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Praying for our enemies’ eternal peace


As American warplanes bomb Afghanistan, a question arises that has troubled me for a long time. During our involvement in the Vietnam War, we killed tens of thousands of enemy soldiers (I helped kill some of them). In addition, approximately 1 million North and South Vietnamese civilians lost their lives -- an untold number of these deaths were either directly or indirectly a consequence of our military action. In the time I spent in Vietnam, I never heard a military chaplain (Catholic or Protestant) ask for God’s forgiveness for what we had done or pray for all the dead Vietnamese or even acknowledge that we had killed them.

All the praying had to do with keeping us safe, keeping us alive. The same thing when I returned home. With the exception of the Berrigan brothers and a few other “radical” priests who protested the war, I never heard a word -- much less a prayer -- about the death and destruction we had wrought.

A study released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1992, over the objection of the first Bush administration, concluded that in the Gulf War, 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 83,000 civilians lost their lives. Thirteen thousand of these civilians -- mostly women and children -- died as a consequence of “precision bombing” (“collateral damage” in military jargon). Another 70,000 people perished in the aftermath of the collapse of the public health system -- the water purification and sewage treatment. Most of these victims were children and the elderly -- those segments of the population who because of weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Once again I never witnessed a priest lead the congregation in prayer for these people. It was all about our relatively few losses, our sacrifices. It’s always about us.

As we embark on a military campaign in Afghanistan, the same lack of spiritual concern for the innocent people we are killing, will destroy, is evident. To a certain extent I can understand laypeople not praying for their enemy. What I fail to comprehend is how and why the Catholic clergy can be so callous. Am I missing something here?

In Vietnam the troops used to encourage one another, only half jokingly, to “kill a gook for God!” Dehumanizing your enemy makes him easier to destroy. All military personnel are subject to this indoctrination beginning in boot camp. Is God an American? Is God really on our side in all of these confrontations? Does he want us to kill our enemies without acknowledging their humanity? Their immortal souls? Who among us has not heard “We are all God’s children”? If this is true, why don’t we pray for our brothers and sisters whose lives we have ended? Does fighting a “just war” preclude us from asking for their forgiveness?

For God’s forgiveness? Are these individuals, as the movie title suggests, “children of a lesser God”? Is this why we don’t pray for them?

Priests do not instruct us to contemplate what we have done to others in wartime. Is it because priests don’t care? It doesn’t fit with Catholic theology? Why is the church so concerned with lives of the innocent unborn, yet so indifferent to taking innocent lives via war? Are some lives more sacred than others?

If we practice what is learned from the pulpit, shouldn’t we be praying for Osama bin Laden as much as the victims of the terrorist attacks, maybe more? Is the directive to “love your enemy” just a Sunday morning platitude with little relevance to the real world? Are most Catholics, including the clergy, blatant hypocrites regarding this matter?

In 1912, two years after his death, Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” was published. Twain was urged by family and friends not to let this work see print until his demise, lest it be regarded as sacrilegious. The story unfolds at a time when the country was involved in a war. An aged stranger, a messenger of God, made his way to the front of a church. “When you pray for victory,” he said, “you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory -- must follow it, cannot help but follow it ... He commandeth me to put it into words:

“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriotic dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief ... stain the snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love ... and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

If these unmentioned results are the inevitable consequences of our prayers for victory, shouldn’t we beseech God to grant our enemies (and the innocent souls among them) eternal peace? In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked some of the apostles, “Could you not pray with me for just one hour?” What are we going to say when on judgment day Jesus asks us, “You and your country killed those people. Could you not at least pray for them?”

George Bryjak is professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. His e-mail address is bryjak@acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001