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Military preparedness is not a sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 29, 2022

The editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, Andrea Tornielli, has deplored the tendency “to contextualize and downplay” Pope Francis’ statements against war. His remarks distinguish between the right of Ukraine to resist armed aggression and the larger need to turn away from a competitive arms race that absorbs massive amounts of money which, therefore, cannot be spent “on families, healthcare, work, hospitality, to fight poverty and hunger.”

It is certainly important to recognize the difference between a particular war and the arms race. But Tornielli’s recognition remains naive and distorted, and in fact the case of Ukraine offers a valuable illustration of the problem. Doubtless everyone would prefer that their taxes be used for the benefit of “families, healthcare, work” and “to fight poverty and hunger” (though the category of “hospitality” seems a bit strange). But families, healthcare, work, and material well-being in Ukraine are currently being destroyed because the Ukrainian government did not put itself in a position to deter a Russian invasion.

One can argue that it would have been both more moral and more prudent for Ukraine to have a larger defense budget along with a more studied neutrality. One can also argue that the task would have been impossible. But one cannot argue that this is an illegitimate consideration. The Ukrainian government’s legendary corruption only strengthens the point.

It would be hard to find anyone who would not prefer to spend tax dollars on measures that promote health and prosperity, which are significant components of the common good. But the real world is not a vacuum, and just as government must budget a reasonable amount for the adequate policing of criminal behavior, so too must it budget what is reasonable for defense against foreign attack. These two distasteful duties are important elements of the common good. In fact, policing and defense are precisely the elements of the common good which must be secured first, before one can consider things like infrastructure improvements and public assistance. If the plight of Ukraine does not illustrate this point, it illustrates nothing at all.

One can also argue, of course, that beefing up a country’s defense capability is, if nothing else, a large potential source of increased prosperity, making more jobs available both in the military and in companies which provide goods and services to the military. That’s not high on my list of selling points, but it is best to be thorough.

Category mistakes

All other things being equal, no genuinely good person will prefer massive expenditures on military preparedness to greater non-military employment, general prosperity and care for those in need. The problem is that all things are not equal, and it is a category mistake to suggest that they are. Internal peace and security and freedom from external attack are prerequisites for all the other goods which are to be fostered in a well-run commonwealth. They are the very first obligations of government.

It also goes without saying that all governments of good will should work with each other to build trust and reduce the need for massive expenditure on arms, defense systems, and the military. But a government which fails to put in place adequate protections against outside attack—assuming this is within the realm of possibility—has failed in one of its first responsibilities. The citizens of such a nation will not be found praising the health, welfare and educational systems when the bombs fall and enemy soldiers smash their way into home territory.

My point in saying this is that when good Christians, including Pope Francis and Andrea Tornielli, emphasize the apparent lunacy of the arms race and the immense impediments to moral warfare, they rightly highlight the need to foster peace through understanding and good will; but they say nothing about the responsibility of nations to provide for their own legitimate defense in an imperfect world. Pope Francis and Tornielli are absolutely right to encourage world leaders to work hard toward establishing peaceful relations, promoting understanding, and effecting a corresponding reduction of the scale of military preparedness as trust grows; but they tell us nothing about the responsibility of each government to protect its people from foreign attack.

It is right and proper to point out that the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction really is MAD; it is quite another to suggest that a government which is capable of self-defense can morally set aside this responsibility for the common good in the face of foreign hostility. These matters are extraordinarily hard to untangle. But there must be no category mistakes. Just because we lament the human condition for its stupid conflicts does not mean we can encourage governments to ignore their responsibility for an adequate defense of their people.

A very real tension

There is nothing easy about any of this, which we can see quite clearly even in the way Pope Francis has spoken of the war between Russia and Ukraine. He has slipped back and forth between condemning all war and acknowledging the moral right of Ukraine to defend itself (as Phil Lawler pointed out in On just war, the Pope contradicts himself). This is an occupational hazard of ecclesiastics, who have an obligation to point out the extreme moral hazards of war—including the significant odds against the morality of an offensive war—while being forced to admit, when push comes to shove, that an immoral attack may be met by a perfectly moral military response.

In other words, the reality that Russia’s war against Ukraine is profoundly immoral does not mean that Ukraine’s “participation” in this same war is immoral (though in the use of certain tactics and methods it may be). When even popes begin to confuse how they speak about “war” in such contexts, it is typically a matter of not switching gears rapidly enough between a condemnation of the initiation of a war and the recognition that those who have been attacked are now reluctantly at war themselves. But this is another distinction which it is a category mistake to ignore, and which it is a responsibility of every national government to take into account. Certainly it is a moral imperative for all parties to work for peace in full sincerity. But it is also a moral imperative for governments to provide for the defense of the people entrusted to their care.

Failures to make proper distinctions—that is, category mistakes—give the wrong impression. In their very proper abhorrence of violence, Church leaders have in our era tended to over-simplify the problem of the common good, frequently confusing prudential decisions with broad moral claims. War taken as a whole may be abominable and very generally unjust. It is always a grave natural evil. But it remains a moral imperative for governments to be prepared for war in order to secure the common good, by deterring or resisting attack.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mooreshi7489 - Mar. 30, 2022 11:50 AM ET USA

    I learned today from a webinar on preparedness that many parts of our defense system are decades out of date. We have been lulled, by our own wishful thinking and by our leaders, into believing “the Cold War” is over. It never was over, as we see today. As we let our systems become obsolete in many cases, China and Russia have been building up their systems. Do your research and speak up. We are vulnerable. Yes, self-defense is the duty of every government.

  • Posted by: td4207 - Mar. 30, 2022 10:49 AM ET USA

    I recall the American bishops 1980s statement against nuclear weapons and importance of disarmament: just as unrealistic as this conflicted statement. Indiscriminate missile attacks against civilians in Ukraine, along with reports of Ukrainian immigrants being forcefully detained by Russia, and shipped east in Gulag camps, demonstrate the importance of self-defense to deter despots.