Warfare “as obscene as cancer”

During the debate over the proper response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, I kept waiting for articles to quote Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and, eventually, I decided to write one myself.  I’m over at The Huffington Post today talking about why we find chemical weapons uniquely horrifying, and whether more types of warfare should provoke that same kind of visceral revulsion.

Death by IED or drone has perhaps not yet found its poet. How do we weigh the suffering of a victim and find gassing obscenely gratuitous but white phosphorus or cluster bombs reasonable? What do we weigh in our ethical calculus?

Chemical attack is judged inhumane, and, indeed, there are no humans present to witness the results of their actions. The New York Times noted that the photographs of victims were “marked by the telltale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury.” There is no one to grapple with, no one to resist, no one to appeal to, no one who might show mercy.


Read the whole thing at The Huffington Post

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Cam

    I get a sense that underpinning this argument is the glorification of violence and the fusing of masculinity and violence. This comes through strongest in the Drew Gilpin Faust quote, and in your use of phrases like ‘natural’ and ‘rules’. Visual, bloody combat is deemed noble, manly, and fighting-fair, while combat that resembles a computer game is not. It’s essentially the transplantation of a romanticised ideal about medieval, one-on-one chivalrous violence (that may never have existed) to the modern day crisis of international war.

    You appeal to the possibility of peaceful resolution and things like ‘sickening tension’, but it all comes of as kinda tokenistic and not really rooted in reality- didn’t the invention of bows thousands of years ago create unexpected airbourne threats? Did King Harold’s attacker have the opportunity to show him mercy? Was war ever, or should/could it ever be, an artificial environment behind battle lines far removed from peaceful places? Is drawn-out death the best opportunity we have to talk about peaceful solutions?

    And let me get this straight, you think modern soldiers are somehow lacking in mercy, unable to witness the consequences of their actions, or unable to think about their victims? Because everything i’ve read and heard about the experiences of soldiers in any war goes the complete opposite way, to put it mildly. Being involved in combat surely can’t be distilled to a single moment- it’s often an experience over duration that certainly has an immense emotional impact. And if it’s not about individual soldiers but rather the voting public, then why this focus on one-to-one violence and the individual opportunity to show mercy?

    I don’t know, I’d guess this piece is probably both offensive and alien to anyone actually involved in war firsthand? It’s great to get philosophical about war ethics but it still needs to be grounded in experience, actual knowledge, and data.

    • Kenneth Bolin

      Cam, I am a combat vet, and I found Leah’s Huff Po article immensely profound and true in so many way. I’m a Catholic priest and Army Chaplain with time in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. I remember the romanticized notions that both you and she refer to – the stories of ancient warriors who wept as they cut down their foes. Yes, it’s noble and awful at the same time.

      I’ve counseled many guys with PTS, if not full-blown PTSD, but I worry more over their souls, and yes, killing is often the biggest concern, especially when they do have those “intimate moments”, when they can actually visibly see whom they have killed. We won’t even pursue the path of children as casualties, as visions of that even haunt me from ministering in the hospital on our outpost last year.

      In the end, her piece is neither offensive nor alien. Please remember, no one prays harder for peace than the Soldier (Airman, Marine, Sailor, etc., you get the point), for it is he/she who may die in war.

      • stanz2reason

        Ken… I admire the work you do and sympathize to a degree with Leah’s position (and even touched on the topic myself in a way during the Turning Contest). Yet I can’t help but think her piece was written with a sense of unrealistic idealism that’s ultimately counterproductive. “Victim and killer are not in communion at the moment of death.” What exactly would you expect? I must wonder if she feels US soldiers should propose to Taliban fighters descending on their position that they try and hug-it-out. Maybe those manics who killed all those people in the mall in Kenya would have been amenable to sitting down for some sort of mediation. I admittedly have not been in the armed forces nor, thankfully, have I been in a position where a group of people were trying to kill me, so I can’t speak from personal experience. However, it seems the world has some genuinely violent, aggressive & utterly irrational people. Like the Joker in the Dark Knight, the truth is some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. While I’m sympathetic to people searching for ends to conflicts and appreciate efforts to examine the ethical implications of wartime actions, I feel it’s naive to suggest some points have practical applications when your opponent is bent on world domination and is delighted to blow up himself and a 100 other people to get what he wants. Sometimes there has to be a fight and I think it unreasonable to suggest surrendering the tactical advantage of warfare at a distance to appease some sense of idealism.

        • Randy Gritter

          So then what is wrong with chemical weapons? For that matter, what is wrong with nuclear weapons? There is a point where killing become so efficient that we never want to go there. We can kill hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands with ease. At some point it is too easy. They cease to be human. Really the human conscience cannot handle it. Then we cease to be human too.

          • stanz2reason

            There is something to be said that the level and ease of creating death via weapons of mass destruction elevates them from strategic weapons used to win a conflict to demonstrable weapons used to make a statement.

            You could argue that standard weapons have become so powerful that the distinction between the indiscriminate nature of a missile and that of a canister of sarin is trivial, and in a sense I’d agree. But the ease which such weapons can be created, transported and used along with a growing group of people happy to use them and the disproportionate amount of death they can cause makes it necessary to take extraordinary efforts to stop or at least limit the proliferation of WMD’s.

            With snipers or other means of engaging in ‘not really there’ warfare, what we’re talking about are the tactically advantageous element of limiting physical danger to a soldier who still needs to engage in a fight. All warfare affects the conscience. If you come up with a viable way to end it all, I’ll sign on. Until then, in situations where fighting is a necessity, I don’t object to the use of tactics necessary to avoid being the dead guy.

          • Neko

            Really the human conscience cannot handle it.

            History demonstrates that in war the human conscience is flexible.

          • Randy Gritter

            It gets set aside for a time. Then it comes back to haunt many a soldier later in life. That is what I mean by ceasing to be human. Steve talks about avoiding being the dead guy. But there are worse things than being dead. Like being evil.

          • Neko

            But there are worse things than being dead. Like being evil.

            Right, the War College will be adopting that motto any minute now. And how easy to say from your perch at the keyboard.

            It’s true that people don’t think that “all’s fair in love and war.” The uproar over the Obama administration’s use of drones has to do to in part with a sense that it’s unfair (then there’s the extra-legal factor in countries with whom we are not at war…), although it’s not clear that drone warfare produces more carnage than conventional warfare. Obviously Obama prefers to minimize the number of American soldiers coming home in boxes. The soul-enhancing opportunities that may arise with proximity to casualties doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

          • Randy Gritter

            Actually it isn’t easy to say. It is true but it brings to mind some very hard choices. I really don’t know if I would be able to do the right thing if it was my life on the line.

            The drones thing is a good example. Is there an uproar? It seems both parties have endorsed pretty much limitless use of drones without much thought. Is it to save soldiers? It certainly has increased the number of people we kill and decreased the justification needed to do the killing. Has it saved anyone? It might actually have made things worse. Would Boko Haram be as active as they are today in a world without drones? No way to know.

            But that is still consequentialist thinking. Are we less moral because we kill more freely? Could the power to kill anyone anywhere for any reason possibly corrupt people? Before the American revolution the king had that power and it was considered a bad thing.

          • Neko

            Is there an uproar? Yes.

            Is it to save soldiers? It’s a factor, wouldn’t you say?

            It certainly has increased the number of people we kill and decreased the justification needed to do the killing.

            This statement is completely unsupported.

            Would Boko Haram be as active as they are today in a world without drones?

            Ideology appears to be the most powerful motivator for Boko Haram.

            The rest of your post is rather flee-floating. But it did remind me of Lord Acton’s famous adage:

            Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…

            He is thought to have been referring to Pope Pius IX, among others, as well as to kings.

          • Randy Gritter

            Boko Haram is motivated by ideology but Muslim anger at drone strikes can lead to more young men joining such radical groups.


          • Neko

            That’s true. People terrorized by drones tend to hate them, and they do symbolize for many Muslims a US “war on Islam.” Not sure how much of a drone presence there is in Nigeria, but I guess Boko Haram assumes US support behind the government crackdown.

            Anyway, dehumanization of the enemy is a fundamental feature of war, as is ambivalence about killing, whether it’s “warfare from a distance” or not.

          • Randy Gritter

            Anyway, dehumanization of the enemy is a fundamental feature of war, as is ambivalence about killing, whether it’s “warfare from a distance” or not.

            That is precisely it. The corollary is that humanizing the enemy leads to peace. I guess if you see victory as the end of war then quicker victory is good. Often it is not victory that ends wars but people eventually getting sick of the fighting. Then warfare from a distance actually makes the end of war harder to achieve.

          • Neko

            Please cite one example of humanizing the enemy leading to peace. Not one thing comes to mind. Activists throughout the course of our recent military adventures implored the public to acknowledge common humanity with the hundreds of thousands killed in the war on terror. Yet the war drags on.

            Then warfare from a distance actually makes the end of war harder to achieve.

            World War II, Gulf War I, Balkan Wars, to name a few. On the other hand, there’s Vietnam, War on Terror.

          • Randy Gritter

            On a level of leadership it happens a lot. I think that happened between Egypt and Israel. Sadat and Begin talked face to face. They saw each other as human. It led to peace.

            Thinking about it, it seems all major peace treaties have required this humanizing among the leaders on the various sides. Now whether humanization at the soldier level makes any difference is another question.

            In Vietnam it did. Not directly. Some percentage of the soldiers questioned the killing of civilians including women and children. That question got into the public and was part of the reason the war ended.

          • stanz2reason

            Randy, I feel you’re drawing a false equivalency between humanizing crimes of war (killing civilians, noncombatant women & children) and the topic at hand, which is suggesting the humanizing of soldiers engaged in a battle.

            I do feel you have a point in noting the value of humanizing at the leadership level, and that it might help end to establish peace, even in the middle of a drawn out conflict.

          • Neko

            That is a romantic view of peace negotiations in general and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in particular, brokered in the context of the Cold War. I will just note that since the treaty was signed Egypt has received an average of $2 billion and Israel $3 billion a year in aid from the US.

            Incidentally, current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahari, then a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was imprisoned and tortured both under Sadat and in connection with Sadat’s assassination. You’ll recall that al-Zawahari was Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant at the time of the 911 attacks.

            You do bring up a good point about incidents like My Lai. Certainly images of such atrocities influenced public sentiment toward the war, hence the conservative canard that the liberal media lost Vietnam.


  • grok87

    “Chemical attack is judged inhumane, and, indeed, there are no humans present to witness the results of their actions.”

    Tolkien had a horror of aerial warfare. From a letter to his son Christopher on 29 May 1945, “It would be at least some comfort to me if you escaped from the R.A.F…It would not be easy for me to express to you the measure of my loathing for the Third Service..it is the airplane of war that is the real villain. And nothing can really amend my grief that you, my best beloved, have any connexion with it. My sentiments are more or less those that Frodo would have had if he discovered some Hobbits learning to ride Nazgul-birds, ‘for the liberation of the Shire’…

    Relatedly, today is the feast day of St. Therese of Liseux, patron saint of aviators. “During World War I French pilots carried a photo of her in their aircrafts to protect them.” http://catechistresources.com/Printable%20resources/St%20Therese%20lesson%20booklet.pdf
    “…World War I broke out and many soldiers on both sides reported seeing visions of a young nun—Therese had not yet been canonized—comforting wounded men of various nationalities along the battle lines. In response to this, many soldiers began carrying pictures of Therese with them into battle.”

    Today’s office of reading (2nd reading) has a passage from her “Story of a Soul”, http://divineoffice.org/
    “I persevered in the reading [of 1 Cor.] and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.”

    That WWI pilots should be so uniquely attracted to the Little Flower with her humble message of “love-and only love.” perhaps says something about their horror at this new “soul-less” form of warfare.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Really enjoyed your article. Kudos!

  • Kenneth Bolin

    Leah, your post was right in many ways. I also read a little bit of Tolkien’s letter to his son regarding warfare in the RAF. Some commenters here try to apply your post on a practical level, which I don’t think we’ll ever be able to do. Is it idealistic? Yes, but why shouldn’t we be a little bit idealistic. Isn’t the thought of beating swords into plowshares idealistic?

    If all we settle on or agree to is that which is realistic, we will fail and fall. If you shoot for mediocrity, you’ll never get to excellence. People need inspiration to greatness.

    The reality is, to quote my commander in Afghanistan last year “there are just some people who need killin’.” While true, I don’t think Leah’s article even argues against that point. If we were to talk Just War theory (which I am not really right now), it was not about jus ad bellum, but jus in bello.

    Leah, I’d love to get your take on a couple things, as I’m on a one-year assignment in DC studying Ethics at Catholic University of America. Not asking for you to post your contact info, but I’m also unsure how to get a message to you, since I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, other social media circles.

    • stanz2reason

      The reality is, to quote my commander in Afghanistan last year “there are just some people who need killin’.” While true, I don’t think Leah’s article even argues against that point.

      If some people need killin’, and unfortunately I feel this to be true in some cases, then what exactly is the point of trying to get real-time data that might prompt mercy or repentance. What ideal are we striving towards here? I understand the benefit of an unattainable ideal being worth striving for, but this doesn’t seem like something that even qualifies.

      I’m not suggesting refusing to alter a course of action upon the emergence of new information nor an I suggesting that such action be taken lightly. But the argument here, to me, sounds like we should go out of our way to feel guilty over necessary action. Indecisiveness after careful consideration and a decision to take action doesn’t seem prudent so I’m forced to then wonder what the point of the exercise was.

      Warfare at any distance is inhumane. Engaging in it in a manner that might limit both the physical & psychological dangers to your person seems the proper course to take.

      • Kenneth Bolin

        Yes, warfare is inhumane. How do you limit physical and psychological dangers? The way that our modern society tends to limit physical danger is to remove the actor from the immediate situation as much as possible, which is what Leah largely referred to in her article. What are the effects of this action? Honestly, this removal, while helping limit physical danger, lends itself to increased psychological danger (I would add spiritual danger). I believe that this is a major point Leah’s article tries to get at. I do not have statistics for this, so I won’t try to argue too heavily here. Also, it’s not universal, because human beings vary too much. What I have are general trends based on experience and stories shared with fellow chaplains and the behavioral healthcare docs that we’ve worked with.

        The “real-time data” that she refers to does not need to come from hugs (I do appreciate your facetiousness), from new intelligence, or even from dialogue of any kind. It can be an observed facial expression, a physical gesture, or something else. These are data points, and they are important ones.

        How does this apply to current conflicts? Probably not a lot in practicality, since the actual enemy does not ascribe to an honorable or even civil position, and his ideology drives him in some ways to kill or die, with no other available alternatives. Nonetheless, the article pointed out a trend line in the conduct of warfare.

        I don’t support indecisiveness, either. I refer to it as “operational paralysis”, and it gets people killed. The argument you inferred about going out of our own way to feel guilty was not accurate, so I apologize for any misunderstanding. What we do need to do is to be realistic about what we’re doing (and speak realistically about it), and progressively removing ourselves from the physical reality inhibits our ability to think and feel rightly about what has happened. In a culture in which many of my young Soldiers are addicted to porn and 1st-person shooter video games (desensitizing them to the reality of killing), being confronted with real death through killing is a significantly traumatic event that they seldom have any guidance dealing with. After they’ve seen it up close, many go back to their video games and don’t want to see the reality up close again. Again, this is not a universal claim; it’s based on discussion and time spent with some in and after combat.

        I’m fine with having my biases pointed out in all this. My experiences help to make me who I am. Now, I’m going to disengage and get back to study of Natural Law for class tomorrow.

        • stanz2reason

          Again, I don’t have personal experience by which to reference, and I’m afraid I’m limited to sideline speculation. It wouldn’t surprise me that there are still psychological effects to ‘warfare at a distance’, though it would surprise me if there was an equivalence in psychological damage between those at a distance and those in the trenches, so to speak. This is well beyond the scope of my personal experience and knowledge base and further speculation on the psychological impact of ‘distance’ warfare is just bound to be inappropriate on my part.

          My point was that there is a level of connectedness (whether a look, a hug, or otherwise) that seems counter-productive in a situation where you’ve already determined that your opponent’s gotta go. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish by trying to relate here? Before the conflict, sure relate all you want to try to avoid the conflict. After the conflict, sure reflect all you want to try to avoid conflict in the future. I just don’t see the sense in this type of battlefield moralizing here.

          I’m not sure I can attribute an increasing trend in warfare barbarity to something other than there are more sophisticated tools at our disposal. Genghis Khan would boil alive vanquished foes. The practice of being hung drawn & quartered was practiced in Europe. The Taliban weren’t the first to decapitate their foes and make a spectacle of it. Despite the undeniable collateral damage in modern warfare (though it’s also often remarkably precise), you’d have a hard time convincing me that a sniper is more barbaric then a severed head on a pike. Warfare has always been an affront to humanity.

          Good luck with your class.

    • LeahLibresco

      Glad to chat. My email is leahlibresco@gmail.com.

      (And if you’re at CUA, I hope you sometimes get to visit the Dominican House of Studies for their very beautiful vespers).