Response to “What Was It Like?”

by John M. Frame

[This article was published in New Horizons 10.5 (May, 1989), 2-3, and is used by permission.]


My thanks to the editor of New Horizons for the opportunity to read and respond to “Edward Mann’s” moving and troubling discussion of his Vietnam war experiences. I fear that any written response by someone who wasn’t there will seem trivial by comparison to the article. Still, the article demands a response from all of us. So perhaps I can, as a representative reader with some background in the study of ethics, begin for us the process of reflection, a process which, I hope, will in time penetrate far deeper into the issues than will be done in the following remarks.

First, I fear that Mann’s question, “Why, Lord?” may never be answered. I recall Prof. Meredith Kline in his seminary lectures stressing that Job never did find out why he was afflicted. The reader knows more than Job did; we know about the prologue in heaven, about Satan’s desire to test Job. But even that doesn’t answer the “why” question; for we then want to know why God acceded to Satan’s request, indeed why Satan was allowed to speak with God at all. We may get answers to such questions in the next life, but I’m not sure even of that. Scripture promises believers in Christ an eternity of fellowship with God, but not answers to all our questions.

Of course, we can sometimes look back at our lives and see meaning in experiences that once seemed purposeless. We can sometimes see that God was teaching us such-and-such a lesson, or that he was making evil work for good in such-and-such a way. I believe that one good result of Mann’s experience is that he has returned to share with us so much about the blackness of sin and the compounding of evil by technology and ideology. But after all is said and done, much remains mysterious.

Beyond trying to answer the big “why” question, we should also try to understand other levels of anguish expressed by Mann and by other Vietnam veterans:

(1) The agony of having to administer death or pain to others, even when those others do not individually deserve it, indeed the necessity of killing them in order to stay alive. That is a reality of warfare in our fallen world. Since I don’t believe that pacifism is biblical, I know of no alternative other than asking God to help us live with this tragedy.

(2) The necessity of doing things that we hate. Again, as long as we judge that God’s word requires capital punishment and government defense of freedom, this anguish will be with us. In some situations, hard as it may be to understand, God tells us to repress our feelings of pity that we may love his justice (Deut. 7:16, 19:13, etc.).

(3) Doubts about the justice of our nation’s cause. Mann and I may disagree about the justice of U. S. participation in the Vietnam conflict. But I do grieve that there were no legal provisions for those who conscientiously objected to that particular war.

(4) The anguish of going out to fight each day in a war where resources were inadequate to accomplish victory. Mann does not mention this problem, but many others have.

(5) The sheer terror of the situation, leaving lifetime scars upon the mind and heart.

Mann has told us, I believe, what many veterans would like to say to us. He challenges us to think about the ethics of war and to love those living and dead who are among its victims. God’s word would also challenge us to respond to such tragic situations with the gospel of Christ. When some people informed Jesus of two disasters, he denied that those killed were more sinful than anyone else. He denied, that is, the common easy answer to the “why” question (without, indeed, providing any alternative answer!). But he pointed out to all the greatest issue of life and death: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish,” Luke 13:5. The good news to those afflicted with tragedy is that Jesus has died so that we might repent of sin and spend eternity rejoicing in his love. If accounts of tragedy from brothers like Mann can lead people to face their need to repent and to embrace the good news, we will have made some progress toward understanding the “why?”

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