An Anniversary of Death

Today is the 68h anniversary of the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. When the bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was dropped from the Enola Gay, it killed 70,000 to 80,000 people instantly. Another 70,000 were seriously injured. In the words of one historian, “In one terrible moment, 60% of Hiroshima… was destroyed. The blast temperature was estimated to reach over a million degrees Celsius, which ignited the surrounding air, forming a fireball some 840 feet in diameter.” A second bomb, “Fat Man” was later dropped on Nagasaki, killing another approximately 35,000 people.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether the bomb was “necessary” in the context of that specific war. People have argued for years about whether the dropping of the bomb prevented the need for a land invasion that would have killed large numbers of Americans.

Today is not about war tactics. It is a reminder of the horrible potential consequences of our inability to resolve our difficulties without bloodshed. A day to pray for peace. In the Mass of Peace he presided over yesterday in the cathedral of Hiroshima, Cardinal Peter Turkson talked about the importance of “ending hostilities between humans and converting the instruments of death into instruments of peace and progress for humanity.”

May it be so.



There were several other Visiting Scholars at St. Benedict’s Monastery while I was there last week. One of them was a man named Michael Maurer, who was doing some work on a novel he is writing. I learned during a conversation we had one evening that this was his first foray into novel writing, having previously put his writing energies into poetry. He gifted me with a copy of a book of his poems, titled A Journey Through a Warrior’s Soul.

Maurer is a veteran of the Vietnam War and, like many vets, still carries the scars of that experience. You can see it in his face and hear it in his voice when he speaks, and he speaks with an incredible honesty. His poetry bears powerful witness to the tragedy of war though his vivid images and compelling stories. They make for some powerful reflections at a time when we are still sending young men and women off to die.

Many of the poems touched me deeply. One struck me for the truth it speaks, not just about an experience like war, but about all that we experience. It reminds us everything we have undergone becomes part of the fabric of who we are today. The name of the poem is Foundations, and I share it with Mike’s permission:

Our past, the good and the bad
Is the rudder of our future.
It is the foundation on which we are built.

“Let it go, forget it: Some say,
But to deny our past is to deny ourselves.

Holding on to your past, embracing it,
Allows you to grow and learn from it,
To build your future on a strong and honest foundation.

Vietnam is my past,
One of the walls of my foundation,
The good and the bad,
All that I learned
About life, about death,
About love, about friendship,
About hate, about fear,
About ignorance and about arrogance,
But mostly about myself,
It is imporant to embrace and remember all of it.

It is not all that I am,
But it is part of my foundation,
And part of who I am.

We are not defined by our painful experiences. But they don’t ever go away either. They form part of who we are.

The Costs of War

We react with surprise every time we read a story of an American soldier accused of killing civilians in a war area. Whether the subject is the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War or the recent reports of US soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport (or anything in between or before or after), we seem shocked that people can act this way.

But this is a cost of war that should not surprise us. War turns young kids into professional killers. In a recent Faith in Focus piece in American Magazine, Raymond Schroth writes, “War means that we must kill more of them than they kill of us. So we should not be surprised when the beast inside the young soldier takes over. Training and experience in battle have given soldiers a license to kill, and both propaganda and bombing strategies have made clear that these deaths are not just necesary but good.”

What are we doing to the sensibilities of the young people by giving them a licence to kill? The descriptions of the recent Afghan civilian killings are chilling. Soldiers keeping body parts of their victims as souveneirs. One tattoing skulls on his leg to keep count of his killings.

And what will happen to these soldiers when they come home from war? How will they be able to adjust to a life where they no longer have a license to kill?

We count up the cost of war in dollar signs and death tolls. That leaves a lot out of the equation. For the sake of our world and of our children, we need to find ways to resolve conflicts that do not turn young people into brutal killers.

Memorial Day

Today the United States celebrates Memorial Day, a day of remembrance of those who have died while in military service.

I confess that I have mixed feelings about the day. On the one hand, I am grateful to those who keep our country safe and who have given their lives to do so. It is fitting that we keep them in our prayers and our memories.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I am concerned that we also never lose sight of the horror of war and the need to promote peace. I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the sermons we hear on Memorial Day contained at least a reminder of the Catholic just war theory and the fact that some of the wars in which our young men and women have lost their lives can not be justified under principles of Catholic social thought. That takes nothing away from the sacrifice of our military personnel, but it helps ensure that we not forget that our obligations to promote peace and an end to war and violence. Indeed, since those who died for our country believed they were doing so to promote peace and justice, their sacrifice was in vain if we do not take our obligation in this regard seriously.

I am also concerned that we remember that it is not just American service men and women who have lost their lives protecting their countries. Our Mass petitions often include prayers for the safety of our soldiers. I silently at those moments add my prayers for all those of those affected by war – not only our soldiers but those who they fight against, and espeically for the civilians whose lives have been devastated by war.

So by all means let us remember those who have died in service to our country. But let us also pray for peace and remember this day all of those who have suffered the effects of war and armed conflict.