When asked if he was troubled by the firebombing of
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
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.
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
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.