Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Defending War Crimes

Daniel Larison provides a good summary of a trend on the right that I have long noticed: the defense of war crimes. Larison notes, quite accurately, that there is a certain mysticism surrounding the second world war where criticism is simply not tolerated. Hence, not only do you find people defending internment, carpet-bombing, and the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, but, the argument goes, if they did it in world war 2, it must be fine....

I've already argued once that the right derives the wrong lessons from the second world war, but that is not the point of the current post. No, I want to make a far less subtle point here: that this reasoning is nothing short of depraved. For a flavor, here is Dean Barnett:

"Unfortunately, given the nature of the war we’re in, certain moral compromises are a necessity. Using coercive interrogation techniques is one of them. What’s most infuriating about the anti-torture people is their tacit assumption that you can fight a war without making moral compromises. War is all about moral compromise. It’s not in the normal order of things to kill others. The very aim of war is to do just that. In World War II, we did terrible things like the fire-bombing of Dresden, the massive bombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While all these actions were terrible, they were also necessary. And justifiable."
And here is Thomas Sowell, who seems to be something of a guru to Jimmy Akin, who runs his own little parallel magisterium in California (hint: it drops all the stuff that goes against the Republican party). Here's what he has to say:

"There is a reason why General Sherman said "war is hell" more than a century ago. But he helped end the Civil War with his devastating march through Georgia -- not by cease fires or bowing to "world opinion" and there were no corrupt busybodies like the United Nations to demand replacing military force with diplomacy."
And one more, courtesy of Larison. This time, it's Charles Krauthammer, the dean of the torture fetishists:

"When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel "proportionate" attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders, and turned the Japanese home islands into rubble and ruin. Disproportionate? No. When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right -- legal and moral -- to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one's security again. That's what it took with Japan."
Of course, the partisans of the National Review make arguments along these lines quite frequently when they defend torture. Amazingly, many of these people are Catholics, and staunch "pro-life" Catholics to boot (the quotes are intentional). Then again, as I've noted before, one of the biggest abortion opponents of all, Phyllis Schlafly, held similar views. In her words:

"The atomic bomb is a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God... Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima meant the difference between life and death to hundreds of thousands of our best and brightest young men."
I've said this many times, but it is well worth repeating. There are a number of fundamental moral principles that we Catholics believe to be true. First, it is never licit to do evil so that good may result. Second, the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always wrong. A nuclear attack on a city by its nature targets non-combatants, making it intrinsically evil. Carpet bombing is intrinsically evil. Torturing somebody to get information is intrinsically evil. Interning innocent civilians is intrinsically evil. In fact, quite a lot of acts during the second world war were intrinsically evil, which as we know means evil in their object, so that they can never be justified by appeal to intent or circumstance (which is, of course, what the observers quoted above are doing).

This is the essence and heart of right-wing cafeteria Catholicism. It is not about the minimum wage, or tax policy, or immigration, or even poverty. No, it is about the deliberate embrace of an intrinically evil act, an act that violates the God-given life and dignity of human beings, which in a very real sense is the foundation of everything we believe.

The trap they fall into is consequentualism, an end-justifies-the-means ethic that rapidly collapses into complete moral relativism, the denial of any objective truth. In a cold utilitarian fashion, all you need to do is weigh up the good and bad side effects, and of course the scales are always tilted to "our" side because "our" cause is just and "our" guys lives are worth more. The fact that this is always the outcome should spell out very clearly what is wrong with this approach.

Note that many moralists holding the strongest positions against nuclear weapons are also some of the staunchest opponents of abortion and euthanasia. Germain Grisez and John Finnis argued that even the nuclear deterrent is deeply immoral, on the grounds that nuclear deterrence entails an intention to kill innocents. Elizabeth Anscombe dubbed Truman a war criminal, and vehemently protested Oxford's granting him an honorary degree in 1956. She noted that in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end". No, it is simply impossible to be opposed to abortion and yet support the use of nuclear weapons if such opposition is for the right reasons.

Listening to the Passion this Good Friday, it dawned on me that Caiaphas was an early consequentialist. John's gospel notes; "It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people." By justifying the death of innocents in support of some greater good, many on the right are latter-day Caiaphas's. He was wrong then, and they are equally wrong today. At least as wrong as those who support abortion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've always noticed how often "Cafeteria Catholic" is bandied about by the far right to describe anyone who doesn't slavishly goose-step along behind them. Of course "Pro Abort" is the favored insult of choice, but "Cafeteria Catholic" seems to run a close second. Quite amusing coming from a group that obsesses endlessly on 2 pet issues (abortion & gays) while studiously ignoring the remaining 99% of church teaching, or desperately attempting to justify actions that are glaringly opposed to church teaching. As always, they are completely blind to the hypocrisy.