“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” So begins the title story in Tim O’Brien’s book about American soldiers in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. Published 22 years ago, The Things They Carried lists the objects soldiers bring with them into and away from war, and then uses them to represent both the soldiers’ own internal burdens and the larger ones we Americans place on them. The title story begins with a matter-of-fact list of what might be found on a soldier’s person during the Vietnam War:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. [Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, p.2]
Over the course of The Things They Carried the list expands. As the tale evolves we learn that the soldiers carry with them more than their personal items, weapons, or supplies. The list of “the things they carried” grows to include all sorts of meanings: their own hopes and fears, the history and ideals of the nation they represent, the unresolved conflicts of the people back home. As we move more deeply into the narrative, the soldiers are seen to carry not only their own burdens. They carry along with them the burdens of an entire people as well.
Today, November 11, is Veterans Day. Though it’s not a church holiday, Veterans Day is an important occasion in our national life. Even though veterans and the wars they fought were not part of the recent electoral discussion, I’ve been thinking a lot about veterans this fall. Late last month, the great George McGovern, presidential candidate and decorated World War II bomber pilot, died, and many obituaries reprinted his most memorable quote, said at the height of the Vietnam War: “I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus also appears fed up with those who place burdens on others they’re not willing to take up themselves. Listen to him again:
"Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." [Mark 12: 38-40]
Jesus is “fed up to the ears” with religious functionaries dreaming up obligations for others. The scribes—religious bureaucrats of Jesus’s day—live off the sacrifices of others. In that sense they are like the old folks who send young soldiers into battles they’re not willing to fight themselves.
The longer I live, the fewer soldiers I know. This distance is not only a function of my age. It is a result of my social location. We have just concluded a presidential campaign in which the ongoing war in Afghanistan was rarely if ever mentioned. Our 21st century wars have been largely hidden from people like me. The wars we fight today are wars that we and those with our privileges have dreamed up for others to die in.
We are gathered on Veterans Day not only to acknowledge our veterans but to express our gratitude for what they have given us. But how best do we do that? One way to express our thanks for those who have served in our recent and ongoing wars is to try to understand the reality of what they face on a daily basis. I have recently finished reading a powerful new novel about the war in Iraq. It’s called The Yellow Birds, and it’s by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran. The Yellow Birds is a great novel on its own terms, and it’s also an important way for people like me to understand a combat experience that carries challenges most of us never think of. All war is hard, but contemporary soldiers are being asked to do things we haven’t asked them to do before. As New Yorker writer George Packer explains,
The nature of [the Iraq] war is particularly hard on the psyche because of the complete opposites that have to be held together in one person’s head. A soldier said to me, “You cannot turn on and off the switch in these guys. It’s just tearing them apart to have to be nation builders and good guys and walk through villages and sit and drink tea and fighters who have to go out and shoot people and protect themselves. What we need is two armies, one army of tea drinkers and one army of shooters.” [George Packer, “The New Yorker Out Loud” Podcast, October 29, 2012]
In recent wars, our soldiers have had to serve as both nation-builders and fighters. They have to drink tea with people they may also need to shoot. The resulting internal conflict can be soul-destroying. As Bartle, the machine-gunner narrator of The Yellow Birds says,
I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy. [The Yellow Birds, p. 144]
As Christians, as people of faith, how do we make sense of the burdens borne by the modern soldier? When we think about the things they carry, about the burdens we place on the men and women who go to war on our behalf, we should think as well about someone else who carried a burden for us, about another young man who walked up a hill carrying not a rifle but a cross. I am not trying to turn soldiers and veterans into Christ figures. I realize that they’re real, complicated people like you and me. But I am suggesting that they are important to us because, as they symbolize both our aspirations and our pains, they remind us of someone else. As Christians, we know something about sacramental sacrifice. As Christians we know what it is to project our dreams and our enmities onto another. As Christians, we know on Good Friday what going to the cross cost Jesus, and as his followers we know after Easter what it means to live life in gratitude for the sacrifice made by another. “Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” [Isaiah 53.4] “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53.6] As Christians we find life’s purpose as thanksgiving for the gift for us of Jesus’s life on the cross. As Americans we can never be too far away from the knowledge that we can live our lives in peace because soldiers from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, to the Somme and D-Day, to Pork Chop Hill and the Tet Offensive to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been willing to take up a burden on our behalf.
Today’s Gospel takes place as Jesus teaches in the Temple, and in it Jesus follows his attack on the scribes by pointing to a widow—the poorest of the poor in his day—as she quietly makes an offering of two copper coins, “all she had to live on”. The widow’s quiet, sacrificial offering shames the pretensions of those who make a show of their flamboyant benevolence. At the center of Jesus’s teaching there is always a dual call to outward compassion and inward humility. He calls us, by example, to be both generous and humble, to be less like the scribes and more like the widow, because that’s the way God is. In loving us in Christ, God offers us “all she had to live on”.
As we gather around Jesus’s table on this Sunday, we’re invited by God to know ourselves as people loved not because of our outward appearance but because of who we authentically are. In knowing ourselves that way, we are asked to be less like the scribes and more like the widow. As we gather around Jesus’s table on Veterans Day, let us do so giving thanks for the men and women who have served our country not only by carrying our burdens and living into new and challenging ways of fighting our wars. Let us give thanks that in their lives and service we glimpse an image of what it means to offer everything you have to live on so that someone else might thrive. We cannot all replicate that offering. But we can all acknowledge it and respond by helping our soldiers and veterans shoulder the things they carry. Amen.