I am the daughter of a World War II combat medic, and I am a retired U.S. Army nurse. I served on active duty for 20 years, between 1968 and 1991. During the war in Vietnam, I knew young men who had survived combat but faced the future with disabilities. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have known the next generation of soldiers and their families; and I have again witnessed the physical and psychological damage that wartime inflicts on so many people.
Until recent years, I had never examined the morality of the wars that this country fought. I believed in my country, right or wrong; that we were always the good guys, like those old World War II movies depicted. When we invaded Iraq in 1991, later Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, I strongly disagreed with the military actions; but I did not hear a call to my conscience.
Then, between 2006 and 2010, my religious denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, began to develop a statement of conscience on war and peace. A major issue was: Are there any circumstances that justify war? There was the call to my conscience.
I began to study the issue. I learned that the Catholic Church has defined the conditions of a Just War: only as a last resort; if there is a reasonable chance of success; to redress a wrong suffered and to re-establish peace; with violence proportional to the injury suffered; with minimal civilian casualties. (UUA’s Peacemaking Resource Guide 2006-2010)
As I applied those criteria to wars within the lifetime of my parents and myself – World War II to the present conflicts – I found violations of some criteria in every war I studied, including World War II with the saturation bombings of civilians in Germany and the atomic bombs dropped in Japan, as well as the preemptive invasions of Iraq twice, no self-defense involved.
Yes, justifications were given; but criteria for just war were violated. The reality is that, once fighting starts, abiding by the principles of just war is very difficult. Warfare is not civilized.
My denomination finally approved the “Creating Peace: 2010 Statement of Conscience” (uua.org). It was a thoughtful, inclusive, comprehensive document. It affirmed the exercise of individual conscience and the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves. It also challenged us to build peace by removing the underlying causes of war.
As for me, I honor the soldiers and their families for their service and their sacrifices; but now I ask why those sacrifices are necessary. As a nurse, I know that prevention is better than cure. That applies to maintaining health; surely it also applies to maintaining peaceful international relations. Retired general and president, Dwight Eisenhower, said it powerfully: “Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences – not with arms but with intellect and decent purpose.” (Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation, Jan. 17, 1961). I have realized that I agree with him.
Searching my conscience, I have pondered: What can individuals and faith communities do? I think Deepak Chopra, Indian physician and nonsectarian spiritual teacher, said it well: “Real peace is taking care of the environment, helping the poor achieve economic parity, making sure human rights are protected, and finding nonviolent means of conflict resolution.” (“Peace Is the Way,” Deepak Chopra, 2005).
Although not easy, this is what we as individuals and faith communities can do.Ann Yeo is a member of Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.