Logan Mehl-Laituri’s path to peace activism is a much more winding path than you might expect. Why? Because he served more than a year as a soldier in Iraq. Mehl-Laituri then had a conversion experience that led him to eschew violence. His story and take on war, patriotism, military service and Jesus’ call to nonviolence are chronicled in his new book, Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience. We spoke with Mehl-Laituri about his new book, his military service and his commitment to peacemaking.
Relevant Magazine: Describe your path from civilian to soldier to nonviolence activist.
Logan Mehl-Laituri: Toward the end of my high school education, in 2000, I began considering college, but my family did not have the means to pay the high cost of higher education. After some friends had enlisted, I signed up for a three-year stint as a paratrooper. Our nation being at peace meant that I did not have to fully consider the violence I would be expected to perpetrate in the name of the American people and way of life. For me, enlistment was primarily an economic decision, since there were no “wars and rumors of war.” A few weeks into basic training, the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, then less than a year into my assignment to Ft. Bragg, NC, the Towers fell and service in the military took on increasing significance.
In 2005, after a reenlistment and fourteen months of combat in Iraq behind me, I was confronted with the Gospel of Jesus’ enemy love. I was an artilleryman serving in an infantry platoon, and my particular set of skills (artillery, mortars, attack helicopters, etc.) countered the call to loving the enemies I was instructed to engage with superior firepower. At the end of a months-long conversion experience, I knew God was calling me to lay down my weapon and love those who acted in ways Christ resisted, those who leveled the towers as well as those who leveled their rifles in response.
I applied to be a noncombatant conscientious objector and return to combat unarmed. Though I had the utmost respect for those I served alongside, I could not, after hearing the call of Christ, place my hands upon a weapon again. What I did was in direct response to the call of discipleship. That did not make me an activist –it made me a Christian.
RM: What was it about war and your time in the military that changed you?
LML: My conversion was less about my time in the military than it was the presence of Christ breaking through despite my martial circumstances. God spoke through a family I was very close with to show me that faith demanded action and that where Christ met me was not necessarily where I would remain. I desperately desired to remain in the military with my friends and serve nonviolently, but I was denied that opportunity. Being discharged was a bittersweet pill to swallow.
The most formative moments may have actually been a peacemaking trip I took to Palestine days after being discharged. There, back in the Middle East, I was suddenly on the other side of the rifle’s scope. I saw soldiers using the same weapon systems I used in Iraq being deployed against another Arab people. I may as well have been back with my unit on deployment, as many of the families we met with asked me about “[their] family in Iraq.” The whole experience was a painful reminder how victims of war can be found on both sides of the gun.
In our economy, enlisting is rarely an easy decision. Most soldiers I talk to (then and now) do so out of something akin to economic desperation. Even on the other side of military service, we find that those who commit violence are groaning under the incredible weight of discovering that, in hoping to do good, they did nearly as much evil; since 2005, 17 veterans have taken their own lives every single day. In the mirror, we see more the mark of Cain than we do the likeness of God…
RM: Do you think Christians can be patriots? If so, how should they juggle love of country with love of neighbor?
LML: We can love our country if we’re willing and able to seriously consider our faults alongside our strengths (for they are as much ours as they are those of our compatriots and politicians). Sometimes I hate that I am American, but other times I am proud to bear the title. I hear about atrocities committed by my fellow service members and I cringe. But I also am inspired by the audacity of our founders to insist upon popular sovereignty. Love, after all, is patient and does not dishonor others. Like the Church, our country may be a whore, but she is a kind of mother to us, with whom we persevere and for whom we hold on to the hope that they yet may be their own best self.
Allegiance certainly is a juggling act. What I have found helpful is the language of “threshold.” As citizens of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God, Christians must discern the limits of their earthly allegiances. We do not give everything to Caesar, but only that which belongs thereto. Our allegiance to God is ultimate, but to our country it is finite. If God, in the language used by Genesis, gets the firstlings and fat portions, then Caesar might be left with warmed leftovers. But the key is to render to Caesar what is his with respect and dignity without sliding toward ridicule and derision. Where was that threshold for me? I refused to be directly responsible for the death of my enemies, since I was commanded to love them. The call of Christ is a call to embrace, not eviscerate, our enemies…
RM: Can faithful Christians serve in the military? Why or why not? Is it possible to be a good soldier and disagree with orders?
LML: The first question is of a kind that seems to build up a false dichotomy that misdirects us from the fact that, in wars waged by a representative democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible. Christian soldiers certainly have a unique set of circumstances, but they wrestle with many of the same questions of life and death as those who have vocations in the medical field, judicial arena, etc. I would never suggest a Christian cannot serve in the military (for a number and variety of reasons), but the moral challenge remains ultimately the same.
That being said, the military is not homogenous; much depends on an individual’s Military Occupational Specialty (an infantry soldier has a very different set of circumstances than does a field medic, for example). No matter what “MOS” a service member performs, they are all subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which requires soldiers to “disobey unlawful orders.” Unfortunately, military regulations then delegate the authority for determining the lawfulness of said order to the very commander that a good soldier might have to disobey. In other words, impartiality does not seem to have a high priority for the UCMJ; soldiers expose themself to significant risk of punitive action for relying on their God-given conscience (instead of their earthly commander) to determine when a threshold has been violated.
For the integrity of Christian witness in the military to remain intact, Congress or the Department of Defense must protect the religious right of those in service to object to unjust orders. This right is being called “selective conscientious objection,” even though for centuries the Church has known it as “Just War.” For Christians to retain their saltiness and, often, their sanity (the new field of moral injury makes the link between obeying unlawful orders and soldier suicide quite clear), we need to recognize that conscience is not fully protected, threatening our religious freedom as well as the moral health of those who fight on our behalf.
*This interview was originally published in RELEVANT magazine (Issue 58: July/August 2012). Visit the website at: www.relevantmagazine.com. Find the magazine on newsstands nationwide or subscribe HERE.