Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Embedded War — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on March 27th, 2011


Reading    A Collection of Quotes on War

“We say we love peace, but it doesn’t excite us. Even pacifists talk more about the horrors of war than about the glories of peace.”– Jerry Pournelle, from the novel “West of Honor”, said by the character of Lt. Hal Slater.


“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.” — Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman


“One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”– Agatha Christie


“I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes.”– General Douglas MacArthur


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”– Dwight Eisenhower


“We may think of peace as the absence of war, that if the great powers would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we will see our own minds – our own prejudices, fears, and ignorance.”– Thich Nhat Hanh


Message     “Embedded War”      by Rev. David Pyle

The Liberal British philosopher, John Stuart Mill

once said that

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things;

the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling

which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

And I was once there with him… once.

I was lucky that, during what I now think of

as the “first half” of my military career,

it was the aftermath of war

to which I was most exposed, not war itself.

I was an intelligence analyst during the interestingly named

“War on Drugs” of the early to mid 1990’s,

our interdiction efforts in Latin America.


I studied and analyzed bombings, visited terrorized villages,

briefed commanders on kidnappings, murders,

and drug-funded guerilla warfare armies

such as the FMLN in El Salvador, the Shining Path in Peru,

and the FARC in Colombia.


A proud moment for me was to be in El Salvador

during the first free elections since the FMLN laid down arms,

held in 1994.

I was in Panama and Columbia during the height

of the Shining Path war in Peru,

and the height of the bombing campaign in Bogota, and Cali.


All of that paled in comparison to what I encountered

in October of 1996 when,

as a young, idealistic intelligence sergeant

I arrived in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia y Herzegovina

as a part of the NATO peacekeeping force.

The major fighting was over by the time I arrived,

although there were still an amazing number of land mines,

and occasional small scale efforts to continue the conflict…

usually between neighbors.


The level of hatred between these “neighbors”

was nearly incomprehensible to me.

I use the word neighbors because that’s exactly what they were.

One block might be historically Muslim,

the next block might be Croat,

and across the way there might be a Serb neighborhood.


During the war, some of the fighting within Sarajevo

was not done away from one’s home,

but out the upper windows of one’s own house.
Here was this once beautiful city, once held up to the world

as a symbol of the progressive nature

of the Eastern Block countries.

Remember, just a few years before the outbreak

of the three sided, religious hatred fueled war,

Sarajevo had been the host to the 1984 Winter Olympics.

I remembered seeing the beautiful city,

the wonderful public transportation,

the reality of many different ethnicities and religions

living together in peace and harmony.


Sarajevo, the City where WWI began,

was now the symbol of peace and tolerance.

That image was impossible to reconcile

with the blown up buildings, the statues marked with bullet holes,

and the barricaded neighborhoods.

The public transportation no longer ran for fear of bombs;

the ski slopes were so heavily mined

it was believed they would never be used again;

the Olympic stadium was now a vehicle park

for NATO tanks and combat vehicles;

and what was left of the Olympic ice skating arena

was being used as a warehouse and barracks

for NATO peacekeepers.

All of this, in the city who a dozen years before

had been put forth as the paragon

of progress, liberty, equality, and tolerance.
I am a Universalist who still believes in hell…

and that hell is war.

It is a hell of our own making;

one that exists not in some metaphysical afterlife but in this life…

in the here and now.

It is not a hell that exists only across the seas

in some foreign land, but here surrounding us every day.

Sometimes it seems below the surface, but it is always there.


We see it in the violence we beg for on television.

We see it in an adversarial legal system

that is more concerned with winning than truth.

We see it in the political demonizing

done between Republicans and Democrats.

We see it in the truth behind the phrase “militant anti-war activist”.

In all of this, we see the desire for war

that is buried deep within humanity.

I believe we, not just we Americans but we humans,

we live in a culture of war,

and that culture of war creates for us a living hell

that we experience throughout our lives.


General Omar Bradley,

for whom the “Bradley Fighting Vehicle” is named

once said “Ours is a world of nuclear giants

and ethical infants.

We know more about war than we know about peace,

more about killing than we know about living.

We have grasped the mystery of the atom

and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

The truth in his words lies

not just in the actions of those who wear a uniform

and carry a gun, but in the actions, and lives, of us all.

The truth in his words lies not in some far off land,

but here and now, in our daily lives.

I usually like going shopping with my wife,

and indeed in our busy lives

any time she and I get to spend together is good time.

One day, about four years ago,

she and I went shopping for new winter clothes for her.


Now, there is an interesting aspect

of clothes shopping with my wife, from my perspective…

and that is that she will take many articles of clothing

into the dressing rooms to try on,

and leave me with about twenty to thirty minutes with little to do

but wander around the women’s clothing section of the store…


Now, I’m secure enough in my own masculine identity

that the odd looks I get from the women browsing the racks

only bothers me a teensy-tiny little bit.

I will usually have a book or something along with me,

but this time I had forgotten.

As I wandered through the clothes,

I noticed something was different from the last time

I went clothes shopping with my wife.

My mind finally registered what my eyes were seeing,

as my gaze was drawn to a particular winter jacket…

a jacket in neon pink, blue, and green…

set in a camouflage pattern.


My soldier’s eyes said “Well, that’s kinda pointless!

Camouflage Neon!

As I laughed a little at the absurdity of it,

something else struck me.

While that jacket was the only one in neon pink, blue, and green,

it certainly was not the only camouflage pattern outfit

in the woman’s section of the store.

As I wandered the aisle, I began counting… five…. Ten….

fifteen…. sixteen different articles of clothing,

each offered in an array of sizes,

all of them based upon some kind of military camouflage pattern.

It didn’t stop there… as I traveled

through the clothing sections of the store,

I found over 60 different kinds of clothing

in military camouflage patterns…

an equal number of them for children as for adult men.


Not only did I see this clothing on the racks,

but being worn by patrons of the store…

men, women, boys and girls.


Some were even wearing the brand new

military digital camouflage pattern…

which not even all of our National Guard soldiers had at the time.

While my wife was standing outside the fitting rooms,

wondering where I had wandered off to,

I was looking at all of the war related DVD’s and video games

in the electronics section… some of the video games

based upon training simulators used with soldiers,

but most much more violent than that.

In the toy section were countless plastic guns,

army figures, toy tanks and helicopters,

much of it in desert camouflage patterns.


In the parking lot, there were no less than three HumVee’s…

a military vehicle I drove around the streets of Sarajevo,

now common in American cities,

where they have no practical use whatsoever.
In this one store, on this one Saturday,

was reflected just how ingrained into our culture

and our daily lives is the concept of war.

How appropriate that the name of the store was “Target”.

The culture of war we live in goes well beyond

what is most obvious.

We have begun to “reform” youth involved in crime,

often because of poverty and disadvantage,

by sending them to “boot camp” and ingraining in them

the military sense of discipline, loyalty, honor, and responsibility.


Perhaps that makes sense, considering how it is

those same disadvantaged youth that make up the majority

of the young men and women who join our nation’s military.

Hollywood has learned that if you make a war movie,

it will be profitable, because we are so fascinated

with the public reflection of the war we know

we are living in our culture.

The interactions between candidates for political office

of our nation are often framed with the phrases

“attacked their opponent”, “on the defensive”, “election strategy”.

Psychologist Robert Moore, in his somewhat controversial book

“King, Warrior, Magician, Lover” discusses how

the Warrior persona is manifested in our society

not only by soldiers, but also by many

of the most active anti-war activists.


The level of all consuming dedication,

of unity with your comrades, of facing overwhelming odds,

of dedicating your whole being to a cause,

to an ideal beyond yourself is often the same.

The willingness to sometimes let the “end justify the means”

is the same.


Only the goal is different. I have always been fascinated how

“hold the line” is a phrase as important to protestors

as it is to soldiers.

I believe there is a fundamental and inherent difference

between “Opposing War” and “Opposing This War”.

I believe that there are occasions in which “Opposing War”

requires the use of international military forces as peacekeepers,

as was done in Bosnia.


His Holiness the Dali Lama has said that

“Peace, in the sense of the absence of war,

is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold.

It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted

on a prisoner of conscience.

It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones

in floods caused by senseless deforestation

in a neighboring country.

Peace can only last where human rights are respected,

where the people are fed,

and where individuals and nations are free.”

I believe, with all my heart,

that the principles and values of Unitarian Universalism

represent how we should oppose war.

That when humanity begins to realize

the inherent worth and dignity of all,

we will have begun to end the culture,

the hell of war in which we live.


When we have accepted as an understood aspect of reality

that we are all connected together

in an interdependent web of all existence,

we will have begun to end the culture,

the hell of war in which we all live.

I believe that when we learn to hold each other in love,

despite our differences,

as we explore our own spiritual, cultural, and individual paths,

we will have begun to end the culture,

the hell of war in which we all live.


Yet, when we adopt practices

that separate ourselves from others,

such as demonizing the last administration,

or defining soldiers, even in the quiet of our hearts

as somehow less enlightened than ourselves,

I fear we are continuing the culture of war

in the name of opposing a particular war.


When in opposition to a particular war

we adopt militant, confrontational practices,

such as I see all around me within the modern peace movement,

I fear we are promoting a culture of war

in the name of opposing a particular war.

Any of the 6 wars that the U.S. is currently fighting…

If you’ll pardon the expression…

I fear we might win the battle… this particular battle…

but lose the war of ending the culture of war

upon which all of this desire for violent conflict feeds.

Our Unitarian Universalist Vision of the world

is radically different from the culture of war

we are currently living in.

The culture of war depends on the ability to see others

as inherently different, and often less than yourself.

The culture of war depends upon the ability

to separate your own path in life from the lives of others.


The culture of war depends upon the ability

to see the web of human relationships as distinctly individualistic,

not interconnected with all of existence.

I believe that, as Unitarian Universalists,

our mission is not to expend our energies, our vision,

or even our political capital opposing any particular war…

but rather in helping to heal our world,

from the largest nation to the smallest heart in a newborn baby,

from the culture, the hell of war that infects us all.


I have a friend named Tom Hargrove, a fellow UU.

My friend Tom was kidnapped and held for ransom

by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia,

the FARC for 18 months.

He was abused, he was often deprived of food and water,

he was kept locked up, deep in the mountains of Columbia.

His family was subjected to mental torture by the guerillas,

as they negotiated for a year and a half for his release.

The movie “Proof of Life” is based upon Tom

and his family’s experience.

When I asked him once why he was a member

of a Unitarian Universalist church, he said

“Well, I didn’t know if there was a God,

but I made a deal with him anyway

that if I got out of being held hostage,

I would go to church… and this is the only church I can stand!”

Though I think it amazing that Tom still has a sense of humor,

I don’t think that is the reason why he is a Unitarian Universalist.

You see, one day, we were talking about the FARC,

and Tom showed me his UU faith,

as, while mixing personal anguish, anger, and fear,

he began telling me how he came to feel compassion

for those who held him.

They were unbelievably poor, though being a FARC guerilla

was better than the lives they came from.

They often had no food for themselves, much less him.

Many were addicted to the same drugs

sold in the United States to fund their war.

They were young, and knew they would die young…

if not from violence then from disease.


In short, they were pitiful…

and among his fear, anger, and anguish…

he also began to feel compassion for them.


That compassion, that connection that my friend Tom felt

for his captors is the true reason why

I believe he is a Unitarian Universalist.

That compassion is the core of who we are as a faith movement.

Compassion not only for others who are impoverished

of the body and the soul,

but also for those who seek to oppose us in the dualistic ways

we tend to think of the world.

To truly feel that kind of compassion for another

makes them no longer an enemy,

no longer something separate from ourselves,

but a part of our interdependent web.

To truly feel that kind of compassion for another

allows us to admit deep down their inherent worth and dignity,

and to see in them our own inherent worth and dignity.
To center that kind of compassion in our view of the world

means to cease demonizing political opponents,

it means to cease seeing others as objects,

it means to cease creating new separation of ourselves

from others in the name of being “anti-war”.

And it is, I believe, living that kind of compassion,

living the saving grace-filled gospel of Unitarian Universalism

that will bring about an eventual end to the Culture of war

and in its place create a culture of peace,

in our hearts and lives as well as in foreign lands.


But that is not a vision that is going to come about tomorrow.

It is not a vision that we can achieve by the end of the decade…

and it would be a true miracle if it were achieved

by the end of my lifetime.

I think the desire to focus our attention

on ending a particular war comes in part from the belief

that ending the culture, the hell of war is too large,

too psychologically daunting for us.


But unless we want to fight the same battle over and over again,

we as a religious movement must focus our attention

away from the protest lines and upon

the much deeper and systemic societal issues

upon which the culture of war rests.

There will be plenty of anti-war protestors.

We must focus on making the inherent worth and dignity

of every person an accepted and understood

fact of human existence.

We must focus on the global realization

of the inherent interconnectedness of all life.

This realization becomes more and more vital,

as our global village becomes more deeply interconnected.

What happens to one of us, happens to all of us,

as the recent global economic recession shows…

as the nuclear crisis in Japan shows…

as the war in Libya shows…


In this dangerous time, in which we have not realized

the necessity of compassion for one another

and our inherent interconnection,

I believe we must also transform our understanding

of military force and the purpose for its use.

Bosnia was a good start, in creating an understanding

of the use of military force that was not based in national interest,

not based in murky theories of “Just Warfare”…

but rather based in the promotion

and indeed enforcement of peace.


Until such time as the culture has shifted away

from the hell of war, there will be times in which the world,

as an international body must say to warring factions

“Stop! You are done”… and back that up.

The NATO military intervention in Libya could,

at its best, be that…

but I fear it is falling into our culture of war patterns.


At one time I had hoped that the United States

could be the leader in the movement towards,

what I term in my own mind as “Just Peacebuilding”.

That may still be possible…

although such requires a standing and respect in the world

that I fear we may no longer have.

Perhaps it will come out of the international peacekeeping force

that is currently in the Darfur region of Sudan,

or the one currently standing between Israel and Lebanon,

or the one our world needs in Palestine.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that warfare is more dangerous

now in this globally interconnected world than it ever has been,

and we need time. Time for the saving message

of inherent worth and interconnection to take root…

to end the culture, the hell of war.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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