Sunday, February 11, 2007

The proper attitude to war

When asked if he was troubled by the firebombing of Tokyo, in which about 100,000 people were killed in one night, Air Force General Curtis LeMay said, “Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."

LeMay was a prick, but when he said “all war is immoral,” he spoke the truth. The part about not letting it bother you is untrue, however, or at least only partly true, and moreover it contradicts the first sentence of his statement. For if every soldier thinks about the moral aspects of what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is immoral, then it has to bother him somewhat, or else he’s not really thinking about the moral aspects, is he?

In any case, the central statement that “all war is immoral” is a very important concept to get. On the face of it, it seems incredibly simple, but in fact the common belief is that not all war is immoral, only unjust war, i.e. war waged for the wrong reasons. War in self-defense is considered moral.

This is not just verbal hair-splitting. It goes to the heart of our attitudes about war, and there’s a long history behind all of this. What we need to understand is that something can be necessary without being moral. Killing people is immoral, but it may be necessary if one’s country is attacked. Ideally, a civilized people would wage war with courage and firmness, but not glorying in it. We would recognize the terrible cost to ourselves, to the soldiers, to humanity, of war, and therefore fight the necessary war without trying to pretend that it’s a great and glorious thing that we should romanticize or celebrate.

Ideally, I say. For we know that in reality it never works out that way. The reasons are complicated.

The role of the warrior has been invested with glory and prestige since ancient times. We see it in tribal culture, and not merely in the context of defense, but also, and in fact primarily, in terms of conquest. It’s difficult to envision a warrior role without it, if only because a person wouldn’t be expected to risk his life without some prestige being attached to it. I think it goes deeper, though. The whole notion of conquest is founded on what I call the power principle. Power over others is the mark of authority. Authority is always invested with prestige, and so it comes to be that power by force of arms carries the ultimate prestige. This became more and more magnified as humanity developed larger social units—cities, kingdoms, empires. By the Bronze Age the linking of war with glory was already fully formed. In the Iliad, glory has become fame, a sort of immortality in which the warrior’s glory outlives him in the memories of his countrymen and even in the eternal realms of the gods. And the Greeks were by no means unique in this regard.

Glory, honor, fame, sacrifice. War is ennobled by these words, and so they were used in order to motivate people for war—especially the people who stayed at home while their sons or brothers went to fight. They motivated the sons and brothers too, but for them in addition there was the promise of material gain—booty. When a city was sacked, the soldiers would gain some of the goods of the defeated people, and if they didn’t, the result would be angry, restless soldiers. Those who fought wars would also stand to gain public honors, privileges, and offices. All these, including material gain from booty, are also kinds of prestige in themselves. They all increase power.

Returning, then, to where we began—the firebombing of Tokyo—we are confronted with the dilemma of war in the modern age, namely, the duality of soldier and civilian. Civilians have always suffered in wars. In warrior tribal culture, the conquered enemy was often enslaved. This continued with the rise of empires. The historical origins of slavery lie in war. Those other people, the barbarians, would become our slaves after we conquered their city or their kingdom. Moreover, in the Old Testament we read of entire cities being slaughtered—man, woman, and child. This was less common, but still not unique to the Hebrews by any means. Rape and other depredations were also common. Slavery became an established institution, practiced on a huge scale in the Roman Empire, and providing a crucial underpinning to the imperial economy. Empire and slavery went hand in hand, and empire was of course created through conquest. This has been true right through to the modern age, even after the literal state of bondage was outlawed and replaced by less overt forms of coercion. There is fertile ground here for historical thought and investigation. I introduce the concept here in order to make the point that war has never spared civilians, albeit there have always been varying degrees of separation between the roles of soldier and civilian.

The change in the nature of war that we have seen in the last two centuries, therefore, is not primarily a matter of kind, but of degree. When aerial bombing was introduced, there were always sound military reasons for it. Most of the time, military targets were being bombed. But of course, people live near these military targets. LeMay’s goal, for instance, was to knock out munitions factories in Tokyo. But there was also a military justification for bombing cities regardless of what military targets might lie in them. It was thought that causing widespread destruction to cities would demoralize the population and therefore aid the war effort. The Nazis did this, in Rotterdam, London, and elsewhere. The Allies pulverized the German cities in turn. The estimates of deaths in the firebombing of Dresden range from 150,000 to 250,000 people. Incendiary bombs got around the enemy’s air defenses to wipe out the target—they also wiped out the people.

There is a sense in which a line had been crossed. The ratio of civilian deaths to deaths of soldiers had become far greater than ever before. And civilians were being directly targeted as part of the war effort, rather than as primarily a sequel to conquest. Nevertheless I would argue that the horrible consequences of modern warfare were the result of a progression by degrees, not of a radical shift in thinking about war. All war is immoral—it’s just that the immorality became increasingly horrifying and unacceptable due to the sheer increase in the numbers of civilians killed. The more likely the killing of non-soldiers became in war, the more widely evident war’s immorality became.

The culmination of this increasing arc of war, of course, was the development of nuclear weapons. It was as if the internal contradictions of war inevitably reached this point of no return. And for the first time, there was something of a change in kind, rather than just of degree, involved. Fewer people died from the Hiroshima bomb than in the Dresden or Tokyo firebombings. In fact, the combined deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably less than that in the Tokyo bombing. But there is something particularly shocking, I think, about one single weapon leveling an entire city. The ancient idea of the battle (admittedly already obviated to some degree by the concept of aerial bombing) is now completely outmoded. There is no battle, just the complete slaughter of man, woman, and child, like the Old Testament but in the blink of an eye.

There’s a sense in which it is just as immoral to kill one person as it is to kill a million, because from the point of view of the individual who is killed the only life he knows is being taken away. From the point of view of people living in society, however—families, communities, countries—a greater number of deaths is a greater evil. Nuclear weapons take this to a level that transcends what we can even conceive of as social creatures. Jonathan Schell was very forceful about this in The Fate of the Earth when he talked about the crime of erasing humanity’s future. Another aspect that I don’t think has been talked about enough is the violation of our proper sense of limitation as human beings. When we’ve reached the point where we can annihilate entire countries in minutes (and indeed wipe out humanity itself), we find ourselves unwittingly in the position of a god, the old idea of the all-powerful god who can destroy us all (such as in the flood of Genesis). We all should know that people are limited, flawed, prone to mistakes, and capable of causing harm to one another through their passions. It is not sane to trust human beings to hold such absolute life-and-death power over the world. And in a religious sense, I would maintain that it’s actually blasphemous to presume to wield such power. Anyone claiming to be religious who also believes that human beings have a right to such godlike power (“God bless the atom bomb”) is, in my view, usurping the place that properly belongs to God—or to use Christian terminology, is espousing a Satanic philosophy. The power principle has led us, then, to this—either the assumption of amoral divinity by the merely human, or (and this is the most difficult choice we face) the renouncing of the power principle as the central tenet of the social order.

We still have “conventional” war, however. We still have soldiers, weapons, and battles. And there is still the possibility, contrary to the strictest teachings of pacifism, that a war would be necessary in order to defend ourselves. This brings me back to the beginning. After all we know now as a race, after two terrible world wars, a "cold war" nuclear stand-off, and many other wars around the world right up to the present day, can we really maintain the glory, honor, and prestige of war? The politicians are still doing so, and the civilians who push the reality away from their consciousness with flags and rhetoric. But those who know war firsthand, soldier or civilian, know differently. Even if a war is justified (and so few of them really are), the proper attitude is solemnity, determination, and the grim knowledge that killing is shameful and wrong, and that there’s nothing glorious about being killed. The proper attitude is seriousness, and that’s just what seems to be missing now.

No more parades.


whig said...

It's a lot to think about, but we cannot put the genie back in the bottle, and we do now have the power of God-like destruction, may we only learn a similar power of creation we would be in better shape.

I think there is no sin in having the power which God has seen fit to give to us if we sheath it and use only what we must when we must.


Chris Dashiell said...

Well, it's not really about putting a genie back. It's about having the humility to admit that you can't play with genies. The U.S. needs to take the lead in a program of gradual and steady reduction of these weapons.