Cold warrior


After I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I spent the next two years learning to fly. I learned to navigate and then to defend the plane against enemy air defenses. I learned the systems of the B-52 and how to employ nuclear weapons.

Being a cold warrior meant spending every third week or so on alert, living in an alert facility, ready, when the klaxon sounded, to run to a bomber loaded and cocked at the end of the runway. It was my job to help decode the launch message. If the President ordered, we would take off, fly to the other side of the world, and unleash the greatest destructive power the world had ever seen.

I went on to assignments in reconnaissance, intelligence, and flight test, but the Soviet Union was always the focus. I spent years studying its weapons and tactics, strategy and ideology.

When the Berlin Wall fell, I felt I had helped win the Cold War.

So now, the Russian attack on Ukraine seems like an old nightmare.

But here’s the thing. In the Cold War it was clear who the enemy was. But every one of us faces a deadly threat that we’re mostly unaware of.

All conflict can be traced back to the story of the first murder in Genesis 4.

Cain was angry that the Lord had “not looked with favor” on his offering. 

God said, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, but you must master it.”

This foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition identifies sin as a predator, crouching, unseen, and deadly.

The horrific scenes coming out of Ukraine make clear the consequences when sin comes out of hiding and moves on a massive scale.

But notice that God was on alert for Cain’s simple anger. God’s first question outside the Garden of Eden was, “Why are you angry?”

So, before our anger goes from cold to hot, and the destruction widens, we need to ask that question of ourselves.

Aching hearts

This week, when it seemed the situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get any worse, it did. Our hearts ache and our prayers go up.

I was a Cold War warrior, a member of a bomber crew, part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. We were prepared to respond with overwhelming force in the event of a nuclear attack. This “balance of power” strategy kept the peace through many administrations for 40 years.

The strategy worked, in part, because the other side wanted to live as much as we did.

I was never in a shooting war, thank goodness.

I never had to do what our Soldiers and Marines are asked to do today: stand guard at checkpoints with a mass of humanity in front of you. You don’t know if the person coming toward you is a pregnant mother or a suicide bomber. If you choose wrong, you and your friends could be killed, you could start an international incident, or you could be put up on charges. 

Where do we find men and women of character willing to do such things?

I frequently pray that our leaders would be worthy of them.

Jesus was no stranger to situations like this. He often faced angry crowds who had picked up stones to stone him.

Where did Jesus get his character?

John 10:34 says that Jesus responded to an angry crowd by quoting scripture, a verse from Psalm 82. He was so steeped in scripture that even obscure (to us) passages came to mind in a crisis.

He was steeped in prayer that connected him to the heart and mind of the Father.

And in all of that he knew the divine plan that one day the crowd would get its way.

Prayer: Lord God Almighty, we pray for the men and women of our Armed Forces, and for the people of Afghanistan. Protect and save them. And we pray for ourselves. Through prayer and scripture, lead us deeper and deeper into your heart, so that when the crisis comes, we might be people of character. Amen.

I was a cold warrior

The Cold War was the period of tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union which threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. It lasted from the end of World War II to the early 1990’s. People who were born in the last thirty years have no meaningful memory of the Cold War, but it consumed much of my life.

My first job in the Air Force was to be a crewmember on B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons. We were on alert, ready to strike the Soviet Union on orders from the President. It was boring duty punctuated by moments of terror. When the alert horn sounded we would dash to our aircraft and decode the message. Thank God the alerts always turned out to be practice. I never had to break into the “go-codes” that would send us to war.

The movie Bridge of Spies is set early in the Cold War. The CIA captured a Soviet spy and asked lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, to defend him. Donovan reluctantly agreed, knowing that defending a spy would be unpopular. When the spy was convicted, Donovan convinced the judge to spare him the death penalty. It was likely that the Soviets would one day capture one of our spies, and when that happened, it would be good to have someone to trade. That’s just what happened. When the Soviets shot down one of our planes and captured pilot Francis Gary Powers, the CIA asked Donovan to negotiate the release.

Bridge of Spies asks, “What would you do to bring someone home?” James Donovan risked his livelihood, his reputation, and the safety of his family to bring his captured countryman home.

I enjoyed the movie partly because it depicted a time in our history and a part of my life I was so familiar with. As I watched, I found myself wondering, “What did it cost Jesus to bring us all home?”