This past Christmas, amid torn wrapping paper and underneath the light-strewn pine needles of our tree, I spotted a small, oblong present with my name on it. I tore into this gift, gleefully certain of its contents, and pulled out the controversial, staggering novel I longed to read since I first became interested in politics — “Johnny Got His Gun.”
Although I knew the plot of this book beforehand and was already an avowed Christian pacifist who shuddered at the thought of war, it still absolutely undid me in every way a person can be undone.
“Johnny” tells the story of Joe Bonham, a young man drafted into World War I who ends up as a mutilated shred of himself — legs and arms blown off, face carved out from chin to forehead and left literally senseless. But somehow, I found that while reading, I was as haunted by his memories of life before the war as I was by the sickening agony he endured in his hospital bed.
This was a person just like the lanky boys I see laughing on Commonwealth Avenue or the rambunctious, flirty boys on my floor. He was an innocent, happy guy just like every other innocent, happy guy — one with a loving family and a whole beautiful life ahead of him.
And then he was stolen by the United States government, sent into a trench to kill other kids, and mercilessly ruined by a cold, gray shell.
Stephen King couldn’t write a story as frightening as this one. I read “The Book Thief” as a preteen and sobbed for days.“Johnny” left me a hundred times more gutted, staring at the pages with abject sorrow so significant that, on occasion, I had to close the book to recuperate.
Of course, this horror and sorrow was so striking because the story is based entirely in true history— history that could once again become a part of our reality any day now.
The world is on the brink of another war — this time between the West and the Russian Federation, a war that could have disastrous consequences.
We know this. We have seen the world at war and are aware of the truth — there are no real winners. The US “won” World War I, did it not? And yet for Joe Bonham and the thousands of real American soldiers physically and emotionally destroyed in the war, there was no victory. Not even close.
Nevertheless, as I write this, President Joe Biden is placing thousands of troops on high alert, ready to deploy at any second. Vladimir Putin has amassed over 100,000 Russian soldiers at the Ukrainian border.
Over the past eight years, 14, 000 Russians and Ukrainians have already died as a result of the conflict.
Those numbers seem abstract, but it cannot be overstated enough that every single person that made up that statistic was a person with hopes, dreams, a life and a devoted family.
To many people, that sentence seems childish and idealistic, as does pacifism itself. “Of course, war, invasion, bloodshed are terrible,” they say, “but they’re necessary!”
I will concede that pacifism is not flawless — uprisings or liberation of the oppressed often include aggression. Yet, they remain morally righteous.
On the other hand, global war in the traditional sense has always bewildered me. I find it monstrous that fickle, greedy fights between world leaders, hardly different from playground scuffles, continuously result in families being torn apart and the death of innocents. What is more monstrous is that the world accepts this.
Good, hard-working people fighting good, hard-working people. Teenagers killing teenagers. Mothers all over the world — Iraqi mothers and Russian mothers and Syrian mothers and American mothers — wailing and broken by grief, different in nationality and creed, but united in losing their children to the powers that be.
The necessity of these horrors is quite elusive. Because not only is such violence for questionable reasons morally reprehensible, it is often completely useless.
Take World War I, the effects of which quite literally produced World War II. Or the Vietnam War, which abjectly failed in its goal to impede Communism. Or the numerous American invasions and occupations of the Middle East, almost all of which were deadly, costly catastrophes that created extreme instability and facilitated the rise of fundamentalist terrorism.
Undoubtedly, the situation in Ukraine is dire. Ukrainians are likely to become a colonized people if Russia invades, and a Russian victory could galvanize China to seize Taiwan. But American involvement will not guarantee the protection of Ukrainians or Taiwanese people, or democracy or freedom.
We have tried to save the world countless times and yet the world is almost never better off. American weapons are made for mass destruction, our troops trained to be lethal, our war crimes numerous — and yet our involvement is meant to make the world more peaceful and free?
A colloquial definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Make of that what you will.