The Common Good
March-April 1999

General Indictment

by Daniel Berrigan, David Cortright | March-April 1999

THE TIMING COULDN'T have been more awful. A murderous spasm was loosed on Baghdad a week before Christmas; Clinton and his captive coven of generals crowded the screen, lying up a lather.

THE TIMING COULDN'T have been more awful. A murderous spasm was loosed on Baghdad a week before Christmas; Clinton and his captive coven of generals crowded the screen, lying up a lather.

And lo, on the cover of the January-February 1999 issue of Sojourners, a general ("An Unexpected Calling")! Stars, stripes, epaulets, fruit salad—the works. And just so we get the message, the face is repeated inside, three times, the smile twice. One photo is disquieting; the background shows a flash of light and—can it be a cruise missile taking off?—atom-bomb-tipped? Is the picture included to strengthen our confidence? In any case, the general turns his back on (maybe) his own handiwork, to face the camera. And that smile! The last day, one thinks, will see it intact.

Gathered round the pulpit, where the religion of the general led in his youth to the famous "calling," let us not miss the choir. In the same issue of Sojourners, the general is in company with Howard Thurman and Dr. King; the message underscored, so to speak. How wonderfully inclusive we Christians are!

But wait a minute, save the applause; we have us an embarrassment here. Let us deconstruct. The cover general, Butler, for years had a finger on the Button of the End Time. And he had, as they put matters in psychobabbling pulpits, no problem with his "calling."

No wonder. His religion taught him something Sojourners seems in process of picking up on; nuclearism IS the official American religion. Trust in the gods of death for deliverance, for national survival, for the prospering of generals and international brigands on the spoor of big, very big bucks. Those cruise missiles over Baghdad; one million greens a throw!

The thing comes to this in my opinion—intemperate as it is, admittedly. For years the general guarded the Button of Apocalypse. I submit that during those years he was either insane, or he was indictable for war crimes, in accord with the Nuremburg Statutes.

If the former, he of course is unindictable today. But really, do we need to celebrate a medical recovery as though it was a major cosmic event in the Christian calendar? Why the cover of Sojourners, rather than the back page of say, the Journal of American Psychiatry?

And if the latter. If say, forensics were to pronounce the general sane from 1991 to 1994, when he was overseeing the Nuclear Egg that Almost Hatched, Butler would be in hot water indeed. There's an unpleasant matter of a Nuremburg Statute that says in effect, preparation of a war crime is itself a war crime. And "war crime" includes, embarrassingly enough, the famous "calling" of Butler; i.e. research and deployment of weapons of indiscriminate destruction.

In sum, I think the flag and the cross are in bloody contention in America today. I don't like the flag on the cover of Sojourners. I think moreover that Christians have a multitude of good folk, if we need models of emulation; and of course we do. We hesitate to name names, but we sure hope that Sojourners hasn't gone a tad amnesiac about our own communion of saints and heroes, in this world and elsewhere. Exclusive of generals, that is.

What a long list of grievances; I'm sorry. Please be sure, love makes for a long litany, at times a necessary grieving. I don't appreciate the guileless smile of a general; even a former general who, in effect, spent years, well paid and housed and honored (all that fruit!) in charge of murder most plausible.

When Sojourners talks with American generals, even (and so rarely) with a convert to sanity, the interviewer ought to distinguish due respect from undue awe. When you have met the heroes, here and elsewhere—including American Christians on trial, in jail, risking it all for the children and the air we breathe—why, the others are near beer.

David Cortright responds:

I'm disappointed by Dan Berrigan's criticisms. When someone like Lee Butler comes out against nuclear weapons, we should recognize this as a great success. It's a cause for celebration and thanksgiving, not recrimination. Are we so certain and self-righteous that we cannot accept those who may share our ultimate goals even if they have a different experience and have traveled a different road to get there? We should embrace those like Gen. Butler who have come out of the ranks of the military to join the cause of disarmament. We should encourage them and facilitate their continuing growth and development.

As Christians we believe in reconciliation and forgiveness. We welcome all into the grace of God and encourage all to join in the work of creating a more just and peaceful world. We will never realize the beloved community unless we have love and understanding for all people, including our adversaries. Through patient dialogue and a mutual openness to the truth, we can help people of conscience recognize the consequences of their actions and embrace the way of peace.

Lee Butler has made a miraculous journey from nuclear warrior to disarmament advocate. Let us affirm this wonderful transformation and give thanks to Sojourners for publishing a part of his story.

David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, conducted the interview with Gen. Butler.

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