I am going to offer one cheer for veterans. Only one, it is true, but it will be a transcendent cheer. Transcendent, because in my view it lays hold of Heaven itself.
I begin with a memory of the day of the assassination of Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, in October, 1981. According to the press reports and video clips of the occasion (I can do no better, I wasn't there), President Sadat was standing in review at a parade, when assassins in the parade formation opened fire. At the crucial moment, Sadat's bodyguard, who may have been in on the plot, dropped down and took cover. Undefended, Sadat was immediately cut down. That act of collective cowardice, if it was that, spoke volumes. All the talk of brotherhood and loyalty dissolved into a bloody puddle of betrayal and dishonor, the spirit of Judas moving as he ever does. The stain of that shame has not yet been removed.
I contrast that with the attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan a few months earlier in the same year. In that event, the men of the Secret Service leaped into action to shield the President with their own bodies, and wrestled the killer to the ground while he was armed and shooting. That act of willing self-sacrifice also spoke volumes. All the talk of partisanship and controversy surrounding the president resolved into a sense of heroism and national honor, at least for a time.
The words of Christ ring very clear here -- at least they do in my own head: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." And the free willingness to do so is the crucial thing: often the actual death of the willing is not required. Those who lay down their lives may often be granted the grace to take them up again.
I take the Lord of All Worlds at His word, that He honors this great love at its offering, and if a man dies in such an act, I believe he is welcomed immediately into the Holy Presence. Furthermore, I take these words as authoritative as against anything any Church or theologian might say in the negative. Love, it is said, conquers death; and it also conquers the fear of death.
There is no doubt in my mind that often times men join the military service of their nation with just such noble thoughts in mind. In America, we much admire the ragged solidarity of the farmers and youngsters at Valley Forge. We like the story of Nathan Hale who, though a spy, had "but one life to give for his country." (Not quite the same as "his friends," of course, but let us move on.)
I like these stories, as you do. And I suppose every nation remembers its heroes who died for their friends in battle, or perished in the defense of hearth and home. I like the poem about the old Roman hero, Horatius. Even though the poet is a 19th-century Briton (Macauley), I think he fairly captures the old ideal in its pagan form:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate;
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,
"And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?"
Thus far, the one cheer. The transcendent cheer that recognizes that warriors do sometimes lay hold of the holy reality of that great love that lays itself down for its friends. Some men ridicule the notion of "foxhole religion;" I do not. Foxhole religion may indeed be religion of the purest (because most transforming) kind; may a merciful and gracious Father God bless all who call upon Him, in whatever extremity.
But these acts of honor are the exception rather than the rule in war. For every Horatius who must defend the bridge, there also must be the "false Sextus" (and his numerous army) who force Horatius into doing what he does, and who either know, or know not, what they do. And even if the sacrifice is noble, and accepted as such, the fields and cities are filled with destruction and death.
And even poor noble Horatius can wonder -- are his fellow soldiers really honorable, or do they stand guilty of vicious aggressions of their own? Are their Gods, and their temples, worthy? And if not -- what then?
If I may presume a perhaps-too-general opinion, it seems to me that whole cultures, whole nations, have lost their way here. The Vikings, for example, seem to have had a notion that death in battle guaranteed a place of honor in the feasting halls of Valhalla -- despite the fact that their warriors were, more often than not, the pirates and the pillagers, the killers of defenseless monks and the kidnappers of girls. Did the Lord of All Worlds count this as "laying their lives down for their friends," and guarantee them His beatitude, or had they been deceived -- perhaps willingly, perhaps not -- by the war god whose true name is Moloch? I wonder.
But more to the point, what about the United States of America and its wars?
I beg you to read your history carefully. Carefully. What were the reasons why brave and seasoned old warriors had second thoughts -- commanders such as Scott, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Butler, and many others? Why do some veterans come home and become outright pacifists?
War is a very ugly business, mostly because very many ugly men do very many ugly things. Sometimes, because they want to; sometimes, because someone has told them that they must. And by no means is all of the ugliness on the other side, nor is all of the honorable sacrifice on our own.
Let us not beatify all veterans. Some are honorable men; some are knaves; and some are simple fools. Just like the rest of us.