The below comes from a sermon I was invited to give at my childhood church. It was originally published on their website. There’s a video of me giving the sermon embedded below, and an audio-only version here.
Kelsey D. Atherton
February 8th, 2015
Delivered at First Unitarian Universalist of Albuquerque
It is good, however briefly, to be home. I grew up in this church, wound my way through religious education and La Amikoj, and found myself on more than a few committees before leaving for Tulane in 2007. The sanctuary is new, and lovely!, but I trust that the coffee hours are the same.
I am coming here today as a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, and a journalist covering defense. It’s a long journey that took me from that point A to point B, and the story of that journey starts here, in the early 2000s. I came of age in this church, and I came of age in the midst of a great, colossal, mistake. I’m sure everyone has something in their teen years that feels that way about, but this one, at least, wasn’t my fault. In 2003 I learned, as we all learned, that our country was going to invade Iraq, the second country we’d have invaded in three years. We’d already invaded Iraq once in my lifetime, and depending on how you count no-fly-zones, sanctions, and military assistance, we’ve been at war in Iraq in one way or another for almost the entirety of my life.
In 2003 I didn’t know we’d be out of Iraq in 2010 and then back again in 2014. I knew we were in Afghanistan, and I knew that war would last longer. The war in Afghanistan, for those keeping score at home, officially ended this past December. Now, instead of a war, we have a “contingency operation.” That’s 10,000 American troops training a local army that we’re still funding, but the war’s technically over.
Iraq, though. I was not expecting Iraq. Afghanistan had a connection, at least, to the September 11th attacks, though no civilians should ever be condemned to war like that for what their government allowed. But Iraq? An awful dictator, but outside of his country a largely neutered one. We went to war, and for the first time in my life I felt 100% completely out-of-step with my country.
Now, I’m on the younger side of things. I’m sure for many of you that moment happened decades ago. The 1960s are the obvious example, and I’ll get to that later, but there was anti-war sentiment for other conflicts too. We remember the anti-war sentiment in America during the late 1930s and in 1940 as isolationism. It’s a historical artifact, but we forget how widespread it was before Pearl Harbor. Woody Guthrie, like many other Americans at the time, was against the war before he was for it. Our country has a long tradition of anti-war skepticism, even in the heart of what now seem clear-cut conflicts. It’s a good skepticism, and a worthy one, borne of love for people in this land and other lands far away.
Iraq was no World War II, and as a kid growing up in this church, I wrestled with how we, as a people of faith, could be so powerless in the face of such enormous, terrible purpose. That’s the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, which I borrowed to title this sermon. Hobbes was an English philosopher, who lived during the English civil war. His greatest fear was the violent anarchy of small wars, and he thought the only way a government could protect its people from that violence was being so powerful it crushes all possible alternatives. It’s been a long time since America tore itself apart in civil war, and we live now inside this Leviathan, this powerful, unified force. We refer to Leviathan colloquially as the Pentagon, the White House, the military industrial complex, and it is all those things combined into one colossal beast.
Leviathan going to war abroad isn’t always so inevitable. A favorite line of my dad’s in the early Bush years was “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” The quote, popular throughout antiwar movements of the sixties, was the title of an essay by Charlotte Keyes, published by McCalls in 1966. The essay was about her son, who repeatedly burned his draft card and resisted service in Vietnam. And it turns out that draft resistance, at least in part, worked. Nixon, who included a promise to end the draft in his 1968 campaign, finally did so a few months after winning reelection in 1972. We haven’t had a draft since.
But we’ve had quite a few wars since then.
It turns out the answer to “what if they threw a war and nobody came?” is to just not make everybody to go. When I turned 18, I registered for Selective Service, but I didn’t expect I’d ever be called to war. Draft resistance shook the military, and despite the fact that this new century saw two long wars, the military never asked Congress for a draft, and Congress never offered to give them one. Almost every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serving right now started their military careers in the mid-1970s, when public support for the military and for wars abroad was very much at a low point. They know it’s a bad idea to throw a war and require everybody to show up.
In high school I wrote an essay saying that, because drafts are unpopular, I thought America having to draft an army to fight a war meant we’d have less wars. President Nixon realized the opposite. He wanted to end the Vietnam draft, not because the war was immoral, but because the draft made wars less popular. There are two main ways to fight a war without a draft, and Nixon was a fan of both. One is arming and training a local army. It was “Vietnamization” first, and we’ve had variants of it in Afghanistan and Iraq since.
The other half is that, instead of a draft army, the American military is now what’s known as an “all-volunteer force.” Rather than a draft compelling Americans from all walks of life and all backgrounds to serve together, the military is opt-in, so plenty of people morally uncomfortable with war or uninterested in a military career can sit out. That is no doubt a good thing, but it means our values are rarely present within the military. In 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, Lieutenant Eric Johnson, a Navy Reserve chaplain, estimated there were just 550 Unitarian Universalists serving in a military of 1.5 million. Because of that, we have a world where America can fight two wars in parallel for a decade, and many Unitarian Universalists can live day-to-day without noticing it.
All this is to say: if we are a people interested in the moral consequences of what our government does abroad, it’s not nearly enough to not show up. Decades after the fact, political and military leaders adapted to anti-war protests and draft resistance, and figured out how to fight wars without the draft. That’s our reality now, and steering America’s war machine means we have to do more than just actively not get on board.
I didn’t realize this at first. As I saw America launched needlessly and violently into Iraq, I saw and cheered the protests that broke out across this nation and the world. I was elated to see my peers joining with the anti-war old guard to decry a conflict both needless and sure to be disastrous. I wanted to see a change in plans, an acknowledgement from on high that such popular outcry in a democracy meant we weren’t doing this war, that our leaders would find another answer, something else to focus on. Maybe they’d content themselves with just the war in Afghanistan. I don’t know what I expected, but I expected something.
We got nothing. I am visiting today from Washington, and while it’s a cliche to decry the insularity of the beltway, I wasn’t in Washington when we went to war. I was here, a youth in this church, and I could see Washington’s insularity as a problem already. Both political parties supported the Iraq War at the start. John Kerry, who rose to prominence as a veteran opposed to the Vietnam war, voted in favor of invading Iraq. Unlike the isolationists who opposed World War II before supporting it, Kerry stated on the 2004 campaign trail he was for invading Iraq before he was against it. It seemed there was very much an anti-war voice in the country, but with the all-volunteer force and the parties in agreement about the war, there wasn’t a mechanism for that voice to change how things got done.
I went to Tulane struggling with this question, and found myself in classes about international security. There, Iraq wasn’t a bad war because it was about blood for oil, but because it carried with it a lot of unnecessary risk. Scholars of international law decried it because of the precedent it set. Self-described realists hated it because Iraq, though ruled by a horrible dictator, posed no threat to the United States. Military historians were skeptical of the war because the United States didn’t want to just overthrow a government, we wanted to stay and remake the country, a project that very rarely goes well for the invader. Humanitarians were skeptical because the sanctions already on Iraq made the people suffer, and the only thing guaranteed to make that suffering worse was the chaos and violence of war. These were moral judgements, and they were strategic ones. The language could coexist.
I learned at school this new language to express my discontent. I thought, with the full idealism of youth, that if protest didn’t work, new words would. After graduation, like so many young idealists before me, I moved to Washington to see what these words could do.
In my day-to-day job, I write about how, exactly, America fights and plans to fight future wars. I write about this mostly for Popular Science, so I am often tasked first with explaining a new military technology, and then understanding that technology as a way to explain something about humans. It also means that my headlines, more often than not, have “drone” or “machines that puts holes in people” in them.
It means that when I write about drones, I can explain to those who are less inclined to care about the victims of drone strikes that drone pilots, even ones stationed in the United States flying remotely over Afghanistan, experience PTSD at the same rates as combat pilots. It is frustrating that there are people who care about the pilots but not about civilians accidentally killed by drone strikes, but those people exist, and they exist in Washington, so it helps to provide the full truth of what our weapons do, not just to our foes, but to ourselves.
To tell that truth, and to make that truth palatable to people who otherwise wouldn’t care, I had to learn to speak like Leviathan. I had to know that talking to power about power means talking about the tools they use, and showing that I understand the intended purpose of those tools, before I can talk about why that tool doesn’t work the way they want. Consider it a parseltongue or secret language for national security. In journalism circles, we call it Pentagonese.
This week, we got to witness a particularly bad birth of new slang. On Wednesday, the Senate held a confirmation hearing for a new Secretary of Defense. These hearings are theater in nature, but they are bad theater, where every actor is playing the role of biggest, strongest man. What kept coming up, was the idea that the United States should provide “defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
“Defensive weapons” is a mostly meaningless term. What the Senate meant, and what the defense secretary nominee correctly clarified, was “lethal weapons.” “Defensive weapons” mask the ugliness implied in giving another country at war the tools they need to kill people, and it masks it with a sense of vulnerability, of justice. It’s a value judgement from the phrase itself. “Lethal weapons” has the clarity of truth, and if we talk about providing lethal weapons, we are at least having the conversation on honest terms.
This conversation is nothing if it doesn’t change the Leviathan’s behavior. It is much easier to show a war that happened despite public outcry than to show one called off because Washington thought it wasn’t worth it, but here’s something close.
Almost as soon as civil war broke in Syria, the pundit classes started calling for a “No-Fly Zone” over the country. Like “defensive weapons,” “no-fly zone” has a hidden technical meaning: it’s where our air force routinely flies over a country and shoots down every enemy aircraft they see, in theory protecting civilians on the ground. And like “defensive weapons,” “no-fly zones” are a salesman’s foot-in-the-door for pulling a country sideways into war. Arguments from think tanks and hawkish politicians calling for a No-Fly-Zone over Syria started in 2011 and continue to this day. One specific military historian called for a No-Fly-Zone over Syria 40 times in 2012 alone.
That intervention didn’t happen. We got pulled into Syria in other ways, chasing an insurgent group born during the Iraq war, but the No-Fly-Zone didn’t happen. As the Senate and White House debated what to do about Syria, what seemed like a politically easy way to get into a war there was countered with arguments about costs, historical examples of failure and risk, doubts about the humanitarian merit of picking between unsavory sides in a brutal civil war, and a general uncomfortableness with sending American planes routinely over a country hiding anti-air missiles. Leviathan, eager to do something, became plagued by doubt, and couldn’t see a clear way forward into war.
What I’ve learned since 2003 is that, as terrifyingly large and powerful as this Leviathan is, it is still a machine made of human parts. There are great sweeping emotions that govern its behavior. One of those emotions is doubt, profound doubt, and in that doubt is where talking about war matters.
I’d be lying if I said this journey was wholly my own. When I was a child growing up, I would hear stories from my Grandfather. He, like many of his generation, served in uniform in World War II. Shortly after the war, he joined the Foreign Service. When asked, years after retirement, if he intended his career path before graduating, my grandfather replied “I had no desire to be a diplomat. I think, if I had thought of anything beyond the war, it would be in journalism.” The foreign service was, at times, morally compromising work: his career spanned from the Truman administration to Reagan’s first term, and America did a lot of morally questionable things in that timeframe. But it also meant that, whenever possible, he could nudge leviathan towards a better course of action from the inside, speaking the language of the beast. He may have put down his sword and shield, but he didn’t stop his study of war, just his practice of it. It is important to speak truth to power, but it helps to do so in a language power understands.
Video of the sermon