Making war better

Gentle reader may have noticed that I said nothing yesterday — nothing at all — about “just war theory,” nor provided so much as a passing and whimsical Catholic justification of a foreign policy that would necessarily involve killing people (Islamist terrorists, to fine the point).

By a happy coincidence, George Weigel was supplying this missing dimension at the same moment, at National Review (here). He gives fifty years to a frankly pacifist “Catholic” view of war, which he traces to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes — in which the pregnant phrase “mente omnino nova” proposes new thinking on an old but arguably “evolving” topic.

As Weigel hints (and I will caricature), it invites contrary interpretations. Either it is taken to mean that conditions of war in this world have changed so much since the Middle Ages, through the introduction of “total war,” that we’d better review how the old Augustinian realism applies to it. Or, the phrase might suggest that the old Augustinian realism was itself wrong at start, and that a different “attitude” was necessary all along.

Liberals in the Church take the latter for granted: that what we always needed was a hip, psychologizing, and morally exhibitionist approach to evil on a massive scale. The bad guys should be told to stop being mean and hurting us; good guys should be reminded that they have faults, too. The world needs to be taught that “peace is better than war,” … as if the world didn’t already know that.

While I do not wish to psychologize the Fathers of Vatican II, I suspect it was the former they meant to assert, and that a purposeful mistranslation of the phrase has advanced misunderstanding. This because, I do not believe these Fathers were men of sub-normal intelligence. War we will have always with us. And evil, ditto, so long as the world wags: there are times when it threatens to get out of hand, and must be stopped.

Decent men, not only Catholics, have known this for a very long time. When your Hitler annexes half of your Poland you see that appeasement has run its course. Similarly in other situations: the very idea of law, both natural and positive, is to draw a few lines. We may debate where they are, who has crossed them and why, but only in the nicer cases.

To my Augustinian and realist mind, “total war” did in fact present an intellectual challenge. I was uncomfortable with annihilating non-combatants by the hundred thousand, on the “eye for an eye” principle; as too, about drafting millions to feed the front lines. A certain amount of “collateral damage” I am usually willing to accept, but not intentional massacre. And those weren’t the only head-scratchers.

Let us consider nuclear weapons for a paragraph. I don’t like to see them dropped on cities; I think that is very bad form. (But then, the “conventional” fire-storming of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined; and it was a situation in which “showmanship” counted.) I might, however, advocate their use in excavating well-fortified bunkers. Had one been available on the 20th of July 1944, for instance — and had Lieut.-Col. Stauffenberg kindly tipped us off — I would not have hesitated to drop it on the Wolfsschanze. And this, even if it meant irradiating a beautiful section of the Masurian woods.

I believe this a Catholic position. No weapon can be condemned categorically; the question is how we propose to use it. There were caves in Afghanistan into which I would have pumped poison gas, without compunction. I can think of some good places to lay mines. And I would remind “liberal Catholics” that winning the war is an important part of “just war theory.” Indeed, I find their attitude to war downright puritan.

We should look for the most economical means to a good end (destruction of an identified evil), consistent with irreproachably good behaviour; not for a way to let evil win. Sun Tzu is the more Catholic military strategist, in my humble but possibly Sinophile opinion; Clausewitz less so (though he is often misrepresented as advocating what he is merely describing).

Now, it happens that for Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places, the American military has been developing and using weapons rather more accurate than those we employed in the World Wars. The kind of focus that was practicable in the better sort of mediaeval battles is gradually becoming so again. We should, for instance, have directed more praise to the admirable way in which the Rumsfeld Pentagon went about e.g. their Iraqi blitz, minimizing casualties even at the expense of assuming greater risks.

Like everything else, war requires craftsmanship, and the long Catholic commitment to art should be reflected in our critique of it. Let us work harder on making it attractive.