Mutual Assured Damnation

February 21, 2007

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Mutual Assured Damnation

For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions.  So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensbury Rules: its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned. —Elizabeth Anscombe, “Mr. Truman’s Degree”

In 1956, Oxford philosopher and Catholic convert Elizabeth Anscombe published a little pamphlet entitled “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” in which she explained her reasons for opposing the decision of Oxford University to grant an honorary degree to former U.S. president Harry Truman. In critiquing Truman’s justification for using nuclear bombs to destroy the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Anscombe created a modern classic of Christian just-war theory that, sadly, is little known (and less read) today.

Anscombe was, of necessity, writing after the fact; but the silence of American Catholic intellectuals who know only too well that the architects of current U.S. nuclear-weapons policy find their model in Truman’s barbarism is deafening. Worse still are those public voices of Catholicism who attempt to justify the current policy through the revision—or outright dismissal—of nearly two millennia of the Church’s just-war teaching.

It is an almost unbearable irony that former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, the chief architect (under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) of the policy that became known as “Mutual Assured Destruction,” is one of the few prominent figures calling for the end of the immoral targeting of civilian populations as a matter of policy. Whether his change of heart represents a true conversion or simply an aging Democrat’s opposition to the destructive warmongering of the current Republican president, only he knows. But in “Apocalypse Soon,” an article published in the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Policy, McNamara wrote that

“There is no way to effectively [sic] contain a nuclear strike—to keep it from inflicting enormous destruction on civilian life and property, and there is no guarantee against unlimited escalation once the first nuclear strike occurs. We cannot avoid the serious and unacceptable risk of nuclear war until we recognize these facts and base our military plans and policies upon this recognition.”

Common sense, one might argue; and yet that is precisely what the current debate is lacking.

Throughout the war in Iraq, we have heard rumors of the possible use of “tactical nuclear strikes.”  As the Bush administration (without even the pretense of congressional approval) prepares to expand the war into Iran, ostensibly to prevent Iran from developing her own nuclear weapons, officials refuse to take the “nuclear option” off of the table and slyly intimate that Israel, our proxy in the Middle East, might be the one dropping the bombs (bombs that Israel continues to refuse to acknowledge that she has). The same rhetoric characterizes this administration’s “diplomacy” with North Korea, as she (acting rationally, in light of stated U.S. policy) attempts to join the “nuclear club.”

These are not simply dangerous bluffs or attempts at strong-arm diplomacy. In his book Target Iran, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, whose pre-war analysis of Iraq’s nuclear and other WMD capability has been proved correct in virtually every detail, points to a policy paper, “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations,” issued on March 15, 2005, by the Department of Defense. The paper, Ritter explains, makes “permissible the employment of nuclear weapons by the United States preemptively, in non-nuclear environments, either to defeat overwhelming conventional opposition, or simply to assure U.S. victory.”

Victory, we might ask, at what cost?  As McNamara rightly points out, exposing his own lies as secretary of defense:

“The statement that our nuclear weapons do not target populations per se was and remains totally misleading in the sense that the so-called collateral damage of large nuclear strikes would include tens of millions of innocent civilian dead.”

All of this should give pause to those who claim fidelity to the teachings of a Church whose two most recent popes have spoken eloquently against the current war in Iraq and have suggested that the mere possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and nuclear—makes it extraordinarily difficult for a military action to meet the traditional criteria for a just war. Can there be “a serious prospect of success” when nuclear weapons may be used?  Only if we define success as a military victory at any cost, including the intended death of the innocent, rather than as the redressing of the wrong that justified the war.

Again, if a conflict may “go nuclear,” can we be certain that “The use of arms [will] not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly notes that “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

American Catholic proponents of the current war, some of whom are already starting to beat the drums for the next one, dismiss such concerns, and even the direct and unequivocal opposition of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as mere “prudential judgments.”  The final responsibility, they rightly point out (though it may be the only thing they get right), lies with the proper authority in the country that chooses to go to war. Having the authority to make the decision, however, does not override the moral obligation to make the correct one. Should we not hope and pray that, even in a prudential judgment, our President would defer to a Pope who declares that the conditions for a just war have not been met and that the use of nuclear weapons is never a moral option?

Already in 1956, Elizabeth Anscombe warned of those who quibble over definitions when the life of the innocent is at stake:

“‘But where will you draw the line?  It is impossible to draw an exact line.’ This is a common and absurd argument against drawing any line; it may be very difficult, and there are obviously borderline cases. But we have fallen into the way of drawing no line and offering as justifications what an uncaptive mind will find only a bad joke. Wherever the line is, certain things are certainly well to one side or the other of it.”

We hear the same arguments today from American Catholic supporters of the war in Iraq regarding “torture” and “collateral damage” and “noncombatants” (the latter two terms having the sole purpose of saving their speakers from referring to “the innocent”). We need an air-tight definition! they exclaim. If you can’t provide one that I accept, then who are you, or Pope Benedict, to dissent from the judgment of the President?

And once their sophistry has allowed them to make their peace with torture, they move on to applaud, in their little corner of St. Blog’s Parish, Michael Ledeen’s bloodthirsty call for executing enemy soldiers after they have surrendered, and they embrace the insane claim of Victor Davis Hanson that there are, by definition, no true innocents in any country with which we are at war.

They have forgotten (if, indeed, they ever knew) the purpose of just-war theory. They regard the requirements of both jus ad bellum (the determination of the justice of a war before commencing it) and jus in bello (proper conduct in fighting a just war) as restrictions on our ability to defend ourselves and to ensure victory—restrictions that they fervently believe are unnecessary, since they are convinced of the necessity of any war conducted by a Republican president (the Republicans are the Party of Life, after all!) and the inherent justice of any American actions taken during that war (waterboarding isn’t torture, because the United States doesn’t torture prisoners!).

The purpose of just-war theory, however, is a different type of defense of ourselves, and not simply a high-minded application of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  In prosecuting an unjust war, or in prosecuting a just war through unjust means, we may do great physical harm to our declared enemy, but we do even greater spiritual harm to ourselves and our country. Truman’s decision to drop the bomb shaped the political geography of the 20th century. But the stubborn refusal of so many Americans who should know better to acknowledge the essential immorality of the act continues to shape the spiritual geography of American Catholicism and conservatism. And it is making us something other than the Christians we claim to be. As John Lukacs wrote in Confessions of an Original Sinner, responding to Phyllis Schlafly’s remark that “God gave America the atom bomb,”

“No: the atom bomb was made in America with the help of Central European refugee scientists whose ideas of morality could not have been more different from those espoused by Mrs. Schlafly. Humility and a knowledge of sinfulness, these essential essences of a Christian belief have now become entirely absent in the pronouncements—and, presumably, in the minds—of American ‘conservative’ Christians.”

Those who gave us Christian just-war theory—from Augustine to Aquinas, from Vitoria to Suárez—understood that it was possible to be victorious even in physical defeat, provided that we have acted with justice in the pursuit of the truth. Today, for too many Americans who call themselves conservatives and Christians, that seems a ridiculous notion. “What good does it do to follow just-war theory if we might cease to exist?” they ask. The question is rhetorical, of course, since they have no desire to hear the obvious answer: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).

And that, in the end, is the most fearsome aspect of the transformation of American Catholicism and conservatism, because it exposes the ugly truth: We have become, in practice if not in profession, more concerned with fleeting victory in this life than with salvation in the next. And that is why, even though the ultimate source of the atom bomb is more likely Satan than God, we, like Eve in the Garden, were only too eager to accept the gift. As Elizabeth Anscombe concluded over 50 years ago:

Weapons are now manufactured whose sole point is to be used in massacre of cities.  But the people responsible are not murderous because they have these weapons; they have them because they are murderous.  Deprived of atomic bombs, they would commit massacres by means of other bombs.

The pews of American Catholic churches suffer no shortage of Trumans, but where are our Anscombes today?

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles and the author of the monthly column “The Rockford Files.”

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