Guarding Our Humanity–Even In a Time of War

In his classical work on masculine spirituality, Iron John, Robert Bly notes how our contemporary society no longer provides the necessary rituals to help reintegrate warriors after a war. Unlike the ancient societies, which presented a series of complex rituals to help their soldiers make a transition to their former lives, today’s warriors have no means of making such a psychological transition to a normal life.[1]

In some cultures, a group of women would bare their breasts at the soldier to awaken their sense of compassion. Ritual washings in a pool of warm water often served to symbolize the renewal of the person; it helped the soldier get in touch with his essential humanity.  But for today’s soldiers, there are no parades honoring the soldiers’ return from the battlefront. Nor do beautiful maidens throw golden applies to the soldiers as they celebrate their return.

Is it any wonder, argues Bly, why so many Vietnam war veterans committed suicide after they arrived home? Is it any wonder why so many veterans became homeless? Bly’s arguments speak with a great deal of force. I have personally worked with the traumatized soldiers who return, who often complain about the inner demons they face.

When we study the rituals of war in the Torah, we also discover the purification rites that enabled individuals who became spiritually and ceremonially defiled in battle, and how they eventually became purified and spiritually renewed (cf. Num. 19 ff.). Interestingly, even before going to the battlefield, soldiers had to donate half shekel. The biblical writer notes, “When you take a census of the Israelites who are to be registered, each one, as he is enrolled, shall give the LORD a forfeit for his life, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered” (Exod. 30:12).

The verse suggests that a soul needs atonement whenever one goes out to war. Every enemy soldier has a family and wears many hats other than that of a soldier. The ritual of the half shekel reminded soldiers that killing a human being is wrong unless one is doing so in self-defense. Reasons for such a rite are obvious. War brutalizes a people. Once one sees an enemy soldier as an enemy, killing becomes permitted.

But how can the act of killing not brutalize a soul–especially a sensitive soul? Even the Nazis realized that they could not command their soldiers to kill Jews as fellow human beings; but they could command them to kill the Jews “because they were not human–but were like vermin.”

There is a very moving passage in the Book of Jeremiah  that provides an answer to this perplexing moral question:

“And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not; for, behold, I am bringing evil upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your soul as a prize of war in all places to which you may go” (Jer. 45:5). In some ways, this prophetic text serves to clarify the passage in Exodus 30:12. There is something profound in this passage. When we are engaged in a conflict such as a war, or for that manner – any kind of conflict – we must be careful not to let our soul be tainted or diminished. If you are fighting for something that is dear to you, then be careful to guard your soul,  i.e. don’t let yourself sink to a level where you forget your humanity.

Remember, even an enemy soldier is not some faceless entity; always be careful even in a time of conflict never to lose your humanity.

Sometimes the hardest battles we fight are not on the physical battlefield, but on the emotional battlefield of life. When people are faced with unemployment, or professional adversaries, or personal ordeals with the people we have once loved, the struggle to hold on to our soul becomes challenging and difficult–and full of pitfalls. Singer Carole King’s song, “Just Call Out My Name,” has a stanza that really speaks on many levels about this theme:

Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend
When people can be so cold
They’ll hurt you, yes, and desert you
And take your soul if you let them
Oh, but don’t you let them



[1] Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (New York: Da Capo Press, 2004), 197.

One thought on “Guarding Our Humanity–Even In a Time of War

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    A good thing to remember as young men (and this time young women, too) come home from unpopular wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. Thanks for your service, men and women.

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