Matt Gobush’s lecture at the Christianity & National Security Conference 2022.

Matt Gobush discusses Christian realism, moral injury, and the just war tradition. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Well, thank you, Mark for that kind intro and invitation. It’s a real privilege to be here. Uh, before I get started, let me just say that the views I expressed today are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer or even my Church. This is just me talking, a mere Christian. Um, but with that out of the way, I’d like to begin my talk with a trivia question. Can anybody name the three vice presidential candidates in the 1992 U.S. election? I’m dating myself here. Anybody? 

Um, incumbent Vice President Dan Quayle was one, my… my former boss Al Gore was the second. The third was Ross Pero’s running mate. You may not even know who Ross Pero was… Um, Admiral James Stockdale… has anyone heard of him? He was a great American, uh, Medal of Honor recipient, in fact. Not such a great candidate, though. Um, well at the… one vice presidential held that year, Admiral Stockdale opened his remarks with the most memorable lines of the night: “Who am I and why am I here?” The studio audience erupted in laughter as if to say in unison “we have no idea.” 

Well, I’m feeling a little bit like Admiral Stockdale at this conference. A bit out of place. Truly humbled to share the podium with so many good friends and minds. There’s probably never been such an impressive gathering of thinkers on Christianity and national security since Nigel Biggar dined alone. To paraphrase my book of common prayer, “I’m not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under they table.”  

So to answer the rhetorical questions Admiral Stockdale asked, and which you’re no doubt asking too, who am I and why am I here? My name is Matt Gobush, and I’m a contributing editor to Providence. I’m also practicing Episcopalian leading Anglo-Catholic. I’m not a professor or a minister and lack formal theological schooling of any kind, but like many of you I’m an avid student of the Christian just war tradition. Something that first caught my interest when I was a staffer at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration—apropos of my talk today, I currently serve on my Church’s National Standing Commission on World Mission. Our Commission advocates for, among others, military chaplains; an important and interesting ministry at the very intersection of God and country, Church and state, love and war. 

So that’s who I am and that is why… and this is why I’m here to share with you some of what I learned from that project I led for the commission, which Nigel Biggar and Eric Patterson and especially Marc LiVecche, who’s here helped with an initiative called… we called the Military Chaplains’ Just War Education Project. As the name implies, it was a project to equip military chaplains with a greater deeper understanding of the Christian just war tradition so that they can meet the spiritual needs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines of all ranks. Our project was premised on the belief that the just war tradition had something to offer service members trying to square their faith with their duty, their belief in God, with their job as war fighters. We premised the project also on the belief that ultimately just war thinking could help combat veterans who were suffering from what is known as moral injury. More on that later. 

It was a noble effort. We engaged and lifted up our chaplains and often overlooked ministry of the Church. We developed educational tools to help them, including a great video series. Nigel, Eric, Marc, and others were a part of… I personally believe they’re Oscar-worthy, perhaps in the prestigious best short documentary film on Christian ethics category. Good stuff. But I have to say, in my view our project fell short – not for lack of trying, but for lack of understanding. Rather than give our chaplains answers, we ended up just stirring up a lot of questions, and we could not answer the most pressing and wrenching question today for the study of just war and moral injury. 

To explain what I mean, let me share a story. Noah Pierce was from Sparta, Sparta Minnesota. On September 11, 2001, he was just 17 years old, but was eager to serve his country and begged his mom to let him enlist in the United States Army. He trained at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and served two tours in Iraq. In his first tour he was assigned a first battalion of first platoon Bravo, battery first battalion, third air defense artillery, driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle on the front lines and later conducting house-to-house searches in Baghdad on a second tour. He served in Bravo troop, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and was deployed to Balad, a stronghold for insurgents. He served honorably, was credited with several enemy kills, and was considered an excellent soldier.  

Back home in Sparta, Noah Pierce was a hero, but the letters Noah wrote his family from Iraq told a very different story. Here’s one: “What would you do if you were forced to clear buildings where they know there are enemy soldiers? You enter a room and you run into a soldier less than six inches from the end of your barrel,” he wrote his mom. “Plus he’s on his knees with his hands on his head, but you are scared out of your mind. Would you pull the trigger, say, shoot out of instinct? Then, after you realize what you did, is that considered murder?”  

Here’s another one Noah wrote about that night when he was up on a patrol in Baghdad and the turn of his Bradley when he saw a van speeding and heard shots fired: “I just grabbed my M16 and put it on three round bursts and led the tracers into the driver’s window. Right away the van stopped. I just finished the magazine. I watched it for a minute and someone ran around from the passenger side and dragged, I assumed the body, into the back seat. I can’t wait until I get out of here and I hope I never have to do something like that again.”  

Here’s another one from Noah to his mom: “Well, I had a really bad day mom. First, I told the… totaled an enemy’s car, but he did that on purpose. But then we had to go back out for a second mission and I ran over a little boy on accident. I was the last vehicle, and I ran him over on the left side so my crew didn’t see it. I told him later it must have been a dog. The kid was between 8 and 10 years old, only I feel really bad but I thought he would get out of my way.”  

When Noah returned home to civilian life, these killings haunted him. He had nightmares about the child he struck and kept a handwritten note in his wallet: “I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?” He couldn’t sleep. He drank heavily and was prone to violent outbursts. Noah’s Christian faith was shaken. Also, he told his stepfather that God was powerless against evil. He wrote poems like this one: “Two tours in Iraq. Was it right? Was it wrong? I don’t know. My anger destined me to hell. So many dead. So many killed. Now I question. God is a disbelief, or is it fear? Don’t want to die, don’t want to live, but should be dead. I’m already in hell. Two tours in Iraq.” 

Noah’s stepfather said it’s kind of like the devil followed him home and wouldn’t let him be, and the devil wouldn’t let him be on July 25th, 2007. Noah Pierce, age 25, soldier, war hero, put his 38 special to his right temple and pulled the trigger. On the floorboard of his truck, Noah left a suicide note. It read: “Time’s finally up. I’m not a good person. I’ve done bad things. I’ve taken live… lives, and not it’s time to take mine.” Noah’s story is not the only one of its kind, of course. 

Research done last year found that 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 died by their own hand, compared to just over 7,000 service members killed in combat in those… those same 20 years. In other words, military suicide rates are four times higher than KIAs. Shocking. The causes for this are complex. Many veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury which can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. Most suffer from PTSD. You’ve heard of that, and many of these, like Noah, suffered from a particular kind of PTSD known as moral injury. 

They feel profoundly, suicidally guilty for having done or condoned that which goes against their deeply held moral principles. It’s not their bodies or even their brains that are wounded. It’s their souls. Marc LiVecche, whom you’ve heard from yesterday and who is the preeminent scholar of moral injury today, can site research. Research showing a direct link between killing and combat and moral injury, and between moral injury and suicide.  

The tragic, heartbreaking fact that so many service members are resorting to suicide to relieve the overwhelming moral pain and anguish they suffer for their service to their country, for their service to each of us stands… is a challenge to all of us who call ourselves Christian. It stands as an acute challenge for all of us who call ourselves students and believers and advocates of Christian just war teaching. In fact, I’ve come to believe it stands as a fundamental challenge, potentially even a moral one of just war teaching itself. That was the conclusion drawn by Robert Meager in his 2014 book Killing from the Inside Out. He retells the story of Noah Pierce and seeks to answer the call of an ex-marine Captain, a friend of his who served in Iraq and who told him that the just war theory has to be taken down, has to be discredited. 

So long as we cling to the moral justification of our wars, we remain blind to the moral injury they inflict. Meager writes: “It is the Church’s teaching on just war that is killing us from the inside out by inflicting and ignoring moral injury,” he says. Meager’s understanding of just war teaching is deeply flawed. He equates just war to holy war, a means of glorifying violence, sanctifying murder. He asserts that “the revival of just war thinking over the last century is directly responsible for the wars we have fought and the moral injury they have caused.”  

I could not disagree more. But Meager does get something right. He pinpoints the problem with just war thinking. The problem that moral injury and the shocking number of suicides among veterans suffering from it force us to confront. The problem is sin. That’s right. Sin. 

For the Church project, I mentioned earlier we asked military chaplains a series of questions to assess their understanding of the just war tradition. These are all ordained ministers with formal seminary training, and many were steeped in the subject. Three of the questions we asked related to the morality of killing. I’d like to pose them to you. All three are true or false. Raise your hand if you believe the following statement to be true. 

First, all killing is morally evil. Raise your hand if you think that’s true. “All killing is morally evil.” Well, 86% of the chaplains we interviewed agree that that’s false that not all killing is morally evil. Here’s the second question: Killing another human being can sometimes be the right thing to do. Raise your hand if you believe that statement to be true, that sometimes killing another human being can sometimes be the right thing to do. 91% of the Episcopalian military chaplains we surveyed agree with you with the grief… with the majority of you that… that killing another human being can sometimes be the right thing to do. 

But here’s the last one, the kicker. To kill another human being for any reason is a sin. To kill another human being for any reason is a sin. Who believes that statement to be true? Interesting. On this question, views among the chaplains were split. 41% said killing is always a sin, 59% said killing was not necessarily a sin. It was the most divisive question we asked in the entire questionnaire. 41-59. So is to kill a sin, or not to sin? That’s the question. If killing is always a sin, then how can war be just? And if war cannot be just, then isn’t the just war tradition just a big lie? And a dangerous one at that? Adding moral insult to moral injury. 

The fathers of the Church approached that question directly, and did so creatively. In his Summa, Saint Aquinas discusses war and killing in the context of Christian charity, love of God, love of neighbor. He answered the question is it always sinful to wage war, and he answered that with a no by saying “leaders have a responsibility to take up the sword to protect a community in their care.” He goes so far as to say is it even… it can even be praiseworthy to kill in that context? But Reinhold Niebuhr, the patron saint of Christian realists, the patron saint of Providence, rejected all of that. 

He argued that it was very foolish to suggest that the ethic of Jesus, including non-violence, could be compromised. And he had choice words for Christians, Christian theologians that tried to justify war. “Feudal and pathetic,” he called them. Niebuhr believed war was often necessary, even imperative. He was certainly no pacifist, but killing in war was always sinful.  

Marc LiVecche also tackles this question in his good book, the Good Kill. I highly recommend it and I fully expect Marc to pay me for that endorsement. It is informed by his study of… an in-depth study of moral injury and develops the concept of moral bruising, which I understand to be a lesser wound soldiers suffer in their souls from killing without sinning. Marc argues that the just war tradition offers Kevlar for the soul to endure and heal moral bruising. But, with all due respect to my good friend Marc, I’m not altogether convinced. It may be sound theology, but I’m just not sure it works. From what have I… what I’ve heard from chaplains and when I’ve read from veterans, I wonder if the distinction between moral injury and moral bruising is one without a difference, at least for them. 

I tend to side with Neibuhr or better yet, with the sentiment expressed by President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. He said in that speech: “Finally, do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills this to continue, quote ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” But I don’t have the answers. It takes someone smarter and better than me to figure it all out. Someone that can devote a career, maybe even a lifetime to reading and studying and praying and most importantly listening to the leaders and soldiers and veterans. Maybe that someone is one of you, I hope so. I hope so because we desperately need it. We desperately need a working just war theory. 

Here’s where Meager and pacifists are “wrong, foolish, feudal, and pathetic,” to use Niebuhr’s words. We need a just war theory because man is sinful because the world is dangerous and because God is with us. President Barack Obama gave one of the greatest defenses of just war in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009. He was more generous to pacifists than I just was, but said this: “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life work, I’m living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know that there’s nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King, but as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”  

This is President Obama: “I face the world as it is, cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. Make no mistake, evil does exist, and a world of non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may be necessary is not a call to cynicism,” said Obama. President Obama. “It is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason. War in one form or another appeared with the first man. Over time the concept of just war emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met.” And finally, President Obama had said “I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the province of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require vision, hard work, and persistence. It will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of just peace.”  

We need a working just war theory. A world without it, one in which we exempt war from moral critique, is not just a more dangerous world, but a more sinful one. Our God is the Prince of Peace, but he is also the God of War. Use all that. His mercy and love know no bounds. War is not holy, not the reflection of Him, but nor is war hell. It’s not the absence of Him. We need a working just war theory and we need an answer to the paradox of moral injury. For Noah’s sake, we need a pastoral morality of war, a way of connecting the needs of our commanders to fulfill their duties, to morally discern the difference between right and wrong… wrong in war, and the needs of our military men and women to fulfill their duties in their lives and to survive their moral injuries. 

I plan to continue this work through the Commission on World Mission of the Episcopal Church, and like a true temporizing Anglican, I’m inclined to believe that the solution lies not just in revelation or reason but also in rite. That’s rite spelled “r-i-t-e.” The Elizabethan compromise helps settle the raging dispute between the English Catholics and Protestants centuries ago by uniting them in worship, in common prayer. We need an Elizabethan compromise on the question of war and sin, I believe, not just a theory. Liturgy. 

Long ago, Western Christendom had not only… had not only a theory of just war, but also a liturgy for moral injury, but a lot of that’s been forgotten. Have you ever heard of the Urban-Freid penitential? The sacraments for William the Conqueror, knights who fought in the Battle of Hastings in 166? Me neither. To find the sort of Christian worship service, we seek… we need to look East, to Russia of all places. Interestingly, the Orthodox Church has no mature concept of just war. Saint Augustine has no truck in Russia. One wonders if he did, if the Orthodox Church had a doctrine of just war. Could it have given Putin pause? But the Orthodox Church does have a rich living history of reconciling warfighters and recognizing their moral suffering through the Christian sacrament of penance. 

Saint Basel had this to say: “Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all. On the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety, perhaps though it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years on the grounds that their hands are not clean.” Saint Basel called for a sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, of reconciliation for all those that fight and kill in war. Now pardoning the pious may seem puzzling. Our juridical notion of sin, the idea that a sin is a crime against God, makes forgiving just war fighters hard to swallow, but I think that is just what they need.  

We may not believe that those suffering from moral injury for having killed in service to a just war have sinned and are in need of God’s mercy, but they do. As the note in Noah Pierce’s wallet said, I am so sorry. I am so sorry, can you forgive me? We need to find a synthesis between the West’s notion of just war and the East’s notion of forgiving… forgiving warfighters. We need, in effect, to bring Saint Augustine and Saint Basel together. Perhaps Orthodox… Orthodox. Ukraine’s war with Russia, today in partnership with the rest, provides an opening for a new ecumenical dialogue, bridging the schism and helping them and the U.S. strengthen their defense and heal their war wounds. That’s a dialogue worth having, in my view. But let me wrap up. 

Going back to Admiral Stockdale, and turning his questions on you. Who are you? Why are you here? Are you the future of Christian national security leaders that can help redeem the Church’s just war tradition? Can you help protect the United States against our enemies while helping men and women of your generation who fought in Afghanistan and in Iraq and beyond, and whose souls now suffer because of their service? Can you save our nation and save our Noahs? God willing, thank you. 


Sir, we have time for two short questions if there are any. 

Question: Nathan Moyes, Laturno University. Uh, I had a quick question since there’s a large number of students in here, and a number of us will be entering a variety of positions in government, possibly in Church and military. Where does this change begin? Because from the description, there’s a large role for the Church, but since there is a tradition of just war, since it’s a philosophy of just war, I can see this happening in other places. So where does it begin, and what should be unifying this movement towards a better understanding of just war?  

Answer: Where does it begin? It begins right here. And I… I hear what you’re saying in terms of the just war tradition. It goes back millennia, right? And I… you know, I’m no teacher, professor, or minister, and have been similarly kind of awed by the history, right? And how can we make a difference? But I’ve also been really touched by the stories of veterans and of service members that are suffering from moral injury and the chaplains that advise them. And I think they, um, and I think this is something. It’s not new. Moral injury goes back centuries, moral injury goes back as far if not farther than just war theory, right? There’s been books written. A great one, Achilles in Viet—um, yeah, Achilles in Vietnam, it’s called, by Jonathan Shea, who is one of the sort of founders of… of uh, thinking on… on moral injury.  

And so, people have been struggling with this for… for a long time and… but I think in, more recently in some ways because the changing nature of warfare, there’s a lot of soldiers that, thanks to the… the miracle of modern science and the ways in which wars are fought, are spared um, life-ending, um, injuries or… or loss of limb, but… but come home nonetheless shattered. So there’s a… there’s a real contention of… right now in many respects too, a lot of these young men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the moral injury part doesn’t hit them on the battlefield. It hits them back at home years later, right? Years later. And so in many respects it’s… it’s a ticking time bomb. 

I mean, we have veterans now that are struggling and need help and you can help them now, and we can help them now. And part of that is, I do think, through study. Through listening. Through support. Through understanding. And… and like I said in my… in my remarks, I think it’s… it’s worship too. I think that’s part of the answer and that’s… that’s something we can do. Now, is there a final question? 

Question: Hi. I’m Sarah Crosby at Patrick Henry College. I was wondering if you think that part of the problem is equating an action that might be right to being therefore morally good? And do you think that we should be focusing more on, like you said, Saint Basel’s view of pardon and penance while not preaching that those actions are therefore morally evil? 

Answer: Great question. I think what you’re touching on, it’s hard for me to answer that and partly because, I think I… My framework is sort of that juridical one of sin, right? That idea that it’s like a crime. Different, but sort of like that, right? That it’s a crime against God or it’s a crime against your neighbor. A moral crime of some kind that we as individuals are responsible for and have to answer for and ultimately be judged for. That framework, though, is different I think that the Orthodox view in some regards of sin or what others have… have sort of, from what I gather, kind of hypothesize, which is seen as more like a disease. And we all have it, right? We all suffer from it. It’s… it’s a condition of the human. It’s… it requires sort of treatment if that… if that makes sense.  

So… So in terms of distinguishing between what is right and what is good and what is sinful and what is criminal, it kind of takes a different… if you see it through that lens, I think you… you might find the answer but I… But I don’t know. I… I, you know, that’s when I can’t answer. I don’t really know. Thank you.  

Matt, thanks.