What Can You Do in the War?

What Can You Do in the War? July 16, 2012

Given the way our discussion of pacifism has meandered over to a debate about martyrdom, what you want to “accomplish” with your death (and whether that’s a coherent question), I’d like to recommend something for your summer reading list: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.  It’s a fabulous book.  It doesn’t presuppose that you’re a Civil War buff, so casual readers have no barrier to entry, and it delves into a strange, tightly-circumscribed  topic, so even people who already know a lot will probably still find new data and analysis.

I struggled a little with my choice of adjective above, since death isn’t really a strange subject; it’s the one we’re all guaranteed to encounter.  But our experience with it is almost always as something unnatural.  Gilpin Faust ends up focusing a lot on how nurses and chaplains ended up scripting a good death for their charges.  Because soldiers were dying en masse far from home, letters describing their deathbed scenes ended up mapping out what the cultural expectations were for a successful death.  Go put a hold on the book at your local library.

One topic from a later chapter is more directly relevant to where we started: the ethics of being a soldier.  According the Gilpin Faust’s sources, the Civil War was the first American war to rely heavily on sharpshooters and snipers, and people struggled to fit their actions into the killing-but-not-murder paradigm:

To shoot a man as he defecated, or slept, or sat cooking or eating, or even as he was “sitting under a tree reading Dickens,” could not easily be rationalized as an act of self defense.  Soldiers in camp wanted to think of themselves off duty as targets as well as killers, and they found the intentionality and personalism involved in picking out and picking off a single man highly disturbing.  Union sharpshooting units customarily wore green uniforms to serve a camoflage and Confederates came to refer to these marksmen as “snakes in the grass.”

The cool calculation, the purposefulness, and the asymmetry of risk  involved in sharpshooting rendered it even more threatening to basic principles of humanity than the frenzied excesses of heated battle.  When twelve soldiers from a regiment of Union sharpshooters were taken prisoner in Virginia in 1864, a local Petersburg newspaper argued for their execution: “in our estimation they are nothing but murderers creeping up & shooting men in cold blood & should receive the fate of murderers.”  After  enduring twenty-four days of steady and debilitating sniper fire between Union and Confederate troops near Port Hudson, Louisiana, John De Forest confessed “I could never bring myself to what seemed like taking human life in pure gayety.”  Men who had displayed great courage in battle had broken down “under the monotonous worry” generated by sniper fire.  De Forest judged it a “sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized way of being.”    Men who could kill others in this way were not men as De Forest before the war had understood them to be; they violated his assumptions about both human nature and human civilization; he believed they undermined what defined their human selves.

I didn’t expect the text to be such a perfect echo of the debate over drone warfare today.  But what’s really jarring is that it’s not an echo of debates over sniping and general long-range killing.  In the hundred fifty years since the Civil War, what struck soldiers as inhuman has become part of our baseline expectations for war.  It’s a ratchet effect.

I’m going to be writing more about drone warfare and how much distance it places between us and our actions later this week, but, in the mean time, I’d really like to hear from you guys on what heuristic you would use to decide that a certain way of killing people is unacceptable.  I’ll assume we all agree you should minimize the suffering of your victim,  but is there anything besides that and efficacy that you need to keep in mind?

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  • Michelle

    I’m hard-pressed to think of any acceptable, desirable way of killing people…what a bizarre last paragraph.

    • leahlibresco

      Michelle, are you a pacifist? If not, presumably you sometimes think it is necessary, if undesirable, to offer lethal resistance. Some ways of doing that are clearly worse than others, and I’m trying to probe about what factors people weigh. It comes up in logistics of the death penalty, too. I’m opposed to the death penalty in all cases, but I do think some forms of execution are more wrong than others, or would be wrong even if the death penalty was sometimes licit.

      • Kristen inDallas

        Well, I’m a bit of a pacificst too, but a good starting point, I think: A just war has to be declared. People deserve to know why we are fighting with them and why. If we tell certain countries we aren’t at war, but go around killing members of their citezenry on their land, then the only word I know for it is murder, which tends to be frowned upon.
        I apply this to self defense too, If you are going to kill a burglar because you think he’s a murderer, you ought to first brandish the gun, and tell him to get out of the house or you’ll shoot. How can we expect threat of violence to do any good at stopping violence if we don’t give these aggressors a chance to stop?

    • Michelle

      In terms of war, yes, I am a pacifist. I can think of only a few instances where I could theoretically condone lethal resistance, all having to do with defense of self or another individual/clearly defined group (stopping a school shooting, for example). To me killing has to be an absolutely-nothing-else-will-work-ends-justifies-the-means kind of thing, though there will nearly always be the uncertainty that it might not have been necessary. I can’t think of a situation where I would condone a premeditated killing of another person, though. If you have time to plot a killing (“oh, they’re reading, not right now” kind of plotting), you should also be able to plot a capture/some means of disarming them, I would imagine.

      I do see what you mean about the death penalty, though. A firing squad or hanging are much more wrong to me than a lethal injection. And I can see in the war scenario that it might be worse to kill someone who’s unarmed than someone who’s actively seeking to harm you, but I think the underlying question of “under what circumstances is killing justified at all?” is more important to consider.

      • Brett

        Well, the obvious question then is, what if there’s an army moving in preparation to murder innocents (presumably among other things)? Is a nation justified in taking up arms against the army, and killing the enemy soldiers, to prevent the murder? If so, then wouldn’t that be a just war?

        • Ted Seeber

          Only if you are sure that the army is actually moving in. In other words, not until they cross your border.

      • Michelle

        I think that’s a very simplistic idea of a just war, and I think that would be justifiable due to the imminence of the deaths of innocents and lack of other, more moral options. But, from my understanding, the majority of wars (and certainly the current wars the US started) aren’t like this – they aren’t purely self-defense. What are the boundaries of the just war concept?

        • Ted Seeber

          Which Just War Concept? It has evolved over the centuries.

          I’m an Augustinian on this subject- which means to me the borders of countries are the limit. A just war is never an invasion, is only repelling an invasion, and once the other army has decided to retreat back to their own country, you don’t chase them down, but you stay in your own borders.

          The modern form allows for the concepts of “Defense of allies” and “occupation after the war to help the enemy rebuild into something better than caused them to invade in the first place”, but as far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on the success of those ideas (of the past six wars the United States was involved in, I can only name ONE where that method was even remotely successful).

      • kenneth

        Following a tangent of your last example, I would say that I would prefer a firing squad or even beheading to lethal injection. There is something cowardly and dishonorable about euthanizing someone like an animal, and in an executioner detaching themselves in such a clinical way. A vanquished enemy or a spy should be granted that minimal respect of dying at the hand of someone willing to take ownership of the execution. It should be done this way even for the worst criminals who merit no such honor or mercy. The act of granting the condemned a dignified exit preserves our own humanity and gives proper respect to the gravity of the act of execution itself.

        • Michelle

          From the perspective of the one being executed, I’d have to disagree. I think the anticipation of a needle prick and then a (hopefully) peaceful death is far preferable to the anticipation of having a bullet blown into my heart or my neck being broken by a rope. BUT I do agree that on the part of the person doing the execution, they (and especially the lawmakers who’ve decided this is a good way to deal with things) need to own their actions. It’s like the trolly problem – we have fewer moral qualms when we’re detached from the action. Great point.

        • Kristen inDallas

          yes – he who sits in judgement weilds the axe. Ned Stark style.
          When we have people doing the killing because “it’s their job” regarless of whether or not they think someone deserves it, and other people deciding what people deserve without ever looking them in the eyes… bad things happen.

      • Mark

        Michelle wrote
        “I can’t think of a situation where I would condone a premeditated killing of another person, though. If you have time to plot a killing (“oh, they’re reading, not right now” kind of plotting), you should also be able to plot a capture/some means of disarming them, I would imagine.”

        That brings to mind the old philosophical question: If you could have killed Hitler as a child would you do it? I don’t know! How about Osama Bin Laden? Many, Many lives on both sides of these conflicts would have been saved in doing it.

        • Michelle

          Ugh, such a tough question – good thing it’s only philosophical! I hate to be the person who answers a yes-no hypothetical question with something that isn’t yes-no, but if you could know that little Hitler was going to grow up to be THE Hitler, wouldn’t you have time to change his course so that the name Adolf Hitler would be unremarkable or possibly even respected years down the line?

          Making the hypothetical so hypothetical that it’s practically meaningless, if someone told me “you can go back in time right now and kill Hitler – no helping him meet a nice Jewish friend or anything like that – just kill him” I think I would have to say that I would (setting aside the question of whether I could actually stomach killing someone, let’s pretend that I could). I know this sounds contradictory to my pacifist remark, but I do think that sometimes an ends-justifies-the-means approach makes sense, though I only ever think this for hypothetical situations – I’m still unable to think of a real life one where it would make sense. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the Catholic position is that going back in time to kill Hitler, even knowing what he would go on to do, would be morally forbidden.

          • Erick

            The death of any person is sad, because death ends that person’s opportunity for salvation. That’s why killing Hitler in this hypothetical would be wrong. When Jesus came down from heaven, he came for the sinners. He came to return sinners to the proper path. If we could go back in time, our prerogative would be the same — to help child Hitler return to goodness and achieve salvation.

          • Michelle

            It’s funny, I’ve mostly heard it in terms of “I don’t want to be the one responsible.” Even if by doing something morally wrong (killing a person) you save an untold number of other people, I’ve heard it said that it’s better for someone else to do the killing of the untold number of other people than for you to kill the one. The example I’ve argued before is very similar: someone takes a group of 50 people, including you, hostage and announces that unless you kill one of the people, they’ll kill all 50 of you. To me, the better choice is for you to kill the one and save 49 – to put it in your terms, you end one person’s opportunity for salvation in favor of prolonging that opportunity for 49 people. When I talked about this elsewhere, I was branded as a monster, but to me it’s just simple math (once again, of course, setting aside the repulsion and difficulty of actually bringing yourself to kill someone, no matter the circumstances).

            Absolutely agreed, though, that we should be eliminating the need to feel like killing someone would be the right choice – help foster solidarity and understanding among people so that these hypotheticals become unnecessary. 🙂

    • Ted Seeber

      I can think of ONE, and ONLY ONE, moral way to kill people that has been acceptable for 2000 years now:
      1. It must be in the defense of others, not of yourself.
      2. You MUST give your enemy a fighting chance at life (the method must not be sure).
      3. You must give your enemy a chance to kill you as well.

      The only weapon I can think of that accomplishes this is a sharpened blade with a short handle.

      • Dude…

      • DaveJ

        That is an incredibly strange set of rules. It sounds more like machismo than ethics. Consider- if he really must be killed in defense of others, why would you intentionally give him a chance to defeat you and then go on to continue the evil that made you decide to stop him in the first place. Try to stop him without killing him, if possible, OK, but be sportsmanlike in allowing the base evil to be accomplished?
        Also, why only in defense of others? Are you not a human being too?

  • Michelle

    All snark aside, Leah, I’d be interested to hear whether you think a “just war” could ever be a real thing (or has ever been a real thing) and how you’d make the determination that a situation requires war as a means of resolution.

    I’m also very interested in your take on the principle of double effect in war scenarios where civilians are killed. If you know that civilians will likely be killed by your actions, but you don’t intend their deaths, does that make your action moral? Thanks!

    • Ted Seeber

      The closest thing in modern times to a Just War was the freeing of the prisoners in WWII Germany.

      And even that had it’s problems morally (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki).

      • Skittle

        But the Allies didn’t go to war to free prisoners. Britain went to war because Germany invaded Poland (having been warned that doing so would lead to Britain declaring war), which seems like a proper Just War (Jus ad bellum) condition to me. American went to war because of Pearl Harbor (Possibly Jus ad bellum, but I don’t know that all the conditions were met). The Allies didn’t even know about the Concentration Camp conditions until after they freed the prisoners who remained. You cannot use eventual, unpredicted positive outcomes to justify having gone to war. You have to look at the information available at the time, and the reasons given at the time.

        Of course, as we all know, the conditions of a Just War were not maintained (Jus in bello) in how the Allies fought, any more than they were in the Axis’ strategies.

    • Mark

      Michelle wrote:
      “All snark aside, Leah, I’d be interested to hear whether you think a “just war” could ever be a real thing (or has ever been a real thing) and how you’d make the determination that a situation requires war as a means of resolution.”

      In my heart of hearts, I believe that Jesus gave us the perfect way for dealing with aggression. “Turn the other cheek”. And, for 3 centuries, that is what believers did… Ultimately it worked. Unfortunately, who knows how many tens of thousands had to die before Rome saw the error of her ways. Had we as a nation “turned the other cheek” during WWII, who knows what the outcome would have been. What if we had turn the other cheek with Islamic extremism. My guess is that in the end, good would prevail in both cases, but after how many decades or centuries?

      On the other hand, I would say that through the extreme pacifism of the early Christians, souls who would have normally refused Christianity were won over by the devotion of the early believers. Agree or disagree, who doesn’t respect the devotion of a true pacifist.

      • Michelle

        Hah, try telling people now to “turn the other cheek”! That really is a countercultural mentality. I wish I were more globally conscious and better able to make judgments about what SHOULD be done in situations that have resulted in war, but even as an atheist, I like the general rule of erring on the side of pacifism. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And honestly, I think a country that isn’t quick to use military force and takes a more neutral stance (like Switzerland) will probably garner more respect in the long run.

        • Bill

          Only more literate and historically-minded Americans than myself had been at all aware of Switzerland’s militarist bent. The rest of us were fooled by Harry Lime’s rant in the movie adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Lime of course was portrayed by Orson Welles, and Wikipedia’s remarks about his famous speech are very worth contemplating:  

          “In a famous scene, Lime meets with Martins on the Wiener Riesenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park. Looking down on the people below from his vantage point, Lime compares them to dots. Back on the ground, he notes,

          “‘You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

          “This remark was added by Welles [who rightly credited Whistler]. In the published script, it is in a footnote … 

          “In This is Orson Welles (1993), Welles is quoted as saying ‘When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks’, as they are in fact German, native to the Black Forest.”

          Wikipedia adds: “Writer John McPhee also points out that during the period of time the Borgia flourished in Italy, Switzerland was ‘the most powerful and feared military force in Europe’, and not the peacefully neutral country it is currently.”

  • grok87

    Hi Leah,
    Providentially the gospel for today again seems appropriate, especially to the idea of civil war:
    Jesus said to his Apostles:
    “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.
    For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,
    and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.”

    One way to understand what was going on in the Jewish community after Jesus was civil war, between those who accepted his messianic message and those who did not. “Acts” especially is instructive on the killing of Stephen, etc.
    Your question on a heuristic for killing people is hard to think about, so I’ll take refuge in fiction. I’ve been reading the Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell. In a similar vein to your blog (“may his heels kick at heaven”) whenever the protagonist Uhtred kills someone he really hates, he kicks the sword out of their hand first (the vikings believed if you died fighting with a sword in your hand you went to Valhalla). So I guess my heuristic would be that everyone deserves the right to die with dignity with the hope of heaven.

    • Well, they say Jesus was nailed up so enthusiastically because he didn’t roust the Romans. So did he change his mind later, or give the wrong impression with that “I have come not to bring peace but the sword” speech? In Gethsemane he rebukes Peter for drawing his sword. Matthew 26.52 “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword”! What?! It seems even at the time the stuff was happening contradiction was an annoyance, or they wouldn’t have freed Barabbas. Another of Jesus’s quotes is “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple”(Luke 14.26). Honor thy Mother and Father was a Commandment!

      • Brandon B

        Regarding this “civil war” between Christians and non-Christians: Jesus’s mission was to reconcile the world to God, and he knew that many people who reject God, even violently so. He also knew that his followers would be persecuted as he was, even by their friends and family. Accordingly, he warned people that his mission was not “peace on Earth”, but rather bringing people to the peace of heaven. None of this was meant to encourage Christians to attack nonbelievers. The “sword” that Jesus came to bring was the Truth, which can be painful and divisive to people who are living in sin.

        The Jews who were upset that Jesus wasn’t going to overthrow the Romans misunderstood Jesus’s mission. They had been waiting for a Messiah, but imagined one who would bring “peace on Earth” by being an Earthly king, as David had been. However, Jesus’s goal was the Kingdom of Heaven, so he didn’t care too much about the Romans.

        • Allegory again. If it doesn’t make sense it’s an allegory.

      • Tom

        Come on, Zack. Make wonder a little about about where your comments are going. This is getting boring.

        • The feeling’s mutual

    • keddaw

      Yeah, but as soon as you bring “Acts” into any discussion you have to accept that there were sorcerers in other lands and that the Apostles could magically heal people. I am not taking moral instruction from any book (i.e. Acts) that states such obvious falsehoods.

      • You need to understand that from an historical point of view Acts is one of the best texts from that time. Not the best biblical text but the best surviving document. It is called that because of the number of names and places and events it describes. These are details historians can check. The fact is they do check out. That makes researchers believe the writer is accurately telling true history.

        So dismissing it because it contains accounts of healings is a bit strange. It would be a matter of you throwing out scientific data because it does not fit your dogma that these things are “obvious falsehoods.” You can do it. You just need to be aware you are being anti-intellectual when you do.

        • keddaw

          It is anti-intellectual in the same way dismissing Noah’s flood is anti-intellectual.

          Acts 5 “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.
          6 And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.
          7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed.
          8 And there was great joy in that city.
          9 But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:
          10 To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.
          11 And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.”

          So, even if you believe that the Apostles, having met the resurrected Jesus, were capable of miracles (what need faith when one can prove the divine?) it still says that people were inhabited by “unclean spirits” and that Simon could do magic. It is not anti-intellectual to dismiss these claims as nonsense without some serious amount of evidence. And just because it mentions a people and a place at the appropriate time does not make it any more real than the Da Vinci code being set in contemporary Europe makes it real.

          • Brandon B

            I have to wonder what kind of evidence you would expect to have, if these events really happened. Certainly people would talk about it, and perhaps some would write it down; that’s what Christians contend Acts is, a written record. Other than that, I can’t imagine any artifacts that would both survive two thousand years and be evidence of magic or miracles.

            If your objection is not that this particular event should be proved, but that the possibility of miracles in general should be proved, then you should realize that the no-miracles-possible (physicalist, I assume) position is much harder to prove than the non-physicalist position. To prove his position, the physicalist has to show that in every scenario, miracles not only haven’t yet happened, but could never happen. The non-physicalist just needs a single counter-example to prove the physicalist wrong. The book of Acts is a record of a fair number of counter-examples.

          • Ted Seeber

            Simon De Magus. Other stories about him from that time include the strange story of his death. He followed Peter to Rome and attempted the greatest illusion of his career- flying around the top of a tower (these days, it’s obvious how he did it, but of course back then and beforehand it wasn’t)- Peter prayed, the crane broke, and he fell to his death.

            You are forgetting Clarke’s Law.

          • Clarke’s Law? The Science Fiction writer who in “Childhood’s End” has Aliens dressing themselves up as Satan to make their takeover easier? “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” indeed! Why stop at Simon De Magus?

          • leahlibresco

            (replying to Zach, but comment nesting is maxed out)

            I know I’m nitpicking, but the Overlords don’t dress up as Satan in Childhood’s End. They always looked that way and causality runs backward b/c their encounter with humanity is so traumatic that, per Clarke, the repercussions echo backward and inform every human conception of ‘enemy’

          • Well, here’s the quote: “It was a tribute to the Overlords’ psychology, and to their careful years of preparation, that only a few people fainted. Yet there could have been fewer still, anywhere in the world, who did not feel the ancient terror brush for one awful instant against their minds before reason banished it forever.
            There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail—all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight gleaming upon its tremendous body, and with a human child resting trustfully on either arm.”

          • leahlibresco

            My copy is at my parent’s house, but I remember that that quote is from before the backwards causality reveal. This is from later in the book.
            (I’m not pasting the quote because spoilers).

          • Peggy Hagen

            The human race should have said “to heck with reason” right then and there, all thing considered.

          • And there I was thinking that there was some sort of psychic powers thing in the plot where the mythology was a premonition of the invasion.

      • Ted Seeber

        You believe in healers today (doctors and hospitals) and in great magic (airplanes, computers, and the like) so why do you assume these to be lies?

        • keddaw

          Because we don’t burn computer programmers at the stake?
          If magic existed before and after Jesus’ time then why doesn’t it exist now? Is it a skill that we’ve forgotten (witches of the past notwithstanding)? Or is it that all claims of any supernatural effects (at least reproducible ones) on the universe have failed to stand up to scrutiny because they have always been faked or coincidence (c.f. Paul the squid) or otherwise explicable?

          No matter how much leeway I try to give the Catholic faith it always requires too much – from sorcerers in Acts to evil spirits being cast into pigs in Mark and Matthew, from virtually all the Old Testament to a walking zombie apocalypse in Matthew (27:52). Surely the zombie army would have been the most remarkable thing in the Roman empire’s entire history? Surely that would have been the most reported and most investigated event? But, outside only Matthew there is no report of it, not even the other gospels. And if it is wrong on that…

  • Leah wrote:
    > I’ll assume we all agree you should minimize the suffering of your victim, but is there anything besides that and efficacy that you need to keep in mind?

    I certainly don’t agree.

    It has always seemed to me that one of the bad things about Hitler’s death was that it was too easy: the guy deserved a much, much more drawn-out and painful death than that!

    I’m against capital punishment for pragmatic reasons (too big a chance for a screw-up), and I am opposed to most wars because of the death of innocents, the infringements of civil liberties, etc.

    But, I certainly want that some human beings to have truly miserable deaths – some of them truly have it coming.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Peggy Hagen

      Point taken, and sympathized with – but where would that end? What could possibly be a miserable enough end for someone with that much blood on his hands?

      • Peggy Hagen wrote to me:
        >What could possibly be a miserable enough end for someone with that much blood on his hands?

        Oh, in practice, no retribution could really be adequate against Hitler (or Stalin or Pol Pot or whomever).

        And, pragmatically, I certainly do not trust any government with the power to decide whether some monster just deserves waterboarding, or disfigurement, or slow torture to death, or whatever.

        So, in practice, I’ll go with the Framers: “no cruel and unusual punishment.” Let the monsters spend the rest of their life rotting in a barely adequate prison cell, adequate food and medical care, and not much else – no human concern or respect. Of course, for someone with the egotism of Hitler, that might be the worst punishment of all.

        I was just responding in principle: In principle, I do not object to truly evil people suffering, and, in fact, I very, very much hope they do.

        In practice, well, put them somewhere where they can rot without hurting any more innocent people, and, if God or karma or whatever exists, let He/it deal with them.


    • leahlibresco

      And I totally, totally disagree with this. I won’t recap an entire post in the comments, but the post that summarizes why is here: Trying to Love My Enemies. And here’s a teaser quote about dealing with my high school bullies:

      When I am the victim of other people’s scorn and hatred, that is wrong and I should look for every opportunity to ameliorate the harm done and shield other people from my fate. However, when I am bullied, harassed, or despised, I have one consolation: I don’t fall prey to the particular ignorance and/or prejudice that leads people to treat me badly. That’s one burden I don’t have to suffer, and I should try to help my tormentors shed theirs inasmuch as I am able to do so without putting myself in significant physical or emotional danger.

      The last thing I should want is to double their suffering by wishing that, in addition to being disfigured by their hatred to the point of wounding others, that they should also have my burden of feeling isolated and rejected. Rejecting their cruelty and dying to their old self, if they ever manage to pull it off, would be painful, but that ache is meant to catalyze a rebirth and new freedom. Self-recognition is punishment enough, I don’t need to wish on them pain for the sake of pain.

      • Leah wrote to me:
        >And I totally, totally disagree with this.

        Well, it was obvious that you would. I mainly wanted to make the point that your assumption that everyone reading this would agree with you was mistaken. As far as I can tell, a pretty strong majority of the population is on my side of this divide: if anything, my lifelong opposition to the death penalty, albeit on pragmatic grounds, puts even me in the “liberal” minority (I remember debating the point with my grandfather fifty years ago – I never have trusted the state with life-and-death decisions, even when I was a young child).

        You also said:
        >Self-recognition is punishment enough, I don’t need to wish on them pain for the sake of pain.

        Perhaps so. Up to a point, I am willing to accept true repentance. My observation, both in personal life and from what I know about monstrous figures in history, is that this is very, very rare with people who can really, fairly be called “evil.” Sure, friends quarrel and make up, siblings fight and apologize, etc. My brother and I squabbled when we were kids, but I never thought he was “evil” nor did he think I was (we’ve talked about this since we were adults).

        So, it seems to me that your point may often be well-taken when applied to friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. – i.e., ordinary people who were inadvertently unfair, inconsiderate, or just plain in a bad mood. But, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot? I doubt that they ever had that pain of “self-recognition” to which you allude.

        And, indeed, I very much doubt that even Jerry Sandusky or Bernie Madoff – figures hardly as evil as Hitler! – ever endure the “punishment” of “self-recognition.” I’ve known lots of little Sanduskys and Madoffs during the last fifty years – crooked businessmen, lying academics, dishonest members of the clergy, etc. – and I have never seen any evidence at all that any of them ever felt even a twinge of that “punishment” of “self-recognition.”

        In truth, Leah, you and I are both a bit more obsessed with moral rectitude than the average person. Unhappily, there are some people – the Madoffs, Sanduskys, et al. – who are a good deal less obsessed with moral rectitude than ordinary people. I’ve managed over the years to get a few such people kicked out of their positions of influence or authority (a high-school teacher, several crooked business managers, etc.), and, then, pragmatically, I have let them be: it just was not worth my while to spend my time making them miserable.

        But, is it wrong in some way to wish such people ill, even if it may be foolish to waste one’s time on them? No, I do not think that is wrong.

        By the way, a book that is relevant to this issue is Niven and Pournelle’s retelling of the Inferno: I actually think they have an adequate solution to the problem (and I think you will, too). You and I will differ in that you will feel their solution is truly instantiated in reality, whereas, I very much doubt it is. (Of course, I should be trying to talk you out of your new-found faith, and here I am recommending a book that will only reinforce it! Ah, well.)


        • Brandon B

          I don’t know if you’re a Christian, Dave, but God’s existence makes a huge difference to this question, and it is related to your concern that we can’t trust the state to execute people. If evil people don’t repent, then yes, Justice demands some sort of appropriate retribution. However, because we are imperfect judges, we wait for God’s judgment in the afterlife. “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” (Romans 12:19)

          In the meantime, since we have no idea who really needs punishment and who may repent, loving our enemies is the appropriate course.

          • Joshua wrote to me:
            > I don’t know if you’re a Christian, Dave…

            No, I am not a Christian for three simple reasons:

            1) I am certain that the basic factual claims of traditional Christianity – a biological virginal conception, a literal, physical resurrection, etc. – are in fact false.
            2) I am unwilling to be a hypocrite and claim to follow the ethical instructions laid out by Jesus in the Gospels when I in fact have no intention of following those instructions.
            3) I seem to have much less need or desire than most human beings for the warm, enveloping, all-embracing, cozy sense of community that many people seem to get from belonging to a religious community – indeed, I would prefer to refer to such a sense of community as “smothering, constraining, stifling.”

            I’d like to think reasons 1 and 2 are the main reasons I am not a Christian, but I suspect that an objective outside observer might rate reason 3 as the most important. At any rate, I suspect that Leah might eventually agree with me on points 1 and 2, but I suspect we will forever part on point 3.

            So, I am an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, non-believer, or whatever, sometimes frothing-at-the-mouth when a True Believer lies or bears false witness, as Leah might recall from a year or so ago.

            On the other hand, I also have no desire to join the “Humanist Community” or some other weird atheist substitute for a church, which tends to annoy quite a few atheists/humanists who are prominent on the Web (though not so many in the real world). Specifically, I notice that most of the atheists with whom Leah used to consort on the Web have really substituted a sort of utopian, egalitarianism leftism for Christianity (they have “immanentized the Eschaton,” to use Voegelin’s marvelously bizarre phrase): i.e., if you a true atheist, then you must be for Obamacare, gay marriage, universal access to abortion, etc.

            I, on the other hand, suspect that human nature and human society may not be quite so malleable as these folks would like, and, in any case, I intend to make up my own mind on health care, abortion, homosexuality, etc. without regard to the “correct” atheist position: all of those issues strike me as rather more complex than can be resolved in a ten-second sound-bite.

            All of which is to connect with your main point, which is:
            > Justice demands some sort of appropriate retribution. However, because we are imperfect judges, we wait for God’s judgment in the afterlife

            I’m content simply to note that, empirically, we are indeed very, very “imperfect judges” and to conclude that we should therefore try to avoid irreversible errors, such as wrongly putting a person to death, when we can reasonably and easily avoid such actions.

            Whether or not God exists, it seems to me wise to be realistic about human nature and our own rather obvious limitations.


      • Slan21

        I completely agree with you, and i’ve never seen a good justification to that kind of “vengeance”.

        Have you seen Dogville ?
        I feel it’s the kind of moral trap the movie purposedly leads you into.

      • Ted Seeber

        For Self-recognition to occur, one needs the value of solitary self-awareness. That is exactly the punishment Dave and I recommend over the Death Penalty.

    • kenneth

      Hitler, and any number of others like him, deserved any torment the human mind can conceive and then some. The question has to become about us. Do WE deserve to become his torturers or something better? For someone like that, the best we can do is to expose them before the world for what they are, then execute them humanely and move on.

      • We are facing that dilemma with Anders Breviek. He requested “Acquittal or the Death Penalty” at his trial. Clearly rotting in jail worries him more.

    • On the Hitler thing, I wanted to point out the Kudos due to the members of the Valkyrie Conspiracy; Hitler’s own people trying to bring him down.
      And after the dust settled on WWII, everyone with the name “Hitler” changed it to something else. Eva Braun, another interesting historical footnote, wrote a letter from the Bunker which had the line “I can’t understand how all this can have happened, it’s enough to make one lose one’s faith in God!” There’s also a story that after the failed Beer Hall Putsch (1923), Hitler retreated to the attic of a building and tried to shoot himself in the head but a policeman wrestled the gun away from him.
      Hitler didn’t get his dream, THAT was the punishment. The drawn out and painful bit came before he shot himself.
      The Science Fiction Author Philip K Dick wrote a book about what our world would be like if the Nazis had won, it’s called “The Man in the High Castle”

    • Ted Seeber

      I agree Dave. In fact, after reading Evangelium Vitae and Bl. Pope John Paul The Great’s arguments against the Death Penalty, my creativity came up with the following solution that fulfills the duty of government while respecting life AND giving a murderer a true “fate worse than death”.

      Take 6 squares of steel, 8 feet on a side. In one of them punch a 4″ hole. In another of them punch a 6″ hole. Suspend the sheet with the 4″ hole and hook the hole up to a sewer pipe with a u joint. strip the prisoner naked. Weld the 4 sheets that have no holes in a box around the prisoner. Take the final sheet, the one with the 6″ hole, and place it on the top and weld it down. Feed and water daily with scrap food and a hose. Do not allow any other human contact except to bring other prisoners through to scare straight.

      THAT is what mass murderers deserve. Not a quick and painless death, but life as a laughing stock in near solitary confinement. Within a month, their own brain will accomplish what no torturer can.

      • Ted Seeber

        BTW, I also encourage the same punishment for child molesters, whether clergy or secular.

        • Well, you’d expect someone who’s been all the way along the road to becoming clergy to know the most about being scared straight. If they go off the rails, it doesn’t say much about the effectiveness of scaring people straight. There are people too crazy to care what happens to them.
          As for ripping off the movie “Saw”, I’d say the old “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster” warning applies. If you’re going to propose something that inventive, people might start to worry about you.
          The Bible has this thing “By kindness you will heap coals upon the head of your malefactor”. I hasten to point out the Bible also says something about giving a murderer a chance to run off to a new town. A stopped clock is still right twice a day. When Anders Breviek (called himself a “Cultural Christian”) is up there asking for “Acquittal or the Death Penalty”, why should we play into that? Likewise, in punishing why give the imprisoned any ammunition of “If you’re so civilised, how can you do this to me?” And why let them take solace in dreams of martyrdom?
          True story: Hermann Göring, we had him in the slammer in Nuremberg and we were ready to hang him. He took cyanide. He was able to take cyanide, it’s thought, because he had seduced the mind of one of his guards, so the guard didn’t think about handing over some trinket that the cyanide was hidden in.
          I like the view “Living well is the best revenge.” Obsessing over this kind of terrible stuff is “letting the terrorists win”, so to say. Don’t even give these creeps the satisfaction of thinking “I’ll live in their nightmares, they’ll use me as the boogeyman!”
          There’s a book out: “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson.

          • Philippians 4:8 says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.”
            Again, have you ever actually read the thing?

          • Ted Seeber

            “Well, you’d expect someone who’s been all the way along the road to becoming clergy to know the most about being scared straight”

            I don’t expect that at all. Seminary professors are as fallible as any other human being, as are clergy.

            “If they go off the rails, it doesn’t say much about the effectiveness of scaring people straight. There are people too crazy to care what happens to them.
            As for ripping off the movie “Saw”, I’d say the old “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster” warning applies. If you’re going to propose something that inventive, people might start to worry about you.”

            I would hope so, though I’ve never seen the movie Saw (and in fact, derived this ENTIRELY from Evangelium Vitae when I was in my 20s, a good 10 years *BEFORE* Saw came out).

            I am a psychopath. As is every human being if they let their dark side win and abandon moral reason and objective morality.

            “The Bible has this thing “By kindness you will heap coals upon the head of your malefactor”. ”

            When it comes to the duty to protect innocent third parties- this is mercy and kindness. After all you’re providing the very thing the mass murderer most needs for his salvation- time alone to think. Which, oddly enough, is also the answer to the rest of your points, so I’ll leave you with that.

          • Ted Seeber

            I see giving the mass murderer a chance to repent- while keeping him away from society- as being quite true and beautiful. Then again, I also find beauty in suffering, so what do I know?

          • Peggy Hagen

            Ted. Deep breath. You did *not* get that concept from Evangelium Vitae. Neither it nor anything even remotely like it, in theory or in practical suggestion, is to be found in that encyclical. You may be comfortable tagging yourself as a psycopath but don’t try to hide behind JPII for it. Walk away. Now. You are going too far.

        • Ted Seeber

          Peggy, you might not have understood the concept of technology making the need for the death penalty outdated, but I most certainly did understand the reason given for the Death Penalty in Evangelium Vitae AND the potential of any society capable of welding to build an escape proof cell from which the only way out is death.

      • Peggy Hagen

        You read Evangelium vitae. And you promptly devised that. Very interesting.

        • Ted Seeber

          Quoting: It is clear that for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: In other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent. (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995)


          THAT is what caused me to come up with this- a balance between defending society, guarding victims against release of the criminal, and leaving the criminal alive to reflect & repent (and quite possibly, with either further evidence of innocence or convincing his guards that he has repented- one day rejoin society. It’s not like being welded into a box is irreversible- just impossible to get out of alone without help).

          • I think we can all thank Jesus’s marvellous gift of the idea of “Hell” for this vicious punitive outlook. Scott Roeder shot Dr George Tiller in Church, in front of kids. He probably thought he was speeding up what he thought God would have in store for someone working at a Women’s Clinic. That’s the problem with the Death Penalty, it makes vigilantees feel justified. Put that together with Hell giving people ideas, and it’s a timebomb. Would you like to be friends with Mr. Roeder? Would anyone, now?

          • Ted Seeber

            I see Scott Roder and Dr. Tiller as being very much the same philosophical bent. George Tiller did not deserve to die for his sins, nor did Scott Roder, but neither should have been free to do what they were doing. That isn’t punishment at all, and neither is what I suggested intended to punish anybody. The duty is to protect the innocent. And you can’t tell me, an autistic, that George “all babies should be perfect or should be aborted” Tiller was innocent.

          • I didn’t tell you that. It’s not eugenics if someone doesn’t have the resources or background to raise any child at all. It’s a case by case thing. And it’s down to choice. If you read “The Abortionist’s Daughter” by Elizabeth Hyde, the character of the abortionist goes through with a Down’s Syndrome pregnancy with full awareness. It may be fiction, but it’s still a good point; you can take it or leave it. She wanted the love of another child, though with Down’s Syndrome, and had the resources to raise it. George Tiller wouldn’t force the issue either way in real life, where the same thing does happen.
            What they’re doing in China, the one child per family policy, encourages abortion and abandonment because boys have more prestige and economic potential. It also wrecks the gender balance. No one is seriously going to import that philosophy to the developed world. And it’s the philosophy you’re after; make it “fair”, impose the same view on everyone. Not everyone’s the same, so it wouldn’t be “fair”.

            I get the impression you don’t want people free to do anything.

          • No, you weren’t intending to punish anyone with your fate worse than death machine….

          • Someone shoots someone dead, in a Church, and your condemnation comes down hardest on the guy who got shot? What does it matter about the “innocence”, whatever you mean by that, of George Tiller? It doesn’t mitigate anything! “Thou shalt not kill” is pretty clear to most people. “Thou shalt not abortion” is less clear, since God was happy to kill every pregnant mother and newborn child during Noah’s Flood; somehow they were more evil than the 8 people on the Ark! This is why people don’t like you guys; any kind of misery is glorification of God, through some tortured rationalisation. And a lot of Scott Roders come off of the Catholicism production line, that doesn’t worry you? How about we sort out whether the God is actually there?

          • Plus we find in Numbers 5. 11-31 instructions for a potion and ritual to bring about an abortion.

  • Joseph H.M. Ortiz

    I understand that toward the end of the First World War, an American soldier named Alvin York shot and killed IN FACT a score of German soldiers manning a machine gun nest that was mowing down his fellow Allied soldiers. But being a pacifist, he didn’t SHOOT TO KILL: he didn’t intend anyone’s drath, either as an end or as a means. His aim was to stop those German guns by disenabling their shooters, even with the unavoidable yet unintended effect that some would almost certainly die in fact. In other words, he didn’t EXPRESSLY kill anyone, therefore didn’t murder anyone. But in a drone attack, or in capital punishment, it seems to me that the death of the person killed is indeed intended, at least as a means to something, and so is morally wrong.

    • Joseph H.M. Ortiz

      I’m thinking here of a drone attack that expressly targets a person or persons: a drone attack targeting an enemy agressor’s ammunition dump would not be necessarily and always wrong.

  • Many Americans still say the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary act, that it shortened the war and “saved” lives. How can such a monstrous act ever be justified? It was clearly an immoral act. A low point for humanity and for the United States.

    Last year, as I watched the heartbreaking news from Japan, I couldn’t help but remember that we (the United States) once voluntarily unleashed radioactive weapons on the people of Japan. My poem entitled Hiroshima is based on the eyewitness account of Miyoka Matsubara (at the time a 12 year old girl from Hiroshima). My hope & prayer is that we do away with these weapons of war…

    (for Miyoko Matsubara)

    I heard the whirring engines of a B-29.
    I glimpsed its wings and tail; a sign
    of foreboding filled the earth and the sky
    with the terrifying message that all must die.

    I saw the shadow of the descending sword.
    After the flash, the heavens roared.
    I fell to the ground with my hands to my head.
    I awoke in the darkness and the dust of the dead.

    I ran toward my home, but I could never go back.
    Everything had changed; the sky was black.
    I went to the river to escape the flames.
    I saw bodies sink into graves without names.

    All around me were the broken pieces of mankind.
    Had the whole world lost its mind?
    Out of the chaos came a voice I knew.
    Was this my friend? Could it be true?

    Her face was swollen with slits for eyes.
    From behind charred lips came her cries.
    I was twelve years old when the A-Bomb hit.
    Just a child when that fuse was lit.

    I saw the shadow of the descending sword.
    After the flash, the heavens roared.
    I fell to the ground with my hands to my head.
    I awoke in the darkness and the dust of the dead.

    • kenneth

      Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not acts that weigh on my conscience as an American. I consider them events of great sadness, but not immoral or un-justified. Japan declared and waged war upon us in a way that was truly an existential competition. Japan at the time was a martial culture to an extent that we can barely wrap our minds around today. In their culture, one did not grant, nor expect quarter in a fight, ever. Death was far preferable to what they saw as the ultimate disgrace of surrender. The last Japanese soldier held out and fought until 1974! He refused to stand down until his former superior, long since a civilian bookseller, personally flew to the Philippines and gave him orders!

      These folks were fully prepared to exact hundreds of thousands of casualties upon us, and quite frankly, we simply did not owe the people of Japan more of our own young. By 1945, we didn’t owe that country a skinned knee. The atomic bomb gave them the stark choice: stop, or the history of your nation and culture ends, period. Even the emperor could see surrender on honorable terms at that point. It was a tragedy to have to use that sort of horrible weapon, but no more (or less) a senseless tragedy than the war itself.

      • Here is an alternative: instead of dropping atomic bombs on innocent women & children, why not just pack up our gear in the Pacific and go home and lose no more American or Japanese lives? Hitler had been defeated in Germany. What threat would the Japanese be to America? Yes they bombed Pearl Harbor and sank a dozen battleships, and for this your solution is bomb an entire country into oblivion? So we could say we won? But at what cost, our humanity?

        • keddaw

          Because the threat was Japan conquers China, and most of the orient, and then starts a war of attrition attacking the west coast of the US with vast resources at their disposal. Like it or not, for the US’s safety Japan had to be stopped. Kind of ironic because the US would have been fine had Germany won in Europe yet she sent so many to fight there… (As would the UK if they’d stayed out the war).

        • deiseach

          My own personal opinion is that the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and the wider question is, why drop two Doomsday devices, other than to drive the point home that we have these weapons and we can mass-produce them) was not just to end the war in Japan quickly, but with an eye to the post-war carve-up of Europe and spheres of influence.

          This was the USA rattling its sabre at the Soviet Union and warning off Stalin that “Try anything and you’ll get a taste of this” in order to strenghten its hand at Yalta. Of course, unfortunately, the Soviet Union had already been working on its version of the Manhattan Project, spurred on by rumours and espionage about the American effort.

          I’m old enough to remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and I was convinced that this time, all the posturing and talk of “Evil Empires” would mean that the bombs would start flying. I genuinely don’t know how we managed to dodge that, whose were the wiser heads that prevailed.

          The irony of war means that St. Maximillian Kolbe, if not for his ill-health which meant he was sent home from the missions in Japan, could have (possibly) been killed or injured in the bombing of Nagasaki, rather than dying in Auschwitz:

          “Between 1930 and 1936, he took a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese paper, and a seminary. The monastery he founded remains prominent in the Roman Catholic Church in Japan. Kolbe decided to build the monastery on a mountainside that, according to Shinto beliefs, was not the side best suited to be in harmony with nature. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Kolbe’s monastery was saved because the other side of the mountain took the main force of the blast.”

      • Kenneth wrote:
        >Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not acts that weigh on my conscience as an American. I consider them events of great sadness, but not immoral or un-justified. Japan declared and waged war upon us in a way that was truly an existential competition.

        The problem is that it was not “Japan” that attacked Pearl Harbor, but particular Japanese leaders and their subordinates.

        A large fraction of those incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were women, children, and old men, since the young, healthy men had been drafted for the war effort. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not major military targets – major military targets had already been devastated by conventional bombing.

        It is particularly gruesome to view the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as among those who deserved to die because of the attack on American colonial forces at Pearl: Japanese children were, after all, just as innocent of that attack as American children, and no more deserved to be incinerated than any American child.

        And all this ignores the fact that the attack on Pearl was not exactly an unexpected, unprovoked attack: Secretary of War Stimson testified before Congress that, twelve days before the attack on Pearl, FDR had spoken to his top advisors, in Stimson’s words, “The President brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked, perhaps (as soon as) next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. . . .” Numerous actions by the US Administration, ranging from embargoes of vital materials to actually sending US military aviators (the so-called “Flying Tigers”) to fight against Japan in August 1941 provoked the attack on Pearl.

        An especially interesting book on this war atrocity is Robert Newman’s Truman and the Hiroshima Cult: even though Newman strongly defends Truman’s decision to incinerate the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Newman admits that this and other actions by the Allies during the War would clearly have been viewed as war crimes prior to 1939 (see my review on amazon.com). In short, the strongest serious defense of the decision basically admits it was a war crime.

        WW II was not the “last good war”: quite aside from war crimes committed by the US and Britain, we were allied with Joseph Stalin, a psychopath as bad as Hitler and worse than the Japanese.

        None of this excuses the massive atrocities committed by the Axis powers, but neither do the Axis atrocities justify ignoring Allied atrocities.


      • Ted Seeber

        From Hirohito’s own memoirs, he saw surrender as inevitable as early as 1944. It was the shogun Tito who kept the war going *against* the wishes of the emperor.

  • When is it okay to kill? Two possibilities: it’s either 1) never (Christian standard before Constantine), or 2) only in the defense of third parties from aggressors or in self defense (provided you are not yourself an aggressor), AKA just war theory. And the objective in JWT should be to prevent the opponent from causing evil, not to kill them. Aggressors should be prevented from doing evil for two reasons 1) it harms their soul and if they die in the midst of doing evil their souls are in peril (so ideally you can stop them without killing them so they can repent) and 2) for everyone else’s sake. But perpetrating evil is morally worse than being the victim of it.

    Pacifism let’s the evildoers do their evil, which is both bad for them and their victims. Some pacifists do make a distinction between “violence” and “force,” allowing the second but not the first (as when Dorothy Day and colleagues tackled a dangerously crazy person in one of their hospitality houses – force, but no intent to harm the person, so not violence).

    There’s also the distinction between a material and formal aggressor – a formal aggressor wants to kill, that is his/her intent, but a material aggressor is just having the effect of killing – he or she might be crazy or unconscious at the controls of a tank rampaging through a city. Relevant for insane murderers in a society with no prisons, for example – material murderers could licitly be given the death penalty in that situation just because to release them would imperil others.

    My personal opinion is torn between the pacifism and just war, almost always coming down on the side of very, very strict Just war criteria.

    As for ways of killing and not reasons for it, the objective (outside of the death penalty) should always be NOT to kill. That will almost certainly result in more, not less, suffering. Life is more important than pain, and so if incapacitation can be caused (possibly with great pain) rather than death with no pain, the painful option is more correct. This is the entire idea behind non-lethal weaponry – hurt, don’t kill. We accept this with riot police too, the OWS protesters get pepper spray and rubber bullets – debilitating – but not mustard gas and lead. Snipers are highly morally questionable and drones are as well. But both are means, so it depends towards what ends they are put. Theoretically all snipers could shoot to maim and all drones target non-human targets.

    I’ll shamelessly promote one of my colleagues on just war theory, he’s ex-military and he has a post relating it to Afghanistan http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/after-the-death-of-bin-ladin-a-just-war-assessment-of-afghanistan/ It is helpful for getting JWT to be more concrete, and relevant.
    Just to provide the Just War criteria:
    1. Just cause
    2. Competent authority
    3. Last resort
    4. Right intention
    5. Reasonable hope of success
    6. Comparative justice
    7. Proportionality

    • I should add that I do have reservations about just war theory because it does introduce a potential irrationality into Catholic ethics – a circumstance where killing is licit, where the ends kinda look like they might justify the means. Things like this can spread by analogy, and every once in a while someone says JWT makes abortion okay or torture okay because look! analogy to just war theory. That is why I am a very strict interpreter of JWT, and still feel somewhat wrong about it. But it is even more important to prevent perpetrators for doing evil, for everyone’s sakes. The war must be to save the enemy, not kill them.

      • deiseach

        St. Thomas Aquinas on Whether It Is Always Sinful to Wage War:

        “I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

        Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (QQ. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

        Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

        He also addresses “Whether it is lawful to lay ambushes in war” which might have a bearing on sniping?

        • Hi Deiseach,

          Always good to go back to the sources. I think JWT’s criteria have tightened up (certainly been further specified) since St. Thomas’s time, though it is instructive that the presumption of the question is “Whether It Is Always Sinful to Wage War.” Evidently wars are not typically just, or the presumption is at last not unreasonable. St. Thomas certainly experienced this during the times in which he lived (if I remember one of his brothers was a soldier). I am very glad that St. Thomas wrote these things 750 years ago; he was not of his time, he certainly transcended it and was not shy about criticizing the world around him (he also advocated democracy in ST I-II 90.3, which few people know). It’s amazing what you can get away with saying when you bury them in an almost million word treatise. 🙂

      • There’s a strong movement for Secular Chaplains in the Army now. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Seems the prior marginalisation and bullying of non-believer cadets went beyond a joke once too often.

  • Doragoon

    From stone axe to jet powered drones, it’s a sentiment as old as time, Nostalgia. Maybe we want to believe that when people did things in the past, it felt nobler to them. Maybe we don’t want to admit that we’ve always felt it wasn’t, but that we do it any ways.

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Cave-men said;
    “With bone well carved He went away,
    Flint arms the ignoble arrowhead,
    And jasper tips the spear to-day.
    Changed are the Gods of Hunt and Dance,
    And He with these. Farewell, Romance!”

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Soldier spoke;
    “By sleight of sword we may not win,
    But scuffle ‘mid uncleanly smoke
    Of arquebus and culverin.
    Honour is lost, and none may tell
    Who paid good blows. Romance, farewell!”

  • Peter S.

    Oh sure, write about just war theory on the day I drive for 18 hours. 🙂

    First, I should note that the ambivalence Civil War soldiers felt on both sides about sharpshooters is a common reaction in all wars to new or innovative uses of force. The French at Agincourt felt the use of English bowmen was terribly unchivalrous. In World War I, machine gunners were often summarily executed if captured by either side, while infantry soldiers were treated as prisoners of war. This ambivalence or disgust is not in itself an indication that a particular tactic is immoral. War is fundamentally about winning, not about fairness. (Unless you’re a strict pacifist, of course.)

    I didn’t find Faust’s book especially enlightening, although I had already read other books that covered most of the ground she addresses. I think a more interesting moral case in the Civil War is the career of John Singleton Mosby, who blurred the line between combatant and civilian while leading partisans in Northern Virginia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_S._Mosby

  • Paul G

    Hi Leah! i have a book(s) recommendation for you : Karl barth – church dogmatics.

    He is a reformed theologian & you are a catholic , so it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

    Sorry if this comment is irrelevant to your post , but I recommend Barth to everyone.

    • Barth is worth reading, but only in small precise doses! And mostly to disagree with him. I had to read a lot of his Church Dogmatics and it was rather repetitive. From a Catholic perspective he can be summed up as a divine command theorist and voluntarist. He really hates natural law and does make a few good points about the weaknesses of some types of rationalist ethics, but ultimately he just has a very different conception of God than what Catholics have. For Catholics, God is reason and we can trust reason, human or divine or natural, if we are careful to check our biases, intentions, and conclusions. On the other hand, Barth’s ethics managed to keep a lot of Christians from cooperating with Hitler, and Apartheid South Africa, so his ethics do actually work. But metaethically speaking, command ethics freak me out, whether they have good consequences or not. If the same good consequences can be had via rationalism, I choose rationalism.

  • Curious use of “unnatural.”

  • keddaw

    I really don’t get Christian doctrine on one particular part of JWT – “you shouldn’t kill someone while they’re committing evil as it harms their soul and potentially costs them eternity in hell”. But if ‘I’ continue exist5ing after death why can’t I repent then? Why is such an apparently arbitrary point as death of the body the cut-off for when my soul can repent? If my soul repents then it is a good soul (at that point) and certainly not any less deserving of forgiveness than a soul inhabiting a body that repents just before death.

    • deiseach

      (1) This life is not a dress rehearsal or one more spin on the Wheel of Law; it’s real, it counts and it’s your only go.
      (2) Repentance after death is ‘cupboard love’ or the kind of contrition sometimes shown at parole hearings, where a prisoner may say anything about how he/she is really sorry for what they did and understand it is wrong, but only in order to be spared just punishment.
      (3) The shape of the soul is formed by our actions in this life, and those condemned to Hell are those who have put themselves there. Repentance is not even possible, because the soul has so collapsed in on itself. It’s like the kind of person who says “Why are you all picking on me?” when called on having done something bad or wrong, the person who thinks the judge was out to get him at his trial (never mind the evidence that proved he committed the crime) or the kind of thing we have all experienced, the person who is never at fault whatever happens and tries to shove the blame off on others. “We couldn’t help ourselves, Love made us do it”, as Francesca da Rimini says in Dante’s “Inferno” (conveniently forgetting that going into your bedroom to read erotica with your brother-in-law when you’re both aware of the UST between you is not sensible by any manner of means).

      • keddaw

        Yes, but God, knowing our deepest thoughts, will know if it’s a real repentance or not, so the state of the soul at the point of death is still an arbitrary point with absolutely no relationship to how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the soul/person is. It seems to me that the Church is absolutely wrong on this point or your God is not a fair judge.

        e.g. Two people commit the same sin, let’s call it a mortal sin like denying God, and go to bed – both on awakening would have been exceedingly remorseful, gone to confession etc. etc. but one of them dies in their sleep – would an omniscient God not be able to recognise this and forgive? I would have thought so, but Church teaching appears quite certain on a few things about the working of forgiveness, hell etc. and this is one of them. When you die you are judged and if you have a mortal sin on your soul you go to hell.

        • deiseach

          Your point there is before death, keddaw. If the person who committed the sin does regret it and decides that first thing tomorrow he must go to confession, then that is repentance.

          If death is an arbitrary point, then at what point post-mortem is not arbitrary? If I decided to kill Bill, and then after I die and go to Hell for deliberate murder, at some point I truly am sorry I killed Bill – then suppose some time after that, I reconsider, and say that I was in the right to kill Bill?

          Anyway, the point is that for mortal sin (which is the sin that kills the soul), there have to be three elements present:

          (a) grave matter (that is, it must be serious – we’re not talking about fibbing when someone asks you “Does this make me look fat?”, it has to be something serious)
          (b) full knowledge (you know what it is you’re doing; someone without the intellectual capacity by reason of mental illness or mental retardation, for example, who cannot judge or realise the gravity of the situation cannot commit a mortal sin)
          (c) full consent (no-one is holding a gun to your head or otherwise coercing you and there are no extenuating circumstances; you know what you are doing is wrong and you freely choose to do it anyway).

          Now, if someone says “Well, pshaw! All those old fundamentalists bang on that gambling is a sin, but this is the Century of the Anchovy! We know – by means of SCIENCE!!!! – so much more about society and how it works, and my free and informed conscience tells me it’s not a sin!” – then it depends. If your gambling consists of punting a euro each way on the favourite in the Gold Cup at Ascot or Cheltenham once (or twice) a year, then you probably don’t have a problem. If you’re sitting in front of a slot machine twenty hours a day, spending the rent money and your kids are going to bed hungry, then sorry friend, your conscience is beans and you are committing sin.

          Look, in Hell, we’re not going to meet people who genuinely, absolutely didn’t know it was a sin they were committing (“Oh, you mean splitting someone’s skull open with an axe is bad? I had no idea!”), it will be those from Christian and post-Christian lands (and other religions)who stuck their fingers in their ears and went ‘la-la-la, shellfish argument!’ when told that what they were doing was wrong.

          There’s a big difference between informing your conscience and thinking that abiding by the Zeitgeist is an informed conscience.

          • deiseach

            Having said all that, I just remembered something which forces me to yield at least some ground to you, keddaw.

            This is the trouble with being a peasant mired in the credulous mindset of the Middle Ages. If only I could shake off the chains of being a traditional Catholic and learn to be enlightened and think for myself, I wouldn’t have half this trouble 🙂

            It’s the legend of Pope St. Gregory the Great and the Emperor Trajan; it was commonly said in medieval times that Pope Gregory I, through divine intercession, resurrected Trajan from the dead and baptized him into the Christian faith (that’s what is represented in the third panel of this altarpiece, where Gregory is literally drawing Trajan out of the underworld). There is an account of this in the “Golden Legend”, although it rows back on the salvation of Trajan and instead proffers that Gregory obtained the mitigation of the pains of Hell for Trajan:

            “In the time that Trajan the emperor reigned, and on a time as he went toward a battle out of Rome, it happed that in his way as he should ride, a woman, a widow, came to him weeping and said I pray thee, sire, that thou avenge the death of one my son which innocently and without cause hath been slain. The emperor answered: If I come again from the battle whole and sound then I shall do justice for the death of thy son. Then said the widow: Sire, and if thou die in the battle who shall then avenge his death? And the emperor said: He that shall come after me. And the widow said: Is it not better that thou do to me justice and have the merit thereof of God than another have it for thee? Then had Trajan pity and descended from his horse and did justice in avenging the death of her son. On a time Saint Gregory went by the market of Rome which is called the market of Trajan, and then he remembered of the justice and other good deeds of Trajan, and how he had been piteous and debonair, and was much sorrowful that he had been a paynim, and he turned to the church of Saint Peter wailing for the horror of the miscreance of Trajan. Then answered a voice from God saying: I have now heard thy prayer, and have spared Trajan from the pain perpetual. By this, as some say, the pain perpetual due to Trajan as a miscreant was somedeal taken away, but for all that was not he quit from the prison of hell, for the soul may well be in hell and feel there no pain by the mercy of God.”

            So dash it, the (small “t”) tradition of my Church is on your side and not mine about the possibility of post-mortem repentance/salvation. I may grudgingly admit the possibility of removal from Limbo to Purgatory, but I have to stick on “no release from Hell proper”.


        • Ted Seeber

          It is real repentance if you can accept:
          1. That God Exists
          2. That God has Moral Authority over You
          3. That you have transgressed that moral authority.

          To paraphrase CS Lewis in The Great Divorce- if you can accept those three things, even if it takes a thousand years for your soul to do so, then it is not Hell, but merely Purgatory. Hell is for those souls that CANNOT accept those three items under ANY circumstances.

          • deiseach

            I’m going to refer here to an obcure and short-lived horror/fantasy tv show from 1998, “Brimstone”. The central conceit (which was completely daft) was that 113 souls had escaped from Hell, and the Devil had charged one damned soul (a policeman) to re-capture them. As theology, this is nonsense on toast, but funnily enough, the programme managed to hit several good points (it also managed, in its one and only season of thirteen episodes, to have a complete stinker which probably not coincidentally involved a Chinese character and setting, with all the concomitant problems of othering and Orientalism you would expect).

            When I started watching the first episode, and they introduced a blind(!), black(!) Roman Catholic priest, I cynically said to myself “Oh yeah, I know where this is going. This is going to be the warm fuzzy version of religion speech, where it doesn’t matter what you believe or do, as long as you try to be a good person.” Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather when the character I expected to be the sympathetic, social-work version of religiosity (given the characteristics he had been lumbered with) instead more or less said to Our Hero “Yeah, you went to Hell – and you deserved to go!” From that moment on, I sat up and paid attention, and at the end I said “This is good! I love it! Oh crap, that means it’s going to get cancelled!” 🙂

            Anyway, the point of this rambling reminescence is Episode Four, Repentance, where a Bad Man (one of the 113 escapees from Hell) is presented to us. He’s set up as the main suspect for the serial killing of homeless people, and we know he’s a Bad Man because he was in life a Nazi (I can’t offhand remember whether he was a soldier or just a collaborationist who fell for the party line).

            But to skip to the end, our policeman hero has to send him back to Hell – and he is williing to go, because he says he deserves it, that all the good he was trying to do while he was back on earth was only trying to earn forgiveness for his misdeeds, and that he could not do that. And that made me think, as you say, for him when he returns – Hell will not be Hell. It will be Purgatory.

            Because he didn’t excuse what he had done while he was alive the first time, or say that he was trying to make up for it, or that Hell was too harsh or he deserved a second chance now that he wanted to be good – he acknowledged and owned his sins, and repented them.

    • Brandon B

      There is a bit of metaphysical weirdness to death, and I’ll try to explain it, though it’s likely my own understanding is flawed. God is outside of time (whatever that means), so heaven, which is being with God, is also outside of time, and so is hell. Thus, when you die you leave time. Because repenting is an event, and must happen within time, you can’t do it after you’ve died.

      A priest said that this is the reason that there is no redemption for fallen angels. When they made the choice to disobey God, they understood at that very moment all the consequences of their choice, for all eternity, and did it anyway.

      • Ted Seeber

        The exception to this is Purgatory- but in Catholic Theology, Purgatory, unlike Heaven and Hell, is not eternal but temporal; that is to say, it is INSIDE OF TIME.

        • Ted Seeber

          I believe your description of Purgatory( in Catholic theology) is incorrect. Do you have a reference to support it?
          Purgatory is not “temporal” but temporary. Purgatory is a state or condition, not a place.

          • Ted Seeber

            I am very much a John Paul II Catholic:

          • Ted Seeber

            Which I should point out is that I’m just using the language slightly differently- for I fail to see the difference between temporal and temporary in this context.

      • keddaw

        Brandon thanks for the attempt, but I feel you fall on your own logic here – if the angels are outside of time then they could not have with god ‘before’ and against god ‘later’ because there is no time to give those concepts meaning. A better explanation is that they are outside our time but do exist in their own time and hence such concepts are meaningful in their realm but have no necessary link to our time since there is no super-universal time (there isn’t even universal time, but let’s not go down the general relativity route).

        Your view also ossifies people’s souls at the point of death which might cause issues with the concept of purgatory (as others mentioned). Of course, this is the problem with a rather splendid bronze-middle-dark age theology trying to adapt to discoveries about heliocentrism, non-universality of time and social progress.

    • Erick

      If a person has not ordered their life and soul towards God, then how would they recognize God’s love for them and the need for repentence in the afterlife? It’s like assuming that an alcoholic will suddenly recognize that he is alcoholic. And that they will then undertake the correct steps to overcome their addiction. Sure some will, but most won’t. This is the position you leave an evil person if you kill them. You are hoping that they will suddenly recognize they are evil. And then you are hoping that they will know how to order themselves to God once they do. It’s not impossible, but it’s a very poor bet.

  • Alex Godofsky

    I’m not sure this is as fruitful a line of inquiry as you hope, Leah. Note that one of the most common pejoratives applied to these acts is “cowardly”. The basic idea is that there is a virtuous and masculine kind of fighting that pits the prowess of two similarly-armed men against each other in a deadly contest. Those who would stab you from behind, shoot you from afar, or bomb you from the air are not confident enough in their own prowess to fight fair. These modes of combat end up rehabilitated as soon as they bring some kind of risk.

    There are people who are concerned with the dehumanizing effect of killing from a distance, but I think the stronger meme by far is the one that valorizes proficiency with combat.

  • @leahlibresco
    At the risk of banality, the correct heuristic would be “what would Jesus do?”

  • Ted Seeber

    The one way I believe Americans in that era were more moral than Islamics in that era.

    In Russia, in the Czar’s army, it was said that an Islamic soldier could slit the throats of a thousand men in a single night. The Chechnyans proved it- that’s why at the end of the Soviet Union, the Chechnyan rebellion was so incredibly scary to the average Russian.

    You are completely right about Drone Warfare- how incredibly far have we come from Augustine’s Just Warfare, where it was considered that unless you looked your enemy in the eyes as you killed him (and gave him an equal chance to do likewise) you were not showing love for your enemy.

    Here’s the sad part to me, I do not believe drone warfare is going away, and I fully do believe that whoever is elected in November will have a strong temptation to use it as punishment for civil crime. It is hard to have judicial review over what the papers will likely call a “lightning strike” or “re-entering space junk”.

  • Does bombing (with drones or otherwise) make us safer? What if a terrorist was hiding out in the woods in New Hampshire and we sent a drone out to kill him? What if innocent children were playing in those woods and they were killed? No one in America would stand for this. We are creating more terrorists with our drones. Bombs, acts of military aggression, rather than stopping killing leads to more killing. Check out this opinion page in the New York Times, How Drones Help Al Qaeda http://t.co/qfRdl6Cb

    • deiseach

      I’m torn between ‘At least it would be more honest if they did use drones in the U.S.A. instead of restricting them to foreigners, because it doesn’t matter if Those Out There get killed?’ and fear that normalisation of advances in better ways to kill each other will mean that drones will be used domestically.

      Over here in Britain and Ireland, we’ve come to accept the ubiquity of CCTV on our public streets in the name of public safety and law and order. Further surveillance and security measures would be very appealing. Drones could be used for police drugs operations (see this article Lucy in the Sky from the Irish magazine “The Phoenix”). I could easily see the temptation to send them in to investigate and even eventually ‘take out’ suspected criminal gangs, suspected domestic terrorist groups (think of Waco and David Koresh) and the likes, all sold as minimising the risk to civilians and the police forces.

      • leahlibresco

        They’re already using drones here on the border for immigration and drug war stuff. Surveillance only for now…

  • Regarding sniping and drone attacks, one thing that strikes me is that it’s the precision of the kill which disturbs people. It stops being “war” and ends up being something more personal.

    At the same time, I would much rather have wars fought using the most-precise killing methods available rather than using blunter methods which inflict massive civilian casualties.

    • Tom

      In many ways, firearms have made war so much less brutal. There is a reason people shoot themselves in the head as opposed to bludgeoning themselves to death with a rake.

      • Just look at the body counts of wars. Currently, it’s news if a single soldier dies or if there’s a single civilian casualty. This is immense progress in the correct direction.

  • John

    Interesting that everyone brings up the 2 atomic bombings but no one mentions that in the 6 months prior to those fateful missions the US had sent fleets of over 1,000 conventional bombers to firebomb hundreds of Japanese cities large and small and in some of the firestorms set off via conventional explosives and incendiaries, far more civilians died than from the 2 atom bombs combined. But somehow it was the nukes that made us an immoral people while the hundred fire-bombing raids go unmentioned. Had we not nuked those cities, it’s entirely possibly that Japan would have resisted more bombs and fought off an invasion conventionally rather than surrender. They should have surrendered after Midway.

    • John wrote:
      > Interesting that everyone brings up the 2 atomic bombings but no one mentions that in the 6 months prior to those fateful missions the US had sent fleets of over 1,000 conventional bombers to firebomb hundreds of Japanese cities large and small and in some of the firestorms set off via conventional explosives and incendiaries, far more civilians died than from the 2 atom bombs combined.

      John, a lot of us who are critics of the nuclear bombings have also been quite open about our horror at the conventional strategic bombing campaigns against civilian targets in so many of the wars of the twentieth century.

      We cannot talk about everything at once: the fact that, at one point, we are condemning the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not mean we do not also condemn other crimes committed in the name of war. There are so many such crimes that one cannot briefly name them all: the rape of Nanjing, the Katyn Forest massacre by the Soviets, the huge mass of Nazi crimes, the massacre of civilian Filipinos by US forces during the “War of the Philippine Insurrection [such a weaselly name for that brutal war!],” and on and on and on.

      Yes, of course, they were all deeply evil.


  • Jeff

    We are not executioners. The basic model of warfare is STOPPING your enemy. If you could do that effectively by setting the phaser on stun, you would have to do so.

    Honor and propriety and kindness are good things, they are virtuous. But they are not the same standards as the pure ethics of warfare.

    It is wrong to deliberately kill a man in such a way as to make him suffer horribly. But if your duty is to stop him and you can only do that effectively by making him suffer then you must do that.

    You must be humane. But the soldiers primary duty is to defeat the enemy. Otherwise he’s liable to render those he should be protecting subject to death and misery.

    • Jeff wrote:
      >But the soldiers primary duty is to defeat the enemy.

      No. Not at all.

      At least one of the sides in any war is horribly wrong. And, the duty of the soldiers on that side is to mutiny, to refuse to kill the innocents they are supposed to fight, and, if necessary, to kill their own officers and the officials in their government that started the unjust war.

      The soldier’s primary duty is not to defeat the enemy but rather to avoid committing horrendous crimes. Only if he knows that fighting the enemy is not in and of itself a crime should he even consider obeying orders.

      Odd that so many people can antiseptically refer to the “soldier’s primary duty” in abstract, disembodied terms without remembering what that “duty” has actually meant to actual human beings in so many wars in the last hundred years.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • Brian Dees

    I wonder how many if you that decry use of the atomic bomb against Japan would have felt that way if you would have had to take part in a protracted land war in Japan. Keep in mind that Japan was a determined, sadistic enemy. Try reading “The Rape of Nanking” to gain some insight into their mindset. Positing that use of the bomb was not necessary is very easy almost 70 years later. Much different for President Truman faced with a way to end a long and tragic war quickly and spar American lives.

    • Brian Dees wrote:
      >Keep in mind that Japan was a determined, sadistic enemy.

      No. Not “Japan,” not if by “Japan” you mean to include the children who were incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      Some Japanese, especially some of those who dominated the army, were sadistic. But, have you ever read about the brutally sadistic American suppression early in the twentieth century of the Filipino Independence movement? Try reading Stuart Creighton Miller’s Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines. The Japanese army held no monopoly on sadism.

      Or read about the Belgian Congo or the British suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny or endless other atrocities of Western imperialism. Or, for that matter, about the mass murders by our dear allies, the Nationalist Chinese, whom we were aiding against the Japanese.

      In fact, among the regimes in power in 1941, the one regime that had the most blood on its hands was Stalin’s Soviet Union. So, why didn’t we openly ally with Japan and Hitler against Stalin to crush the most murderous madman of the lot?

      Or maybe we could just stop playing the game of “Who is the greater demon?” and resolve that we ourselves will refrain from killing innocent human beings, no matter how noble our supposed cause? We are not God: our various murderous crusades in the last century to “make the world safe for democracy,” to spread the “Four Freedoms,” to “defend the Free World,” and all the rest have not worked out very well.

      Maybe we can just stop killing, huh?


      • Tom


        If your point is that war isn’t always angels vs demons than bravo. But don’t start using false equivalence to make every war a pointless battle between equally wrong opponents. True, no group, tribe, clan, or state rose to power completely peacefully. Power requires an exercise of strength which includes violence. Does that mean everyone is equally guilty and all cultures are equal? Hardly. (and that is a dangerous mindset) In the long run, promoting freedom is a worthy long term goal even if it requires short term cost including war and loss of life. “Maybe we can just stop killing”? Compared to what people and what era? It’s easy to act above the fray though isn’t it especially during Pax Americana.

        • Tom wrote to me:
          >But don’t start using false equivalence to make every war a pointless battle between equally wrong opponents.

          I did not say that at all! On the contrary, I pointed out that at least one of the Allies – Stalinist Russia – was even worse than the Axis powers (all of which, of course, were indeed evil).

          You’re putting words in my mouth.

          The problem is not that the Axis and the Allies were morally equivalent but rather that one of our Allies was the most evil power involved in the War.

          Tom also wrote:
          > True, no group, tribe, clan, or state rose to power completely peacefully. Power requires an exercise of strength which includes violence.

          Indeed, And, I would suggest that that is an awfully good reason to never offer unconditional allegiance to any government, anywhere, ever.

          Tom also wrote:
          > In the long run, promoting freedom is a worthy long term goal even if it requires short term cost including war and loss of life.

          Yeah, monstrous crimes in the short run, justified by the ever-receding goal of ultimate peace and freedom! So also believed Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot, et al., ad nauseum.

          Let’s try giving peace a chance, eh? To quote from the Enlightenment:
          >”Laissez faire et laissez passer. Le monde va de lui même!”

          Or, if you prefer Paul McCartney as a source of wisdom, “There will be an answer: let it be.”

          You and I and our fellow Americans are not God: the world managed to get along before there was a United States of America, and the world will manage to muddle on if and when we Americans come to our senses and stop waging war in the name of “peace.”


  • Peggy Hagen

    “Did you ever meet the captain…? He has a wife. Three small childre. An Abyssinian cat named Max. That’s what makes this war different from anything we’ve gone through before. This time, we know everyone we kill.” – Sheridan, Babylon 5

    The Civil War was probably the last war in which both sides had a good chance of that – of knowing people across the battlefield from them. West Point graduates, boys from the same town. That would be my starting point – that you should know something about the other person, something to fix him in your mind as more than just the “enemy other”. At the very least, you should be aware that it is a person you are killing, even if you only see him through the scope of a gun you should do that much.As others have said, you should take the responsibility. Drones and bombing runs don’t allow for that.

  • Tom

    War has a cost and a goal. It is a system that has constraints. I think any war-like action should be to optimize this cost function and loss of human life should be considered the costliest. If snipers or drone attacks can cripple an enemy advance or morale, why should it be “less humane” than a Hollywood sword fight?

  • Mike (from Hempstead)

    I share Leah’s concern about the expanding dangers of drones – not only by governments, but increasingly through privatization. Many local “police” forces are becoming increasingly militarized by funds made available through the Department of Homeland Security. Privacy and, ultimately, safety are jeopardized by people using power for purposes at odds with democracy and human rights.