Vietnam was a hard war to come home from. My dad was told to change into civilian clothes as soon as possible after the flight home in order to avoid some of the abuse that returning Vietnam veterans were put through by an ungrateful public. He went on with his life, never mentioning to anyone the fact that he had spent a year overseas in the army. In the mid 1980’s he saw an announcement and invitation for a special dinner for Vietnam veterans, hosted by the Vietnamese refugee population in the state where we lived. Immediately he was skeptical and didn’t want to attend, thinking that there must be some sort of deception involved, but my mom insisted that he go and take the whole family with him. Attending that dinner was an intense emotional experience for him, as he had been home from the war for over a decade and this was the first time anyone had thanked him for serving. Because of this I make it a point to thank all of the veterans who come to my clinic.
There is a long tradition of military service in my family. Sylvanus Sanderson fought in the American Revolution. Henry Sanderson marched in the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican-American War. My great-grandpa George Sanderson fought in World War I, and his son Ivan served in World War II. My dad served in Vietnam. All of these veterans in my family were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the exception of Sylvanus, who died around the time the Church was organized (and before photography was widely available).
What Do We Believe About Military Service?
Latter-day Saints are a peaceful people, but we are not necessarily pacifist. The Bible and the Book of Mormon both provide many examples of righteous men and prophets who went to war, and contain many inspiring stories of soldiers and armies calling upon God for help and strength against their enemies. The prophet Mormon, who compiled most of the Book of Mormon, was a military commander. As he wrote the history of his people it is clear that his own hero from the story was Captain Moroni, who had led the armies of his nation about 400 years before Mormon lived. No other mortal in the book is praised as highly as Captain Moroni.
But how could a man of war be a man of God? Here was their reasoning:
“Now the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary; yea, and they were also taught never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives.
“And this was their faith, that by so doing God would prosper them in the land, or in other words, if they were faithful in keeping the commandments of God that he would prosper them in the land; yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger;
“And also, that God would make it known unto them whither they should go to defend themselves against their enemies, and by so doing, the Lord would deliver them; and this was the faith of Moroni, and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity” (Alma 48:14-16).
War is hell, and saints have little desire to go there. But when war is required to save the lives and preserve the liberty and peace of ourselves and our families, then war is justified. This is essentially the population-level manifestation of the inherent human right of individual self-defense. For instance, I recently read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. Although I knew that the Nazis were famously bad before I read the book, I found myself shocked to read about how terribly evil they actually were. If ever there was a war which had to be fought and won for the sake of everything good in the world, it was that one.
Gone to Flowers, Every One
I acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about the application of these principles to specific conflicts. Even people who serve in wars often have mixed feelings about their service, and this is particularly true of Vietnam veterans. My dad would often play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” on his guitar while everyone in the family sang along. This is one of the most famous anti-war folk songs in American history, and I love that song because it is a part of my happy childhood memories. The song speaks of the human cost of war, which must never be forgotten. Freedom isn’t free, as they say. This burden is borne by the soldiers who come home with PTSD or missing limbs, or who are spat upon and abused by anti-war protestors. For soldiers who don’t come home it is borne by their families. Politicians will argue forever over the size of the defense budget, but the human cost of war is truly incalculable.
You Are Worth It
I have the privilege of providing medical care to many military veterans. At the end of one visit with a Marine Corps veteran, he thanked me for spending so much time listening to him.
“You are worth it,” I said, which is my standard reply when patients thank me for my time.
He persisted. “You have spent a lot of time with me today, more than any other doctor I have met with.”
“Well, you spent a lot of time defending my liberty,” I said, raising my voice a little bit to keep from choking up, “and I am grateful for that.” I only spent an hour listening to this soldier, but he put his life on the line for years, for me. “You are worth it,” I said again, feeling it this time.
Today on Veterans Day I give my thanks to God that I live in a land of peace and freedom, with a Constitution based on “just and holy principles.” I also give my thanks to the brave soldiers who have served and sacrificed so much to give me these blessings. To those free men and women who have stood “between their loved home and the war’s desolation,” I say, God bless you!