By Ken Hannaford-Ricardi, Urban Missionary
Jacob died too soon. He didn’t know it – no one did – but he was already on life support when he left Afghanistan that final time. Over the ensuing ten years, he received innumerable transfusions of camaraderie, comfort, and support from fellow veterans. While these expressions of fraternal solidarity provided temporary balm for his deeply wounded conscience, ultimately nothing was enough. For Jacob, it was time to go home.
I met Jacob in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2011, the heat of a long, dry summer smothering the city beneath its gritty blanket of sand and smog. A former Army paratrooper, Jacob had survived three tours of duty in the country’s arid, mountainous terrain; his knowing smile hinted at an insider’s knowledge of what lay ahead as temperatures crept above ninety. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed. We had come to Afghanistan for different reasons. I wanted to see for myself what 12 years of American military assault had done to this simple agrarian nation. Jacob was ahead of me on that score, too. As a soldier, he had contributed to that destruction; now he wanted to see what he could do to repair it.
For the first few days, Jacob and I were roommates at a small guest house owned by a German expat with longtime ties to the country. Readying ourselves for bed that first stifling evening, Jacob peeled off his sweat-soaked tee shirt and long pants, revealing a muscled torso and legs completely adorned with primitive tattoos. Warplanes dropping deadly payloads from their bloated underbellies competed for space with scenes of explosions and devastation on his back, arms, stomach, and legs. The sight left me slack-jawed. “Everything you see, I either participated in or witnessed,” Jacob told me, his soft, Southern drawl at odds with the carnage carpeting his body.
After our trip, Jacob returned home to his native Arkansas. He peddled his bicycle across the south and west, speaking and playing his banjo before veterans groups, talking about their shared demons and the evils of war. He drew strength from such encounters, sensing that his message was resonating with fellow vets. He told them he had suffered a “moral injury” during his time in Afghanistan, and a song he wrote – “Soldier’s Heart” – said he had come home “with blood on [his] hands.” Perhaps he had a premonition, but called his sojourn “A Ride Till the End.”
Jacob’s end came all too quickly and without warning. Five days after President Obama’s call for a “surge” in US troops to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Jacob George took his own life. He was 32.
You shall not kill.
Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of
disputes. In exceptional cases, determined by the moral principles of the Just War tradition, some uses
of force are permitted.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Pastoral Letter on War and Peace; May, 1983
Any successful singles hitter will tell you he hopes to get a hit every time he comes to the plate. Talk to him for a while, and he’ll probably admit that if he gets on base three of every ten at-bats he’ll be doing exceptionally well. Going one or two for ten won’t keep him in the majors. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is a lot like our ambitious batter; it attempts to slap a single on every issue it confronts. Unfortunately, when the nation’s bishops take up the dignity of human life they barely bat one hundred, a sad fact that sits them squarely on the bench in any discussion of the issue.
God did not give the Ten Commandments to people searching for wiggle room. Straight-forward and direct, each makes a simple, easily understood point, not a word more. The fifth, for example, tells us, “You shall not kill.” There is no room for misunderstanding; it does not say, “You shall not kill, except . . . ,” and that’s precisely where the USCCB runs into trouble.
The nation’s bishops are unequivocal when the topics are abortion and euthanasia. In 1989 they wrote that “No Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.” The theme of the 2015 – 16 Respect Life Program is equally succinct: “Every life is worth living.” On euthanasia, they follow the lead of John Paul II when they write, “To assist another’s suicide is to take part in ‘an injustice which can never be excused, [italics mine] even if it is requested.’” The bishops neither find nor allow for any wiggle room here.
On other issues, however, they are anything but unambiguous. The bishops’ position on state-authorized mass murder – war – is a crystalline example of collective rationalization. Gone are the simple, straightforward directives used to condemn abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Instead of asserting there is no way any Catholic can “responsibly” take a pro-war position when that position involves the taking of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of “innocent human [lives],” they fall back on the ages-old rationale of Augustine and Aquinas defending the idea of “just” war – and its inevitable, but of course regrettable, “just” deaths. The question that begs an answer is how it can always and in every instance be wrong to kill one unborn child but yet morally defensible to wound, maim, and kill thousands of children, many of them noncombatants, in wartime. Franz Jagerstatter, the only Catholic known to have been executed in Nazi Europe for refusing conscription into the army of the Reich, rejected outright the pleas of his parish priest and local bishop that he join the Austrian army rather rather than be killed, held faith in the simple rule of the Commandment: You shall not kill.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has fought, alone or in alliance with other nations, in Asia (Korea, Viet Nam), the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq [twice]), Africa (Libya), and the Western Hemisphere (Cuba, Haiti, Panama, and Grenada). Not one of these wars has been condemned by the USCCB. On no occasion has the nation’s bishops forbidden Americans to fight. In 2003, on the eve of the “second” war against Iraq, Cardinal Pio Laghi, at the behest of the Vatican, spoke personally with President George W. Bush, asking him not to launch another attack on Iraq. Cardinal Laghi called the potential war both “illegal and unjust.” Both the President and the USCCB turned deaf ears to his plea. The United States attacked Iraq – as it did in Viet Nam – in a war that the majority of Americans came to see as morally indefensible. Even if in retrospect, the American people knew more than their bishops. .
Of particular concern in an age of “modern” warfare is the issue of targeted killings by unmanned aerial vehicles – drones. Most Americans are unaware that every name on the authorized “kill list” must be personally approved by President Obama. Drones, remotely controlled by “pilots” thousands of miles away, fly without permission over the airspace of other nations, targeting the locations of “enemy combatants” on the list. Once spotted, they are tracked and killed by rockets fired from the drones. Speaking in January of last year, Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, maintained that President “Obama has killed more people with drones than died on 9/11. Many of those killed were civilians, and only a tiny percentage of the dead were al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders.” The Pentagon claims that the killings are carried out at times and in locations where the likelihood of innocent civilians being in the line of fire is low. Unfortunately, this is not true. Since the US counts all military-age males in a strike zone as enemy combatants, and since the only “official” body counts are provided by the American government, it is impossible to ascertain the actual number of civilian casualties.
Has the USCCB directly condemned these attacks and explicitly forbidden American Catholics any participation in them? They have not. Instead, they have fallen back on the Compendium of of the Social Doctrine of the Church”:
[T]here exists … a right to defend oneself from terrorism. However, this right cannot be exercised in the
absence of moral and legal norms, because the struggle against terrorists must be carried out with respect
for human rights and the principles of a state ruled by law. The identification of the guilty party must be
duly proven, because criminal responsibility is always personal….
Some questions for the bishops:
With regard to “respect for human rights,” is not the primary human right, without which none of the others makes sense, the right to life? What happened to the theme of the Respect for Life Program, “Every life is worth living”? This bold declaration ends with a period, not a disclaimer. Or are some lives, perhaps, worth more than others?
Concerning “the principles of a state ruled by law;” what if legally enacted laws are immoral? Realizing as we must that America continues to harbor deep racism at both the institutional and personal levels, what would be the condition of today’s African Americans if their ancestors had not forced their country to face up to the immorality of Jim Crow laws in the middle of the last century? Considering that these laws were officially promulgated by “a state ruled by law,” should American Catholics have paid them blind obedience, or, listening, as some did, to their consciences, should they have joined the struggle for equality both under the law and in the heart? It seems the bishops thought following the law to be more important than individual human rights.
Who failed Jacob? His country most certainly did, just as it failed the other 6,570 former military personnel whom the Veterans Administration estimates took their own lives in 2014, the year Jacob died . It is impossible to say with any accuracy how many of these men and women reached out for help in their final days. Certainly some of them did. The United States, at whose command they went to war and in whose care they placed their own lives upon return, must bear the greatest portion of blame for their deaths. Although the government, like the church, professes deep regret for deaths and is “grateful for their sacrifice,” no amount of remorse will bring them home.
The Christian church also bears considerable culpability for Jacob’s death. In not speaking out forcefully against the war, in not forbidding Catholics to participate in what Cardinal Laghi called an “unjust” war, it helped propel Jacob to his fate.
The American church has little moral relevance in the lives of many of today’s Catholics. Although there are several reasons for this – the crisis of faith born of the clergy abuse scandal most assuredly looms large here – one must certainly be the failure on the part of America’s bishops to speak forcefully on all aspects of the “right to life” issue.
We are reminded all too often of the evils of abortion and assisted suicide. It is well past time for America’s bishops to speak with equal eloquence concerning the similar evils of war, targeted killing, genocide, and the immense, unnavigable abyss separating the “haves” from the “have nots.”
The bishops are right on one point; every life is worth living. They need to act as if they believe it.
 In 2012, the VA published a study estimating that between 18 and 22 veterans commit suicide every day. The number utilized here corresponds to the low end of the estimate multiplied by 365. The study remained the standard as of the time of Jacob’s death.