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Rev. Schall, S.J., Just War and Iraq

For people who think a bit like Schall, reflecting on whether any political philosophy is left in the Bush administration, not to mention conservative or neoconservative ideology – he narrows down any categorization of himself to a fondness for St. Thomas Aquinas – there has been an obvious change. In his view, the big problem arose in the administration’s not talking candidly enough about the Big Problem.

Referring to President George W. Bush, he said: “I always thought it was a mistake not say what Iraq really was, that is, a war against an expanding Islam. I can put myself in Bush’s position, of course, and understand it was a prudential act to say it was a war on terrorism.” ~The International Herald-Tribune

“I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of man, the virtue of a man.” ~G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Further, I argue that our main problems are not too much force, but too little. A peaceful world is not a world with no ready forces but one with adequate, responsible, and superior force that is used when necessary. The failure to have or use such forces causes terror and war to grow exponentially. Unused force, when needed at a particular time and place, ceases to be force. But force is meaningless if one does not know that he has an enemy or how this enemy works and thinks. That latter is a spiritual and philosophical problem, not a technical one. Many an adequately armed country has been destroyed because it did not recognize its real enemy. Nor is this an argument for force “for force’s sake.” It is an argument for force for justice’s sake. I am not for “eternal peace,” which is a this-worldly myth, but for real peace of actual men in an actual and fallen world. Peace is not a goal, but a consequence of doing what is right and preventing what is wrong and, yes, knowing the difference between the two. ~Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., Policy Review

There is something vaguely unsettling about a Jesuit who reads Profs. Dawson and Lewis approvingly, and professes a fairly standard, old-fashioned view of just war (and one that does not go in for the ludicrous licenses that George Weigel, for example, has taken with Catholic doctrine) who nonetheless supports the invasion of Iraq because of, of all the reasons, the one reason no notable advocate for war ever set forth: a civilisational imperative to resist “expanding Islam”. But perhaps it is not so surprising that a regular columnist for Crisis magazine maintains such a strange position.

I would suggest that Mr. Bush neglected to mention this not because of political prudence or diplomacy (neither is exactly his strong suit), but because it would never have occured to him or his followers, happy secularists and surprisingly liberal Christians that they are. They have no intention of combating Islam, much less really changing it (as if they could), as they see committed to a vision of Islam in which it possesses basically good elements perverted by custom, politics or culture. No serious person would propose the “reform” of Islam if he viewed it as a civilisational enemy: a man reforms something if he wants to live, flourish and draw new strength from its roots. If Islam is our civilisational enemy, as Rev. Schall says (and here he happens to be right), then reforming it is folly.

It may also be because no one could credibly contort the Iraqi regime, even with all of the lugubrious legerdemain at the disposal of the War Party, into an image of militant Islam on the ascendant. Hussein built large mosques and started prattling on about the glory of Saladin, but neither the real Islamists nor we took it seriously. (Surely, Islam’s only ascendancy today is in its population growth and its migration to the West–two things that no one in any position of importance seems much concerned to address, much less halt.) It was a Herculean effort in propaganda even to make so many believe that Baghdad cynically collaborated with Islamists.

I quote Chesterton here and approve of his sentiments (all the more reason why I find the Iraq war an abomination–precisely because it has entirely nothing to do in any way with the defense or advance of the Christian religion or the welfare of Christian brethren, but has actually worsened their lot and stained the name of Christ with a great deal of erroneous and confused quasi- and pseudo-religious commentary). I assume Rev. Schall would probably agree with Chesterton’s sentiments at some level (perhaps even more readily than I, an Orthodox Christian, really can, remembering how much the Crusades, to take what I regard as one of the best examples of Christian war, consisted of simply depriving other Christians of their patrimonies and despoiling their cities). Chesterton is included here to make clear that I have no leanings towards pacifism, which is to say I do not believe that man here below will always be able to resolve his conflicts without force. Yet the only conflicts that might actually merit war in any remotely positive sense are wars over spiritual realities more dear than earthly–and the constituency for such an understanding of war is very, very small indeed. There exists the possibility that war in defense of one’s people, country and faith can be not only necessary but honourable–today we are not, for the most part, fighting any such war.

For Rev. Schall to set up his argument in opposition to the full-time pacifist position, which is that war is always wrong, is to win before he has even begun: no sane person, no person who loves anything in his immediate surroundings, family and home, and certainly no Christian exhorted to observe his duty towards his own can accept the consequences of such a pacifism. Prof. Lewis’ argument against pacifism, which, unlike today, was in his day at least a passing respectable opinion that circulated openly and presented a real political position to be addressed, is very good as far as it goes, but part of that very argument is that no normal person is really a pacifist and no society that even allows for pacifism as an opinion could ever actually adopt such a policy. We are not only not in danger of incipient outbreaks of pacifism and weak military policy, but you could wander, practically Diogenes-like, in search of the average American (especially the average religious American) who would imagine peace to be preferable in almost every circumstance.

Our children, beginning slowly with my father’s generation, and then intensified during the ’80s, have been fed with the constant interventionist propaganda that the average Middle American has probably been guilted into believing the lies about American “isolationism,” the “necessity” of entering WWII and the further “necessity” of the constant waste and fruitless victory of the Cold War–and this is just the American case. The absurdities of war are so much more apparent to all of the peoples who have never enjoyed our virtual monopoly on ultimate success. Never for a minute is a longer view considered: that a lack of American intervention in 1917, for instance, might have genuinely made the world that much better and prevented so many more horrors than the intervention ever did or could have done. If that is so, we might go back earlier and earlier to ask just how wars were imperative for the survival of our way of life and how many were the result of demagogues, trash journalism, popular ignorance and passion and the lamentable moral defects all men possess.

In WWI, Germans and Austrians believed they were marching out to break the inferior Anglo-Saxon civilisation and Russian tyranny, to advance the prestige of their nations and to take the lead among the Great Powers. (The German people were absolutely convinced they were in a war for defense–a position far less absurd and reproachable than the nonsense that the superpower was in mortal peril from a tinpot dictatorship in Mesopotamia.) Chesterton, rather implausibly, believed the Allies to represent the cause of Catholicism and so believed their victory vindicated the cause of his church as well–manifestly a bizarre, albeit understandable, view given that the vast majority of Catholic Europe was on the other side and the Papacy had been seeking a peace settlement since 1916. No doubt he believed that a Central Powers victory would result in a serious spiritual and political blow to all those things he held dear, but these are the speculations that so many make in the midst of wars they did not choose but to which they resign or adhere themselves as a way to make sense of what is patently senseless much of the time. The Russian leaders and bishops (with a better claim to nobility, but little to prudence) exhorted their people to aid their Orthodox brethren in a war that was utter devastation for Russia, the Church and the end of the last Orthodox empire. No good came from that war, and this was nothing new.

Good intentions and noble motivations cannot be enough to plunge a people into hell, and it is the statesman’s duty, the Christian ruler’s duty above all, to ensure the tranquility, order and peace of his people. Quite honestly, no one who knows a jot about WWI or our own War of Secession can pretend that war is anything other than the greatest of evils, something devoutly to be avoided and an appalling waste. Nothing is more frightening to me than the ahistorical treatment arguments about just war receive, or the rather ghettoised historical memory that the authors in question apply. When one reflects that the “gulags and concentration camps” are the products ultimately of the folly of 1914, the improvements war offers are very, very few (they are usually improvements in the techniques of war, which promise to make the sequel that much more destructive or, in our own day, so much more precise as to encourage moral indifference to its victims).

Rev. Schall writes again: “The general opinion of most sensible men in most of history is that war certainly is one answer, even a reasonable answer, in the light of what would likely ensue without it. Not a few unfought wars have made things considerably worse. Not a few fought wars have made things better.”

I will leave aside for the moment that the appeal to the crowd, which is his “general opinion of most sensible men in most of history” (no that’s not tendentious!), is fallacious. Many rulers have chosen war out of the fear of what would ensue if they did not–what is usually not said is that so very many rulers chose poorly and there were those at the time who knew they were choosing poorly. What troubles me is the idea that wars make things better. No wars have made things better. I am confident of that, even though I do not entertain pacifism in the slightest, because this is not a question of pacifism but one of a conservative impulse, a respect for things as they exist and a humane sense of limits to the power I would entrust to men who suffer from the same lapse that has made our world so rife with conflict.

At the very least, all we can say about every war in history is that some of them prevented things from becoming worse (or so we, often self-servingly, suppose), but I can think of very few that have really made things better. Naturally, it will depend on what one believes was the proper goal of the war, which “side” one finds more sympathetic than the other and which things one chooses to judge as benefits and losses. Some nifty calculations and fancy arguing could be done that might even one day make our current moral horror in Iraq appear so self-evidently good to future generations, who will wonder how anyone could have gotten so agitated to oppose something so clearly wonderful and humane. But I doubt it.

There is something of a professional circuit of “conservative” theologians and intellectuals who come out of the woodwork just before wars. First Things is one of their habitats of choice, though they are not limited only to the avowedly neocon rags (their genius is being able to move in all corners of conservative, policy and religious media with a certain credibility). Their primary job, come wartime, seems to be to assuage the consciences of all the scandalised Catholic and pro-life conservatives (who should be scandalised when we start wars) and assure them, by hook or by crook, that Deus vult or, if not something so blatant at that, that at the very least God does not prohibit it. They lend an intellectual veneer to what is often simply appallingly ugly. They talk about the costs of inaction, yet there seem to have been people like them at every crucial moment in the past who make sure that we never find out just how low those costs might be.

More often that not, as we look into these arguments, the actual moral theology gets pretty skimpy. We see the initial of various church orders, the list of degrees and the fine educational pedigree of these various fellows and reasonably expect that we are about to read a specifically Christian and rather learned view on the question. Invariably, however, virtually nothing but secular references appear. This is perhaps because the author feels the need to be “relevant” to a broader audience or perhaps because he has learned his just war theory in a sort of second-hand, confused way that often has more to do with the political uses of the arguments of Augustine, Aquinas and Grotius than with their arguments.

I am constantly impressed at the self-assuredness of theologians, intellectuals and pundits who have attached themselves to the cause of this war, who tell us with tremendous confidence that “soldiers” know what war is really like, unlike the mewling ninnies writing the reports about the war. Or as Rev. Schall writes: “We often, and rightly, ponder the horrors of war. Doing so is a growth industry particularly for those who do not choose to fight in them. Soldiers usually know more about the horrors of wars than journalists. They also know more about what it is like to live under a tyrannical system. The uncovering of gulags and concentration camps ought also to cause us to reflect deeply on what happens when unjust regimes acquire and remain in power. 9/11 could have been prevented with but a small use of force had we known that we had an enemy who would utterly surprise us by using passenger planes as weapons of war.”

As if this told us anything about the moral questions surrounding war in general–questions for which, one might have thought, the moral theologian or philosopher might be at least equally qualified to judge. (Note the gratuitous insertion of 9/11, the modern sophist’s bludgeon, as if this horror came literally out of nowhere and had no connection to our wars and our military policy.) Even so, soldiers do know more about war, and the sober ones are just about the last to rush to the theoretical defense of its practice. Smedley Butler, one of the more honest soldiers from some of our most cynical and pointless wars, is a case in point. Yet not a single one of the theologians, intellectuals and pundits writing such words knows much about war, either, by this same standard. This presents us with something of a dilemma: do pro-war intellectuals pundits exist simply to direct their learning and rhetorical skills, whatever they may be, to the cause of convincing us to “stop worrying and love the bomb,” so to speak? Evidently, they have nothing very meaningful to tell us about war, not being soldiers, and so they write their articles for us apparently to console us that the horrible, bloody waste we read about daily is just one of those durn, “necessary” things in life.

Surely, being lectured for the umpteenth time that there are some things worth fighting for (which almost no one outside the genuinely bizarre leftist fringe opposes, and even they wouldn’t really oppose it in the moment of truth) is more than a little redundant and tiresome.

Rev. Schall again: “A follower of Nietzsche, who thought Platonism and Christianity had failed because both lauded weakness, will see a certain nobility to wars and power for their own dramatic sakes. Like many moderns, Nietzsche did not find any order in the universe except that imposed by his own will. Still, most sensible people can see that to prevent the rise of unlimited power or to remove it, once established, requires the legitimate use of adequate force against it. Often we perform this reflection about war’s atrocities in isolation from real situations and without balance, for peace is not simply the absence of war.”

Nietzsche’s modern sensibility that the creative will determines and makes reality, so excellently described and dissected in George Grant’s Time as History, is not that much different from Kant’s autonomous morality in which each person makes his own universal law. Of course, Kant’s autonomy is all very proper and respectable and retains the pretense of adhering to limits, but at its heart is the pulsating chaos of moral anarchy, where the law is do what thou will. I mention this to say that most moderns are far more Nietzschean in this way than they would probably like to admit, and to remind the public that the administration, which Rev. Schall seems to support (if the IHT article is any indication), is simply loaded down with people who either valorise war, believe it makes things better and believe that they fashion reality by their will.

The fears of the “rise of unlimited power” strike me as especially odd. Last I checked, this was not 1942 and the Axis was not on the march across the globe (and even that was a brief illusion of a moment). In the legitimate struggle before us, we are fighting those groups precisely so strategically and politically weak that they are reduced to striking by surprise at the most vulnerable targets using the most abominable means. The rise of unlimited power we have to fear is the corruption that comes from our own significant, albeit not unlimited, power (as there is no earthly unlimited power, as I’m sure Rev. Schall would agree).

Indeed, peace is not just the absence of war–it is so much more grand and excellent than that. Were it not, its sudden departure might be less awful. It is the space and the reality in which the good life is possible, the time for thoughtful contemplation and cultivation of moral excellence, the occasion for devotion to arts and learning, reaping the harvest of the earth and fashioning the visions of the imagination in material form. In its most profound sense, it is the fullness of confidence and hope and order, the beauty that comes from men living in accordance with God’s design. Sinful, grasping, hubristic peoples are the ones whom God subjects to wars–the people who possess no eunomia and no peace in themselves and so are bent on representing their moral and spiritual anarchy in the world around them. Indeed, there are theological causes to our political problems.

Our age must be one of the few in which the people do not hold fasts and days of thanksgiving and repentance during wartime, and so ignore the injunctions and the mercy of God at the same time, only turning to Him when we feel we could use His might rather than honour it. Modern peoples excel in feeling guiltless for the violence they start or have caused, and few generations better than this one have perfected the expectation that every knee shall bow. Not to God, mind you, but to them, and they are fully prepared to throw a temper-tantrum and then launch a few cruise missiles when it doesn’t happen.

“Not a few worthy things have been eradicated forever because a war was lost.”

Rather, many worthy things have been eradicated forever because men were able to so soothe their consciences, embrace war not only as a sometimes grim inevitability but as a positive, healthy exercise and enter into wars from which they and their enemies really profited nothing. How many worthy things has our invasion of Iraq cost the people there and our own people? What is so troubling about Rev. Schall’s article, and the reason why I have made a point of picking it apart for so long, is that he makes all the standard, predictable arguments that such a thing as a just war exists, and he is not basically wrong about that, but the same person proceeds elsewhere to support the war in Iraq, presumably on the basis of these convictions about a just war. The two simply do not fit together, and what is really worrisome is that serious men, such as I take Rev. Schall to be, do not see that.

“In reading ancient history, as we should and for this very reason, we can still meditate with profit on the enormous cultural consequences of a success by Xerxes in Greece had Sparta and Athens not successfully defended themselves against his armies.”

We may also meditate on the very real cultural and political consequences that did follow Byzantium and Persia’s death struggle in the seventh century that paved the way for the onslaught of the very Islam Rev. Schall today opposes, or the calamitous waste (however legally or religiously justifiable in theory) that stemmed from Justinian’s reconquest of the west that opened the way for the great Persian invasion: the Christian Near East, the cradle of almost all of our Greek and Hebrew inheritance, was lost to us even till today. Mutual destruction through war made the success of Islam possible, which was preeminently military success, as it has scarcely ever found purchase outside its dominions in lands where another vibrant monotheism has established itself.

By all means, remember Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis (and also remember them is as the purely defensive acts that they were), and acknowledge that it is we who now play the part of Xerxes the arrogant, but remember most of all that for the most part giving battle in history has unleashed far more calamities than it has averted. There can be no clever ways out of acknowledging this basic truth and no simple ways of making the claim that wars make anything better. May just war theory not become simply another one of these tawdry slogans to be invoked by halfwit columnists and radio show hosts to serve as an aid to swallowing the bitter pill of war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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