Plough: You’ve served your country in combat and in Congress. Which accomplishment are you most proud of today?
Chris Gibson: Of all the responsibilities I have had in my life, being a husband and father is the most important – more important than combat commander, more important than congressman. In fact, I ended my service in Congress after six years because my son needed me at home. If that doesn’t go well, then nothing else matters.
I write in my book about revitalizing citizenship; what you are doing here in the Bruderhof community is a great example. The men and women who lead families in this community take their responsibilities as husband and wife, father and mother, very seriously. They look at it holistically: it is not just about preparing children to earn a living but is really about the whole person, starting with faith and spirituality, being a good person morally and ethically, and living up to your potential.
Readers might be surprised to learn that Martin Luther King Jr. was a defining influence on you.
My dad was a manual laborer, a mechanic. When he was working, life was good for us. But when he was out of work or on strike, those were really hard days for our family. We were going through one of these challenging moments when I read in school that Dr. King had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. His belief that every human life had dignity and that every job had value really uplifted me. He once wrote, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
As a former soldier you’ve been active in advocating for war veterans.
As a country, we can always do better for our veterans. Many really need mental health support. Soldiers relish how tough they are physically, so they may be reluctant to seek help for mental health. If you have a broken leg, the idea that you wouldn’t go for help is absurd. But if you feel challenged with regard to your mental health, you need help too. So we need a military culture that supports seeking out professional counseling.
My wife works at the Veterans Administration, helping veterans who are dealing with adjustment challenges. I hear from her about their daily travails, which are serious. But I also see examples of neighbors helping – most people are very supportive.
This is one positive development within the last fifty years. The veterans who came home from World War II didn’t sleep very well at night either, but they just didn’t talk about it. They suffered in silence, and often it came out in other ways: alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and other manifestations.
Some of these young veterans are only eighteen years old when they find themselves in combat. They haven’t even figured out who they are yet. After we got back to the United States from Iraq, I talked to a nineteen-year-old who was struggling. He said, “Sir, I just don’t trust people. Is there something wrong with me?”
I said, “Look, it’s no wonder. The things you experienced, we call them unspeakable acts for a reason. There are no words that can adequately describe the things that we witnessed.” They were performing their duties in accordance with the law of war, and were serving with honor, but it still impacts them morally. It still impacts their mental health. So just welcome them. When a soldier comes home like this, he or she can feel alienated. Of course, everyone would want to welcome a veteran, but if that effort isn’t visually, tangibly made, the veteran may think he isn’t welcome. When pastors reach out and say, “Welcome home, I’m glad you are with us today,” that is a great first step.
You advocate “peace through strength,” or military deterrence. How has seeing the cost of war up close influenced your views?
I’m not a pacifist, I’m a realist. But we have been too quick to use force. I gave everything I had every day as a commander in Iraq, and so did my troops. But I don’t think we needed to invade Iraq; that was a mistake. And I don’t think we needed to go to war in Vietnam. I believe the Second World War needed to be fought. But whenever a human takes a life, even in honorable service in the military, it is not a natural act. No one who goes to war comes back the same person.
So we need to be much more careful about the decisions we take. We should work for diplomatic solutions at every turn. We should only go to war if we are attacked and as a last resort. Then, if we do go to war, we need to realize that we are going to be supporting veterans for fifty years.
That is not to say that these veterans who are struggling are doomed. Even in the face of significant travail, they have real possibility. There is still hope that they will find healing from moral injury and recover a flourishing life.
With a smaller proportion of Americans bearing the burden of fighting our wars than in the past, do you think an all-volunteer army is a good thing?
I’m torn on this subject, but although there are strong arguments on both sides, I do support the all-volunteer force. For those who are there, it is a very serious business – literally life and death. So it helps the cohesion of the unit to know that they are all volunteers.
Having said that, there were some aspects of the universality of service for the World War II generation that also gave great benefit to the country. We should learn from that. There may be ways we can broaden our view of service. Service doesn’t have to be just in uniform. Service also happens when you help your church, your hospital, senior citizens; when you’re involved in schools or with firefighters, EMTs, or law enforcement. If we capture that essence of service and look at it broadly, then we can continue to have an all-volunteer military yet as a people harness the positive energy that comes from the shared sense of who we are.
Again, the Bruderhof has been a great example when you’ve had your young men and women go out into the community to help rebuild after a storm, or when they helped refurbish the Patriots’ Home in Kingston so homeless veterans had someplace to live. That is the kind of service we need: real and challenging manual labor but also the spiritual contribution of being there for veterans who are in a hard place.
In your book you write, “Our most profound problems are not political.” What are they then? If Washington can’t solve them, where do we start?
We are losing sight of the fact that we are people with souls. We absolutely have material needs. But if you are constantly chasing material things and you feel something is missing, there is something missing: the recognition that we have souls and those souls have needs too. That starts with yourself and your relationship with God. And then we are meant to live with and love other people. We have obligations to our families and friends, and we have obligations to our communities. Right now we are out of balance. At a time when we have never been more connected technologically, we have the highest level of alienation, isolation, and suicide. How can that be? It is because we are racing so fast that we are not even cognizant of these needs that we have and are not fulfilling.
Interview by Sam Hine and Jason Landsel on December 6, 2017.