Sgt. Hartman Would (probably not) Be Proud: Five Questions with Logan Mehl-Laituri
First of all, many apologies for not posting in a week and a half. I’ve been in the throes of Thespianism.
And yes, that is every bit as dramatic as it sounds.
Anyway, we’re back with a vengeance (sort of). I’ve landed a number of interviews, including this series of Five Questions with the military veteran and Christian peacemaker, Logan Mehl-Laituri. Mr. Laituri served in the Iraq War and then applied for the status of noncombatant conscientious objector while seeking to return to the battlefield unarmed.
The U.S. Army didn’t think that was very cute.
Oh, come on . . . that’s a totally fitting reference. Totally.
Here you go . . .
1) According to the U.S. Army, you have an ‘adjustment disorder’. Do you agree with their assessment, or is it the case that in a world that assumes the ontological necessity of violence Christians should be the least well-adjusted of all?
Yeah, what you said. I think I have ‘adjusted’ in a way that the world as it is cannot (or will not) assimilate, but I think that’s the point of the Christian moral life; the world (read: the State, the King, the Powers That Be, etc.) does not get to dictate the nature of things. Instead, Christians take their cues from Christ, who refused to agree with the assumed primacy of Capitol Hill Rome. After all, Rome isn’t God, God is God. It’s like Peter Maurin said; “If we are crazy, then it is because we refuse to be crazy in the same way that the world has gone crazy.” If it is true that only a crazy person doesn’t realize (or won’t admit) that they’re crazy, then I hope my confession means that I am actually quite sane. But then, what does that say about a world insisting it is not crazy?
2) You seem like a pretty interesting guy. Major props for taking on the empire and all that. So, and this is really difficult for me to come to terms with, but . . . how do you listen to contemporary Christian music? I just don’t get it.
Yeah, some of it is just crap. It’s like they discovered which Proverbs rhymed and they just keep repeating it over and over again. But some stuff really speaks honestly about their convictions, and I like that. I know some of my convictions are offensive to some, but I have respect for those who tolerate listening to me anyway, and I hope they feel the same about me when I listen to them. I don’t agree with all of it, and you’ll notice I quote both The Orange County Supertones, who likened abortionists to Hitler, as well as Five Iron Frenzy, who called freedom and democracy a drug . . . both of which reunited the same year I wrote the book (and for that, as candidate Romney has said, “I’ll take a lot of credit”).
I think we treat music entirely too superficially, by the way. I can quote much more lyrics to songs than I can lines of the Apostle’s Creed. Media has become a kind of liturgy, a way of narrating the world around us. That’s why I get really worked up by war movies – they are deciding what war ‘is’ for the millions of people paying out their noses for a matinee show. If we want to know war, we should first listen to those who see it first hand, not some overpaid, melodramatic profiteer with a knack for pretending acting. If our minds are filled with things like honor, glory, and heroism when we think of war, our imaginations have been misdirected. Even on its best day, war is still dismembered bodies, widows, and orphaned children.
However, that isn’t to say that media has no place in the church. Music in particular has always been a part of the people of God. Music gets embedded in our hearts and minds; it fills those silent voids in our thought process (or it does mine – I rely on it to drown out the voices in my head telling me that Obama is the last best hope for humankind or that the cheese in my refrigerator is past its expiration date). The early church used visual art as well as creedal hymns to teach (often illiterate) catechumens the faith passed down from Jesus. We should be taking music much more seriously, and when it turns out to be theological crap, maybe we excommunicate musicians or something. Heck, isn’t that what part of the American church did to the Dixie Chicks?
3) I’ve often found that the depoliticization and spiritualization of Christianity is what makes it so easy to get our ‘spiritual on’ with God while, simultaneously giving our bodies to the state. Indeed, that the privatization of religion has so thoroughly resulted in the state’s ownership of our bodies is not coincidental. How did you get beyond what Gunnery Sgt. Hartman said in Full Metal Jacket: “Your hearts belong to Jesus, but your asses belong to the Corps!” (Or, in your case, the Army.)
Well, I guess in some way, I presented a conundrum to the Army (or, at least, my commanders). On the one hand, I lived up to the standards expected of me: I was loyal, dutiful, respectful, selfless, honorable, and I maintained my integrity and personal courage (those are the seven “Army Core Values” ingrained in every recruit). Had I not been, their attempts to discipline me would have had some traction. So the weird place it put them in (paradigmatically) was whether or not someone who lived up to these values could also be nonviolent. I knew that the answer was yes, since there have been innumerable soldiers who served on the battlefield and off who refused, as I did, to carry a personal firearm. I cover some of these people in the book, and I’ll get to more of them across American and Church history in my next book, For God & Country (in that order): Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals (Herald Press, 2013). So what I was asking to do was not without precedent at all.
Unfortunately, the Army has transformed in the years since, say, World War II. The official Army historian, a guy named SLA Marshall, wrote a book based on (anecdotal) research he did in many units fighting in Europe and the Pacific. He called the book Men Against Fire, since he found that of all the front line troops, only about one out of every four men actually fired at the enemy. This troubled the army, so they went about doing what they could to increase the number of soldiers who would “shoot to kill” when the time came. Nevermind the annoying little detail that, with a 25% firing rate, we won the war!
Using psychological strategies defined by BF Skinner in the 1930’s called “classical conditioning,” the military began desensitizing recruits and increasing what would come to be called “reflexive fire.” The more firing rates increased, the less morality was being applied to war. Pacifists don’t get off the hook so easily either. After the Cold War, ideological camps became increasingly isolated and war and the military began to be seen as homogenous; war is bad, so the military must be bad, right? Well, with this blank moral slate being put before them (by both the establishment and the church), soldiers themselves no longer had any immediate reason to think that they were to think or act morally in war. Their job was to get home in one piece, even if it meant making pieces of someone else’s home (or body). Pacifists, by their disassociation, were telling soldiers that war is amoral, and the military, by explicit training, was telling them not to think (as thought there’s much difference). Problem is that, contra military training, in war soldiers absolutely must think, and, contra pacifist assumptions, the military is not homogenous. Needless to be said, there is some deep cognitive dissonance on both sides of the theo-political aisle.
So, it’s really not just the Army I had to get past, it was the church too. What Christians don’t like to admit is that they could stand to learn something from the military. We have an entire generation growing up in a broken world that wants to be a part of something better. We have young men and women who hunger for justice and thirst for righteousness, but the military has a monopoly on the language of virtue. They tell children (high schoolers, 14-17 year olds); “Hey, you want to know what it’s like to serve your community? You want to experience the love that is greater than all others, the love that gives its life for its friends? You can die in the Global War of on Terror.” Granted, we don’t have the $20 billion recruiting budget that the military does, but you gotta hand it to them, they know how to get your attention. For many young people today, “church” has lost all meaning; it no longer has any true moral substance. Most of what people see in reference to church is people clapping their hands for Jesus or taking sides in the latest political hot button issue. Does the church have anyone to blame but itself? I’m not sure anymore . . .
In answer to the movie’s antagonist; my heart belongs to God, not just the church. More poignantly, those I served alongside, who exhibited a sense of service and sacrifice that the church seems to lack at times, also captivated my heart. It isn’t always the type of Christians you’d think that split off spirit from body or vice versa. I still go to church in progressive circles, and admittedly, I wonder what else they do with their bodies beyond clapping their hands or raising their fists in protest or writing a check to a good, “liberal” cause. But then I think, “What is it that I’m doing beyond those things?”
4) This may seem like a really simple/obvious question, but I keep thinking I’m missing something with it, so here it goes: Why do you think so many Christians in the military are offended by those who question co-opting Jesus with killing for their nation-state, and how does this play out, politically, with obtaining a 1-A-0 (the ability to continue with military service as a noncombatant conscientious objector)?
I think there is a fundamental confusion between allegiances for American Christians. The military is simply the site that that confusion gets played out in caricature. And I do mean caricature; I literally could not believe some of the things other Christians would say to me! I don’t want to repeat those things here (because you can buy the book and find out, but also I suck at typing and my neck is getting tired), but the critical issue is to parse out when country ends and where God begins. For Christians today, in the most powerful nation the world has ever known, we confuse the might of our military with the might of God. This isn’t new by any means. Just read your Old Testament. It’s full of our spiritual forebears trusting the number of their chariots and strength of their warriors. So at least we know we’re not without precedent.
One thing that helped me was to remember that while I might have many identities and derivative allegiances, only one could be ultimate. I still stand and recite most of the American Pledge of Allegiance, but I don’t put my hand over my heart, because my heart belongs to God. I know friends of mine who don’t like that, but that’s okay. I still use cash, even though it says “In God We Trust,” all that stuff. But I think Christians need to remember that there will be times when one allegiance demands something of us that stands in direct contradiction to the demands of our highest allegiance. For example, as a soldier, I needed to be prepared to execute the orders of the officers pointed above me, including killing the enemies defined thereby. But my ultimate allegiance insists that I embrace, not eviscerate, my enemies – that I love, and not curse, those who persecute my compatriots or me. In that situation, I had to obey God rather than the officers appointed above me, and I did – I refused to carry a firearm. If that landed me in the brig, than so be it.
Centurions Guild has this olive green tee shirt that says has “GOD > u.s.” on the front. It serves as a reminder that God is greater than us (and U.S.). There are things that my country asks of me that do not necessarily contradict my allegiance to God, like paying taxes or not crossing the street whenever I want. But we can’t assume that God and country are one and the same. We must, as Christians, believe the God is greater and more deserving of our allegiance than is our country. The times at which these allegiances contradict may be few (for now), but they will occur. In those times, we have to be prepared to do things that seem ineffective, unnecessary, or downright stupid. Like going to war without your weapon.
Just pragmatically, in my case, I was spared (for the most part) from accusations of cowardice because I explicitly asked to return to war, for what would have been my second deployment. But not all Christians would agree with me that the military is like any institution (and, if taken quantitatively, is MUCH less guilty of bloodshed than the church is). An institution is made up of people, and it is to people that God calls us, not just to party politics or moral principles. The people that constituted my experience in the Army were good people, sometimes Christians, who wanted desperately to do the right thing. The part where we disagreed was whether and to what extent America represented the vehicle through which a common good was dispensed. I think America does a lot of good stuff, but it also does a lot of horrible shit. God alone is fully and comprehensively good, and I trust God to do the good the world needs. Sometimes maybe that is through America, but it would be a mistake to think that God exclusively uses America, or that God never uses America.
5) When they make a movie about your life, will it star Tom Cruise? I heard he likes films with ‘Fourth of July’ in the title.
Blegh. See my comment above about the theological reliability of Hollywood. I think the “John Wayne” paradigm has ruined most (if not all) attempts to depict war honestly and accurately. John Wayne, ironically, never saw war; he was too young for WWI and too old for WWII (though just barely). That didn’t stop him from profiting (professionally and monetarily) from pretending acting as though he knew war.
Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, even after commercial success in Hollywood, fought height and weight standards to get into the Army Air Corps and became the first movie star to serve during WWII. After he enlisted, he repeatedly rejected attempts by his superiors to make him a recruiting symbol and finally got an assignment as a pilot. He went on to a number of missions in Europe, and went from the rank of Private to Colonel in just four years. When he came home, he refused to make war films. Hmm . . .
Audie Murphy, the most decorated WWII vet (and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient) felt differently, even starring in the movie based on his own autobiography, To Hell and Back (in which he reflected on his war experience in the infantry as “a brand”). He struggled with Post Traumatic Stress his whole life, including insomnia and depression, and he faced stigma when he became one of the first notable veterans to speak about mental health on behalf of returning Korea and Vietnam veterans.
John Wayne, ironically, is often cited by morally injured veterans to VA clinicians as a paradigmatic figure suggesting that war was good and glorious (in fact, he made 13 films during WWII that more or less made the case). Actual experience is quick to prove otherwise. So, although I do think In the Valley of Elah and Restrepo constitute a few exceptions, I’d say Hollywood’s track record is pretty shoddy.
And with that, I leave you with what is surely the greatest moment in all war-film history.