REFLECTION: Confessions of a military skeptic

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by Thomas Reese, S.J., NCR

When it comes to the use of the military, I am neither a hawk nor a pacifist. I am a skeptic.

One of my earliest memories was overhearing my parents talking about the Korean War. I was sitting under a large sycamore tree in our backyard reading a comic book about World War II. I remember being shocked to learn that war was real; it was not just something in comic books.

Growing up Catholic in the 1950s meant that you heard about the horrors perpetrated by atheistic Communists against believers. At school, we even practiced getting under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. I remember discussing whether a first strike against the Soviet Union and China was morally permissible. People unwilling to consider such a strike were considered soft on communism. “If nuclear war is inevitable, let’s make sure we win, even if we do lose a half dozen major cities.” This strategy seemed both heroic and realistic to my young mind.

The Vietnam War became my generation’s struggle to defeat communism and protect Vietnamese Catholics from torture and slaughter. It seemed a righteous cause in the defense of a people under attack. Only later did I learn of inept military leadership, corrupt allies, and how we destroyed villages to save them. At my 50th high school reunion in 2012, we saw the cost as the faces of classmates who had died in that war were projected on a screen.

After thousands died, North Vietnam won. Catholics are still harassed, but the predicted bloodbath did not take place. The country turned to capitalism and trade, and rather than being aligned with China as predicted, the two countries became competitors. Years later, as I watched the Berlin Wall come down, I thanked God that those nuclear realists never had their fingers on the button….

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