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War is hell

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 19, 2023

War is hell, and malicious misconduct in waging war may send malefactors to hell. The hatred among warring parties often distorts our capacity to assess the morality of violent responses within war in the light of the Ten Commandments. (A soldier who kills an enemy combatant in battle is without guilt. A soldier who kills a compliant POW is a murderer.) On rare occasions, public reactions to atrocities committed by our side are prompt. Usually it takes decades, even centuries, to acknowledge our historical crimes.

In memoirs published in 1885, U.S. Grant described the American war with Mexico (1846-1848) as “One of the most unjust (wars) ever waged.” Abolitionists celebrated John Brown’s anti-slavery terrorism as Union soldiers marched into battle singing “John Brown’s Body.” The Old South has bitter memories of the destruction of the civilian infrastructure in General Sherman’s infamous—but highly effective—March to the Sea across Georgia.

The Philippine-American war from 1899-1902 was the first counterinsurgency fought by the US. Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan were notable critics of the war. Congressional investigations in 1902 revealed that U.S. troops systematically used so-called “water cure” torture during counterinsurgency operations. The Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s report found that the American use of torture was systemic and the result of a breakdown of moral order. The war cost 4,200 U.S. soldiers and 20,000 Filipino soldiers. Civilian casualties were an estimated 250,000-750,000.

Japanese atrocities before and during WWII are well known. In 1937-38, the Japanese massacred an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese in Nanking. Japanese doctors conducted vivisection experiments on American POWs.

President Roosevelt incarcerated 120,000 Japanese-American citizens during WWII. Ethicists continue to argue the morality of the terror fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Second Vatican Council teaches: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” (GS n. 80) Nazi war crimes are even more ghastly in number.

In the 1960s, reporters such as CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, “brought the Vietnam War home” on television. Anti-war protests were widespread. Prominent politicians opposed the war or its conduct. Senator and 1968 Democrat presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy said, in private conversation, that he did not “oppose the war.” He opposed the way the American military waged the war.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces rounded up and murdered an estimated 2,800 civilians in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In 1968, American soldiers murdered at least 300 Vietnamese civilians (perhaps as many as 500) in My Lai (the “My Lai Massacre”). Some witnesses later told of “huge holes being blown into bodies, limbs being shot off, and heads exploding.” An American helicopter pilot likely saved many Vietnamese by threatening to order his gunner to fire on the soldiers if they did not break off their pursuit of fleeing Vietnamese.

These historical examples—purposely chosen to avoid the overheated current partisan debates—call upon our Christian sensibilities to dispassionately apply God’s Commandments to the conduct of military actions. The Fifth Commandment forms the basis of St. Augustine’s just-war theory, the Geneva Conventions, International Humanitarian Law, and many other international agreements concerning the rules of war. In brief, “Thou shalt not murder.”

Historic apologies

The Commandments are integral to Church teaching and evaluate all human behavior. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” the “spotless Bride of Christ.” Mary is the Mother of the Church. But there is no guarantee of the holiness of baptized Catholics, nor the military adventures of Catholics in the name of the Church.

In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade (“War of the Cross”). His purpose was to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land from Muslim attacks. The Crusade awakened powerful and unpredictable emotions, demonstrated the unity of Christendom, and provided the European nobility a worthy cause for their warlike spirit (cf. James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church). The Crusades continued for several centuries.

The First Crusade succeeded, establishing Christian hegemony in the Holy Land. The continued growth of Islam ultimately reversed those gains. The Fourth and last Crusade concluded as a massive rob-and-pillage expedition. Among the most infamous incidents was the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Crusader armies captured, looted, and destroyed parts of Constantinople, then the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

In 2001, in an address to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Pope John Paul II apologized for the violence in the name of the Church:

Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the human heart?

In 1999, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proposed to the International Theological Commission the study “The Church and the Faults of the Past.” The resultant report distinguished between the Church and her members: “An historical hermeneutic is therefore more necessary than ever in order to distinguish correctly between the action of the Church as community of faith and that of society in the times when an osmosis existed between them.”

From the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica in 2000, Pope John Paul said, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.” Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acknowledged the sins of the congregation’s predecessor, the Inquisition. “Even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel.”

Good ends but evil means

The recent rash of regional wars presents the same questions to all participants. The trauma of unjust aggression and terrorism does not invalidate God’s rule. Pope John Paul II’s apologies on behalf of “the children of the Church” for historical sins confirm the supremacy of God’s law. Waging a just war is good (cf. CCC 2309). Within the context of war, God’s law prohibits every injustice and atrocity rationalized by “choosing the lesser evil.” The rigorous application of the “principle of double effect” in war reduces civilian casualties and abides by the Fifth Commandment.

The four conditions of the principle of double effect are: 1) The act itself must be morally good and justified. 2) The agent may not desire the evil effect but may permit it. He should try to attain the good effect without the evil effect. 3) The good effect must be produced directly by the action, not through the evil effect. The agent must not intend the evil effect. Otherwise, the agent would be using an evil means to a good end, which is never allowed. 4) The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for allowing the evil effect—a certain proportionality between the good and evil effects. Notice that the discussion of proportionality takes place after the morality of the action is ascertained. (See New Catholic Encyclopedia for more details.)

Consider the difference between a Terror bomber vs. a Tactical bomber. The terror bomber aims to bring about civilian deaths to weaken the resolve of the enemy. He intends for his bombs to kill civilians. The tactical bomber aims at military targets while foreseeing that bombing such targets will cause civilian deaths. When his bombs kill non-combatants, this is a foreseen but unintended consequence of his actions. Terror bombing is impermissible. Tactical bombing may be permissible. But tactical bombing that also intends terrorism is evil.

The proportion of civilian casualties in recent conflicts has steadily risen despite the emergence of “smart” weapons that can theoretically allow surgical strikes. There is a clear danger (probability?) that military strategists too easily and improperly invoke (or presume) the principle of double-effect as a fig leaf to defend the indefensible. With a wink and a nod, invoking the principle could disguise the real purpose of a particular action with foreseeable evil consequences, allowing the agent to say it wasn’t his primary intention. The choice to nuke a city while insisting there is no intention to kill thousands of civilians (or that they are all complicit with combatants), for example, is morally obtuse.

Victory without battle

Jesus reminds us of the reasonableness of negotiations: “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace.” (Lk. 13:31-32) In the Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

In our fallen human condition, war—and our struggle to avoid war—will be with us until the end of time. Paradoxically, war brings out the best and the worst in the human spirit. War slogans range from inspiring to jingoistic. Reference to the Commandments may seem naïve to foreign-policy experts (who usually prefer to invoke diplomacy and international agreements). But moral integrity matters. What would any expansive war zone look like without principled moral restraint?

Every conflict is a Rubik’s Cube of passion, with truth as its first casualty. The preceding discussion deliberately avoids specific applications to current wars to focus attention on a single imperative. The whisper of God’s law should be ever-present. Let’s introduce the Fifth Commandment into foreign-policy chatter and evaluate every act of war with a simple principle of morality: “Thou shalt not murder.”

Honoring God’s law has eternal consequences for statesmen, soldiers, arms merchants, and all the rest of us.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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