Today is Veterans Day.
The observation was originally named Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the Great War on Nov. 11, 1918. That was 95 years ago.
Until then, there had been no bloodier conflict. The First World War nearly obliterated Europe.
The unprecedented bloodletting did have its public relations apologists, though it was years before we recognized the irony behind the catch phrases: the war to end wars; the war to save democracy.
It was, at first, a popular war. In the United States, the acclaim was wildly enthusiastic and nearly unanimous in 1917 when President Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany.
Millions of young men — including my maternal and paternal grandfathers and probably yours, too — swarmed into recruitment centers to join the endless stream of doughboys heading “over there.”
Both of my grandpas survived the war, although 9,722,620 soldiers did not. Military deaths in the United States alone totaled 116,708.
World War I inspired Americans to a frenzy of patriotic and religious fervor. The general idea — certainly endorsed by my grandpas — was that God was assuredly on our side. It was during World War I that the U.S. flag appeared in the chancels of most U.S. churches.
Some preachers worried that placing the flag near the cross denoted a civil religion that was both unchristian and unconstitutional. Pastors who dared suggest that the United States was not a Christian nation, or that God does not choose sides in battles, were sometimes run out of town.
A lot of church leaders feel the same way today, but show me a pastor who suggests removing the flag from the chancel, and I’ll show you a pastor about to be reassigned to Death Valley.
The truth is, World War I and its bloodier successor, World War II, were popular conflicts in the sense that most people thought they were necessary and unavoidable.
But it is also true that World War I inspired a detectable movement of Christian pacifists. And some of its most notable participants were Baptists. One pastor I knew fairly well was Edwin T. Dahlberg, a conscientious objector in World War I and a prophet of pacifism in World War II.
Edwin Dahlberg was one of the most Christian men I ever met. He lived the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount, which included not hating your enemies or striking back at persons who assault you. Ed worked tirelessly as a pastor to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to achieve fair treatment for factory workers and their families, to seek justice for the persecuted, and provide the gospel of salvation for those without faith.
In his old age, when I knew him, Ed habitually picked up hitchhikers and brushed aside his family’s concerns that the habit could be dangerous. If the hitchhikers talked about their worries or personal problems, Ed made sure they knew their local church was the place to seek guidance because it was there they would find a loving Jesus.
When Ed Dahlberg died in 1986, I wrote in The American Baptist magazine:
“Everything about Dahlberg – his pacifism, his social activism, his teaching, his preaching – focused on the need for individuals to turn their lives over to Jesus and to live as disciples. His parishioners and many friends — even those who disagreed with his social stands — always understood that. … He was great because he taught us all how to find our fellow human beings wherever they were and give them a simple message: ‘Stay close to the Lord. Read the Bible. Remember what you learn in church.’”
It was Dahlberg’s pacifism that fascinated me more than anything else. I didn’t know any pacifists when I was growing up in post-World War II Morrisville, N.Y.
My dad and all his male friends served in the war, many of them in major battles. They rarely talked about the war, but we knew they were heroes every Veterans Day when they put on their legionnaire caps and marched behind the high school band in the annual parade. I did know a man who disappeared during such festivities because he had been 4-F during the war — ineligible for military service for — and it was an ignominy that cast a shadow over his life. Eventually he moved to some place where no one knew him or wondered why he wasn’t marching on Nov. 11. Not to serve in uniform when your country needed you, I perceived, was a humiliating shame. There are stories of 4-F men who committed suicide rather than let their neighbors see them loitering on the street in civilian clothes.
But Ed Dahlberg had been one of those men of military age who never registered for the draft during World War I, and who supported other conscientious objectors in World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars. His disability was not physical; it was spiritual. He believed Jesus didn’t want him to go to war.
By the time I met Dahlberg, I had become a quasi-pacifist myself. I spent my first four years out of high school in the Air Force — “fighting the Cold War” I explain to friends to make clear I served in England rather than Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. A lot of veterans found it difficult to support U.S. policy in Vietnam because it seemed to be killing a lot of our friends for no heroic purpose.
When I started college in 1968 I became active in the Veterans for Peace movement, which, among other things in the fractious '60s was a great chick magnet. And thanks to the teachings of Edwin Dahlberg, his mentor Walter Rauschenbusch, and the witness of John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister and language arts professor, I was converted to the dogma of pacifism. It was a logical conclusion. Even if you didn’t ask WWJD — what would Jesus do? — it was impossible to imagine Jesus supporting an active participation in war.
Even so, Edwin Dahlberg never condemned men and women who chose to serve in uniform; quite the contrary. As a pastor in St. Paul, St. Louis, Syracuse, and elsewhere, he provided a loving and compassionate ministry to military families and to anyone else who chose a career path or lifestyle different than his.
I think the current pope summed up Dahlberg's attitude succinctly: “Who am I to judge?”
That’s a handy philosophy to bring to Veterans Day, which commemorates the bravery and self-sacrifice of millions of veterans who served in necessary and unnecessary wars.
Last month I spent several weeks transcribing my father’s World War II diary, and posted it online at www.bunadiary.com.
Years ago, I read the diary aloud to Dad and recorded some of his comments. Dad died 14 years ago, but retyping his diary turned out to be a deeply spiritual experience. It used to be that my closest moments with Dad were when we sat together at the kitchen table smoking our pipes. This time I seemed to feel his presence just as tangibly as I sat at the computer. I could almost hear his voice as he recorded his experiences in Australia and New Guinea: the boredom, the loneliness, the horniness, the discomfort of jungle heat, the delirium of malarial fevers, the terror of combat.
Most vivid was his account of a dark night in New Guinea shortly after Christmas 1942:
“I took the safety off my gun and held it on my knees, ready for what might come. I saw two men, small, not clothed, moving towards us from the right. They couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 feet away when I first saw them, and they moved in a stooped, crouched walk, coming very quietly, almost catlike. I raised my gun. Apparently they didn’t see me and … I pulled the trigger and fired on them right over the head of the runner. (He later said he thought I was firing right at his face.) One … fell to the ground without a sound, and the other took off straight away from me. I didn’t dare fire again because there were other (U.S.) men around, and I couldn’t throw a grenade for the same reason. I wasn’t sure in the dark just where our men had placed their holes.”
“I had never,” Dad added unnecessarily, “been so scared in my life.”
Reading my father’s diary again, I thought of Edwin Dahlberg, the Baptist pacifist from Minnesota whose philosophy had influenced so much of my life. Dad, by contrast, grew up in a Methodist family whose sons had served in U.S. armies as far back as the Revolution.
Surely, it occurred to me, my father had sat in the Methodist church in Oneonta listening to the same sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, on loving your enemy, on turning the other cheek. And yet when war came, Dad thought it was his Christian duty to put on a uniform to defend his country, even if it meant killing his enemy.
Who was being the more faithful Christian: Ed Dahlberg and the thousands of conscientious objectors of believed Jesus called to be peacemakers? Or my father and the millions who believed Jesus was calling them to military service?
Who am I to judge?
But this Veterans Day I’m pretty sure that Jesus blessed both my dad and Dahlberg because each chose to follow his conscience, to do right as God gave them to see the right. They both acted out of faith and with significant courage to risk everything for what they believed. Their daring and valor is to be greatly admired, and I’m proud to have known them both.
This Veterans Day I look forward to greeting both veterans and conscientious objectors in the same grateful spirit:
Thank you for your service.