city of God, inhabited by those who love God to the contempt of self. The tension between these two cites varies in degree at different times and in different places. Most Christians, according to Augustine, vacillate between them throughout their lives.

In studying American history, one may get the impression, and I think rightly so, that many who have lived in this country, led this country, and formed this country, have thought highly of the city of God and even attempted to integrate and incorporate many of its values into American life and policy. This being the case, it may be taken for granted by us that the principles of this country ought to be those of the city of God. Although this would be the ideal situation, given the fallen nature of humanity, and the prideful struggle for domination, it is an unreasonable expectation. We remain, like all earthly governments, principally a city of men.

We should be thankful that America embodies many Christian ideals. At the same time, we should not be surprised at the imperfect and partial nature of this embodiment. It is not the city of God. For the same reason, it should not surprise us to find that many of the soldiers who made heroic sacrifices for our country were not models of virtue.

But since we ourselves aspire to be citizens in the Godly city, and therefore strive to live by the ideals and values appropriate to such a state, is it fitting for us to offer reverence to the soldiers who, though they fought and sacrificed their lives on the “altar of freedom,” frequently abused those ideals? I contend not only that we may, but that we must give this response.

Citizens of the city of God live in communion with all people, and are commanded to love all of them, friend and foe alike. Moreover, the more defined the institution that binds us, the closer the communion ought to be, e.g. the world, nation, church, family, etc. In other words, we have a call to particular communion with our compatriots. And, in virtue of tradition, this call to communion extends not only to those who live but to those who have gone before us as well.

Further, we are well aware of the myriad difficulties obstructing our journey to Christ. We have all strayed at one time or another, even after gaining knowledge of the Way, the Truth and the Life. In light of this experience, we ought to be sympathetic to the struggles of those who fall short of the vocation to holiness, and grateful for whatever portions of it they are able to realize.

Finally, the soldiers of World War II were consciously fighting for the establishment of liberty and peace. Though the secular notions of liberty and peace may not be identical to the Christian ones, they are nevertheless values worthy of aspiration, and blessings for those who share in them. They are high values, and they were in part secured for the country and its posterity through the sacrifices of our soldiers. For these reasons, we are grateful and reverent toward these men, and should strive to make our lives worth the price they paid.

Tony Flood is a graduate student of philosophy at Franciscan University