A Historian’s View of Current Ethics: Vietnam and Iraq Compared

[1] When asked to write an article that compared and contrasted ethics regarding the Vietnam and Iraqi Wars, I thought about the overused notion that those who fail to learn about history repeat it, or other such common sayings. While I often agree with the general notion, the historian in me bristles–nothing ever recreates the exact same scenarios from the past because of inevitable changes and specific contexts. Nonetheless, the ethical dilemmas natural to any wartime era and that face Americans today can benefit from an assessment of how Lutherans considered, or failed to consider, the same issues during the Vietnam War. This is particularly important at this phase of the Iraqi situation, when the heavy fighting has ended and Americans tend to lose interest in the conflict, even while people continue to die on all sides of the war and international opinion hangs in the balance. The longer a war persists, the more Americans simply want to ignore it; this happened in Vietnam and seems to be occurring once again.

[2] To that end, some convincing about the need for a history lesson in relation to the Iraqi quagmire can help people see its correlation to the Vietnam War. Teaching history survey courses presents a daunting task when looking at 35 faces, most of whom would rather be anywhere else but in that particular classroom. So I often begin with a discussion about why we study history, emphasizing that it informs us about the world in which we live today. I hope that my research, too, contributes to contemporary society, rather than becoming something for a select group of academics. What did people do in the past that was good or bad, and what can we learn from their successes and failures? How did a nation, or specifically the United States, succeed, fail, or both during various eras? And what did the church have to say or do about it?

[3] The last question concerns this discussion of ethics. Given the controversy over Vietnam, what did Lutheran Americans say about it, and what did they do? Is there something to take from how the church acted in the 1960s and 1970s which can apply to the church today? And what were and are the ethical issues? A meditation over these questions provides the reason for studying history in the midst of ethical controversies.

[4] Indeed, when the United States decided to invade Iraq and with the subsequent developments, I have thought about my research on the Lutheran churches’ reactions to the Cold and Vietnam Wars from 1964-1975. While crucial differences distinguish these conflicts, we can learn much from a comparison of Lutheran reactions.FN1798

[5] To begin, the leaderships of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and Lutheran Church in America (LCA) had strong convictions about the Vietnam War and publicly made them known. Almost everyone at the national level, including the presidents of each body, condemned U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and argued for a U.S. withdrawal. They did so in a number of ways, including written editorials, official statements, letters to politicians, sermons, and general correspondence with each other and the laity. In other words, they morally and ethically opposed the war, thus driving their conscience to condemn U.S. participation.

[6] But ethical questions linger in a study of ALC and LCA leadership actions during that time. For example, church politics affected how vehemently they made their arguments, presenting the ethical predicament of holding true to their conscience versus honoring their church office and what it represented. The presidents/bishops of each body made their opinion known but prefaced remarks with an emphasis on their making the comments as an individual, not as the spiritual head of the ALC or LCA. I am not convinced that such a distinction was helpful: though wanting to appeal to the entire laity without alienating someone who has a different point of view has merit, religious leaders are at times called to be prophets to the people. I wonder if firmer, controversial statements would have prompted more depth to the discussions that took place in those decades. The Lutheran and Lutheran Standard editorial staffs, in contrast, had no such qualms. They loudly and forcefully proclaimed their opposition and outlined their reasoning, thus creating a vibrant dialogue within the church periodicals for those who chose to read them. This squares more with my perception of a true discussion of ethics and war: a deliberate dialogue between all parties, within a theological context and the tradition of the church, that forces individuals, in this case Lutherans, to consider seriously not only the political considerations but the moral and ethical components as well. Yet reading the literature from that era reveals yet another ethical dilemma for the Christian at times of war: did Lutheran theologians articulate a clear theological reasoning for their positions? Sadly, the historian will find it difficult to locate much exegesis or theological reflection that builds arguments based first on religious tenets and moves to politics only afterward.

[7] The same framework is being constructed around the Iraqi War, both in positive and negative ways. The leadership of the ELCA strongly questioned the war from the beginning, including a strong statement by ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Most poignantly, Lutheran editor David L. Miller wrote anOctober 2002 editorial denouncing the war because it failed to meet the just war criteria.FN1799 Unlike his counterparts during the Vietnam War, Miller explained why the war was immoral and grounded it in Lutheran theology.

[8] But I still wonder if the church leadership could do more to keep the issue in front of the people. Americans tend to dislike things that drag on for too long, we live in a society of planned obsolescence, a business concept that trickles into politics, diplomacy, and war. The longer that the United States remains in Iraq, the harder it becomes for bishops and writers to focus on the conflict, perhaps for fear that no one will care to read what they write. But prophetic leadership must cry even into wilderness where no one listens. Americans’ desire to move on and forget will not fix the quagmire that now exists, solve international relations problems, bring peace, or provide knowledge for the future. For better and/or worse, people look to leaders to highlight issues and challenge themselves; spiritual guides have an obligation to keep ethical/moral problems before us, especially when we no longer want to hear about them.

[9] Ethicists, however, cannot lay the blame entirely at the feet of the leadership. An examination of the ALC and LCA laity during the Vietnam War shows all too well that culpability implicates everyone equally. The Lutheran laity did discuss the Vietnam conflict and had a debate, but again too few people looked to religion for answers. Both sides of the issue tended to shape a political/diplomatic opinion and then assumed that they had righteous backing for their cause. In other words, their faith-life played a secondary role in shaping how they viewed the Vietnam War. Ethically, this backward thinking led to myopic assertions that God agreed with whatever point of view that particular individual articulated. I was unconvinced by most of the literature that people truly listened to their spiritual leaders, the very women and men they elected to guide them, for answers. Nor did they examine the Bible or Lutheran theology themselves to formulate their beliefs. Few even considered conscience in the matter despite Martin Luther’s warning against defying this gift from God that exists in everyone.

[10] The same question persists in this time of war: how many lay people studied their religious tradition, faith, and belief systems in deciding how to side regarding the Iraqi War? Or do we as Americans line up politically first and consider theology second, if at all? The ethics of this situation should bother any Lutheran; we can blame the leadership for failing to keep challenging us about the issue, but if we neglect to respond and announce that the issue no longer rings current in our ears, then guilt resides with us just as much. Ethics cannot come and go according to what the media puts before us, moral qualms about war cannot disappear because America as a nation falls into a numb acceptance of daily overseas terrorist attacks that kill American soldiers and civilian Iraqis. Bishop Hanson’s and Pastor Miller’s treatises hold sway today just as much as they did a year or more ago when everyone paid attention to the war. Lutherans across the board have an ethical duty to study current issues and shout loudly if the government fails to hear their voice.

[11] Which brings me to another misnomer in American history that leads to ethical problems which persist today. Too many will argue that the U.S. separation of church and state means that the government should handle matters of war and diplomacy while the church guides people spiritually. If only such clear lines of distinction truly existed! But the founders of this nation never intended to imply such an impossible scenario: as L. DeAne Lagerquist recently stated at the Anglican-Lutheran Historical Conference, this nation separates the institutions of government and the church, but people move between them.3 Too easily, Americans disregard a careful religious examination of important issues by invoking this separation of church and state, even though such compartmentalization cannot ethically happen. One cannot turn ethical notions off and on according to what issue they face; ethics do and should cross into how we shape political and diplomatic opinions about the actions of this nation!

[12] Yet Lutherans made this distinction during the Vietnam War, and I hear similar arguments today. Prowar advocates during the Vietnam era especially insisted that Lutherans trust the government to make wartime decisions, thereby abdicating their ethical responsibility to study the issue for themselves. Meanwhile, those opposed to the Vietnam War seldom explained why their religious faith prompted their antiwar activities. They, too, let religion play but a small role because they concentrated on political matters in order to influence politicians. Christians are again “separating church and state” regarding Iraq, assigning it to the diplomatic/political realm of the secular and either not wanting to deal with the implications of what Christian ethics might argue or simply afraid of the churchwide clash an open and honest discussion might create.

[13] And therein lies my biggest problem in comparing the Vietnam War and Iraqi War in an ethical perspective. My investigation of Lutherans and Vietnam concluded with an outline of how Lutherans used the notion of “Reconciliation” at the end of the Vietnam conflict to terminate the debate and heal the wounds that had divided the church and nation for over a decade. While noble in theory and positive in that they finally brought a theological concept into the discussion, it too easily brushed under the carpet the ethical problems that Vietnam had presented. Rather than closely scrutinizing why the nation had gone to war, retrospectively analyzing its relation to just war theory, and coming up with an ethical lesson from what the United States had done, Lutherans agreed to heal, or reconcile, in order to come back together once the nation had withdrawn from Vietnam and Saigon fell to the Communists in April 1975. Unity is important, and no one likes conflict within the church. If only humanity could sustain such utopian fantasies, this might have served them, and us, well. But people sin. Instead of consistent reconciliation, Lutherans emphasized the importance of unity based on reconciliation when the matter become too painful and divisive but left it in the rearview mirror when persistent Vietnam-era issues, such as amnesty for the men who fled to Canada to avoid the draft, most needed consideration.

[14] We have not come to the point of needing reconciliation regarding the Iraqi War. Unfortunately, Americans either for or against the war do not seem as passionate in their opinions this time. The concept of avoiding conflict, though, still guides how the Lutheran churches operate: we dance around the moral implications of Iraq because we do not as a church body agree on an ethical perspective. Knowing that it might cause hurt and anger to dialogue about the war, we allow individuals to shape their opinions without guidance and exhortation to begin with faith. Fearing the loss of members or hostility among the clergy, we insist that individual conscience guide each person, thereby avoiding the discussion.

[15] I certainly appreciate the desire for harmony and hardly advocate a divisive battle within the church over any political or diplomatic issue. But why does this preclude an open and honest debate? Why does unity demand either agreeing on one voice or complete silence? Reaching the conclusion that Lutherans failed regarding the Vietnam War to consider universally and consistently the moral, ethical, and theological issues that permeated the conflict bothered this historian. And it concerns me again that Lutherans might be doing the same thing regarding the Iraqi War. Will future historians wonder where the church was as this conflict persisted, tore the world apart, and people died? Will they again wonder how most people in the church, leaders and laity alike, allowed politics to guide their opinions without careful theological reflection? Or will they applaud Lutherans for a thoughtful debate and for remembering that ethics play a central, vital role in everything that we do?

[16] Are Lutheran viewpoints guided by faith, or is faith a justification for already held secular ideologies?

End Notes

[1] David E. Settje, “Has the Tiger Changed Its Stripes? Lutheran Responses to the Cold War, Fears of Internal Communist Threats, and the Vietnam War, 1964-1975” (Ph.D diss., Kent State University, 2001).

[2] David L. Miller, “We Must Say ‘No’: America’s Drift toward War with Iraq Fails the Just War Test,” Lutheran (October 2002).

[3] L. DeAne Lagerquist, “Being Lutheran in Public: Contributing to Social Capital in the Midwest,” Anglican-Lutheran Historical Conference, Chicago, IL, June 2004.