War and Virtue: The Ascetics of War
by Aristotle Papanikolaou
Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which––debates about just war criteria notwithstanding––combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. I argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis1.
Forgetting Virtue: When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello (criteria for just conduct during war) and jus ad bellum (criteria determining when going to war is just); there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a “justifiable war tradition” within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.
The Vice of War: One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.
There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.
This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” The absence is further apparent in the finding of the study that
35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s…. This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (“partial PTSD”) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.
This high rate of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) a hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they have trained themselves for survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, sense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.
Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms; being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The following are characteristics of the berserk state:
beast-like, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.
Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are ironically deemed the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entails “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, an Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event. He had to be told what had happened, and when told, he became afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he had not.
What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent. Based on his work with Vietnam veterans, Shay concludes
that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to lifelong psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.
He explains that “more than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s…reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?
A new category is emerging that distinguishes a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war that is not thought to be identical with PTSD even though many of the symptoms are similar. “Moral injury” is distinguished from PTSD in that it is not induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to a change in the veteran’s state of being when he or she experiences a deep sense of having violated his or her own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies, or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensue even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with a never-erasable act he committed. Symptoms are similar to those of PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence.
The disturbing stories of combat veterans––not sleeping with spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and family; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces––reveal that there is an ascetics to war. Either through training received in the military to do violence or to prepare ones body for survival against constant threats of violence, or through its application in battle, war is the undoing of virtue through its negative impact on a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends, and strangers. From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the lifelong ruin of good character is not limited to the soul of the combat veteran but is embodied; character is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.
But what of theosis? On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in various monastic settings. Further confounding is the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms such as being surrounded by divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must leave the confines of the monastery and be normalized for all Christians in the world.
This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor, communion with God, an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be godlike should not conjure up images of Greek mythology––within the Greek patristic texts, if God is love, then human beings were created to love and this love is simultaneously a uniting of oneself with God since God is love.
In Maximos’ treatise on love, he discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues. For Maximos, virtue is not a building of character for character’s sake; having acquired virtue does not bring one to a state of being where one displays virtues like badges of honor; virtue is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love according to Maximos: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love,” and “all the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love.”
In naming the virtues, Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger. This particular definition of virtue illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends, and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, and depth—in short, love.
If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for acquiring the virtue of virtues, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “the purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice.” He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts.” Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice, that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends.” Vices produce, and are, such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Throughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.
Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’ discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations…. The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations.” He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions.” Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred.” For Maximos, detachment “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it becomes resistant to vice.” In terms of images that incite vice, this resistance is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.
The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but rather an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.
If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty––all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self for openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kind of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others. IC