What most people don’t know about law school is that learning the rules is secondary to learning how to “think like a lawyer” by spotting issues and analyzing them. If you are given a set of facts in a law school exam, and you can spot the issues, and you can analyze both sides of each issue, you can conclude your essay with “What is the answer? Hell if I know!” And you can get an A .

Spotting issues and searching for implicit assumptions comes naturally to me.  Sometimes people find it annoying. But I recommend it as a way of looking.  It is appropriate to do so on Anzac Day, which is like  Memorial Day, only for Australia and New Zealand. 

I am awed by what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” given by the fallen soldiers whose lives were taken from them in war. But I will never stop wondering whether it was necessary for any one of them, let alone all of them, to be killed.

Like most families, my Mom, Dad, Sister and I would go to the movies for entertainment. And one evening, we went to see the movie Gallipoli, about the tragic battle that is now remembered as Anzac Day. Like most everyone who has seen the movie or knows the story, we were awed by the bravery of the young men who died, and we were deeply troubled by the senselessness of their deaths. Here was a case where these courageous young men clearly did not have to die. I came out of that movie angry and upset. But I wasn’t just angry at the senselessness of their deaths, I was angry at the movie makers. They had done their job far too well. Why would they so perfectly make such a horrible movie? How could this terrible experience be “entertainment”? Sure, they could justify it by saying that they made it to ensure that history would never repeat itself, that we could all learn from Gallipoli about the futility of war. But these movie makers who might have rationalized it in this way, didn’t make the movie for free. They made it for money, and to advance their careers, and because the job of an artist is to move the viewer and because of the craft itself, the process of making the movie, that is their passion. And it made me doubt the glorification of death, no matter how noble the cause or how artfully the message is crafted. And I think about how we are all entertained by murder, in computer games, in novels, in countless movies and television shows that explore all the nuances of killing. And I wonder how poisonous this is  and why it has become in many ways, our primary form of entertainment. There are no public hangings in the town square anymore, but turn on the tv and you can explore the subject of killing and retribution in endless detail.

The ideas and imagery of media that vividly portray death, courage and nobility side by wide are deeply troubling to me, because they serve to justify, even elevate as an ideal, the notion that killing is not merely necessary, but noble.

So let’s deal with an issue that we tend to avoid when we honor our fallen soldiers. It wasn’t their deaths that achieved the goals of their leaders and their nations.  We didn’t send those young men onto the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy to die. They didn’t storm the beaches carrying only cameras, bibles, poems and good bye letters to their beloved. They stormed those beaches with guns. They were sent there to fight like hell and to kill the enemy. Being dead, they wouldn’t be of any further use, so it was their duty to stay alive so that the enemy could be killed. As hard as it may be to say, the full measure of our soldiers’ devotion, living and dead, was to kill, bravely, courageously and for a noble cause. For a cause more important than their lives. For ideals like freedom, justice, security. After all, this is so deeply accepted that we take these truths as self evident. Freedom isn’t free. We must kill to ensure the survival of these noble ideals, right? It’s the ‘shot heard round the world’. It’s how we justify not just the deaths in the Revolutionary War, at Gettysburg, Normandy, and the other battlefields. It’s how we justify firebombing 100,000 civilians in Dresden. It’s how we justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And yet, even Al Qaida justifies 9/11 as a righteous act in furtherance of noble ideals.

Every Memorial Day, we reassure ourselves that our fallen soldiers, and all of the innocents who were killed, did not die in vain, because the noble ideals for which the war was fought, have not only endured, but prevailed. We implicitly believe that the noble ideals would have been forever lost, but for the wars.

Please forgive me, I can’t help but spot an issue with that point. And I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I can’t think of a more important issue for we the living to confront and consider. Was a single one of those deaths necessary?

If not a single Aussie or Kiwi had died at Gallipoli, would the world now be worse off? Did more than 50,000 young people, on our side alone, have to die in Vietnam? Would we be less free, less secure, even have less oil, if none of our soldiers had died in Iraq or Afghanistan? Did all the deaths in World Wars One and Two have to happen to secure the blessings with which we were endowed by our creator? We rush to assure ourselves that it is the case. We are convinced that, but for the Civil War, our cherished values would not have long endured. But we do so, in part because it is too horrible to even conceive that perhaps it is not the case. Is it possible that they died in vain, or worse, that we blew it and, but for all those deaths, there might have been more life, more liberty, more opportunity for happiness for more people?

It is, of course an unanswerable question because we have but one history, the one that happened. And as confidently as we can assure ourselves of the righteousness of the killing done in the name of our noble ideals, none of us will ever know with certainty what would have happened had we, in every case, done what Jesus would have done, what Gandhi would have done, what Martin Luther King would have done?

All three of them were killed, and all three achieved at least part of their goals. But were even their deaths necessary? Would there be more racism if the killer’s bullet had missed King and he had lived a long life? Would India never have become a democracy if Gandhi had not been martyred but had died of, say, a snake bite while walking in the forest?

Is it possible that we would have enjoyed the blessings of even greater life, liberty and opportunity for happiness if  no war had ever been fought? You can speculate all you want and rush to assure yourself that some or even every killing was necessary and righteous to insure the blessings we now have, especially the killing of Jesus. After all, that is an essential tenet of Christianity. He died for our sins. We would all be condemned but for his death and resurrection.

Being a lawyer, I can’t help but think like one when analyzing the bible. So let’s start with two basic rules, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. The first rule is thou shall not kill. (from the Ten Commandments). The second is you must not commit violence to protect life or liberty, even if the life and liberty is that of Jesus (from the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he forbade his followers to use violence to defend him from arrest).

Now I’m no biblical scholar, but let’s enter a realm of interpretation, where judges  decide whether to apply certain rules to fact specific cases. Some judges are strict constructionists who accept only explicit exceptions to the rules. Then there are the activist judges who, when they don’t find an explicit exception, will apply reasoning and interpret principles in the new context to reach a conclusion not specifically covered by the rules. The strict constructionist could find some fairly explicit exceptions. It’s ok, for example, to kill fish (after all,  Jesus killed fish or at least showed others how to do so).

Then you get into the more activist interpretations. Jesus overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, so at least a mild form of vandalism or civil disobedience is justified. Or you might conclude that the Garden of Gethsemane story only applied to Jesus. Don’t fight for his life or liberty because he had to die in order to save the rest of us. But it is ok for us to commit violence to protect our life and liberty. The activist judge might say that he finds authority for that in Revelations, in which another guy, hundreds of years after Jesus, had some visions of a great battle where Jesus comes back, fights and conquers evil, using violence. The strict constructionist might counter that Jesus never explicitly stated any exceptions. To the contrary, he said “blessed are the peacemakers” and “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

So it’s a difficult sort of justification for the activist judge to disregard Jesus’ explicit words and conduct, and to side instead with the visions of the guy from Revelations, who’s words made it into the bible because other guys, hundreds of years later, decided that they belonged in there along with Jesus’ own words and conduct. The activist judge might cite precedent from the Old Testament where some prophets advocated killing. They might seek a way to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies between the Old and New Testament.

And that is what modern Christians have done. We have sided with the activist judges. We have interpreted the bible to justify killing to protect life, and liberty. Unlike the early Christian martyrs, we will fight against being thrown to the lions.

And we have found other exceptions to the rule. We have justified killing to keep states from seceding from our nation. We have justified killing as punishment and retribution for unauthorized killings. We have justified killing in self defense. We have justified killing to keep the Europeans out of Central and South America. We have justified killing to change the leaders of other countries, who’s policies we abhorred. We have justified killing the Native Americans to get them out of the way of our manifest destiny. We have justified killing innocents in Dresden and Hiroshima to terrorize their leaders into submission. We have justified killing in the middle east to stop a possibility of future danger to us. Or, if you are more blunt, we have justified killing to insure our supply of oil. We have justified all these exceptions to the rule because without them, we believe, we would have been robbed of our lives, liberty and opportunity for happiness.

I don’t even remember how the deaths of those young men at Gallipoli were justified. But apparently Australia and New Zealand could not long survive if they didn’t send their best young men half way around the world to Gallipoli to, despite the certainty of their own deaths, try to kill Turks.

I bow my head in awe at the courage and commitment of our fallen soldiers. As Lincoln said, no words can consecrate the ground on which they fell as they did with that last full measure of their devotion. My heart breaks for all who were killed and I’m awed by their heroism.

But did anyone have to kill or die?  Have we failed because we did not have faith in Jesus’ own words and deeds – never to kill, not even for life or liberty? If we had trusted and honored that message, would the world be a better place right now? Would our creator have granted our prayers to restore, in those darkest of times, that which was endowed to us as a birthright?

Jesus said “All these things I do, ye shall do and even greater?” What did he mean? Are we of too little faith? Should we be asking for forgiveness for all the killings, or were we justified?

Hell if I know.