Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Paradoxes of War

In this, Stout sidesteps the central paradox of the conflict and of many conflicts since — namely, that the more moral a war seems to be at the outset, the greater the moral compromise it may eventually require. A war entered for limited, national-interest aims can be fought in a limited fashion and brought to an end once certain objectives have been attained. But when you heighten the moral purpose of a war, you raise the stakes as well, to the point where any conclusion short of victory feels a failure and any means appears to justify a triumphant end.

Upon the Altar of the Nation repeatedly founders on this contradiction. Stout wants to praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, while blistering the North for its refusal to abandon the “central cultural principle of white supremacy and the politics of apartheid.” Yet this fine-sounding moralism is in tension with his eagerness to criticize Lincoln for allowing the old West Point code to be suspended, to blame Grant for never blinking at the cost in blood of his “if it takes all summer” strategy, to condemn Sherman for the suffering sown by his March to the Sea. What Stout never seems to consider is that it was precisely because the war changed in the Northern imagination from a limited struggle to a moral crusade — for emancipation, at least, if not equality — that it eventually seemed necessary not only to defeat the South but to conquer it, to end not only a government but a way of life. The more noble the war’s purposes, the greater the necessity to carry on to victory, no matter the cost — and the greater the necessity, too, that the South should not only lose but howl. The excesses of Sherman’s March to the Sea were implicit in the logic of the Emancipation Proclamation and the noble phrases of the Second Inaugural.
Ross Douthat, "The North, the South, and God"
via MercatorNet

Douthat explains at greater length my fear that America's wars are almost always revolutionary, even neo-Jacobinical. The idea of fighting simply for self-interest seems bourgeois and banal, not a sufficient motive for spilling the blood of our young men. (The exsanguination of our enemies' fighting youth is hardly ever a debated concern.) To this mindset, an ultimate sacrifice requires ultimate principles, and from there the utter vindication of such principles. Hence ideological hawks are incredibly resistant to any jus ad bellum and sometimes even jus in bello ethical constraints. Revolutionaries dismiss such limitations as barriers to total victory. "Limited war" is perceived to be an oxymoron; we must sin, so let us "sin boldly" in battle. Douthat continues:

This paradox extends beyond the battlefields of the Civil War to any conflict that seeks a kind of cosmic justice or takes on the flavor of a crusade. The ends don’t justify the means, but if your ends seem important enough — the end of slavery in the nineteenth century, the defeat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the twentieth — well, which leader is prepared to sacrifice jus ad bello for the sake of jus in bello and lose a greater justice for a smaller one? If you’re fighting to “end all wars” or to “end evil” — to borrow one of the more sweeping definitions of our present conflict — then doesn’t every weapon need to be considered, every measure allowed?

He ends with a remark on the tensions between Christian just war ethics and warfare, though without much comment. It is an opinion that would require another essay to explain. My own great concern is that, while our military men are taught Just War Theory by professional soldiers and chaplains with earnest concern, politicians and diplomats are taught about Just War by cynical "Realist" professors with sneering contempt. David B. Hart described one of the former earnest teachers being placed in the unhappy position of arguing: "Christians must both obey the principles of just war and also resign themselves to fighting at the behest of a political order that has not necessarily placed itself under the sway of those principles." This is a tension that is not going to abate any time soon.

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