Members of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, make their way through concertina wire during a live fire demonstration for Saudi Arabian national guardsmen. The demonstration is taking place during Operation Desert Shield. Source: Wikimedia Commons

May 13, 2015

The Task at Hand

In her excellent biography of Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan relates an episode involving a little boy, the son of a Reagan staffer, who was running through the White House hallways with a plastic sword. When someone asked what he was planning to do with it, the young boy proclaimed: “I want to fight bad men!”. About this Noonan concluded, “The little bodies of children are the repositories of the greatness of a future age. And they must be encouraged, must eat from the tales of those who’ve gone before, and brandished their swords, and slayed their dragons.” Noonan’s insight echoes the words of her then boss, who famously observed: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We did not pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” Both comments capture well different aspects of the truth that the public goods of justice, order, and peace are not automatic. While Reagan reminds us that such goods must be protected, Noonan exhorts us to remember that so too must we nurture the very disposition to protect them. This disposition, like those public goods, is also not automatic.

Throughout Western history, at our best, we have taught our children to understand the distinction between good and evil and to care about it. Standing in this stream, my own son’s parents purposively gave him a knight’s outfit for an early birthday. It came accessorized with a plastic sword. The sword, we made sure, came supported by an owner’s manual – in the form of a box of books: Mallory is in there, as is Lewis, Tolkien, Milne, Lasky, Rowlings, and many others. These served, and serve, as a part of the advent of his, and now his sister’s, wide and ongoing learning. My hope is that such stories nourish the natural law already at home in them; as evidenced when their eyes fill with water when they sometimes encounter that-which-ought-not-to-be-but-is: whether as an undeserved knock on the playground or some other of their lives’ small but nevertheless real sorrows or, heartbreaking to me, when in their advancing years they grow increasingly cognizant of the deeper evils of our world. I hope such books and our conversations about them help to point our children to goodness, beauty, and truth; and to strengthen them toward courage so that they will stand in the breach against dragons and dragonish ideas and champion that-which-ought-to-be; for their own flourishing and for the flourishing of their neighbors – both near and far off. Happily, there are theological resources to aid us in our endeavor, including the continuing resurgence of the classic just war tradition in Christian ethical discourse; a resurgence evident in just war’s increasing engagement not only in theological and philosophical discourse in the academy but in policy debates; the military, including throughout its service academies and war colleges; in journals and conversations nurturing Christian intellectual thought; and in the conversation between faith, moral reflection, and international law. Unhappily, however, in my judgment this patrimony is not enjoying a similar recovery in our congregations. This is not without consequences.

In September 2010, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Timothy Kudo abetted in the slaying of two unarmed Afghan teenagers. It was, without dispute, an accident. His patrol appeared to have been targeted by what they believed to be Taliban machine gun fire and was in the process of counterattacking. Kudo’s men formed a security perimeter around a home from which they believed the attack had originated and in which they now had several Marines sweeping the building for insurgents. Suddenly, the Marines became aware of the approach of a pair of men on a motorcycle from a hill above them  – giving the unknown riders a position of deadly tactical advantage. As the men neared, they either did not understand or simply ignored the patrol’s repeated commands and escalating, non-lethal efforts to ward them off. All at once, a set of misconceptions merged into the appearance of an outright attack: sticks held by the riders were, at the distance, confused for rifles and the motorcycle’s chrome, reflecting the sun in bright flashes, gave the appearance of muzzle bursts. The Marines opened fire. Only after would they discover the dead were unarmed. One of them appeared to be no older than sixteen. Kudo writes: “It’s been more than two years since we killed those people…and I think about them every day…I didn’t return from Afghanistan as the same person…My personality is the same… but I’m no longer the “good” person I once thought I was.”

Now, no one with a modicum of moral sensibilities should question whether Kudo’s remorse at the slaying of unarmed children is appropriate. More needs to be said, of course, about context and justification and about who is truly culpable and where various degrees of blame ought to be apportioned, including taking into account the causal links between such unintended killings and insurgency tactics intentionally designed, in part, to lead to precisely such accidents. But these things have little to do, immediately, with remorse. We can agree that following the killing of children sorrow, at least, is always properly present. But the teenager’s deaths are not the only ones that haunt Kudo. For instance, he laments the occasions he gave permission for snipers to fire on those burying roadside explosives, when he called in air or artillery strikes, or when he ordered assaults against clearly identified, and lawful, enemy combatants. He continues:

Many veterans are unable to reconcile such actions in war with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill…” When I joined the Marine Corps, I knew I would kill people. I was trained to do it in a number of ways, from pulling a trigger to…beating someone to death with a rock. As I got closer to deploying to war…my lethal abilities were refined, but my ethical understanding of killing was not. I held two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Killing is always wrong, but in war, it is necessary.

Kudo’s assessment of war’s ethical character can be summarized in his belief that the first true perversion of battle is the necessity of willfully overruling “the conviction not to kill.” For Timothy Kudo, growing willing to kill another human being is, apparently without any qualification, a diminution of what it means to be a human being: “To properly wage war,” he insists, “you have to recalibrate your moral compass.”

Through perhaps no fault of his own, something seems seriously amiss in American moral life when a Marine officer, despite all his practical and theoretical training, formal education, and upbringing, can nevertheless be sent downrange encumbered with such moral confusion and so inadequate an ethical framework. Kudo’s assessment, shared by many of his military peers, regarding the ethical dimensions of combat suggests failures across the spectrum of public and private institutions involving not simply the military but academic, ecclesiastical, cultural, social, and family ones as well, to provide our nation’s warfighters with the conceptual resources necessary to think accurately about the moral complexities of combat and to insulate them against unnecessary moral trauma. Indeed, Kudo’s beliefs would be at home in many churches today. Alongside the deepening interest in the just war tradition, there is another, less benign, resurgence – a confusion, really, regarding such things as the nature of evil, particularly regarding the difference between moral evil and non-moral evil; regarding the idea that killing comes in different species, including that which is morally abhorrent, that which is neutral, and that which is, however tragically, morally appropriate, even commendable; about the role that intention ought to play in assessing moral acts; about the true meanings of justice and peace; and about the nature and responsibility of political sovereignty.

Whether as manifest in the blurring of the distinction in Catholic moral thought between the responsibilities of those in the religious life and those in secular life which has turned into a case for pacifism for all or in the Red-Letter moral emasculation of Jesus among Protestants, such confusions lead to the belief that it is violence itself – and not injustice – that has become the problem to be overcome and thus war – especially contemporary war – is inherently morally evil and never justified. This leaves too many, both inside and outside the military profession – unable to conceptually navigate the complexities of political life and responsibility.  One cost of this can be illustrated in the account of a young soldier who did three Vietnam combat tours inside a tank. He writes:

I was eighteen years old and your typical young American boy. A virgin. I had strong religious beliefs. For the longest time I wanted to be a priest when I was growing up…I didn’t just go to church Sundays, it was everyday of the week. I’d come home from school and go right down to the church…I was just a typical American boy…it was the way you were taught, “Whenever you’re alone, make believe God’s there with you. Would he approve of what you’re doing?” I wasn’t no angel…I had my little fistfights and stuff…You’re only human. But evil didn’t enter ‘til Vietnam. I mean real evil…It’s unbelievable what humans can do to each other. I never in a million years thought I would be capable of doing that. Never, never, never… I wasn’t prepared for that at all.

How can a young man, despite having come of age in the twentieth century – within a generation of Aushwitz, the Holodomor, and the bloodletting in Nanking — despite such devout commitment to a church standing within the stream of the just war tradition – nevertheless enter adulthood conceptually unprepared to encounter evil – both that which is external to him and that with which he is himself complicit? The military receives our sons and daughters when most of their basic ethical and moral assumptions are already largely in place. When these assumptions are inadequate for, or antithetical to, handling the duties and the moral turbulence of combat, it cannot be expected that a few ethics seminars or a conversation with a chaplain will unseat years of habituation. Just as it is too late to develop a sexual ethic when you are already in the backseat of a car, so too is being deployed downrange not the time to begin reflecting seriously on the ethics of martial responsibility. Especially in light of our increasing awareness of moral injury – a psychic trauma that occurs from doing or allowing to be done those things which contradict deeply held moral norms and that is linked to the troubling uptick in veteran suicide – our culture’s general failure to morally form our warfighters so that they can navigate the morally bruising environment of war without becoming, themselves, irrecoverably morally bruised is abhorrent. That many will find, instead, this suggestion itself to be abhorrent is simply a result of the diminishing confidence in Western Christian moral life that the use of lethal force can ever be compatible with love.

Thankfully, the situation does not have to be this way; theological resources have long existed to provide for the moral formation of a warfighter both in fortifying their conceptual understanding of the ethics of combat and in training their moral instincts so that this understanding and these instincts are more moral, wiser, and more virtuous. What is needed, then, is a deeper reconnection to the conceptual patrimony of the classic just war tradition in order to reaffirm the role of retributive force as a legitimate tool of a just government’s proper expression of its responsibility to punish evil and establish and maintain the public goods of justice, order, and peace. As an antidote to the conceptual confusions noted above, the just war tradition can engage with scripture, philosophical and theological reasoning, and reflection on actual practice to help bring about theological and moral clarity. This moral clarity, is a boon for the warfighter deployed downrange, helping him attend to his deadly business while also perceiving the limits of his business and knowing, all the while, that love can indeed walk the battlefield. Such conceptual confidence will be to his mind what armor is to his body – it can be a Kevlar for his soul. For those who roam the hallways of history and wave their swords to fight dragons and dragonish ideas, the acquisition and dissemination of such confidence seems the very least we can do.


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