taking the words of Jesus seriously

For nearly a century, anti-war sentiment has been a cultural force with which governments, religions, and economies have had to reckon. Christian pacifists have played important parts in these movements, confronting unjust regimes and the military-industrial complex. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the Vietnam War. Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement have protested every war America has waged. Catholic priests Phil and Dan Berrigan burned draft files and damaged military weapons. Christian Peacemaker Teams became human shields as bombs dropped on Baghdad in 2003, observed human rights violations in Columbia, and assisted in a successful, nonviolent direct action campaign against the U.S. military in Vieques Puerto Rico. Across ecclesial, racial, and gender divides, a growing cadre of Christian peacemakers have enacted the Bible’s vision of beating swords into ploughshares and foregoing the study of war. Their actions, and the efforts of other antiwar activists, have been essential for alerting the general public to the hidden and obvious costs of war to women, children, and to soldiers themselves. Nevertheless, there is at least one area where peace advocates have not given significant attention.

The effects of war on nonhuman animals are devastating and widespread. Yet the violence and cruelty these creatures face at the hands of military machines and the ways animals are used to fuel human conflict is rarely acknowledged by Christian peacemakers. For example, the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army, and the South Sudan’s military—armies trained by the U.S. military and supported with U.S. tax dollars—have been killing elephants for ivory. Guerilla armies also kill elephants. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army specifically targets elephants, using the ivory proceeds to buy weapons. Somalian Islamic militants routinely infiltrate Kenya to kill elephants in order to fund their budding extremist regimes. All this money helps fuel the ongoing wars in the region, which have claimed the lives of anywhere from 3 to 5 million people. Protecting the elephants, therefore, can help to slow the conflict by drying up funds for weapons.

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Even war’s human victims impact wildlife. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eastern Lowland Gorillas are at risk of extinction due to an influx of refugees in the gorillas’ homelands. The displaced human population has crowded the habitat and razed the forests to make themselves a safe-haven from militias, driving the gorillas to a smaller area in the higher ground. As their regular food supplies dry up, refugees forage and hunt wildlife. The total impact of militaries and refugees on the gorillas and other animals is dreadful. As recently as 1994, about 17, 000 Eastern Lowland Gorillas lived in the DRC. Today, only about 5, 000 remain, which is entirely due to the decades old conflicts in the eastern region of the Congo and western edges of Rwanda.

The effects of war on nonhuman animals also derive from the U.S. military’s actions. Before the Americans bombarded Baghdad in 2003, the Iraqis set up anti-aircraft weapons around the Baghdad Zoo. The U.S. military bombed the zoo, which caretakers had already abandoned. Hungry citizens ate some of the starving animals. Although U.S. troops subsequently tried to help the animals, they gunned down some of the large cats such as four escaped lions who refused to be caged. Authors Brian Vaughan and Niko Henrichon memorialized the lions’ story in a beautifully illustrated graphic novel titled Pride of Baghdad. Told from the lions’ perspective, the novel is one of the best anti-war tracts in recent decades.

The U.S. military not only kills animals in war, but also enlists them as war agents. For 5, 000 years armies have used horses in combat. By the end of World War I, nearly all of the U.S. military’s 100, 000 donkeys, mules, and horses had been killed. Today, soldiers use horses to navigate Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. Dogs have also been popular military agents. They served as pack animals in the Revolutionary War, helped kill rats in the trenches during WWI, and nearly 5, 000 dogs were part of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Program currently has 2, 700 Belgian Shepherds and other breeds trained to sniff out explosives and perform patrols. In one of the infamous photos of torture to emerge from Abu Ghraib, a soldier intimidated a cowering, naked man with a dog that had bitten the prisoner twice and stood inches from his face. Many of the surviving dogs in current conflicts return to the U.S. showing signs of post-traumatic stress.

The military uses many different kinds of animals. They employ dolphins to detect mines and sea lions to expose enemy divers. They are exploring ways to enlist bees as well. The University of Montana Bee Project is training bees to sense landmines, a skill the bees can learn quicker than dogs. Bees can also reveal poisonous air. In World War I, the military attempted to train bats to fly incendiary devices into Japanese cities. The experiment failed. The bats burned down a U.S. military hangar and a general’s car instead! In any case, it seems that all creatures great and small are potential military draftees. Modern war is total war.

The military also experiments on animals. Over 10, 000 animals are tortured and killed annually in combat trauma drills designed to simulate battlefield injuries. During this training, soldiers stab, shoot, and burn live goats and pigs. Leaked online video footage, obtained by animal rights groups, from 2012 exposed the horrors. Military personnel gleefully hacked off legs from live goats and disemboweled them as the goats struggled and shrieked. Military medics then try to perform patient-stabilizing procedures, after which they euthanize the animals.

The military also experiments on live animals to develop new weapons, bio-terrorism tactics, and to control disease. The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Maryland has conducted experiments to observe radiation’s effects. In one study, military researchers exposed nine rhesus monkeys to total body irradiation, killing the monkeys within hours. They did the same thing to 17 beagles. The final big “discovery” was that radiation harms the gallbladder. From 2005 to 2011, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense injected hundreds of vervet monkeys with a toxic chemical during student classes. Once injected, the monkeys had seizures and vomited. The experiment’s sole purpose was to show students the effects of nerve gas.

The military also runs “wound labs” in which researchers shoot nonhuman animals with a new weapon. For instance, in 2003, the United States Naval Board tested Pulsed Energy Projectiles, which would be used to quell riots and protests. The weapons produced “pain and temporary paralysis” in test animals, and are now considered a nonlethal weapon in the military’s arsenal.

In all of these ways—being killed, weaponized, and tested on—human war-making impacts nonhuman animals. Using these creatures makes the military a more efficient and ruthless killing machine and sometimes funds conflict.

We can change things. In 2011, the United States decided to stop injecting monkeys with nerve gas after animal rights groups vigorously protested. In January 2013, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which directs the military to find alternatives to using live animals in combat trauma training. Once again, animal advocates helped alter military practices. Unfortunately, in neither of these victories have pacifist Christians been voices for change.

Also by Andy: No National Anthem at Goshen College: Decision Reversed!

However, Christian pacifists and others should join in efforts to help all victims of human warfare. Torturing and killing innocent creatures only desensitizes people further from recoiling at bloodshed. God’s good and beautiful creatures deserve much better than to be used as target practice. And important work remains to be done to give them better. Though Obama signed a law aimed at ending vivisection in combat trauma drills, the law is an annual legislation, not a permanent change. So after 2013, the military could revert back to using nonhuman animals if pressure is not applied to keep the language. Moreover, without vigilant advocacy, it is not clear whether military personnel will actually comply with the law. Pacifist Christians can and should join other advocates in asking congressional representatives to support efforts to end the use of nonhuman animals in the military’s trauma training. It won’t make the military less effective at saving wounded soldiers nor make them less lethal, but at least innocent nonhuman creatures don’t have to needlessly suffer so America can make war.

In addition, Christians can help limit the conflicts in the Congo and other places by supporting groups that seek to protect elephants and other wildlife. Groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare help train law enforcement in the skills they need to accomplish effective inspections. Groups like Save the Elephants not only do local education but also work with governments to increase protective measures for the magnificent creatures. These are just a few of the groups to support. But first, we have to educate ourselves more broadly about how warfare harms all of creation.

Today we stand in the position of Noah, needing to preserve other creatures from the rising tide of human violence. Christian pacifists can also learn from Isaiah’s vision, in which humans not only put down their weapons and give up war, but participate in a creation-wide renewal in which our violence toward other creatures ceases as well.

Andy Alexis-Baker is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology and Theological Ethics at Marquette University. He has published numerous articles in academic journals, including The Scottish Journal of Theology, The Journal of Church and State, Biblical Interpretation, Mennonite Quarterly Review, and Journal of Early Christian Studies. He is the co-editor of John Howard Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Brazos, 2009) and Yoder’s forthcoming Theology of Missions (IVP Academic, 2013), as well as the co-general editor of the Peaceable Kingdom Series with Cascade Books, the second volume, A Faith Embracing All Creatures, was recently released.


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