Full text from TLD 20,
April 13, 1998
By RONALD N. NEFF
One of the great intellectual achievements of the West grew out of St. Augustine's discussion of the conditions under which the waging of war might be just. [*] The development and refinement of that teaching by Western theologians have implications for each man who is an instrument of waging war. That should not surprise us, for under the tutelage of those theologians during the West's intellectual predominance, the ethics of individualism the major premise of which is the supreme and unrepeatable value of each individual as an end in himself also flowered. It is to those implications of just-war theory for individual men that I direct our attention when we hear the drumbeat of war.
When just-war writers insist that war must not be made on noncombatants, we are not merely uttering a "floating abstraction." To be a principle, a proposition must apply to each of the individuals covered by the abstraction. Just-war theory, then, says not only that governing units must refrain from waging war on noncombatants, but that each individual soldier must refrain from waging war on each individual noncombatant.
Each individual soldier must use his own judgment to determine who is a combatant and who is not, and when the cause for fighting is just and when it is not. That, in turn, imposes the moral obligation on each soldier to have an informed conscience on the matter. It is not enough that his conscience be clear on a specific issue; it must be informed on it, as it must be in all ethical matters. (Failure to inform the conscience or resistance to informing it result in the making, not of ethical choices, but, at best, of rationalized choices.)
Is it sufficient that a soldier rely on the ethical judgment of the superiors who determine whether to wage war? Or that he rely on that of commanders who direct the waging of war? Clearly it is not.
Arthur Sylvester, an assistant secretary of defense during the 1960s, was notorious for having said that a government has a right to lie to its people. He was never denounced by the state for having said it; he was not demoted or dismissed; he was not disciplined, and all for the simple reason that everyone knew that such a relationship between man and the state is necessary for the functioning of a state, especially, but not solely, for the functioning of a state with a ruling class bent on building an empire.
It may be difficult for anyone to be able to tell in this or that case whether the state's propaganda is true or false, but that does not matter. And it surely does not matter that one has never heard of Arthur Sylvester. What does matter is that everyone knows that people lie and that even Mafia bosses do not say to their capos, "Let us now take on the Arpeggio family in an unjust combat." All rulers attempt to dupe their subordinates and subjects into thinking their cause is just. And nonveridical statements just do not show up in this world wearing bumper stickers warning, "I'm nonveridical!"
Virtually any proposition can be false, and before one commits his honor and uprightness to a proposition, it is his own responsibility to verify its truth; that is mere intellectual integrity. Ethical integrity requires that one's behavior match the integrity of his intellectual judgments. One does not make excuses for acting contrary to those judgments; one does not alter them to suit more convenient actions; one does not substitute the judgment of another for his own in making his choices and decisions on courses of action.
Merely to obey directions or commands of another who seems to have authority to direct or command is just such a substitution. It is one thing to follow directions or commands more or less uncritically when they are ethically neutral (e.g., "Make these copies two-sided, not one-sided"). It is quite another to do so when they are not.
In "A Few Good Men," the Jack Nicholson character tells us that in the military "we follow orders or men die. It's just that simple." It is not just that simple. For, obviously, when men follow orders, men die anyhow. The issue is not whether men die they all will do that eventually in any case. Whether we will die is not something over which we have control. In most cases, even when we will die is not something over which we have any control.
The issue is how men live. Now there's something over which we have control, and we have it at every moment of our lives. One of the vital purposes of living a life according to principles is, as the Psalmist says, "that the just put not their hand to evil."
Such an adherence particularly ennobles the soldier. The principles of just war, in combination with the imperative that one live according to moral principle apprehended by his own informed judgment, aim at producing that noble figure, the Christian knight. There are only two courses for one who lives by his strength and skill with weapons: that of a criminal and that of a defender. As we live in the world of men, time, and events, it is not unusual to see both courses pursued by the same person. But that is not how men should be or how they have to be: we are meant for better things.
The defender is not to be a defender of the mighty; he does not put his prowess in the service of building and expanding power. Rather his prowess goes to defend the weak in the name of justice. Sometimes that means defending a whole people, when they are attacked by predator rulers; sometimes it means defending a single person, when he is attacked by ordinary criminals appearing singly, in bands, or masked as institutions.
When he is called on to put his prowess in the service of criminals, when he is called on to prey upon those he and his brother soldier/knights should be defending, then he refuses to fight. It is one of the paradoxes of his calling that under some circumstances he abandon that calling, if only for a short time.
A second paradox is that though the principles I have been discussing may have been best articulated in the West, they are really components of universally applicable ethics. All men know them to be true and binding on their consciences. One evidence of that is that no soldier ever returns home bragging about how many crones or helpless cripples he killed in an attack on a village. No mother is ever proud of how many women her son has raped. No one imagines that the soldiers of Matthew 2 regaled party guests with tales of their slaughter of innocents.
A third and even even greater paradox is built into the conjunction of just-war theory and soldier/knights' living lives of principle: it is in their power to prevent war. Predator rulers and their counselors and shills can be deaf to the protests of citizens and subjects, but they cannot be blind when their army lays down their weapons and refuses to obey orders to go into unjust battle and wage unjust war.
Of all groups, it is the military that can most surely bring a war to its end. And that is precisely the course I pray military men take one day in this country when the Permanent Regime compasses to subdue another far-off people in another unjust war. What a grand day it will be: when mutiny is crowned with integrity's garland of honor!
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*Here, as in other
articles, I accept Lawrence Brown's contention that
Western civilization is not a continuation of Classical or
Levantine (and Byzantine) civilization. According to his
analysis in The Might of the West
(Washington, D.C.: Joseph J. Binns, 1963), the West was
a new thing that made its political appearance in Europe
in the eighth century. Hence, the writings of St.
Augustine and other Fathers of the Church Latin
and Eastern are not to be counted as part of the
history of the West, except insofar as the West made
*Here, as in other articles, I accept Lawrence Brown's contention that Western civilization is not a continuation of Classical or Levantine (and Byzantine) civilization. According to his analysis in The Might of the West (Washington, D.C.: Joseph J. Binns, 1963), the West was a new thing that made its political appearance in Europe in the eighth century. Hence, the writings of St. Augustine and other Fathers of the Church Latin and Eastern are not to be counted as part of the history of the West, except insofar as the West made use of them. [Back]