Sunday was a busy day. As noted, we began with church. From there we headed to a gathering of our local Preceptory, a "branch" of our Templar priory (there are four preceptories in our priory given the geographic spread of it: middle Tennessee; Memphis area; northern Alabama and north Georgia; and western North Carolina, east Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia). We shared the day and the ride with our friend Jeri, who sponsored us as Templars.
Apropos of the question that launched yesterday's post--if your house were burning what three things would you take with you to save--I posed the question to Ken and Jeri. The first thing that came to mind for Jeri was a bell that belonged to her great-grandmother. During the Civil War the bell was used to alert people on the home-place of possible trouble, and in one particular case, the impending arrival of Yankees. Great-grandmother and a few others escaped within inches of their lives, but those who remained weren't so lucky. They were rounded up and locked in the house, which was then set on fire.
This story catalyzed conversation about the cruelties of war, especially to civilian populations who, for the most part, do their best to stay under the radar and mind their own business from one day to the next, and nonetheless pay tragic prices for living or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We lamented the mob mentality that leads to heinous acts like this one, and two different, yet related thoughts and questions emerged for me.
At a recent clergy gathering, ethics guru Stanley Hauerwas from Duke University presented a collection of propositions he is putting together for a book. A pacifist, Dr. Hauerwas spends a lot of his time working with military folk on the subject of ethics (Duke's proximity to Ft. Bragg makes this particularly workable). He shared with us his conviction that, when it comes to the life of a soldier (and I use that term broadly to include all military personnel, if I may be forgiven for doing so), the greatest sacrifice is not one's life, but to overcome the basic human instinct not to take the life of another person. I think this perspective is rather amazing and worthy of considerable thought and reflection. It led into what became a focus of our subsequent conversation in the car on our way to our Templar gathering. What happens to people who are generally "good" when the circumstances of their lives take them down roads that lead them to do horrible things to innocent people? When the circumstances subside and the ordinary course of one's life resumes, does the knowledge and memory of what has been done haunt the conscience?
I know that in some cases it does. A part of my own family's story is that a raid similar to the one described above took place on a family farm in Georgia where my great-great-grandmother spent her days while her husband was off fighting with the Confederate Army. Blessedly the commander of this unit of soldiers had some degree of decency, for although his men trashed the house, stole family possessions, broke china and crystal and cut off the heads of chickens with the shards, lives and buildings were spared, and at least one item of the household was ordered returned to the family. A family bible went home with one of the marauding men, who on his deathbed dictated a letter of remorse and sent it, with the bible, back to a member of the family.
The broader question remains: how do cruel acts committed under the veil of war affect those who commit them? Has there been any study or research conducted on this? I can certainly understand that the shame attached to such behavior would make it unlikely for someone to confess to such behavior. Perhaps some atone for these sins by committing their lives to doing good, productive and helpful things for others. Maybe some are so haunted that they withdraw into themselves and become shells of who they once were. Perhaps others simply do their best to keep one foot in front of the memory and never deal with its wake. Still others may write it off without conscience at all, chalking it up to the nature of the beast that is war.
I wonder what we could learn from a conversation about it. I suspect no conversation would change the likelihood of such acts from taking place in future conflicts, but perhaps there would be a way to help heal the minds and souls that are scarred by the reality. All I know for sure is that it inspires me to pray.