Reflections On War and the Military: “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways”

I share two sonnets below, “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament,” both from my collection “Sonnets for the Struggle for Peace, Justice and the Care of the Creation.”  I am publishing them here to follow up a facebook exchange that you can see below about the recent use of F-35 war jets to honor medical workers treating coronavirus patients.  This is a long introduction, so if you are more interested in the sonnets, skip to the end of this page.

Many reasonable people disagree with my feelings about war planes overhead and about militarism and modern warfare.  Some of those people are in my family and among my friends, and I respect them.  Their reasonableness and wonderfulness as people does not change my position, but it makes me want to explain myself.

Why I Live Where I Live

I need to start with some relevant details of my spiritual autobiography to make clear where I am coming from.

I grew up in Appalachian Ohio.

I love hills, woods and fields and the small town way of life.

I turned out to be a poet, pastor, contemplative and environmentalist.

I was born with chemical and conventional allergies from a chemical exposure my mother had when I was in utero.  I was allergic to virtually everything—76 out of 77 tests.

For all these reasons I was never completely comfortable in cities and suburbs although I felt both a social and economic pull in that direction.  The world and my peers seemed to say that it was important for me to live there, that only in large population centers would my life have meaning.  My physical and spiritual health suffered, and in my late 20s I made the difficult and then joyous decision to return to my natural habitat, this time in Vermont.

I sought a quiet corner of a quiet town and made my home there.  My health improved.  I was able to get off allergy medicine for the first time in my life.

A Quiet Life

At first I homesteaded and served as a director of environmental and agricultural nonprofits.  Then I made a mid-career shift to become a pastor of small Vermont churches.  Twenty years ago I started writing a poem every day, mostly sonnets, and mostly on my daily walk in the woods and fields around my home.  I have meditated usually twice a day for forty-five years and taught the Christian contemplative tradition for twenty-five.

Cars go by only a few times a day.  My life is quiet, so I notice when heavy equipment is operating within earshot.

The worst are the days when war jets hold training exercises overhead.  Even my old dog would look up at the sky with a worried expression.  It’s a disturbance of the peace and to me it’s a spiritual challenge.

It doesn’t seem right—just as we provide quiet cars on trains, shouldn’t a society preserve peaceful natural places where people can live, as well as distant wildernesses we can visit?

I would be grumbling about an occasional annoyance and I would be hypocritical in my objection to military training (if we want military protection, we have to allow for training; if we allow for training, we need to accept the consequences overhead) if there were not more to it.

Just War Theory

I studied my spiritual tradition’s position on war after 9/11 when many of us questioned whether invading Afghanistan and then Iraq was the appropriate response to terrorism.

The Just War Theory was a compromise position that began evolving not long after Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  It was designed to allow the powerful and wealthy to wage wars while still (theoretically) restraining the worst of war’s atrocities.

Just War Theory was a compromise because the first three hundred years of the Christian church held unanimously to the absolute position that violence violated the core of Christ’s teachings and Christian ethics.  War is incompatible with the realm of God on earth, which is based on universal oneness, compassion, love of neighbor as our own self (including neighbors who are declared enemies) and the Golden Rule which says that you don’t kill someone else’s family or destroy someone else’s home if you would not want those done to you.

I explored the compromise Just War position and held discussions in several churches in 2001 and 2002 and I arrived at another absolute.  Modern weaponry and warfare cannot possibly be justified by Just War criteria.  They are absolutely unethical even by the church’s compromise position, as well as by the core teachings of Christ.

There are two categories of criteria in Just War Theory, first, the reasons to go to war and second, the way war is conducted.  A reason to go to war must have, among other things, appropriate proportionality, meaning that the harm of warfare must be less than the good that will be gained.  The ways that war must be conducted include:

  • war must be directed toward enemy combatants and not non-combatants;
  • any harm caused to civilians or their property should not be intended and should not be excessive;
  • the weapons used must not be inherently evil—evil defined by the mass destruction and death they cause (especially weapons that cannot be narrowly controlled in their targeting or limited in their effects, like biological or nuclear weapons).

The church groups I spoke with comprised people of diverse political perspectives. It was clear to them all that modern weapons and warfare cannot possibly meet Just War criteria due to:

  • the enormous suffering and slaughter of civilians, including children, in every modern war;
  • the intended or collateral destruction of infrastructure like electricity and water necessary for human survival;
  • the massive destruction and the inability to limit their effects sufficiently of even conventional weapons.

The only ethical and rational choice left is that war be abolished.  

I turned from Just War to study alternatives to war, returning to the church’s original position of nonviolence.  The last two decades have produced analyses of the effectiveness of nonviolence, and the world has seen dramatic successes of nonviolence, but it was enough for me in the early 2000s to look at the philosophy and actions of Gandhi and the nonviolent American Civil Rights movement.

I became convinced that war could and should be abolished and nations should sign a treaty to invest their military budgets partly on training all children and adults in living nonviolently and resolving personal and public differences by nonviolent means, and partly in providing well-being and justice for all people.  These two investments could lead to lasting peace more effectively and far less harmfully than war, and the economic benefits would be huge.

The Military and Climate

So would the environmental benefits.  The military itself recognizes that one of the greatest threats to world stability and peace is the rapidly intensifying climate crisis.

And yet the military is one of the greatest source of climate-changing emissions thanks to weapons like the F-35 fighter jet.

Wars create even more climate impacts—the most dramatic instance being the oil fields burning in the first Iraq war, but every explosion contributes its share.

The ultimate collateral damage of modern warfare is all life on earth, and no nation will survive, no matter how extensive its military prowess, if we fail to stop our assault on the climate and ecosystems immediately.

The facebook posting

All this was behind my May 22nd facebook posting.  I expected some violent verbal responses to it, and I am so grateful and moved by two old friends from high school who had reasons to disagree strongly but proved themselves still as kind and good-hearted as I knew them to be then.

I of course appreciate those who agreed with me, but the only hope our society has for solving its massive environmental and social problems is a nonviolent civility that allows us to be one people and walk together even when we disagree.

To see the entire facebook exchange click “See More” and then click the comment icon with the number 11.

Two Related Poems

The sonnets below were written years ago and years apart.  They show some of my day to day struggle with military jets overhead and what I made of it on two of those days.  In “Training Flights” I realized I needed to find a place of inner peace where I could stand to help create a better world, and in “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament” I struggled with grief over the damaged and almost lost ways of peace.

Training Flights

Training Flights

Warplanes are roaring overhead again,
much sharper edged than thunder.  They destroy
the very things we buy them to defend—
the peace that we need quiet to enjoy,
the health that needs clean air to fill our breath,
the land that needs the earth’s stability
or else all lands become the realm of death.
The toxins that they spew leave nothing free,
nothing except this moment’s choice of heart.
Will I let war defeat me?  Will I fear
or rage or fight?  Or will I stand apart
and seek a deeper peace, and share it here?
Small as I am, I cannot beat their noise
except with deathless love’s defiant joys.


Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament

Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament

Between the dying beech trees I stretch rope.
Beneath their last brave buds this too warm day
I hang washed clothes.  We fight despair with hope—
too late perhaps, too far along death’s way.
Its paved roads brought the blight that kills these trees
and brought the toxic heat of greed’s exhaust
that we bask in while dying by degrees.
Horse-drawn woods roads I walk are almost lost.
I clip my old style wooden pins on cloth.
War gods are roaring high in soiled blue sky,
my pax romantic sacked by Visigoth
of fighter pilots learning how to fly.
For days now, all day, sonic shocks explode
hope’s last brave buds that still could bless our road.

copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder


One thought on “Reflections On War and the Military: “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways”

  1. Ah, Tom, thanks so much for these compelling sonnets… esp liked “clip old style wooden pins on cloth… my pax romantic sacked by visigoth… of fighter pilots” – there’s a line that sticks; sounds like a Frost line, but we’ll have to call it a Kinder line!


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