Is War a Spiritual Experience?

“…simply expecting a veteran to ‘adjust’ to civilian life, ‘is akin to asking Saint John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.’”
Karl Marlantes 

In my previous post on how Veterans experience anomie  I stated, “war is a spiritual experience.” Here, I delve deeper into the meaning of that statement, as illustrated by Karl Marlantes, Vietnam Veteran and author of the book What it is Like to Go to WarIn his book he argues that we need to consider the spiritual realities Veterans experience in war:

Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell.

The word “spiritual” and “sacred” conjures up images of purity, serenity, beauty, and light, just as the word “passion” conjures up images of joy, ecstasy, and bliss. Although these are important components of the concepts, they are only half of the reality. As argued in my article on the meaning of passion, “Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word. The Latin origin of passion is ‘pati,’ meaning ‘suffer’.” The same can be said regarding the concept of spirituality. Consider this argument by Karl Marlantes:

We don’t want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? Witness the demons of Tibetan Buddhism, ritual torture practiced by certain Native American tribes, the darker side of voodoo, or the cruel martyrdom of saints of all religions. Ritual torture or martyrdom can be either meaningless and terrible suffering or a profound religious experience, depending upon what the sufferer brings to the situation. The horror remains the same.
Combat is precisely such a situation.

This nuanced understanding of spirituality is not meant to justify xenophobia, racism, or any other form of in-group solidarity unjustifiably produced at the expense of the humanity of others. Marlantes states “…any conscious warrior of the future is going to be a person who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters.”

The more conscious we become spiritually, the more we must engage our conscience morally. Throughout the history of human evolution, our instinctual drives recede like melting ice, exposing the fertile ground of moral consciousness. Rather than simply responding to instinctual reflexes, we now have the conscious ability to contemplate the ethical consequences of our actions. But with this development, like the spring thaw, comes the increased responsibility of cultivation. As this moral consciousness expands to embrace an ethic of universal humanity, we must now consider others beyond our local group or nation. This consciousness forces us to readjust to a moral reality where we cannot simply label outside groups as subhuman.

One form of reaction to this increasingly globalizing world may be to simply deny an ethic of universal humanity, reaffirming a strengthened ethic of exclusion to bolster an identity based on hatred. But this merely works to cut ourselves off from our own humanity. By neglecting the humanity of others, we neglect our own humanity.

Another response is to embrace the ethic of universal humanity by seeing in ourselves and others a common humanity. But the ethic of ‘humanity’ is a double-edged sword. Consciousness of universal humanity opens up a dilemma of the conscience; how do we engage in military conflict against our brothers and sisters? Karl Marlantes illustrates this very issue in his book, by illustrating a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata, a sacred Hindu text:

Arjuna cast his eyes on the grand spectacle. He saw the heroes ready for battle, and he saw there all those who were dear to him. They were grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, dear friends, comrades. He was overcome with compassion for all of them. His voice shook with grief and he said: “Krishna, I feel an awful weakness stealing over me… Krishna, my head is reeling and I feel faint. My limbs refuse to bear me up… I look at all these who are my kinsmen and I feel that I cannot fight with them… I do not want to win this war… For the passing pleasure of ruling this world why should I kill the sons of Dhritarashtra? They have been greedy, evil, avaricious, covetous. I grant all that. But the fact remains that they are my cousins and it is a sin to kill one’s own kinsmen. I would rather turn away from the war. It will even be better if I am killed by Duryodhana. I do not want to fight.

Krishna eventually persuades Arjuna to fight by appealing to ‘justice’ by responding:

It is not right to stand by and watch an injustice being done. There are times when active interference is necessary.

To stand by and not intervene is to do injustice to ‘humanity’ since he would allow the violations to continue. Violent intervention is warranted so long as its goal is the protection of universal humanity against closed groups whose goals violate this concept. For example, it would be worth engaging in violence against groups who are in the process of committing ethnic genocide, as seen in contexts like Rwanda in the early 1990’s . Although the above dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna is from c.AD 400 in India, it illustrates a common struggle today that has even been been dealt with in Christian ‘just war’ theory. This ethic of universal humanity provides a good rational for engaging in violence, but it also increases the likelihood of moral injury.

The “conscious warrior” may have a good reason to serve in conflicts they deem just, but once on deployment, the fog of war can easily force the individual into a spiritually troubling moral dilemma. In an ideal world, wars are engaged with clarity and surgical precision. Since this is not the case, an individual may decide to fire at a suspicious person who turns out to be a civilian. The more a conscious warrior is committed to justice, the heavier they bear the weight of the moral conscience. The more our serving members are committed to an ethic of humanity, the more they will be forced into an internal conflict when faced with the fog of war, but the alternative of hatred and spiritual neglect is far worse. Preparing individuals for war means preparing them spiritually, as well as mentally and physically. As Marlantes states:

Warriors deal with death. They take life away from others. This is normally the role of God. Asking young warriors to take on that role without adequate psychological and spiritual preparation can lead to damaging consequences. It can also lead to killing and the infliction of pain in excess of what is required to accomplish the mission. If warriors are returned home having had better psychological and spiritual preparation, they will integrate into civilian life faster and they and their families will suffer less. But the more blurred the boundary is between the world where they are acting in the role of God and the world where they are acting in an ordinary societal role, the more problematical the reintegration becomes.

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  1. I think that war is a big issue for all the times. When it comes to the war we are facing so much injustice and intolerance so I just wonder how could we be so blinded before and not see the anger and manipulation of others before…

  2. Wonderful observations of how the meaning of common terminology, depending on the context used, can be less than sparkling clear, and even then, be the source differing interpretations.

    Enjoyed reading your enlightening post.

  3. I commend you for your courage in articulating well framed arguments and thoughts on a controversial subject. Coupled with your previous article, I wanted to share how I took much knowledge, inspiration, and contemplative thoughts with me. Thank you.

    Also, I will add Marlantes’ book to my reading list; thank you for exposing me to the material.


  4. I kinda agree with the notion that war is spiritual. Having gone through military service myself I can say that the hardship endured definitely can reach a point where the individual will benefit from associating the experience with something more meaningful. It’s like Viktor Frankl’s book.

  5. A very profound and well written article. Thank you. I wholeheartedly agree with the need for more complete spiritual preparation for anyone aspiring to be a warrior. Whether that is a warrior in the traditional sense or a spiritual warrior. Young people should be counseled on the need to have truthful, factual explanations of why they might ever be expected to bear arms against other people. The criteria expressed in your article is excellent. And they should know that if they don’t strongly agree with the conclusions of those seeking their cooperation they should not cooperate. To cooperate with that with which we strongly disagree is to place our spiritual well-being in jeopardy. I wonder how many wars would be prevented if that were the case. Blind obedience to a government or personality is fertile ground for abuse of power.

  6. If these rationalizations were true, there would be no such thing as PTSD, and combat veterans would have an easier time re-integrating into civilian life. I will never believe war is a “spiritual experience.” The identified “bad guys” are just as human as the “good guys.” In wars like those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea, for example, the identified “bad guys” were killed along with families, and their land ravaged, while US troops suffered no such “collateral damage.” The “major powers” have no moral superiority, merely more and better weapons with which to bully the world.

    1. Is “moral superiority” or even the conviction thereof necessary for an experience to be spiritual? I don’t think so. No one is surprised when spiritual experience and spiritual development take place within the context of, say, the Christian church, even though that church has been in its not-so-distant history an agent and apologist for genocide, slavery, and the oppression of women.

      Combatants on all sides of a conflict face similar conditions — conditions that aren’t faced by the war-making politicians hundreds or thousands of miles away. The spirituality, or spiritual potential, of their experience doesn’t have much to do with whether their cause is judged right or wrong.

      1. You are right. Living on the edge of death can make for intense appreciation of life and its transience. I guess I would like to see people appreciate life more fully without having to go to such lengths. Certainly civilian life must seem drab after such intense experience on the battlefield, but does it have to be that way?

        1. Yeah, me too, but there’s something I learned as a very young woman in the antiwar movement — the war was in Indochina then. Class-privileged guys my age managed to get draft deferments and CO status. Not-so-privileged guys wound up in the National Guard if they were lucky, and Vietnam if they weren’t. The ones who came back to protest the war, some of them still in uniform, were among the most courageous — and spiritual — people I’ve ever met. Often the ones I want to confront are the civilians who keep chanting “Support our troops! Support our troops!” without a clue about what “our troops” are being asked to do, or a single question about whether it’s worth it, or whether it has anything to do with “defending our freedom.”

          1. I couldn’t agree more. I worked with lots of Vietnam vets who had dropped out of society, living in the country with their plots of land, farm animals, and hunting and fishing gear. As well as survivalist provisions. They were the most peace-loving people imaginable. They would be the people I want to be friends with, come the revolution.

            I have a bumper sticker, too, paid for by yours truly. It says “Support our troops. Bring them home.” I’ve sent them to numerous congresspersons, as well as other movers and shakers.

            I contend the military discipline acquired by the soldiers could be put to much better use in rebuilding our country from within, such as repairing broken infrastructure. In theory, like FDR’s CCC.

    2. I think there is such a thing as a war which is consistent with genuinely positive spiritual values. I don’t think there have been any during my lifetime, at least not that I know of. WWII probably comes the closest and it was before I was born. Some might argue the Civil War in it’s role to end slavery. I believe the more one’s actions are in harmony with positive, sustaining spiritual values the more resilient one will be no matter what the endeavor, including war. Also that the more one’s actions are dissonant with healthful spiritual values the more trauma, stress and regret one will feel as a matter of a natural reaction.

      1. I feel caught in the cross-fire of a psychological war in this country. If any of the American wars solved anything, I’ve missed it. Each one has depleted us more and added to the negative karma (as well as deeper debt). At this point I’m embarrassed to be American. If we are leading the world, it is by bad example.

          1. Not yet, obviously, but there may be hope in the inter-connectedness (and communication) fostered by the internet. I would sure like to see more people using their energy to promote healthy alternatives.

      2. I think what bothers me the most is that I am paying for these “spiritual experiences,” and they are the opposite of my concept of spiritual. I don’t ask anyone to pay for mine.

        I am an anarchist to the extent that if we had no government we would have no war, at least not on the grand scale we are seeing now. How many countries do we have military bases in now? Something like 77? How many countries have military bases here? How many enemies are we creating around the world? One of these days they are going to gang up on us, if we don’t start behaving, and it won’t be pretty.

        That is, if we don’t poison ourselves first, with all the environmental toxins in the garbage dump we call home.

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