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Of War and Red Flags

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 03, 2006

The reaction to my recent column on the moral ambiguity of war has been mixed but interesting. Although many thought the column worthwhile, others were convinced it was just one more proof of my conservative, pro-Republican pseudo-Catholicism.

Those who edit large amounts of expository material know that when people get the wrong idea about the point of an essay, it is often because a single sentence, phrase or word stands out like a red flag. From the moment this phrase is encountered, the reader has “figured out” your message, and ignores anything else you may say. For several respondents, my comments on the Fox News story provided just such a red flag. Thus, when I referred in my conclusion to “the perils and the arrogance of those who think they have all the facts necessary to form certain moral judgments while condemning the judgments of others”, they assumed I must be referring to only one side in the debate.

I wasn’t, and if the red flag obscured that fact, I shouldn’t have waved it.

I confess to being initially cheered by the Fox News story in the same way one should always be cheered when one’s leaders appear to have some evidence on their side. The true meaning of the story is murky (I said in the column that its meaning would be contested), and this was critical to the main point of the column. Indeed, I could just as easily have taken any disclosure on any side of the question as a springboard for the points I wished to make about the morality of participation in any war. The primary purpose of the column was to attempt to set forth the moral parameters within which the decision to fight or refuse to fight must be made, not in some safe debate, but on the part of the soldier—the soldier who is nearly always the victim of obscurity.

And so are we all. While we have no choice but to form our own opinions on matters of war and peace, we too quickly forget the obscurity within which these opinions are formed. I repeat here the secondary point of the column, that our discourse on this subject is far too strident. If you put yourself in the position, say, of a draftee being called up to fight “for his country”, you may see what I mean. The way the draftee must examine the moral question of whether to participate is very different, and far closer to reality, than the way most of us talk about the morality of war. If we really think that the draftee’s moral obligation is clear, then we are justified in using the sweeping judgments, condemnations, name-calling and contempt which so often characterize our treatment of essentially murky subjects.

Never mind that we have no draft at present. I use this example to drive the point home not just to officers and enlisted personnel, but to the proverbial man in the street, to you or to me. For if we are not really prepared to condemn either the draftee who fights (and accepts the consequences) or the draftee who refuses to fight (and accepts the consequences), then perhaps we need to be more circumspect in our assertions. That war is always a failure for humanity says nothing about its morality, and in the vast majority of cases this failure arises from a great complexity of perceptions, guesses and decisions, all of them based on inadequate information, and none of them based on a full understanding of the enemy.

In wars fought by men of good will, those who find judgment simple are very likely either ignorant or prejudiced, and nearly always singularly unhelpful. We must recognize that these prudential questions cannot be settled by Revelation. Paradoxically, we can make progress only by first acknowledging how little we know.

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