Article Overview:   How do you justify war to a hard corps peace activist and a Catholic priest, each who stands up against war in private and public?   And, how do you go the extra step and justify the killing of people within that war?   I faced that challenge the other day.  Find out how I handled it.


Tuesday--March 11, 2003—Ground Zero Plus 545
The Morality Of Killing
A Peace Advocate's Sorrow

Cliff McKenzie
   Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, Mar. 11--The "killing words" just flew out of my mouth, not ill-intended or designed to rub salt into the sorrowful anti-war wounds of either Jane or the Jesuit Priest, Father Gannon.
       I just said what I believed.  There were words meant to reduce not expand the sorrow of a woman worried about war.  But I was met with shocked, pained, anguished looks. After the words escaped, I felt as though I had just cut open the belly of a newborn baby and raised its bloody body over my head in evil triumph.

I was anticipating the family outing to the Liberty Science Center

       The incident happened this past Sunday at the Nativity Catholic Church in the East Village.    I am not a regular church goer, but went to meet with my daughter, wife, son-in-law and three grandchildren.   After church we were heading for the Liberty Park Science Center in New Jersey where a traveling exhibit of The Magic School Bus was on display.  The four-story Science Center is filled with a host of fascinating exhibits geared to spark children's imagination and urge them to explore the world through microscopes and telescopes. 
     My mind was on the trip, not on the issue of peace versus war.
     I had no intention of thumping war drums or offending the spirit of peace. That happened by accident.
     The victim of my offense--if what I did might be called that--was Jane, a strong-willed woman who is a major spoke in the Catholic Worker wheel.  

The Catholic Worker was founded by Dorothy Day with the urging and  aid of Peter Maurin

     Launched by social and political activists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, the Catholic Worker has hundreds of houses located throughout the United States and the world.  The movement believes in the God-given dignity of every person.  As I understand it, the Worker's mission is to help homeless, disenfranchised people and uphold the principles of social justice through peaceful protest.  This includes protesting war as well as injustices to the underprivileged, marginalized people around the globe.   The Worker has no official affiliation with the Catholic Church, and often defies it by speaking out on issues the Church may ignore.
     My older daughter has been involved with the Catholic Worker for more than a decade, including serving a stint as managing editor of its newspaper, the only penny paper left in the United States.  The Catholic Worker newspaper enjoys a circulation of nearly 100,000 worldwide. 
     In 1995 there were 134 communities of hospitality manned by unpaid volunteers (all but three in the United States) where what member's call " works of mercy" are practiced. 

Catholic Worker  anti-war protestors  hold  banner with Dorothy Day statement on Feb 15, '03

     Unlike most current war protestors, Catholic Workers perpetually argue for peace.   They aren't "foul-weather" protestors, waiting until some conflagration such as Iraq pops up on the global radar screen to man and woman  banners and placards  
     I admire that part of their movement; they walk like they talk 24/7, 365 days a year.
     One of the Worker's members, Kathy, is currently in Iraq protesting for peace.    Early Sunday morning while researching the news for my daily story, I stumbled across a picture of her in the New York Times.  She was holding up a peace banner in front of the Canal Hotel where the U.N. weapons inspectors reside.  I blew it up and printed a few copies for my daughter to give to her friends at the Worker.
      While I don't embrace the dogma of the Catholic Worker, I do respect what they stand for.   I believe that without the right of protest or dissent, there is no freedom in any nation.  Ultimately, I hold their ideals valid--that one day this earth might be free of war, anguish, poverty and oppression.   But, I'm a pragmatist, and keep my hand on my gun just in case "evil" has other ideas.
       I tend to believe that the Beast of Terror cannot be prayed into inactivity.  Instead, he must be harnessed and hobbled by violence, if necessary.   At this point, I'm in agreement with surrounding Saddam Hussein with 250,000 troops and arms to force him to comply with his 1991 disarmament agreement he has deftly skated on over the dozen years.   He's a bully Terrorist, the kind who likes to amass weapons of mass destruction to bully his way to power.   His defiance of the U.N. and continued efforts to expand his arsenal of weapons convinces me he wants to be the King Bully Terrorist.  He'd love to have all the Terrorists in the world beat paths to his doorstep to haggle over doses of anthrax, smallpox, and even dirty nuclear bombs to be used against "their enemies."

My daughter's friend, Kathy, in Baghdad, holding an anti-war banner

       I also see his demise as a signal to the world of Terrorists that America at least, and the world hopefully, will not allow the spread of weapons of mass destruction.   I'm for invading Iraq as a message to all Terrorists that there are no negotiations with Terrorism or its potential threat.   Saddam has proven his ability to attack other nations to expand his power, stated his goal of ruling the Arab world, and gassed thousands of his own people, including innocent women and children.
       When he is toppled or abdicates, it will be a blow to Terrorism worldwide.   And while the price of war might be high, the message it barks to Kim Jong Il and the Osama bin Laden's of the world is that bullies will be met with swift, deadly force.
        I would prefer war didn't happen, but I see that if it occurs, the benefactors are the children of the world.  They'll be a little safer from the next Saddam who is plotting to Terrorize them.

   The Beast of Terror's many heads must be severed

       I believe one must carry the Sword and Shield of Vigilance and be ready, willing and able to cut off the Beast of Terror's many heads before his jaws and claws sink into the flesh of the children, or the helpless.
       Biblically, the book of James says "faith without works is dead."  I take that to mean besides praying for peace, one must also be willing to fight and die for it.
       Then there is one other factor that drives my opinions--I am a trained killer, a former U.S. Marine with more than 100 combat operations in Vietnam.   Perhaps I have seen the Beast of Terror's face too many times, and witnessed how he can ravage the innocent despite all the prayers issued in their behalf.  
        Adding to my past war experience, I am also a survivor of Nine Eleven.  I often awake to the sight of bodies leaping from the burning buildings at the World Trade Center on September 11.   I recall the rupturing roar of Beast's belly belching after his feast when the giant buildings fell that day, crushing life from nearly 3,000 mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters of humanity.  When I awaken to these thoughts, I don't want to fall to my knees and pray.  I grit my teeth and want to settle the score, even though I know blood-for-blood washes away no sins.
      So when Jane came up to me after Mass this past Sunday to thank me for the 8x10 photo I had blown up of Kathy in Baghdad, I had no expectations our conversation would end up about killing, or that I would excitedly praise Jane's relative for being able to "surgically kill" people and cause her added sorrow.
       Catholic Worker people know my background.  They know I am a war veteran who isn't anti-war.   They respect who I am because I do not challenge them, or decry their efforts to rally against all forms of militarism. 
       We comfortably co-exist.  
       As Jane thanked me for the photo of Kathy, she began telling me she had a relative, a nephew I believe, who was also a U.S. Marine.  She said he was a sniper and had been sent to the Middle East.   As she said the word "sniper," her face took on a pained, sorrowful countenance.  She lowered her head slightly, as though holding back a gasp from deep within.   I wanted to lift her spirits.

A Marine sniper's kills will be " clean."

     "But Jane, that's great... that he's a sniper.   If he kills anyone, he'll know exactly who he is killing.  He'll pick out his target.  He won't kill indiscriminately.   His kills will be clean."
      No sooner had the words I thought were solace based slipped over my lips than Jane's face twisted into a death mask.   She gazed at me blankly. The blood rushed to her toes.  Her jaw slackened.
     "Oh, no!"
     "But that's good Jane.   In war, the worst thought a warrior can have is: 'who did I kill by accident?'   Your nephew won't deliver death by accident. He'll know each of his targets.  That's good, Jane.'"
     In my vainglorious attempt to assuage her pain, I was digging the trench deeper.  
     "No.  No, I don't want to think about it."  Jane held up her hand as though it were a shield defending against my brass-knuckled tongue.  Then she walked away.
      I had not planned add to Jane's burden.   My intent was to ameliorate her concerns not enflame them.  In my rush to make her feel better, I forgot that killing--just or unjust--was an affront to the mental, emotional and spiritual framework of Jane and all Catholic Workers.
      I didn't get a chance to tell her why I believed a sniper in war had the best chance of being the most "moral" of killers.

Marine on an observation tower scouting a "discriminate" kill

     As a Marine "grunt" I had my "moral killing" experiences.  They are unique to those who have been in combat, and, after my experience with Jane, I realize how important they are to my personal well-being.
      My "moral killing experiences" involved situations where I chose not to kill, even though I could have.
      In one case we were hunting V.C. in the dense jungle.   We mounted a cliff.  Below was a small river.  Suddenly, three figures burst from the underbrush.  Immediately, a barrage of fire erupted.  I raised my rifle to fire and realized that one of the figures was far too small to be an adult.   I yelled for the others to cease fire.  It turned out the figures were a mother, father and small child.  Normally, the killing instinct overpowers all others.   For some reason the child's shadow set off some alarm, enough to save the family.
     In another case we flushed a Vietnamese from the brush deep in enemy territory.  The free-fire zone was in effect.  The "free fire zone" translated to:  "if it moves, kill it!"
       The Vietnamese startled us as he broke from the brush and rushed toward the river.   He wore black pajamas, the uniform of most Vietnamese farmers and Viet Cong, making it almost impossible to distinguish the combatants from non-combatants.
      The fleeing Vietnamese  dove into a swollen river fed by monsoon rains.  His arms and legs flailed wildly as he frenetically swam at an angle across the turgid river, about the color of a Starbuck's chocolate mocha.
       In the heat of battle, you are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.  If you don't, hesitation can mean death.  So you err on the side of caution, and sometimes that err includes killing the innocent.   We had no idea if this man was a V.C. or not.  Fleeing could mean he was just scared or we had flushed out a potential sniper.

"if it moves...kill it."

       As the man swam for his life,  I raised my M-14 to my shoulder, leveled my sights and started to squeeze the trigger.  I'm an expert marksman.  It would have been a good shot.  Around me, others were firing madly at the man who thrashed through the water at a speed that would have probably set a unbeatable world record were it being recorded.  
       As I was about to apply the final ounce of pressure on the trigger, something held me back.  I relaxed my trigger finger.  Everyone else was firing at the man.   Bullets kicked spouts of water all around the Vietnamese who was miraculously evading the wall of deadly lead spewing at him   He swam harder and faster with each shot.
       I slowly lowered my rifle and watched.  Virtually thousands of rounds were being pumped at him as more Marines joined in the "turkey shoot."   Then something bizarre clicked in my mind.
        I found myself cheering him, as though he were in a great race with death, which he was, and I was his head cheerleader.  I wanted him to escape.   By now there must have been twenty to thirty  other Marines emptying their weapons at him.   As he survived each fusillade, I cheered louder and louder.   Soon, a few others put down their rifles and joined me in my cheers. 
       I continued with my little cheerleading squad rooting him on.  When he hit the steep bank about 100 yards away, the scene of his escape from the water was from a cartoon.  His frail, bony body seemed to levitate out of the water.  His bare feet pumped as he switched from Olympic Gold Medal swimmer to Olympic Gold Medal 100-yard sprinter.  He clambered up the cantilevered bank as though shot from a trampoline. 
       In a flash he was on the ledge of the bank, hunching, ducking, dancing, weaving as bullets cracked between his legs, past his ears, near his feet.  Then he disappeared into the verdant jungle, a small black blotch swallowed by the green of life.  There was one final burst of fire followed by silence.
        In a bizarre way, I helped deny the Grim Reaper of War another victim.  Part of my reason was, I wasn't into shooting people in the back.  And, I wasn't into racking up another notch on my rifle to compare it to others' rifle stocks.  I had no collection of ears on my gun belt.  I felt no compunction about cheering him on for we hadn't been fired upon and there was no indication he was bearing arms.  I gave a salute to the jungle where he had disappeared and trudged on to finish the sweep.

I want to ask Vietnamese children if their grandfather told them 'the story'.

       Whenever I see a young Vietnamese these days, in the back of my mind I want to ask:  "Did you father or grandfather ever tell you a story about a very fast swim he took one day in Vietnam?"  But I don't.   I just like to remember I chose not to fire at him.  But I always wonder if he tells the story of his escape from death.
       War's memories don't fade.  I can see every face of those I caught in my sights--those who died as well as those whom I chose not to fire upon for whatever reason.  War's ugliness is like Super Glue, it sticks to the soul with an immortal bond.
       I was always thankful I fought on the ground, face-to-face with the enemy.  The majority of the time I knew who I was shooting at.  I always held the choice of pulling the trigger or not.  I took full responsibility for my "kills."
       Unfortunately, not everyone in war enjoys the "right to kill justly."  Pilots and artillery officers don't get to look their targets in the eye. They cannot see what they shoot at.  They cannot tell if their targets are enemy or civilians, even though they have forward observers who relay information to them about the target zone.  Their death of others is primarily indiscriminate.   They never know for sure whether they killed "justly" or "unjustly," if such a thing is even possible.
       That's why I got so excited when Jane told me her nephew was a sniper. A sniper has maximum control over whom he kills or chooses not to.   With powerful scopes and a shooting skill unmatched by most, the sniper knows the pores on the face of his victims.  He can decide with clarity if the target is an "enemy" or not.   Thus, he can perform "just kills."
       My goal had been to assuage Jane's concerns.   I forgot her comment to me was one of blanket pain--that whether her relative was a sniper or chaplain's assistant, it didn't matter.  He was dressed in military uniform, pledged to fight and kill.   Whether it was killing an ant or an enraged elephant, it didn't matter.  Killing was bad to Jane and war was its ultimate excuse.

Jane is a Warrior for Peace

        Jane, I believe, knew I meant no intentional harm by my comments.  She's a Soldier of Dissent, a Warrior For Peace.  She's been in many battles where her beliefs buttressed against the opposition.  Over many years as a peace activist, she has chosen to deny all forms of violence, regardless of attempts to convert them into "just" or "unjust" niches.   She is also tolerant to reality.  She understands that others have the right to hold opposite views, even if those views fly in the face of all hers.  She and I have been friends for over a decade, even though we stand at different poles of the peace-war spectrum.  But I did feel badly.
       Following the faux pax with Jane, I went to Father Gannon who runs Nativity Church.  He was standing by the pews, finishing a conversation with a parishioner.  When he finished, I told him I shared the conversation I'd had with Jane and told him I thought I had made a mistake telling Jane what I did.
      "Well, your intent was good, but the effect may not have been."
      I thought about what he said.   Father Gannon is a wonderful man, struggling to keep his parish alive as the Catholic Church whittles away at closing down as many "non-productive" churches as possible.   His parish is fortunate to also double as a Jesuit house adding value to its remaining open.    His "flock" also includes a large number of Hispanics from the East Village, and is sandwiched between Mary House and St. Joseph House, two Catholic Worker bastions and headquarters for the publication of the Worker's worldwide paper.
       I knew little about the peace movement before my daughter became active in it.    At first, I thought it was a bunch of left-wingers spewing venom about the ugliness of those who fought wars.   I still remember being spat upon by such protestors after my return from Vietnam, and always have been gun-shy of "peaceniks."  The radical element tried to heap guilt and shame on us, as they are currently trying to make President Bush the "evil one" and Saddam Hussein the "tragic hero" of American oppression.    I can never fathom such unfairness, but that is their right, so I swallow my thoughts.
      The Catholic Worker, however, doesn't fall in that category.   Over the years I have fallen in love with the Vigilance of the Catholic Worker society.   They struggle each and every day to have their Voice heard, even when there are no wars.   They stand vigils weekly as religiously as the postman delivers.  Their Voices are a silent cry in a cacophonous wilderness.   And they seek no glory.  They don't run in front of television cameras, or have righteous leadership.  They are doers not barkers.   They live daily life in protest, they don't just rent the clothing of protestors when the fires of war rage.
      I often view Jane as the Catholic Worker's Sergeant Major of Peace Vigilance, even though there is no leadership structure in the organization.  It enjoys anarchical structure.
        Jane is a strong woman both in size and Voice; her opinions ring with a veracity few hawks could ever hope to drown.   She walks as though the yoke of the world's burdens were somehow slung over her shoulders, but yet will break into a warm, gentle smile upon seeing you. Her questions are about you, your life and the joys of living.   She seeks not to sink the sword of her beliefs in anyone's side.
     However,  I felt I had thrust unwanted sorrow into Jane's side.

The Beast of War kills, rapes, pillages, plunders with abandon

       In my own way,  I think I wounded Jane by default not intent.   It was my view of war that provided the cutting edge.  I see it as the lesser of many evils, not as evil itself.   I know the Beast of Terror is ruthless, and unless he is challenged to a duel, he will rape, pillage and plunder with abandon.   I've seen him ravage the weak and innocent.  I've been with him in battle, and I've almost become him at times when killing for killing's sake took hold.  
      What I wanted Jane to know was that her relative had the least likelihood of becoming a Beast of Terror.   Snipers, I wanted to shout,  kill with precision not wantonness.  
      But my excitement to mollify her sorrow only fueled it.   I was oil and she was water--at least on the killing issue.
      Our mutual respect and admiration for each other has not been damaged, hopefully, by my elation over her relative's role in war.    But there has been a benefit to it.
      It was a wake up call to me that war has a Terrorizing effect on those who oppose it, and especially to those related to the warriors who fight it.
        Jane, I'm sure, will cringe every day if war breaks out, trying not to think of what her nephew is doing.   She will be drawn closer to war's horror, for she will know a young man whom she is linked to by blood.  She will pray he doesn't learn the worst lessons a man can ever learn in war--how to kill another without blinking an eye.

There is Hope in the madness of war.  A tear falls  from this American GI's soul.

       War cannot afford a conscience amongst its warriors.   It extracts that from the warrior, enabling him or her to kill without thought, without cogitation of killings' "rightness" or "wrongness."  
      War strangles the moral nature of a human being.  It suspends the warrior in a web of amorality, sufficient for the warrior to endure the flow of blood that spills upon the battlefield, and to stomach the stench of the dead who may include the innocent as well as the combatants.
      War kills human innocence.   It always has and always will.  It is the sad part of war to see young men and women eagerly sight another human being and squeeze a trigger that ends all life's hope for the victim.
       But there is some hope in the madness of war.   There will be times when each warrior can choose not to shoot.  I had forgotten the importance of those moments until my conversation with Jane.  They reminded me I had not lost all my humanity.
       I suppose I wanted her to know her nephew will have such moments when he chooses not to kill.

      Jane also reminded me that the cries for peace are worthy.   It is easy for me to discount them and to rail on about the need to quash the Beast of Terror before he gnaws the bones of the Children's Children's Children.
       Jane reinforced that without people who have Courage and Conviction  like those of the Catholic Worker, all conscience might die.
      I hope those who fight the next war will preserve some scrap of conscience. Maybe they'll be reminded that they don't have to kill anything that moves and that they can take a moment from killing to know they are not the Beast they hunt.


Mar. 10--The Tragedy Of Vigilance

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©2001 - 2004,, All rights reserved -  a ((HYYPE)) design