Reflections on War Through My Father's Eyes

A Veterans Day Sermon
Paint Branch UU Church
Barbara Wells, co-minister
November 9, 2003


I grew up in the home of a minister and my life and ministry has been shaped by the fact that my father was a clergyman. Though he has been dead over 15 years, I still find myself acknowledging the many ways we are alike in this, our shared profession. We both love the power and music of the spoken word. We both feel the presence of holiness in all of life. We both do the "pulpit rock," though in different ways. I am the kind of minister I am today at least in part because of the modeling my father gave me.

But in some ways, we are very different. He was a male of his generation. He grew up in the segregated Deep South. He had another career before ministry. And most important for our topic today, he was a veteran, having served in the Air Force for nearly a decade as a Judge Advocate - the military term for a lawyer.

Today we celebrate Veteran's Day, and as someone who has never been in the military, I have always struggled with how to speak of war and peace on this significant occasion. So, I decided to invite my father into this service, and to share some of his story and perspective on issues of war and peace. While he can't be here in person, I imagine his spirit is with us.

I know he would want me to start our worship with words that always meant a lot to him, as a man who loved the Bible and believed we shouldn’t sacrifice its wisdom to those who have narrow beliefs about its meaning. And so I offer you these words from the Prophet Isaiah, to open our service today.

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. And God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Hymn #293: O Star of Truth


Our first reading comes from The Life History of a Star, written by author and playwright Kelly Eason. The book is written in the form of a diary of a young girl who is 14 years old. The year is 1973. In this short reading, she is remembering her brother David, who went to Vietnam as a soldier and comes home wounded in both body and spirit.

Life History of a Star by Kelly Eason, pp. 62-62

Musical Meditation: The Cruel War is Raging

Our second reading comes from The People vs. Presidential War, a book my father, John Murrell Wells, edited in 1970. This selection comes from an essay he wrote about why he got involved in his legal battle opposing the Vietnam War.

The People vs. Presidential War by John M. Wells, pp.8-9

Hymn #121: We'll Build a Land

SERMON: Reflections on War Through My Father's Eyes

"Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace, like an ever-flowing stream."

My father did not live long enough to hear the hymns in our new hymnal, but I know he would have liked Carolyn McDade's re-casting of words from the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah. John Wells had a profound belief in the power of the human spirit to create peace and justice, and lived his whole life as if peace and justice were not only possible, but also inevitable.

Like some of you here this morning, my father was a child during the depression and came of age during the Second World War. Born in 1927 to a well-educated Atlanta family, he entered college at the age of 16, in 1943, expecting that he would finish in time to immediately go into officers training, as other family members had done. His older brother Frank was on a PT boat in the Pacific and saw fighting there. His cousin Jere, a pilot, was shot down over Europe and died there. But, the war was over by the time my father turned 18, so instead of going directly into the military, as he expected, he went instead to law school to become an attorney and married my mother in 1949.

My father loved his country. He was an American through and through, and though he was proud of his Southern heritage and knew everything there was to know about the Civil War, he was more interested in the founding of our nation, in particular the creation of that amazing document we call the U.S. Constitution. In law school, he became more and more fascinated by the intricacy and simplicity of this piece of paper that created a nation.

Proud of his American heritage, it was just a small step for him to decide to serve his country in the military. In the early 1950s he became a judge advocate in the Air Force, and in that capacity spent time based in Morocco, traveling all over the Middle East and Europe trying cases. He loved the work. He loved being a part of something he felt was important. But it was during this time in the military that he began to see some of the cracks in his beloved nation.

The military had only recently been integrated, and my father, a Southerner, was challenged to look at his own racism in the face of a rapidly changing world. His superior officer in the Air Force was Chappie James, who was once the highest-ranking black officer in the nation. Chappie could fly my Dad to Georgia and give him orders. But he could not enter the hospital where my grandmother lay dying in Atlanta because he was black. It rankled my father, and it changed him. He was proud of the military for being willing to do the hard work of integration, but distressed at the lack of change he saw in the civilian world.

Around 1956, my father almost left the military to practice law in the same town in Georgia where my uncle was a doctor. But he just couldn't live in the Deep South anymore. His social conscience had been awakened during his years in Morocco, and he chose instead to stay in the military, working for the Department of Defense. He traveled all over the country helping states find ways to make it easier for soldiers serving around the world to vote in American elections.

My father believed very strongly in democracy, and it concerned him that so many GI's were deprived of their voting rights simply because, while serving their country, they could not get to their polling place. From 1957 to1961 my father was the only attorney working in the Federal Voting Assistance program. He helped to develop a postcard absentee ballot process for GIs and their families and continued to grow in his knowledge and understanding of constitutional rights at both the federal and state levels.

John Wells left the Air Force in 1961, but not because he was unhappy with his work or the military itself. He wanted to be a minister, and he could no longer deny the call. But even while he was in seminary and serving his first church in Virginia, the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church, he continued to work for the Department of Defense as a consultant. I remember as a child going to visit him at the Pentagon (something I would not be able to do today) and how much he liked it there (despite his tendency to wear baby blue suits and bounce super balls down the long corridors).

I tell you this long preamble about my father because I think it is important to understand that there have always been liberal, justice seeking people who love their country and are not ashamed to serve it. I know that there are at least some among us here who are either veterans or currently serving in the military in some fashion. If this is true for you, if you are a veteran or currently serving in the military, would you please raise your hand? I honor and thank you, as my father would.

In 1968, my family moved to Lexington, MA where my father was called to serve the historic First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist. I was eight years old and the world was a very scary place. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed and only a few months later Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging and protests were being held all over the country. Richard Nixon was elected president and liberals like my parents were dismayed.

The church in Lexington, like so many New England churches, was pretty traditional. My father liked that about it in some ways, for it reminded him of the past, particularly the beginnings of our nation's history, which had literally happened right outside our front door on the green in Lexington. He was moved by the sacrifice the Lexington minutemen had made in 1775. He knew that their fight for liberty was a worthwhile one, like the fight that had taken place in the 1940s against Hitler and other fascist regimes. My father was not naïve, nor was he a pacifist. But he was, in 1968, deeply worried and concerned.

Why—he kept asking himself, his parishioners, and his elected representatives—were we in Vietnam? He took the time to study Vietnamese history, and learned that the Vietnamese had resisted occupation not simply for generations but for centuries. He came to believe that this war was not one we could win, nor was it worth fighting. More important, he began to question the legality of the war. As a student of the constitution, he believed that only Congress had the right to declare war, as they had done in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The war in Vietnam was never declared. It was, as the title of his book proclaimed, a presidential war, and in his view, that made it illegal. He already knew in his soul that the war was immoral. Determining its illegality was, for him, the natural next step.

What my father did between the years of 1968 and 1970 still seems pretty amazing to me. Along with a young state legislator named Jim Shea, my father introduced a bill into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that made it legal for GIs to sue the Federal government for sending them to an undeclared war. It was audacious and unprecedented. Yet it was, in so many ways, just the kind of thing my father would do.

As much as he appreciated the anti-war movement, he believed in the idea of the United States of America, and he wanted to use the greatest strength of our nation, our constitution, to make a difference. And as much as he understood those who burned their draft cards or went into exile in Canada, he had great compassion and affection for the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. He got to know enough of them and hear their stories that he felt he understood a bit of the horrors that they had seen and participated in. Despite some of the awful things these young men were called upon to do in war, my father never believed they were the bad guys. He really could hate the war without hating the warriors. His bill in Massachusetts was always called the Shea-Wells bill but he wanted to call it the GI rights bill.

He wanted the soldiers fighting in Vietnam to know that someone cared enough to work for their rights in order to bring them home.

The bill, amazingly, passed in the Massachusetts legislature, and the Governor signed it into law. It was shot down later in the Federal Supreme Court but I like to think it caused a few people who governed our nation to wonder about the power given to presidents to wage war. The constitution may make the president Commander-in-Chief but it rests with Congress to declare war. In fact, no war has been declared in this country since the Second World War—Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War were all undeclared wars.

Perhaps you know where I'm headed here. This year, we went to war in Iraq and once again congress rolled over and gave the president the power to wage it. Our elected congress people, the ones we give the power of our vote to represent us in a democracy, did not follow the constitution. Rather than having a debate on the merits of this war in Iraq, and a vote to make a declaration of war, our troops were sent into battle at the will of one man. My father must be rolling over in his grave.

I realize that the Vietnam War (undeclared) and the Iraq War (also undeclared) are different battles that happened in different eras. In Vietnam, the conflict and the United State's role in it crept up on Americans over many years. In Iraq, we knew almost to the day when the war would start. Many of the American soldiers in Vietnam were drafted, unlike the all-volunteer military in Iraq today. And, certainly, the issues of why we fought in Vietnam are different from the reasons we are fighting in Iraq. In the 1960s, it was anti-communism, and the fear of the "domino effect" that kept us there. In Iraq, it is terrorism, and the huge impact rogue nations have on our world's safety.

Yet, there are similarities to Vietnam that we forget at our peril. During the Vietnam War era, the Gulf of Tonkin incident (that escalated the fighting and turned it into a real war) was very likely false and the leaders of our government surely lied to the American people. Similarly, in Iraq we were told there were weapons of mass destruction. Yet, none have been found. Also, the people who live in Iraq and Vietnam are both profoundly different in their world view from Americans, particularly European Americans. And, as was the case in Vietnam, the president and his team are always trying to put a positive spin on awful circumstances.

In Vietnam, for example, even as it was becoming clearer that the war was un-winnable, Nixon's White House continued to speak to the country about "peace with honor" and "the light at the end of the tunnel" (from Patriots, by Christian G. Appy). This past Thursday, President Bush gave a speech that was full of hopeful imagery, speaking of the situation in Iraq and the Middle East in this way: "We've reached now another great turning point—and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement."

While this attitude may spring from Bush's deep-seated beliefs and commitment to our presence in Iraq, it is, in many people's views, hugely unrealistic. Marina Ottaway, co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that Bush's "portrayal of what's going on in Arab countries is totally unrealistic. The reality that he is overlooking is that in all these countries that are supposedly making progress, hostility to the United States is at an all-time high" (Washington Post, 11/07/03).

Many people believed when we invaded Iraq, that we would be safer and the world more free. No one (with the exception of certain Iraqis) misses the dictator Saddam Hussein, but can we honestly say our world is safer today than it was a year ago? Can we look at the situation in Iraq and truly believe that soon it will function as a Western style democracy, spreading seeds of freedom all over the Middle East?

Can we really think that our continued occupation of this Islamic, Arabic country will make Moslems and Arabs think all Americans are just dandy? What we are doing in Iraq, like what we did in Vietnam, is, in my opinion, immoral and illegal. And it breaks my heart that this nation that my father loved so much continues to make choices that go against all I was taught by my parents to hold dear—the precepts of democracy and the vision of a just and peaceful world.

I don't know for sure what my father would say today about our role in Iraq, but I can imagine. Like many liberals, I think he would recognize that we can't just cut and run. That since we did illegally wage war on a people and occupy their country, we can't just abandon them without help and support.

I think he would tell us to remember the hard lives the soldiers who are in Iraq are leading, and mourn for the killed and wounded. I also think he would challenge us to remember the dead and wounded Iraqis and mourn for them as well. I think he would tell us to be more involved in our democracy and elect people who will work in partnership with other nations to build, as our Unitarian Universalist principles state, "a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all."

And I think he would inquire of us, in his thick southern drawl, "Are we citizens or are we subjects?" And then he would remind us that it is not only the soldiers and the politicians who are patriots. America belongs to all of us. And then he would say, "Let us commit ourselves to the ideals of our democracy and get involved and make a difference."

Tuesday is Veteran's Day and I know on that day thousands, maybe millions of Americans will stop for a moment to pray and remember those who went to war in our name. If my father were alive, he would likely lead a service of memory, and stand up proudly and sing (off-pitch) to The Star Spangled Banner. And then he would go to Congress and lobby our representatives to do their duty. He would march in protest against war even as he saluted the flag of the nation he loved.

And he might even go to Iraq, to see for himself what is happening there. In 1972, he went to Vietnam, illegally, to meet the "enemy" so he might better know the truth. He came home convinced that it is not our nation's job to force others to be like us. Instead, he believed that the more America could model the principles of democracy, the more nations would see that democracy is a powerfully good way to live.

Veterans Day is a time to honor those who serve our country in the armed forces. Today, I acknowledge the sacrifices veterans have made and do make for this country that I, too, cherish. But I pray that someday we will learn that war is always a failure of the human spirit, and find better ways to make the world a safer and more humane place than fighting.

On this Veterans Day, though my father cannot be here in the flesh, I thank him for walking beside me in spirit. May the dreams he taught me to believe in, the dreams of a nation at peace with other nations, "where justice rolls down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream," someday come true.


Since the beginning of human history, cruel wars have raged and young men and women have gone into battle against someone they are taught to call "enemy."

On this Veteran's Day, I honor the courage of those who have had to fight, but pray that some day all wars will cease and that no one will be called enemy anymore.

May we, as we reflect on war and peace today, remember the ideals of our democracy, and commit ourselves to being citizens, not subjects.

May we pray that someday the words of the prophets will come true, and swords will be beaten into plowshares, and justice shall roll down like waters and peace like a mighty stream.

And may we, as we go forth this day, be true to the words we sing each week and let the stirrings of compassion sing in our hearts for all those who suffer because we go to war.

Hymn #123: Spirit of Life

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