War Is Hell

In 1622 Powhatan Indians killed 347 men, women, and children at Jamestown, nearly 1/3 of the entire colony. Fifteen years later at the Mystic River, English colonists and their Indian allies trapped an entire village of 600 Pequots inside their fortified wooden houses. The structures were set afire and the inhabitants burned alive. The few who escaped the flames were put to the sword. With each new wave of military technology, the scale of killing in war continually inundates the sensibilities of the past. Before the American Civil War, infantry fought at close range with muskets, one bullet at a time, effective range about 80 yards. It took a while for tactics to catch up with repeating rifles, improved artillery, and other new weapons with dramatically increased lethality. As a result there were many charges, such as Picket’s, in which men were mowed down like wheat. Then came the two World Wars and we took things to the next level. Now we have nuclear bombs. Lots of ‘em. With all the changes technology has brought to war, one thing has remained unchanged. War is Hell. It always feels kind of surreal to ponder which actions in war are pleasing to God and which are not. I concede that even amid the evils of war, men are responsible to discern with moral clarity. But I am struck by the especially modern sensibility that war can be a morally sanitized thing. We want to fight a careful, clean, principled, war. I’m just not sure war, when it comes down to it, affords those things in any abundance. In ‘Sin Eaters’ Timshel invited discussion on the morality of dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I confess to some ambivalence. As we wade into this strange realm of moral war, I see room for reasonable minds to differ.

Timshel cites an article in which Christopher Check concludes dropping the Bomb was wrong, period. One of his arguments which struck me was his assertion that it is easier for our generation to accept the use of the bomb due to the fact it happened so long ago. I submit the opposite may be true. It may be easier for us to criticize that decision, made as it was in the heat of war, from our vantage point in the cool shade of retrospection all these years later. In WWII our nation was in a fight to the death. We were the good guys, fighting a defensive war to stop the slaughter of women and children by the Japanese. Do I exaggerate? Mr. Check makes brief reference to what the Japanese did to the civilian population of Nanking. In 1937 the Japanese Army indiscriminately killed 200,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking, committing mass rape and other atrocities along the way. What reason is there to believe the inhabitants American cities would have been treated any less brutally? No sir. The Americans of that generation who were actually fighting that war were operating within the incomprehensible trauma of a living nightmare. I think it’s very hard for us who (thank God!) have never lived those horrors to understand how those experiences played on their psyches and affected their judgment. This is not to say that their being in the situation necessarily impeded their judgment; it may even have provided them with greater clarity in the matter than we possess. I point out that to lose a war on scruples of just war could violate principles of legitimate defense. The Catechism provides teaching on both.

“Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” (CCC 2265)

This brings us to the nub. There is no doubt that we intentionally targeted the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mr. Check argues that the action was rationalized by the false notion of consequentialism, the ends justifying the means, quoting St Paul’s maxim that we cannot do evil so that good may come. The flaw in his use of this argument is that it presupposes that the act of dropping the bomb was evil. The author quoted in Check’s article, Elizabeth Anscombe, acknowledges that if we had not dropped the bomb, more lives would have been lost. She also acknowledges that these would have been the lives not only of soldiers on both sides but also of Japanese civilians who would have been killed in what she accepts as legitimate bombing methods. She then admits that even when you use legitimate military means “as carefully as you can, you will be certain to kill a number of innocent people; but that’s not murder.” (Emphasis Added) Here she states what we know as the principle of double effect.

The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. The one is intended, the other is not. (CCC 2263)

Under this principle, the killing of the aggressor is justified by the outcome of preserving an innocent life, rendering an otherwise evil act morally acceptable. Indeed the whole just war theory is based on the necessary evil of waging war as a means to an end, that end being to eliminate the evils being caused by the aggressor nation. One may argue that innocent civilians are not aggressors for these purposes, but the principle of double effects applies to them as well as to combatants. As acknowledged above any pretense that military hostilities can be prosecuted without the certainty of civilian casualties is disingenuous. Mrs. Anscombe then says that “only unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder.” Isn’t this Oxford lingo for saying that each use of deadly force in war, including that which will certainly result in the killing of innocent civilians, must be decided as a matter of prudential judgment? Perhaps there is room for a good faith argument that the decision to drop the bomb was a valid prudential judgment, that proportional consideration was given to these lives of innocents that would be lost, though that was not our purpose but rather the double effect of eliminating an even greater evil and rendering an unjust aggressor unable to cause further harm. Mr. Check raises Section 2314 of the Catechism, condemning indiscriminate destruction of whole cities. He scoffs at the notion that the word “indiscriminate” means that such actions may be justified if done discriminately in accord with principles of just war and double effect as discussed above. Perhaps he’s right, but the word is included and can reasonably be understood to mean that such actions may fall within the purview of prudential judgment.

Now having said all that, Mr. Check also points out that the decision to drop the bomb has been condemned by every pope since it occurred. I know better than to disagree with all those popes. So I submit to their judgment and won’t say it was justified. But I don’t see the wrongness as clearly as some others do. I join Mr. Check in praying for “the grace to inspire a world of peace in which there would be no consideration of such weapons at all.”

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