Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Wrong Lessons from the Second World War

Those who defend the morality and legitimacy of military actions today inevitably point to the example of World War II. The story line is simple. Hitler was a monstrous evil that was swallowing up Europe. The allied campaign was a noble cause that ended the scourge of Nazism. This leads to a certain discomfort, if not outright disdain, for certain Church statements on matters of war and peace. For example, in a German media interview last summer, Pope Benedict said that"...war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars." More recently, he echoed these comments when meeting with the Syrian ambassador to the Vatican: "the Church emphatically rejects war as a means of resolving international disputes, and has often pointed out that it only leads to new and still more complicated conflicts." Many on the American right in particular are dismayed by such ideas.

Of course, the pope is right, and of course he is not abrogating the traditional just war theory that underpins Church teaching. He is simply aware of the larger picture. His opponents tend to have a blinkered view of the world. Group X engages in immoral activity (say terrorism), and so the response is to attack Group X with military means. Pure and simple. Except that is rarely is so. Every conflict has a context, a history, a cultural background. Go back to World War II. Hitler did not simply appear ex nihilo to threaten Europe. His emergence was the result of an earlier conflict, and grave mistakes made in the aftermath of that conflict.

Pope Benedict XV was a staunch opponent of the first world war, which he called "the suicide of Europe". He repeatedly called for peace, to be rebuffed by all sides. This dreadful war was provoked by pompous vainglorious militarism, underpinned by a philosophy that pumped up the glory of the nation state or empire at the expense of human dignity. In an increasingly mechanistic era, soldiers became cannon-fodder on an unprecedented scale. Millions died, and some countries lost of a whole generation of young men.

In the wake of the war, the Versailles treaty explicitly attributed blame for the whole disaster on Germany, and imposed ruinous financial terms. What drove the Versailles settlement was a spirit of vengeance, not a desire for peace. The Vatican remained opposed, but was excluded from the negotiations. In any event, the terms led to hyperinflation and economic ruin in Germany, and fueled the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. The greatest economist of hie time, John Maynard Keynes, was prescient. This movement arose explicitly because the victorious powers had eschewed justice in favor of retribution.

Nobody denies that the Second World War to oust Hitler met the conditions for a just war. But, had the Versailles victors behaved differently, it could have been avoided. Yes, the war was a last resort because vengeance was the first resort. But there is another point that needs to be made. The way the war was fought was not always just. In particular, the bombings of Dresden, and the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, by targeting civilians, was highly disproportionate and thus immoral.

Europe learned its lesson. Having seen the continent devastated yet again, governments made securing peace the first priority. They founded what would eventually become the European Union. They downplayed military solutions, and placed faith in the United Nations. So when some snarky American commentator refers to Vatican voices as "euro-weenies", there is indeed a grain of truth to it. But while Europe learned its lesson belatedly, the Church throughout the 20th century was constantly calling for sanity. At the same time, America remained somewhat immune to these developments. The complicated issues of how the war could have been avoided and how it was often fought immorally was downplayed amidst the burgeoning romanticism that enveloped all discussion of the "greatest generation".

What lessons can we draw for today? The Vatican opposed Bush's Iraq war and Israel's war on Lebanon. At the time, many on the American right predictably refused to listen. Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug with genocidal ambitions. And Hezbollah continued to attack Israeli civilians from southern Lebanon. And the ephemeral "global Islamic terror" served as the great narrative arc. Influenced undoubtedly by Calvinism, there was good, and there was evil. Context there certainly wasn't.

In retrospect, of course, the Vatican was right in both instances. The Bush administration engaged in a war that was not a last resort, without the necessary UN authority, and without heed for the disproportionate evils that would inevitably emerge. Not surprisingly, Iraq has descended into an ugly quagmire of vicious civil war and bloody retaliation. And Israel's attack backfired, emboldening Hezbollah, bolstering Syria, and threatening the nascent Lebanese democracy. Another unforeseen disproportionate evil.

What the war party failed to learn from World War II was that it was a war of last resort, that the mistakes of the previous 20 years had led irrevocably to this tragic point. There was no glory in the need to go to war. As the pope said, it brings no real good, not even to the victors, because it ultimately signifies failure.

Today, we must focus intently on the "disproportionate" evils that may arise from a military action, especially one that pays little heed to underlying injustices. Yes, we should never condone terrorism, or make excuses for it, but that does not mean we should ignore the underlying conditions that fuel war and terrorism. This point was made by Pope Benedict in his recent World Peace Day speech. And eminent moralist Germain Grizes stated that "force, especially deadly force, must never be used to avenge past acts or as terrorism to prevent terrorism... Even when carried out within proper limits, deadly force against persons cannot be an adequate response to terrorism". We should make sure that any military response is truly a last resort, and does not fuel greater ills. And lastly, we should take no delight even in a war of last resort, for it is simply an admission of failure.

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