Editorial: The idolatry of US military might

Crew members prepare to launch an X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia in 2013. (CNS/Reuters/Jason Reed)

Twenty-five years ago this month, a Salvadoran military unit entered the Jesuit residence at University of Central America in San Salvador, shot six priests in cold blood and killed the priests' housekeeper and her daughter.

It was one of the last of the massacres of a long civil war that would soon exhaust itself. Each priest was shot in the back of the head. It was as if the government was making one last effort to silence the most consistent, authentic and powerful counterforce to an oligarchy's reign of terror.

They died because they refused to stop talking about the demands of justice, of the great imbalances in systems that brutally oppressed the most vulnerable, of the inherent rights and dignity of all humans. They were among those in Latin America whose understanding of the Gospel increasingly compelled them to speak up for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

On that score alone -- the integrity of their lives and the circumstances of their deaths -- it is worth commemorating them. We would betray a gross deficiency in understanding the meaning of their lives, however, if we were to stop there, placing them now apart from the community, reverently compartmentalized, a relic of some bygone era to be taken out on occasion and admired.

NCR's dedication of space in this issue to this event of a quarter-century ago is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Far more, it is another piece of an effort that has gone on for nearly half a century to connect some very significant dots: what it means to be a U.S. Catholic; what it means to live under a government that condones dictatorships and helps train militaries that engage in such egregious violations of human rights; how to understand the consequences both of proxy wars and of silence before state-sponsored violence.

It is fascinating, in this era of episcopal fixation on religious liberty, to hear barely a whisper of objection to ongoing wars, drone campaigns and increasing militarism of U.S. culture. Instead, we have an Archdiocese for the Military Services that never raises a question about U.S. military adventures, even when they are soundly condemned by a succession of popes.

The U.S. bishops' obsession with religious liberty takes an easy route, picking contentious fights with the state over issues that ultimately are a matter of individual conscience and decision. The state mandates no one to have an abortion or use contraception, nor does it require churches to perform same-sex marriages.

On the other hand, the state does compel everyone to pay for our wars, for ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction, for the unconscionable destruction of entire cultures and civilizations. We understand only in the aftermath of our fevered resort to war that it rarely contributes to stability or justice. It only inspires ever-expanding circles of fanaticism and violence.

If the bishops really wanted to confront assaults to religious liberty, if they really wanted to engage a Fortnight for Freedom that wouldn't seem a parody scripted by "The Daily Show," they would take on the profound idolatry of our complicity with the military industrial complex. It is the American idolatry of biblical proportions, an unrelenting theft, as President Dwight Eisenhower so chillingly described it, "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."

The Jesuits who were executed in cold blood understood, from the deepest wells of our sacred texts and Ignatian spirituality, that in such pursuits we spend our very souls. So did Roy Bourgeois, Vietnam veteran and former Maryknoll priest, who connected the dots between U.S. support for brutal dictatorships in Latin America and our training of military thugs at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. Nineteen of the soldiers who carried out the killings of the Jesuits were graduates of the School of the Americas.

The 25-year history of the campaign to close the school detailed by Linda Cooper and James Hodge is a narrative that isn't taught in our children's history classes or addressed from the pulpits of our churches. It is a history that glides beneath the cultural radar. The lessons of the SOA -- cleaned up in name to sound neutral, even uplifting, as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- are as relevant today as ever, as the military-industrial complex devises new means of expanding the country's war-making capabilities in far-off places.

In 1989, Jesuits around the world confronted the disturbing truth that standing against the powerful on behalf of those exploited and on the margins could be deadly. The Jesuits in the United States, as Timothy A. Byrnes points out, "had to face the additional fact that these executions had been carried out by a military force that enjoyed the full political and financial support of their own government."

That realization, concentrated in the moment of the massacre, would have resonated with religious communities throughout Central and South America. The pattern of dictatorial brutality propped up by the United States was repeated with distressing regularity throughout the region.

It led an otherwise measured figure, Jesuit Fr. Joseph O'Hare, then president of Fordham University in New York, to ask in a widely publicized sermon: "Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?"

The question applies today, perhaps in different ways, as we survey the results of our wars of choice and extended occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strip the scene of political bravado and the deserved sympathy for the thousands of young people needlessly placed in harm's way, and the scenario is one of dismal failure. Our wars have become military, political and financial disasters.

The question still hangs in the air whether we can face this history honestly and square off today against the idol that continues to threaten our religious selves, the idol of false security in military might.

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