War and Failure

War and Failure April 7, 2008

“War must be the last resort, because it’s always a sign of human failure.” So said the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, in a recent interview with John Allen. This is a theme that I have stressed many times on this blog now, for I feel there is a major blindness among certain American Catholics who have adopted, without thinking, the theology of “liberation through military force”– a theology every bit as flawed and dangerous and its Marxist-inpired cousin. And yes, George Weigel, I’m looking at you.

In the zeal for military force, they often forget that war is a last resort, and is therefore–by definition– a sign of failure. And, following from this, no good can come of something that derives from failure and defeat (Blackadder has a good, complementary, discussion on this topic this morning). Another key point we often forget is how war affects those who fight it, even those wars that do pass the tough tests of validity. How many return from war forever scarred by their experiences? How many have done things in the heat of the moment that will forever haunt their consciences? In such vulnerable circumstances, the whispers of Satan in one’s ear seem to sound more appealing than ever.

This is why the glorification of the military and military service– so prominent in modern American society– disturbs me greatly. Why is it such noble service to do something that only arises as a result of failure? Why is it so honorable to face some of the most evil temptations known to humanity? Were the torturers of Abu Ghraib known to have sociopathic tendencies before they arrived in Iraq. I think not. Indeed, one account points to the sensitivity and mildless of one of the torturers, Sabrina Harman. Of course, this great evil stems directly from the unjustness of the Iraq war and the evil policies promulgated by its intigators.

What about World War 2, which usually does pass muster as a just war. Just look at the millions dead. Look the the ruined continent. Look at the mental and pschological devastation. Look at the tightening of the communist grip. And how noble were the supposed victors in that war? Can the glorification of the “greatest generation” be squared with war crimes of enormous gravity– the indiscriminate bombings of Dresden, Toyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…? Remember, these acts are intrinsically evil, which means the underlying justice (or lack thereof) of the war is irrelevant.

And what about Vietnam? What about the wanton massacres of civilians by scared trigger-happy American soliders who had no place being there in the first place? Is this something noble? No, and I applaud John Kerry for coming back and saying as much. Of course, with the nationalist crowd, this was his greatest sin.

Nothing I am saying here should be interpretated as dogmatic pacifism. I believe in the just war theory, though I believe such wars are exceeding rare and, as Pope Benedict once noted, may no longer even exist in the modern era. But I do not believe military service is a noble and honorable endeavor. It is a great occasion of sin and evil. It is a profession that exists solely as a result of sin in the world, solely as a sign of human failure. This is something to repent, not cheer.

To close, I would remind everybody of the wise counsel once given by St. Basil of Caesarea. In trying to square Christian teachings with the miltary profession, be noted that soliders who kill in war should not be treated in the same way as those guilty of homocide. But they are not off the book either: “it is well to counsel that those whose hands are not clean only abstain from communion for three years.” I think it would be a good idea to resurrect this teaching, so show that the Church must stand apart from a culture that glorifies military service. Ironically, of course, those who do wish to ban people from communion in modern American would blanch at the thought of including soldiers.

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