Agonizing Moral Restraint
Dialog includes bombast, and it tends to grab attention. Historically our politicians and generals certainly have put the “bomb” in “bombastic.” In response to North Korean nuclear threats to our country, President Trump warned, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Whether intentionally or not intended, Trump’s words were remarkably similar to former President Harry Truman’s warning to Japan after the atomic attack on Hiroshima: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.” And before the incendiary bombing of Tokyo, U.S. General Curtis LeMay told his airmen, “You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.”
How should Christians respond to the bombast and the threats?
The Church’s teaching on just-war principles is authoritative but in our day is largely neglected, even by churchmen (who seem to be more interested in the negotiable politics of immigration and global warming). But the North Korean war-scare should be an occasion for those of us responsible for Catholic teaching to provide the moral tools to the faithful —and through them, our rulers—in analyzing the morality for, a) going to war and, b) waging war.
Here is the Church’s “just war” teaching, paraphrased from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, as long as the danger of war persists, governments —representing the people of a nation—cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.
The strict conditions—for legitimate defense by military force—require rigorous consideration. The gravity of the decision to use such force makes it subject to scrupulous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; 2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3) there must be serious prospects of success; 4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
Hence the question of the morality of going to war in Korea or elsewhere hangs on the proper and thoughtful application of these principles. Establishing the prudence of the application does not rest with Church authorities, but with the laity —and through them, our rulers. But when a war is truly justifiable, as horrible as it may be, there is no right to employ every military means indiscriminately. The distinction between just killing in war and in murder must be maintained. The difference between legitimate killing in war and murder can be quite subtle than what initially meets the eye. For example, the execution of prisoners of war is immoral. But suppose the enemy established a pattern of faking a surrender as was seen in the South Pacific in WWII? And during the Korean War, it is at least arguable that the use of atomic bombs on invading Chinese troops —as true combatants—would have been legitimate self-defense with the context of a just war.
In addition, the Church has always taught that in every war, there should be no direct attacks on noncombatants or innocent civilians. But does this exclude an attack on armament factories and military installations where civilians and even slave laborers work?
The extremely useful traditional Principle of Double Effect may need to be invoked. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that a good action may also result in bad effects. Under these circumstances, it is permissible to perform an action causing bad effects if you meet these four conditions: 1) The action itself is morally justified (e.g., bombing a dangerous armaments factory). 2) A bad effect is a result of the same morally good act (bombing the factory also kills civilian workers). 3) But the bad effect is not intended. 4) Finally, there is a certain proportionality between the good and bad effects (the armaments factory is truly dangerous, and not a BB-gun factory, for example). Notice that the discussion of proportionality takes place after the morality of the action is ascertained.
But the ends do not justify the means, even in war. The Church teaches (backed by centuries of tradition opposing attacks on civilians): “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 80).
Of course, atomic attacks on cities may be the first to come to mind. But conventional weapons can be equally destructive. The Nazi bombing of London, the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, as well as General Curtis LeMay’s incineration of Tokyo are all examples. In these actions, civilians and population centers were intentionally targeted.
During the incendiary bombings in Japan, the fires were so intense that a firestorm ensued. The fires generated their own weather, creating a giant suction device for oxygen that also killed by asphyxiation. The human agony was unspeakable.
Toward the end of the campaign, LeMay lowered the altitude of the B-29s to fly nearer the ground and removed their guns to save weight, because Japan could no longer fight back against the B-29s. The bombers flew their missions in waves. Fires from earlier waves of bombers would send the mist into the air through which later waves flew at low altitude. “The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mists and stench of burning flesh that wafted up sickened the bomber pilots, forcing them to grab oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.” The destruction was so complete that LeMay did not see the need for the atomic bombings.
After the war, LeMay’s top aide and future Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said, “We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children.” Some 900,000 Japanese civilians died in all. McNamara added,
LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals. What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
Late in life, McNamara spelled out eleven lessons he had learned over his years. Among them were “Proportionality should be a guideline in war” and, “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” Those ideas are not new. They could almost have been taken directly from the playbook of Joseph Fletcher’s book, Situation Ethics. In McNamara’s world, there could be no true repentance for evil actions, only a despondent acknowledgment of “mistaken analyses.” But God has his own war crimes tribunal.
A good deal of the preceding is based on a recent email exchange with a Northern Virginia friend who has business relationships with the defense industry and who is in earnest about conducting his business practices according to sound Catholic morality. He concluded our exchange with this: “Since LeMay also wanted to drop a nuke or two on the town where I lived as a 1-year-old baby in October 1962 [during the Cuban Missile Crisis], for me this discussion is far from theoretical, and I’m grateful that your moral analysis —correction, the Church’s moral analysis—takes civilians like my parents very much into account.”
Many in the military today share the same sentiments and convictions. But we in the Church need to give them the moral tools to navigate these choppy waters. As we beg God for peace, let us also beg our leaders to consider the morality of going to war and, when necessary, to exercise a thoughtful (if agonizing) moral restraint in executing the war. Please, God. Let us never with malice aforethought ever again target civilian population centers.
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