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Caitlin Kennell Kim
Mary
Fr. Rick Malloy, SJ
General Questions
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP
Ecumenical, Interfaith
Neela Kale
Culture, Moral Theology
Ann Naffziger, M.A., M.Div.
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Our readers asked:

Will Soldiers Go to Hell if They Kill Someone?

Neela Kale Answers:

Q: Soldiers in war are technically killing other sons and daughters of God in an effort to protect our country. Will this affect their fate on Judgment Day? Is it wrong to thank them upon their return home even though they’ve sinned?

Never hesitate to thank a returning soldier for his or her service to our country. (Thank you, veterans!) Military service cannot be reduced to any single act, and these returning veterans and their families need all the support they can get in response to their sacrifice and generosity. It is not your job to examine their consciences. Many of these men and women return home struggling with the psychological and spiritual consequences of their actions in the line of duty; they need to address these issues with the help of qualified counselors and spiritual advisors.

That said, your question raises an important issue for our collective conscience as a society, which bears the responsibility for sending its sons and daughters to war. People of all times and place have wrestled with war’s destructive effects. Is war ever justified? Is a particular act of war justified? Is military action acceptable only in self-defense? How about action to protect defenseless peoples elsewhere in the world? Or preemptive action against an impending threat? And, of course, moving from the abstract to the horrific, complex, bloody reality of our time and place: How do we assess recent U.S. military intervention in the Middle East? These questions are better confronted in our civic discourse, rather than in the interactions we have with individual veterans upon their return home. Christian witnessing for peace can be powerful, but should not come at the expense of the individual men and women who bear the cost — in their bodies and in their souls — of the devastation of war.

 
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The Author : Neela Kale
Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Puff the Magic dragon

    Suzanne. When a foreign army is marching down your street, you will be very happy that all those who signed up to knowingly become part of the killing machine that will kill the invaders. Soldiers do not join so they can go and kill people. They join to protect their nation and their fellow citizens from foreign attack. And sometimes other countries ask for help when they are being overrun by aggressors.

    • Mitchell

      A just war, that’s what you’re getting at. Well, my dear Augustinian acolyte, consider this – There is no just war, there is just war. They are all the same.

  • Marc Tumeinski

    Perhaps we are better to start from the reality of the Church and of discipleship, rather than from civic society. To borrow from the writings of John Howard Yoder, the question is more about calling than just war theory. Can we as Christians truthfully say that Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord of heaven and earth, would call one of His disciples to kill a human being?

    • רםנקרא כרשטקר

      God has called men to war on more than one occasion

      • Mitchell

        Or Satan?

  • Suzanne

    Aside from the fact that military recruits knowingly become part of a killing machine (making their lethal acts murder to me because the previous intent is there), the military perpetuates a destructive nation-state mentality rather than the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind.

    For constructive Catholic pacifism, check out
    http://www.paxchristi.net/international/eng/index.php and http://www.paxchristiusa.org

  • Joe O’Donnell

    The original question is mute. No one knows if anyone goes to hell. Scripture teaches that God loves us all, and that His Son came to redeem ALL. We can argue if I person can refuse God’s love — for me that woulds be hell — but that’s as far as we can go.
    As for the Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman, Coast Guard person, who serves and is involved imminently or remotely in deadly combat, believe me (and I’ve been there), no one can judge that person except his/her own conscience before God. We have a right to defend ourselves, and others who cannot defend themselves. Whether or not a specific war (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) is moral to begin with, depends on the morality of those civilians at the head of government who make such decisions. Let’s face it. There have been many poor and immoral decisions in recent history. God bless our service members. Welcome Home!

    • David

      On judgment day I don’t think the excuse “I was simply following orders” is going to convince God that slaughtering his other children was acceptable.

      • רםנקרא כרשטקר

        Yes it will because they were fallowing the laws of man

      • DrumminD21311

        Gay marriage is legal in many states, so since those that marry within their sex are following the law, are they therefore free of sin? I don’t buy your logic.

      • George Frayer

        I am seriousely begining to wish I never saw this article because of how much ignorance is on it, people like you guys make people not want to attend church

      • Stella

        Dear George, we go to church for Jesus and not because of men. Don’t let these guys be your deciding factor. God loves you.

      • Mitchell

        And so paradise contains all who sinned in order to comply with “the laws of man?” Really? So, Romans who killed Christians who would not sacrifice to the imperial cult are now chilling with the big guy? They got a pass on immorality because the boss said so? Jeez, I need a new job.

  • max432

    Many years ago, I stood on a parade ground and listened to a slightly unhinged, and yet completely honest, speech by our battalion commander, something to the effect of: “–Soldiers, lately I’ve been thinking about things, and the truth of the matter is, no matter what you do in the military, whether you are a cook or a medic or a truck-driver or an intelligence analyst, the bottom-line is that everything we do comes down to one key mission, which we must never lose sight of: breaking things and killing people. I want all of you to remember this, always– this is what we are, this is what we do, this is our duty: breaking things and killing people!” And of course, he was correct, if slightly manic (given that in the previous month’s battalion formation he had been telling us how the recent spate of suicides on our installation, had been the most emotionally crushing experience of his life and military career– and now here he was, a scant three weeks later, preaching a fundamental embrace of something that looked awfully like nihilism. But an honest nihilism, you have to admit). I’d venture that the truth of the matter is that “–to be a soldier” in the abstract, vocational sense, is neither moral nor immoral: the soldier is, by legal definition, an AMORAL actor, required to unquestioningly follow his or her orders (with a few potential and dramatic exceptions) without considering to what degree those orders are strategically wise or ethically sound. Putting myself back into the head-space of a soldier, was it strategically wise or ethically sound to invade Iraq? No and no. Could a soldier ask himself/herself that question, as an ethically empowered individual, and act accordingly? Absolutely not. Will soldiers go to hell for having participated in an “unjust” war? Arguably, they have already been in hell, and “hell” will of course follow them home. Do they “deserve” to go to this hell? Well, on some level, a solider willingly placed himself/herself in this position– on a fundamental level we all agreed that we would sacrifice our moral autonomy, that we would follow orders and kill whomever we were put in a position to kill–and that’s a pretty terrible thing for an individual– by which I mean, it’s a terrible burden on an individual’s soul, and I suppose it’s something that every soldier will have to work out for themselves, and on some level atone for. As for all of this talk of “good intentions” and “protecting America” and “honor” and so on, that’s pretty much just the blanket that a soldier wraps himself up in, to protect his fundamental psyche from the horror and the burden of what he’s chosen– which is only natural. But no, I don’t think that civilians have any right to wrap themselves up in that blanket, and anytime I hear a civilian yammering away about our “heroes in uniform” I pretty much just wish they would shut their trap; if you want to help or honor a soldier, for God’s sake, speak up for their interests (because as soldiers they cannot always speak-up for themselves), keep them from being sent into ill-considered, pointless, damaging wars, and make certain they are taken care of when they come home– don’t ask if they are going to hell, simply understand that they’ve been to hell and that they’ll need your help to escape that hell or at least make peace with it.

    • Mitchell

      An amoral actor. Interesting. I assume the German soldiers strung up and shot in 1945 and after were also amoral actors? Maybe I’ll allow someone else to dictate my actions for me so that I can become an amoral actor, too. Oh, the places I’ll bomb, the people I’ll kill!

  • Zeb

    Jonathan I’m just saying it is a job like anyother, except the employer, the US military, due to it’s history, its aims, and its philosophy, is more morally dubious than most employers. The employees, the soldiers, should be regarded like any other employees of other organizations and their lethal acts should be regarded with as high a burden of justification as lethal acts by employees of other organizations. I’ll thank the soldiers who are doing definitely positive things, like the Navy commander I recently met who worked on securing the coastal waters of Cameroon and developing potable water for the population. I will say that there should be a big question mark over the morality of joining a military that very clearly in both theory and in practice rejects Catholic just war teaching. I am a little more skeptical than you of some of the particular actions you mentioned (none of which were declared wars anyway and so not necessarily benefiting from the extra tolerance of killing the we have for just wars), but even more so it is the way America fights wars, just or unjust.

  • Puff the Magic dragon

    Having said that: I don’t know if you have mentioned this but the better translation of the commandment from the original or even the greek is more: Thou shall not commit MURDER- not thou shall not kill.

    Murder is defined as the killing of an innocent. The killing of the enemy in the case of war is not considered murder. It is war. The legitimacy of the war rests on the shoulders of those who declare the action. If the killing is done according to the articles of war then the deaths are not war. If the articles of war are broken then it is murder.

    If a soldier kills an enemy soldier while pitching battle then the deaths are not murder. If on the other hand, say a soldier kills the enemy under a white flag of truce, then yes that is murder.

    At least IMHO

  • Jonathan

    So, your argument is more socio-political than religious?

    If so, do note that I agree with much that you have to say, especially about citizens being those who have traditionally protected our freedoms. However, I would say that “military service” is just that, service. Granted, the prime purpose of any military is to “defend against enemies both foreign and domestic”. But, they are also building communities, and that is an even more traditional role. Ancient Rome, for example, wasn’t built by slaves alone. In fact, it was mostly built by soldiers. On the Roman frontier, nearly everything was built by the army, and so it is today. When the military goes into an area, regardless of whether their presence there is just, they rebuild what they broke.

    As to the last 40 years, I have to agree with you that most American military actions since WWII have not been necessary or just, with exceptions for Bosnia/Kosovo, the Gulf War and Afghanistan. Bosnia/Kosovo and the Gulf War were necessary to end a humanitarian crisis, namely ethnic cleansing, and Afghanistan was to remove the collaborators and supporters of an organization that attacked on the American homeland from power and influence. That being said, after our success in that venture had been met, we should have remained an expeditionary force that simply maintained their lack of power and supported the Afghan people in whatever they want to do, including balkanization, with provisos ensuring peace in the region. As it is we are simply delaying a new Bosnian conflict from arising. But I digress.

    I agree with much of what you have to say, and can see your point on certain arguments, but, must respectfully disagree with your argument that our veterans don’t deserve our thanks (though they maybe don’t deserve such adulation). They are providing a service to our nation on par with our Congress, Justices, President, and civil activists, as none can exist without the others.

  • Zeb

    I just see no reason to thank a returning veteran, as Ms. Kale advises. I have many friends and family who have served in the military, and literally everyone of them joined as a career move or for education benefits. That makes them mercenaries, by definition. I can’t judge them, we all make our choices, but I see no reason to thank them. And I wouldn’t call it “serving their country.” How does any American military action in the last 40 years serve America? They are serving their employer, which is an organization that mostly does massive killing and destruction for reasons that are dubious at best. I think the shower of blind and extravagant approval that our culture rains on soldiers is extremely harmful, both in propping up a militaristic culture that causes massive harm around the world for the sake of massive profits for a handful of super rich people, and it seduces millions of young people to put their lives and their souls at risk for mediocre financial rewards. There are times when military force really is required to defend life and liberty, but those occasions have always been met by volunteers of non-professional soldiers who join just for the duration of a specific threat. The undending global military actions which depend on a standing military of career opportunists is a different thing altogether. We should be encouraging young military age people to be highly skeptical of what our government does with it’s soldiers and its arms, and to be very reluctant to offer their lives and threaten the lives of other people around the world by serving the military. And we should be encouraging people who are soldiers to be very skeptical of the orders they get and ready to insubordinate when a conscientious discernment tells them the orders are wrong, and we should be thanking and praising and supporting the soldiers who have insubordinated or deserted because of the unjust wars and immoral orders. As for my freedoms, I thank the domestic activists who have resisted government intrusion and control because that’s where our freedoms come from, not from soldiers killing foreign soldiers. Soldiers establish national sovereignty (and empire these days), but citizens establish civil rights.

  • Jonathan

    Before I begin, thank you to all the veterans and their spouses on this board. I have not had the privelege to serve because of physical handicap, but I am the son and brother of a family that has faithfully served since at least WWI, and continues to serve. So, once again, thank you.

    That being said, the Church teaching on this subject is nearly non-existant, in terms of giving a direct yes/no answer. But, careful analysis of the Catechism lends itself to the idea that 1.) Christ and human reason call us to avoid war at all costs, and 2.) if war is the one and only practical solution to the problem after all other efforts have been exhausted, it must be executed justly using what are, in essence, the precepts and principles of Just War Doctrine.

    As such, the CCC says that, “[2312]…’The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.’

    [2313] Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.

    [2314]‘Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.’”

    In short, our soldiers are morally obligated to understand that only combatants themselves are subject to the rules of war (i.e. if you plan to shoot me, I can shoot you first), that innocents, the wounded (of both sides), and prisoners are to be treated well, as brothers and sisters in God the Creator, and that, although it wasn’t the soldier’s personal intent to cause harm, blind obedience is no excuse.

    This is a hard row to hoe, and it is meant to be, but we must all strive to be as the seeds sown in the field so that we may grow and produce a good yield for God. The Church encourages prayer for soldiers, that they are able to discern when their orders are just and when they are not, regardless of any worldly law, including the UCMJ, for US forces, and to pray for our leaders to be able to discern when it is just for us to enter into war and to not employ deterrance by accumulation of arms. I fully endorse her teaching, but I think our prayers must go beyond simply asking that they are able to discern moral orders or just wars, but that they are able, and have the wisdom, to listen to God and carry out His will.

    As a final comment, in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, the character Rev. John Hale says, “…Religion is a fortress.” I agree with this, but I would amend it to “Morality is a fortress.” Despite what we moderns want to believe, following the philosophies of Kant and Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a subjective morality that can hold. The rule for applying morality should be thus: if you have to justify an action, it shouldn’t be done. If it doesn’t advance God’s mission of compassion and peace, it shouldn’t be done.

  • Maggie Garavaglia

    Jack,

    In comparison to the Nazis, the U.S. ( and other nations as well ) WERE “kind, empathetic, and humane”. The world stage did NOT prosecute the common German soldier based on the fact that they were taking orders from the Nazis, and not creating the “final solution” themselves. German immigration was not halted into the U.S. even with prior Nazi affiliations, and I do not recall any Nazis that were prosecuted being turned into slave labor, tortured, and than cremated in ovens.

    The Catholic Church itself has faced charges that it collaborated with the Nazis. I go back to my earlier comparison.( Getting in bed with the devil to do some good ) In its silence about some things, it was saving lives on other fronts. Do I place judgement on this fact ? No I do not. Hence my kind, empathetic, and humane comment. I have no idea how I would behave in the face of evil, and tyranny, particularly if I am responsible for not only my life, but the lives of others. So truthfully ? Who am I to judge ?

    My husband is a medic. His purpose in his service is to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. He himself has said if an enemy or even a civilian would deter him from that mission he would have no choice but to first halt them, and then if need be kill them. Sounds harsh on face value doesn’t it ? The simply fact of the matter is War is harsh ( just or not ) and to make decisions like that is enough wear, and tear on the soul without judgement coming from people who have never been in that position. I am not trying to be mean, or hateful here, just plainly spoken. Yes… We all want to “smite” our enemy. But our R.O.E.s are set into play so that our humanity stays reasonably intact as well.

    I would suggest any who think that the U.S. military are simply “killing” machines, delve into our R.O.E.s, as well as our history of how we have dealt with our enemies, BEFORE, and AFTER our wars. You might have second thoughts about such “judgement”

    Thanks :)

  • Stacy

    I agree with everything in the post. But is the answer to the question yes, no, or we don’t know.

    The military main purpose is to protect not to kill. There are many times when the miliary used different methods to protect than to kill such as tear gas.

  • Sandy Otto

    By far most of the men and women I know from the military and veteran’s community are very honorable. Ideally, they act as a deterrent rather than to kill. If evil forces know that well trained individuals are willing to fight their deeds, they may think twice. When aggressors are intent on harming others, our military stand in the way. Saying that we pay them so we shouldn’t thank them ignores the fact that their pay is very low; many military families qualify for food stamps. The people we elect make the decisions about who and where to fight, not the soldiers. It is easy for us to decry something unjust from a comfortable safe environment when the danger is past and when we may not have all the information. A soldier never has all the information and trusts leaders that should have it. Look at nations without a strong military and compare thier lifestyle with the one you enjoy.

  • Mitch

    I think you’ll find, if you would consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that in a just war, soldiers are not committing sin by defending their country. Perhaps a reading of the CCC would set your mind at rest on this issue.2307 through 2317 discuss this, with 2310 reading “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and maintenance of peace.” The passage cited Gaudam et Spes Zeb–you should spend a little more time studying the catechism, and history.

    • Mitchell

      A bunch of tripe that goes back at least to Augustine, and likely into classical philosophy. I feel that Christians should base such decisions on the teachings of their namesake, Christ, not some late antique philosopher. Show me where Jesus defends the practice of “just war.”

  • Jack

    I’m glad the U.S. military was not “kind, empathetic, and humane” to the Nazis during WWII. Millions more would have died in gas chambers and the entire would probably now be under dictatorship.

  • Maggie Garavaglia

    Adam

    I would respectfully have to disagree with you. I base this in large part to the very oath every U.S. soldier is required to take to become a soldier. The “purpose” of a soldier is to “protect, and serve” to protect the people from enemies “foreign, and domestic” and to serve the people. Just as presidential “service” requires you get in bed with the devil to do some good. (Truman’s words not mine)armed “services” require you get in bed with the devil to do some good. It is in THIS that the moral question lies, NOT whether soldiers are sinning, but whether they are keeping company with such, and THAT Sir is a question we can all ask ourselves, NOT just soldiers. The Bible also says by what mete you measure a man, you shall also be measured by the same mete. For the sake of my own soul, I prefer my measuring stick to be kind, empathetic, and humane.

  • Joey

    I usually tend not to get involved in discussions of morality, especially concerning the military, but I have to say something here. To Zeb and Adam, the next time you freely post something on a website without any repercussions because of your freedom of speech, you might want to thank a soldier. Yes, soldiers inevitably have to kill when they go to war. Do you think the people on the other side would not do the same? They are there protecting the freedoms we have always had. Yes, there have been unjustified wars, in my opinion, and there will probably be more in the future. Any person joining the military has to know that they could eventually go to war, and possibly have to kill someone. To say the military exists solely to kill people is just ignorant. It exists to protect our freedoms and the freedoms of those who cannot protect themselves. Sadly, lives get lost in the process. If the world could exist in ultimate peace, I would prefer that of course. But until that day, I am happy to have men and women willing to risk their lives to stand up for what they believe in and protect the rights and freedoms of Americans.

    • Mitchell

      Ah, the old lie – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – since the US claims to treasure some sort of liberty, you claim that all its military excursions are in defence of that liberty. Tell me, was liberty being served when your GIs were shooting up villagers in My Lai? Perhaps when they went to war with their neighbours, British North America and Mexico, they were fighting for liberty. They must have certainly been protecting liberty as they pushed Native Americans out of their ancestral homelands. Or, just maybe, they were all a bunch of ignorant mercenaries who wanted to kill the people they hated. To me, soldiers are the destroyers of freedom, not its guardians. Ask anyone who’s lived under a military junta just how much soldiers love liberty.

  • Adam

    Maggie, I think you are right that very few soldiers seem to have malicious intent when they join the military and very few are bloodthirsty killers.

    However, I think Zeb makes a good point as well. The military’s purpose is to kill people. For different causes, and different reasons sure, but at the end of the day the military exists to kill people. Individuals thinking about joining the military need to keep that reality in mind.

    The military is not a place to get money for college, or job skills, even though that is typically how it is portrayed in commercials.

  • Maggie Garavaglia

    While I agree in part with the Author’s statements here, and believe the civic side of this fence is just as prevalent as the religious side, I will also say this. When answering such questions as this I personally have decided to go to the source so to speak, the people that first wrote down the commandments such as “Thou shall not kill”… The Jewish Community Here is what I have found so far that they have to say about this, and keep in mind the word “murder” factors strongly in it. ( not just simply kill ) The authors I have read write ( and due to a hard time finding it again honestly lol I can not give the site ) that the term in Hebrew references “Blood debt” , defining the difference between “killing” and “murder” Murder, according to Jewish writings requires “malice of forethought” (using our modern legal terms) Malice of forethought is ( simply put ) EVIL INTENT. Now… based on that I KNOW no U.S. soldier, who has went to war, went with EVIL INTENTIONS. Am I some huge authority on this subject ? No… BUT I am the wife of a U.S.soldier, and KNOW hundreds ( possibly thousands ) more. NONE of them expressed in even the smallest ways EVIL INTENTIONS. So…. That is how I personally answer the question titling this article, and my answer is NO they will not go to hell. :)

    • Mitchell

      How wonderfully naïve of you. I would love to see your proof of this “fact” of yours that no soldier has gone anywhere with evil intentions or said anything about having evil intents. I do believe that one of these heroes of yours was recently sentenced to life in prison for killing a family and raping a young girl. How about that? Evil enough? If not, let’s try again – My Lai? Evil? Then, the atomic bombing of Japanese cities? That count in your tally? The fact is that one needs to search for examples of soldiers who did not commit evil acts, history is so replete with their crimes. With regards to your expressions of evil intent, I’ve heard soldiers laugh about ragheads and faggots, and declare their excitement about the prospect of killing someone. It sure sounded evil to me. So yeah, I’m pretty sure they’ve reserved a cozy spot down there as soon as they’ve applied the ol’ John Hancock.

  • Zeb

    Why should we thank people for joining an organization with a history of horrific unjustified massive destruction, and for pursuing undeniably unjust wars just because they were ordered and paid to do so?

    • Cliff

      I totally agree, I am a former soldier who has killed on more than one occasion. the guilt is unbearable. Seeing what you have done to another human being is disgusting. You try to help… you try stop the bleeding as you watch there life slip away. There is nothing glorious about it. You cant justify it when you so covered in blood that you feet swish in you boots that have pools of blood in them. I could excuse my actions for a number of reasons, namely if i hadn’t someone else would have died, but no matter how i try to excuse it, my actions were permanent and lasting. Though I doubt you have ever been in such a situation. there for I do not not see you as fit to judge me. One day i will be judged and I can only hope i have found redemption for my sins.

      • Mitchell

        Probably should have cracked open a book or taken a class on philosophy or history or religion or anything at all before deciding that you were going to take a job killing people. It could have spared you your tragic guilt and another his tragic death.

      • Rob Rock

        “Probably should have cracked open a book..” Oh that really helps. Yeah, you really understand what he’s going through.

    • Rob Rock

      Because you wouldn’t be alive today since they saved the world in the teens and the forties. America wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t exist. How ignorant one must be to realize you owe your life to the American military.

      • zebbart

        There is no moral ambiguity about the tactics used in WWI and WWII – trench warfare and firebombing are inherently evil. To participate in them is evil. To order them is evil. No one can judge a particular soldier because no one knows how informed and free he was, but the activities themselves and the organization that propagated them were evil. That’s true even if the wars were justified, which is not so obvious in WWI. Whether I owe my existence to the American victory in those wars or not, and to say so shows little faith in the goodness and power of God, it doesn’t mean I should be thankful or praising of the immorality let to my existence. You might just as well say the American military should be condemned by all the absent progeny that would have existed had not GI’s killed their parents. It’s irrelevant.

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