A Soldier or a “Killing Machine”?

“We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” Donald J. Trump tweeted October 12, 2019 regarding the case of Maj. Mathew Golsteyn a former Green Beret who is on trial for killing an unarmed Afghan man in 2010, a killing Golsteyn twice admitted. This statement was made by the Chief Law enforcement officer of the U.S. whose job it is to enforce the Constitution and laws (including the laws of war) “faithfully” under Article II of the Constitution, a Constitution which supposedly sought to limit war by giving only Congress the power to declare war, to avoid standing armies in times of peace, and to, in America, “make law king.”

Jesus of Nazareth stopped the hand of Peter when he drew his knife and attacked one of the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus. He proclaimed Peter had learned nothing from Him if Peter did not understand Jesus had taught everyone to avoid violence, “for he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus made it clear in this teaching that violence, even when used to save the life of god, was repudiated by god. Jesus’ example seems to undermine any justification for violence: if saving the life of god does not justify it, what lesser value can?

For many of us, living in a “real world,” defense of self or others against aggressive violence, we say, justifies resort to violence. Arguably, this is the story of human civilization. As humanity emerged from the jungle and the law of the jungle (“might makes right”), it gave way to an idea of a law that sought to make violence the exception, not the rule. World War II ended its spasm of grotesque celebration of militarism and violence in “war crimes trials” of “Major War Criminals” many of whom were executed for engaging in organized, military violence on a scale never before seen. This continued an evolution from before World War I where law slowly moved to reject military solutions to human issues. The Tokyo and Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were a landmark rejection of what was once taken for granted: warlords and kings, who gained their power and thrones through violence, were no longer glorified heroes but shameful criminals.

In place of might, law was asserted. A new realization emerged from the dark slaughter of World War II—Jesus had something in his rejection of violence—in fact the specter of nuclear annihilation that arose at about the same time as War Crimes Trials, seemed to confirm his point: failure to reject violence by nuclear armed humanity would result in annihilation of humanity. A new consciousness of the role of armies arose. They would not be mere killers, like those wielded for power by warlords and kings throughout history, but would be officers of the law. War itself was required to be conducted in accord with the law and only when authorized by law. Soldiers who followed the law were not murderers, though they engaged in homicide, civilized nations would forgive so long as the law was followed, limiting violence to that legally prescribed and justified.

The flip side of this development was the recognition that those in civilized militaries were required to comply with the law to claim the benefit of “justified homicide” conducted in a lawful war, lawfully declared and lawfully conducted. Those who did not, who violated the law of war, were deemed rightfully subject to legal punishment, just as had the Major War Criminals after WWII. In order for this to be rational, soldiers (as opposed to killers) were trained in the law of war, how to conduct military operations lawfully, and to understand that the justification for their honor as soldiers was the lawful conduct in which they engage. Most follow this code, not only because it is the law, but also because they know it is just, that war is at best a necessary evil, they are so trained, and many believe that someday they may have to explain their actions to Jesus himself. In fact, all taxpayers who pay for the soldiers, too, may be called upon to justify paying for violence, and need to show it was done to advance the cause of law and justice, not as a spasm of barbarism.

If Mr. Trump is correct, and America “train[s] our boys to be killing machines,” with no obligation to the law, then the idea that in America “law is king” has suffered its most odious defeat and is on the verge of extirpation. If Mr. Trump is correct, our military is no longer an extension of the law, but has devolved back to the lumpen gangs of thuggish killing machines used by warlords and kings in pursuit of “right” by might. Maj. Golsteyn deserves a fair trial, this the law requires and even if guilty, punishment will consider the totality of the facts in an effort to be just. This is the law honorable soldiers fight to uphold. In fact, honorable soldiers exist today to ensure violence is not used, but peace maintained—at least that is the theory. And none would entrust mere “killing machines” with nuclear weapons. But, if Mr. Trump is correct and America has a military of “killing machines,” then not even Jesus will forgive what we do.

Kary Love is a Michigan attorney.