Onward Christian Soldiers

November 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bryan Fischer is policy director for the American Family Association – “family” meaning “right wing Christian” – and he’s upset about the trend in Medal of Honor winners. They’ve all heroically saved their fellow soldiers – nothing wrong with that. But why no medals for soldiers who kill a lot of people?
We have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. . . . When are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night? [Full article is here.]
It’s easy to make fun of this mentality. People of a certain age might be reminded, especially around Thanksgiving time, of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

(Go ahead, click and listen for ten seconds.)

But Fischer’s perception is probably accurate. We are indeed reluctant to glorify slaughter, even when it’s our enemies that we are slaughtering. But why? I have a few guesses.
  • Make defense, not war. After World War II, the Department of War rebranded itself as the Department of Defense. Since then, we have sent our troops to make war on lots of countries around the world, and have in fact killed a lot of people, but we always claim to be acting in self-defense. Slaughtering the other side is offensive. We now prefer defense, and saving your fellow soldiers is defensive.
  • No big deal. Using the tools of modern warfare is not so obviously an act of heroism. Killing lots of the enemy is too easy, what with modern bombs and missiles and other weaponry. Besides, these weapons also often kill an embarrassing number of civilians. But saving people who are under fire is much more difficult, hence more heroic.
  • Goal attainment? Killing lots of people doesn’t win wars – at least not the kinds of wars we’ve found ourselves in these past 50 years. We killed a million Vietnamese, and we still didn’t win. By contrast, the payoff of saving your fellow soldiers is self-evident.
A bit too rational I know. Fischer’s explanation is more cultural: our squeamishness, he says, is part of the “feminization” of American culture. He doesn’t elaborate, so maybe his explanation for the trend in medalling is really just sticking a label on it. (Lisa Wade, at Sociological Images, has already blogged about the gender assumptions involved in this idea.) But I have a broader speculation. What Fischer sees as feminization might be part of a slow evolution out of our agricultural past.

The virtues Fischer likes – among them, honor and bravery and the willingness to kill several members of your own species – are (I’m guessing here) part of a package of sentiments that developed along with agricultural/pastoral civilizations beginning maybe 15,000 years ago. Before that, in our several hundred thousand years as hunter-gatherers, we humans probably had little use for these qualities.

These manly virtues become important in large, unequal societies – especially patriarchal ones – that the agricultural revolution engendered. Even in the US, those manly and military virtues were much more a part of the agricultural South than the commercial, industrial North. They still are, as Richard Nisbett’s research shows. A disproportionate number of our troops are from rural and Southern regions.

If Fischer wants an example of his ideal, he might look to the pre-industrial sentiments of the jihadists, who are not at all squeamish about killing.* Thoroughly unfeminized, they broadcast videos of themselves beheading people, they have no qualms about slaughtering civilians to achieve their goals, and they go in for public executions in large stadiums. When honor requires it, they readily slit the throats of their daughters and sisters.

We in the West are further along in the transition out of agricultural society and into industrial or even post-industrial society. But it’s only been a couple of hundred years, and these mentalities are slow to change, especially when the costs and benefits are not starkly clear. I wonder how many centuries or millenia of early agricultural civilization it took to instill the mentality of manly virtues. And even then, as now, many people still didn’t get it, preferring a less heroic and less rewarded life, removed from the manly glories of honor and conquest, bravery and bloodshed.


*To support his call for the return of manly killing, Fischer seeks support in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. It’s the old “Kill a Commie for Christ” idea. I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, but it seems to be he’s looking for blood in all the wrong places. The Hebrews of the Old Testament should be much more to his liking. But he’s stuck with his Christianity, so he squeezes Jesus for any drop of righteous conquest that might be there.


brandsinger said...

Very good post, Jay -- wide-ranging, provocative. It's a great subject -- the word "valor" itself is so confined to military culture. We use "heroic" loosely, figuratively. A feminized culture? No question about it. Women teach boys... and doctors medicate the rowdiest.

Very tough to generalize here, though you've done a manful job of trying. Didn't Homeric fighters weep? And weren't The 600 glorified for bravely going to their deaths in the Charge of the Light Brigade? The recent Medal of Honor recipient braved a wall of bullets to save his friends -- but killed one or more enemies in the process. Just a fascinating issue.

And yes, we think of Christianity as fundamentally a religion of peace and sacrifice -- Christ himself went as a lamb to slaughter.

Yes, very good post -- rich in implications. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Killing people has never been easier, and implicit recognition of this fact is somehow an argument for diminishing the value of military medals?

Jay Livingston said...

JR -- it's not an argument for diminishing the value of the Medal of Honor. (I don't think it's value has diminished, though I'm not sure how to find out.) It's an explanation for the change in the kinds of heroic acts that have earned the Medal in recent years.