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Kilner explains the overlooked beauty of war

War can be beautiful, a U.S. Army officer said Friday.

Although loss of life is often the most emphasized part of military conflicts, a truly holistic depiction of war must consider both beauty and tragedy, said Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, assistant professor at the United States Military Academy. Kilner added that the American public must reshape its understanding of war to confront the worsening crises faced by many veterans.

“Too often, powerfully tragic stories put [soldiers] on only one side.... They are afraid of being judged if they say that war has beauty,” Kilner said. “Soldiers have the belief that they fight for great calls—freedom, dignity, defending their homeland—something pretty profound. They sense that they are willing to give their lives to something greater than themselves.”

One example of war’s beauty is the camaraderie developed between soldiers and the sense of pride and loyalty that each soldier develops for his country, he noted.

Kilner was the keynote speaker at the After the Yellow Ribbon conference this weekend, which was held in honor of Veteran’s Day.

The conference was organized by Milites Christi—a student-run organization of the Divinity School dedicated to engaging the armed forces and veterans with the church—and it was dedicated to facilitating unbiased conversations about issues affecting veterans such as substance abuse, homelessness, domestic abuse, divorce and suicide, among others. These issues have been growing concerns for the all of society, Milites Christi co-President Logan Mehl-Laituri wrote in an email Wednesday.

Mehl-Laituri is also an Iraq War veteran and a second-year Master of Theological Studies candidate.

In his remarks, Kilner said that in order to de-politicize and re-humanize war and veterans, people must form balanced views of war by considering the positive stories of veterans along with the more negative ones. Otherwise, the mental wounds of veterans will never heal.

“When the society listens to veterans’ experiences, it’s better to ask about the good first,” Kilner said. “Recognizing the beauty made them more comfortable to talk about the ugliness—if people only care about the tragedy, veterans wouldn’t remember any good about war.”

Jeff Nelson, a second-year student at the Divinity School, also said that it is important to understand what veterans suffer within the larger context of the beauty and tragedy of war.

“When they come back [from war], they are automatically viewed as hero or evil,” Nelson said. “But what they need is someone who really knows what they are struggling with.”

War can offer a sense of purpose and cohesive relationships between soldiers—relationships that are impossible to experience outside the battlefield, Kilner said, adding that because the public generally views war only as violent, soldiers can hardly express the beauty of these relationships once home.

Not only does the society neglect the beauty of war, it also generates misconceptions of the tragedy, he added.

“One thing that soldiers struggle about is not that they kill people, but that they see the senselessness of war,” Kilner said. “They encounter a level of evil we will never face [outside the war].”

While living in the gap between a beautiful sense of purpose and the ugly reality of casualties, soldiers can experience guilt and develop a fragmented sense of identity.

“War is noble in theory but not so noble in practice. Trying to make sense of evil and humanity at the same time can shatter their belief,” Kilner said.

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