Emmanuel McCarthy and John Carmody on “killing abstracions”

Emmanuel McCarthy and John Carmody on “killing abstracions” August 8, 2009

I recently finished an essay entitled “Destructive Obedience: U.S. Military Training and Culture as a Parody of Christian Discipleship” for a reading course on war and peace in Christian thought. The paper is rather lengthy, but I’m trying to figure out a good way to share pieces of it here at Vox Nova. To tide you over, here is a passage from an article by Emmanuel McCarthy and John Carmody which gets at the argument I make in the paper. (Too bad I only found it tonight and could not incorporate it into the essay!)

To say, “I will not kill a fellow human being,” is an expression of consciousness flowing from a profoundly catholic, empathic awareness of the “other” as “self.” To say, “I will kill a fellow human being,” is the consequence of an external, patterned, repetitive, cultural and parochial undermining of the pre-existing human faculty and tendency toward empathy, by means of intentional information-deprivation or distortion. The “other” becomes an abstraction that is less than “self.”

[…]

Be not deluded. Abstractions can kill. Here the battlefield is the human mind. All is won or lost there. All nations, all militaries, all institutional religions, all corporations know this — and Jesus knows this, which is why His first public word was metanoiete, “change your minds.”

[Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy and John J. Carmody, “Killing Abstractions: The Battlefield of the Human Mind,” The Sign of Peace: Journal of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 8.2 (Spring 2009), pp. 14-5.]

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  • markdefrancisis

    “To accept the other’s face, or better, to accept that I am dealing with an other (and not an object), a face (and not a spectacle), a counter-gaze ( and not a reflection of my own), depends uniquely on my willing it so. What I will organizes itself into the following alternative: either I do not love him and I pass him by going around him (Luke 10:31-32); or I “approach him and, seeing him, am unsettled” (Luke 10:33). This alternative, this crisis, and this judgment determine either the appearing of the other, or his occultation.”

    Jean-Luc Marion, Prolegomena to Charity. New York: Fordham UP, 2002. p.166.

  • Matt Talbot

    To say, “I will kill a fellow human being,” is the consequence of an external, patterned, repetitive, cultural and parochial undermining of the pre-existing human faculty and tendency toward empathy, by means of intentional information-deprivation or distortion. The “other” becomes an abstraction that is less than “self.”

    From my own basic training: this was repeated over and over again, and drilled into us the whole time we were learning hand-to-hand fighting.

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    [Etc, etc, etc…]

  • Matt Talbot

    To say, “I will kill a fellow human being,” is the consequence of an external, patterned, repetitive, cultural and parochial undermining of the pre-existing human faculty and tendency toward empathy, by means of intentional information-deprivation or distortion. The “other” becomes an abstraction that is less than “self.”

    From my own basic training: this was repeated over and over again, and drilled into us the whole time we were learning hand-to-hand fighting.

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    [Etc, etc, etc…]

  • Matt Talbot

    To say, “I will kill a fellow human being,” is the consequence of an external, patterned, repetitive, cultural and parochial undermining of the pre-existing human faculty and tendency toward empathy, by means of intentional information-deprivation or distortion. The “other” becomes an abstraction that is less than “self.”

    From my own basic training: this was repeated over and over again, and drilled into us the whole time we were learning hand-to-hand fighting.

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    “What is the spirit of the Bayonet?”

    “TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET, SERGEANT! TO KILL WITHOUT REGRET!”

    [Etc, etc, etc…]

  • KILL WITHOUT REGRET!

    This is the epitome of anti-gospel. No Christian should join the u.s. military.

  • I’ll point out that, obviously, the quote above applies to abortion as well.

  • In addition to seeing the other as self, I advocate an awareness of the other as other – as permanently beyond our understanding. Much physical violence flows from a linguistic violence whereby the other is reduced to a demeaning category. We can counter this linguistic violence by insisting on more accurate language to identify the other, but also by recognizing that no category contains the other.

  • Good point, Kyle.

  • doug

    Here’s a conundrum for your consideration:

    A person becomes an army medic because he believes in the event of a just war, he has a duty to defend his people, and in the event of an unjust war he has a duty to repair the damage. A medic is a non-combatant under international law.

    He has gathered up casualties on the battlefield and is rendering life-saving medical treatment. His position comes under attack. There is no question that these patients are no longer combatants, nor is the medic a combatant.

    Does he protect those under his care and fight back, does he run and abandon his patients to death at the hands of the enemy, or does he die there with his patients?

  • Matt Talbot

    He protects those under his care, Doug; and if his humanity is intact, he regrets it.

  • Matt Talbot

    He protects those under his care, Doug; and if his humanity is intact, he regrets it.

  • Matt Talbot

    He protects those under his care, Doug; and if his humanity is intact, he regrets it.

  • doug

    And that, Matt, is the ideal for what all in the military should strive for, although we know that’s not the case. The guys who would wear the “Pray for War” tee shirts struck me as awfully creepy. They were not about protection from evil, but about glorifying evil. Pacifism is appealing until you run into those who will do evil to those under your care. But in protecting the defenseless, the risk comes of embracing evil to combat evil.

    I can’t join in a blanket condemnation of the military, but what we have isn’t working. I think we would be best served by eliminating a standing army and expanding the National Guard. I find the Swiss model to be quite attractive.

  • Matt Talbot

    I agree with everything you said, Doug – but I wonder whether the national guard model would eliminate the “Kill without regret” style of propagandizing. I wonder whether the imperial purposes to which our military is put, influences what it teaches its soldiers?

    The United States is the most powerful country in human history (and we Americans are told this more or less incessantly – I wonder why?): I believe that needs to change, and radically, if real justice is to advance in the world.

    Nationalism is an idol, and like all idols, it demands finally that you surrender your immortal soul; I suspect a piece of gospel poverty is renouncing nationalism, inordinate pride in one’s country’s achievements and position in worldly affairs.

  • Matt Talbot

    I agree with everything you said, Doug – but I wonder whether the national guard model would eliminate the “Kill without regret” style of propagandizing. I wonder whether the imperial purposes to which our military is put, influences what it teaches its soldiers?

    The United States is the most powerful country in human history (and we Americans are told this more or less incessantly – I wonder why?): I believe that needs to change, and radically, if real justice is to advance in the world.

    Nationalism is an idol, and like all idols, it demands finally that you surrender your immortal soul; I suspect a piece of gospel poverty is renouncing nationalism, inordinate pride in one’s country’s achievements and position in worldly affairs.

  • Matt Talbot

    I agree with everything you said, Doug – but I wonder whether the national guard model would eliminate the “Kill without regret” style of propagandizing. I wonder whether the imperial purposes to which our military is put, influences what it teaches its soldiers?

    The United States is the most powerful country in human history (and we Americans are told this more or less incessantly – I wonder why?): I believe that needs to change, and radically, if real justice is to advance in the world.

    Nationalism is an idol, and like all idols, it demands finally that you surrender your immortal soul; I suspect a piece of gospel poverty is renouncing nationalism, inordinate pride in one’s country’s achievements and position in worldly affairs.

  • doug

    I think that the advantage to a National Guard model is that they have not chosen soldiering as a profession, but as a form of service. They are in the community and of the community. My experience was very positive, and I found a lot of very selfless individuals in the Guard. Fighting forest fires and helping flood victims kind of weeds out those with a focus on bloodlust.

    If training were localized on the state level, rather than the federal, I could see good things happening from that. It would also be more consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

    A professional military is by its very nature separate from and physically removed from the community. Therein lies the problem. There is no good reason to keep troops in Germany or Japan, and since the mid 90’s, Korea either.

    At any rate, this is entirely off topic. It would be good to see a focus on service and not killing. On protection, and not aggression. I tried to abide by the pacifism mindset, and it’s not entirely without merit or reason. When I was single, I decided that an aggressor’s life was not less valuable than my own. I decided that physical force less than deadly force would be appropriate, and I actually saved a young woman from an assault once by engaging an attacker and drawing him off allowing her escape, followed by my own, and no harm came to anyone. However, when we had too many children to pick up and carry out of harms way, and a police chase came to my front yard with no way for us to escape the felon, I realized that the children under my care deserved better from me than a “hope we can get away”.

    Pacifism is fine for a single person. The CCC makes quite clear, however, that sometimes one has an absolute duty to protect those under one’s care, and any squeamishness about the matter becomes sinful.

    May God grant that my children never face a mortal threat. And that if they do, that I am able to protect them.

  • The CCC makes quite clear, however, that sometimes one has an absolute duty to protect those under one’s care…

    This in no way means that protecting people requires violence, or even that if violence is used as a last resort that it could even be called “right” or “good.”

    …and any squeamishness about the matter becomes sinful.

    The Catechism says nothing of the sort. In fact at various points in the Church’s history she required soldiers who fought and killed in “just” wars to do penance and abstain from the Eucharist. This part of your statement is simply american “common sense” and has no roots in the Christian tradition.

  • …sometimes one has an absolute duty to protect those under one’s care…

    Interesting, isn’t it, that when we say such things we are usually referring to our family members or people we “love.”

    We never refer to the fact that all human persons are under our care.

    Do we as Christians not have a duty to protect Iraqis from their american murderers?

    (“Murderers” is a precise term: as the Iraq was is clearly unjust, the killing involved in it is unjust killing, i.e. murder.)

  • doug

    From the CCC:

    2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

    If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

    2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.66

  • Doug,

    There is nothing in those passages to support your claim that “any squeamishness about the matter becomes sinful.”

  • Kurt

    While I am not a pacifist, I am extremely reluctant to object to the writings of a God-favored priest like Father McCarthy, whose daughter’s life was preserved by the intercession of St. Edith Stein.

  • doug

    If one is deterred from doing one’s duty by an interior disposition, it’s certainly not virtuous.

  • Matt Talbot

    I don’t think we really disagree, Doug.

    Letting the innocent be slaughtered is indefensible, I would agree. That said: If one is reluctant to do harm, even to one who threatens the innocent, that is a sign that one’s humanity is intact, I think.

    The guys that come haunted back from war we should pray for; but the ones who come back seemingly unbothered by what they’ve seen and done – they are the ones we should really worry about.

  • Matt Talbot

    I don’t think we really disagree, Doug.

    Letting the innocent be slaughtered is indefensible, I would agree. That said: If one is reluctant to do harm, even to one who threatens the innocent, that is a sign that one’s humanity is intact, I think.

    The guys that come haunted back from war we should pray for; but the ones who come back seemingly unbothered by what they’ve seen and done – they are the ones we should really worry about.

  • Matt Talbot

    I don’t think we really disagree, Doug.

    Letting the innocent be slaughtered is indefensible, I would agree. That said: If one is reluctant to do harm, even to one who threatens the innocent, that is a sign that one’s humanity is intact, I think.

    The guys that come haunted back from war we should pray for; but the ones who come back seemingly unbothered by what they’ve seen and done – they are the ones we should really worry about.

  • Doug – You are confusing being squeamish about doing one’s duty to protect another and being squeamish about the use of violence.

  • Kurt

    To save myself from the Holy Inquisition, in my post above, I mean to say “…through the intercession…”, not “…by”.