Facing Ambiguity in Warfare

This paper was first given as a talk at the Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering in January, 2012. I have, therefore, left it in the somewhat more casual form of a talk, unencumbered also by footnotes. — GM

[1] My assignment, as I understand it, is to try to say something helpful about the fact that soldiers will sometimes find themselves in perplexing situations, circumstances in which all their alternatives seem morally problematic and which may leave them with a burden of guilt so heavy as, even, to be in some respects disabling. What should Lutheran moral reflection and Lutheran pastoral care have to offer them?

[2] I will devote some time at the outset to explaining why I think a certain approach that has become quite common in some Lutheran circles is bound to lead us astray. I hope this does not disappoint you; all I can say is that from my perspective this may be the most important thing to say.

[3] We may begin, though, with an obvious point on which I suspect we would all, in principle, agree: that we should not offer soldiers cheap grace — that is, permission to sin boldly, confident that God’s only interest in the matter is to love and accept them, whatever they may have done. We are likely to offer such cheap grace if we too quickly transform all questions of moral theology into problems of pastoral care, something we are likely to do when the language of ambiguity dominates our thinking. That is a danger to be avoided, though I hope I will not underrate the place of pastoral care by the time I am finished.

[4] Especially in an age marked by various forms of irregular warfare, we are inclined to talk of moral ambiguity, of tragic choices, of lesser evils that must be done — and done, evidently, with a burdened rather than a good conscience. And so, while talking a good bit about the freedom of the gospel, we may seem to experience or offer relatively little of it.

[5] Now, to be sure, I do think there can be circumstances so deeply ambiguous that we may not be able to find a course of action that seems right. (Whether there can be circumstances in which there truly is no right action available is a harder question, which I will not tackle here.) But I don’t think these circumstances are as common as we sometimes suppose. Turning too quickly to that language is a kind of moral laziness. Moreover, turning too quickly to it does not really serve well the moral and spiritual needs of soldiers (or, for that matter, civilians). We can say that war is hell, and that’s true enough. But then being morally serious and avoiding moral laziness also requires us to try — as Michael Walzer once put it — to carve out a constitutional regime in hell and work to discern the difference between right and wrong even there.

[6] In short, our consciences should be relatively robust. By this I do not mean that we should just be hard-nosed, even cynical, realists about what the world is like. In his quite recent, and very interesting, book titled Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, the historian Michael Burleigh, discussing Churchill’s decisions, writes at one point: “Wars are not conducted according to the desiccated deliberations of a philosophy seminar full of pursed-lipped old maids.” While I take that to be a true statement, the robustness I have in mind is something a little different.

[7] Let me illustrate it with two important passages from foundational Lutheran writings. Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession says in part: “Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers.”

[8] Notice that it says “without sin.” It doesn’t say “may do the lesser evil when no right choice is available,” or “may accept a burden of guilt in the tragic circumstances of warfare.” It says that soldiers may engage in combat without sin. That doesn’t mean they may do anything and everything, of course. Some actions are wrong. Still, if what they do is not wrong, then they act “without sin” — however wrenching the circumstances. (And, by the way, though this is not the first thing I would necessarily say to a soldier burdened by what he had done, if he thinks himself sinful for having done what is not wrong, he has an erring conscience. And while it is not safe subjectively to act against conscience, one’s conscience may nevertheless be objectively erroneous and in need of instruction.)

[9] Here is a second passage, this one from Luther. While Luther’s writings do not have for Lutherans the normative authority that the Confessional documents do, they may still be instructive on many occasions. This is a passage from Luther’s treatise on Temporal Authority. He is commenting here on Romans 13, on the power of the sword exercised by government on God’s behalf. “Be not so wicked, my friend, as to say, ‘A Christian may not do that which is God’s own peculiar work, ordinance, and creation.’ …If it is God’s work and creation, then it is good, so good that everyone can use it in a Christian and salutary way.”

[10] We need, therefore, to be clear about what it is that is so deeply ambiguous about what soldiers must do in combat. It’s not that uses of force, even those we think necessary, are always morally compromised and tainted with sin from the start. It’s not that all uses of force fall short of the requirement of love and, hence, involve us in tragic necessities. It’s not even that soldiers must sometimes kill (though that is something a little more awesome than Luther’s tone captures).

[11] No, what is problematic is that soldiers are authorized to do on behalf of others what they are not authorized to do on their own behalf. That doesn’t make it sinful; it doesn’t make it tragic; it doesn’t make it wrong but necessary. But it does make it puzzling and troubling, for it draws us into the deep mystery of God’s own being, the distinction between God’s proper and alien work. The soldier’s problem is not the difficulty of believing that what he does is right. The problem is being able to believe in the God who has placed him in such troubling circumstances. Theodicy is always the deeper problem, and we need to be alert to that. One can have a crisis of faith while doing what is right.

[12] To be sure, even if their consciences are robust, soldiers may still find themselves in circumstances that are difficult to sort out on the spot. They cannot engage in too much moral reflection when in combat, and we would be wrong to ask that of them, even as their own consciences would be erring to expect it of themselves.

[13] So, for example, when an enemy uses unconventional tactics that do not adhere to the received laws of warfare, soldiers may be puzzled about how to respond, and they may have to make countless decisions on the spot. A soldier on guard duty cannot always wait long enough to determine whether a vehicle approaching a security checkpoint is going to stop. That is a necessity imposed by the enemy’s own tactics. Some years ago there was a well-publicized incident in which a van full of Iraqi civilian women and children was riddled with bullets because it did not slow down when approaching a checkpoint. Perhaps there was a failure in communication, perhaps something else happened.

[14] In any case, the soldiers who riddled the van with bullets must (I think) have felt terrible when they realized what had happened. They may feel terrible about it for the rest of their lives. They may want to argue with the God who placed them in such circumstances.

[15] But that does not mean they acted wrongly.

[16] When we try to think through — whether in advance or after the fact — the hard decisions soldiers must make, we will find that something like what is called the principle of double effect will be absolutely necessary for thinking morally about what soldiers do in ambiguous and perplexing circumstances. You don’t need me to tell you what double effect means, but I do want to say something about why it is helpful; for at its heart is the absolutely necessary distinction between what we intend and what we foresee. Several different kinds of circumstances, any of which people are sometimes tempted to call “tragic,” are worth noting and distinguishing.

[17] Whenever we act, we hope to bring about certain states of affairs. We will have some end in view, and we will also choose certain means to our end. Sometimes we both foresee and intend the results of what we do. If our actions cause pain or harm that we both foresaw and intended, we should not speak of our circumstances as tragic. We knew what we were doing; we intended to cause harm; and, depending on the circumstances, we were either right or wrong to do so. There is no guarantee in life that right action will never have some consequences we regret. It would be a mistaken conscience that supposed otherwise.

[18] Sometimes, however, we neither foresee nor intend the results of what we do. Our actions may have consequences that we do not intend and that we could not reasonably have foreseen. If and when such entirely accidental results cause suffering or harm, we quite properly use the word ‘tragic’ to describe what has happened — and, again, we may want to blame God. To take an example far from the world of warfare: Josh Hamilton throws a ball he has caught at the end of an inning up into the stands toward Shannon Stone, who falls over the railing trying to catch it and plunges twenty feet to his death, while his six-year-old son looks on. That result was not intended and could not have been foreseen by Hamilton. We rightly call it tragic. But it would be an erring conscience that supposed he had acted wrongly.

[19] Sometimes we foresee but do not intend certain results of what we do, and here the complexities arise. There may be occasions when the results of our action bring suffering or harm, when doing so was not in any way our aim, but when we did foresee the likelihood that such “foreseen but unintended” evil would result from aiming at some other (presumably good) end. And if we really were aiming at some good, a good sufficiently important to risk the other accompanying evils, and if we did not at all choose those other evils as a means to our good end, then we acted rightly and are without sin. We should not feel guilty for having so acted.

[20] Is there, nonetheless, something tragic about such circumstances? Well, if by “tragic” we mean it’s too bad we live in a world in which it is often impossible to aim wholeheartedly at what is good without also producing some evil, then I guess it would be tragic. But so much of life — not just warfare — is like this, that appeals to tragedy here may not be all that helpful or informative. Sometimes, in fact, they may be harmful; for once we start to characterize so much of human experience as tragic, we are tempted to relieve ourselves of the task of hard moral deliberation. We start to think that our hands will be dirty no matter what we do, and from there it is a short step — psychologically if not logically — to supposing that it does not matter what we do.

[21] Not everyone likes this sort of double effect reasoning. Lutherans tend to associate it with Roman Catholicism. If so, this is an aspect of Roman Catholicism from which we might learn.

[22] It may be good to think together briefly about why double effect reasoning is essential. What that is important about the moral life does it help us to see?

[23] If you ask me “Why did you do that?” or “Why did you fail to do that?”, whatever results I have to include in my answer to your question are results that I intended. And, at the same time, there may be results of my action, very much foreseen but not at all intended, that would be no part of my answer to the question, “why did you do that?” Those I do not invest with a sense of personal purpose.

[24] Double effect reasoning is an attempt to distinguish results that, so to speak, just “run through” us from results that we embrace and draw into ourselves — that we embrace and invest with personal purpose. It’s very hard to imagine life without some such distinction. Like any distinction, it can be misused and can sometimes be hard to apply with precision, but we need it.

[25] If we try to get along without this sort of distinction, if we think it’s just a piece of legalistic moral quibbling, we end by making ourselves responsible for all the results that flow from our actions — both those intended and invested with our person, and those foreseen but not so invested. That may at first seem to demonstrate a strong sense of moral responsibility, but it ends by destroying all genuinely human responsibility.

[26] To be responsible for everything is to be responsible for nothing — unless, of course, you are God. Imagining ourselves to exercise a responsibility that could only be God’s is not moral seriousness, and it will only lead us astray. In order to retain a sense of moral limits, which is essential for thinking about right and wrong in warfare, we will need something like double effect categories. They are not an attempt to keep our hands clean. On the contrary, they are a serious attempt to sort out our obligations to different neighbors.

[27] Having made this pitch for the important place of moral reasoning, I want now to acknowledge its limits and recognize also the need and place for pastoral care. I will do this in two ways, neither explicitly theological, one more brief than the other.

[28] By now Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars has become a classic text in the study of just war theory. Its basic structure is well known. Walzer emphasizes the dualism of our thinking about war. That is, we make two different kinds of judgments — about the justice of going to war, and about the justice of what we do in war. Neither of these can be reduced to the other.

[29] This means, though, that there may be moments when we find it hard to reconcile the two judgments. In particular, those who have justice on their side in going to war might find that they could wage that war successfully only if they fought unjustly (only if, for example, they targeted civilians). For Walzer the paradigmatic instance of this was Britain’s position at the beginning of World War II.

[30] Britain’s was a just cause — indeed, a war that had to be won. But at least at first they could prosecute the war with any hope of success only by bombing cities. Walzer does not call such bombing right; in fact, he calls it criminal. Yet, he says that it was necessary, that it had to be done. Political and military leaders had for a time to transgress the requirements of just war in order to win a war that had to be won.

[31] Whether Walzer is right about this is not my concern here, nor will I ask whether it makes sense to argue that one must do what it is nevertheless not right to do. My point lies elsewhere.

[32] In the last section of his book Walzer takes up what he calls the “dishonoring of Arthur Harris.” Harris had been in charge of the Bomber Command that targeted German cities. British actions — most particularly those of the bombers commanded by Harris — had, in a moment of necessity, overridden the moral law. Now that law had somehow to be reinstated.

[33] Walzer discerns such reinstatement in the fate of Arthur Harris. He had, not unreasonably, expected to be knighted after the war. He had done what Britain needed done in its moment of peril. Nevertheless, he was not accorded any public honor after the war, and eventually he went back, bitterly disappointed, to his native Rhodesia. This, Walzer seems to suggest, is the most we might ask of a nation-state, the closest it could come to acknowledging its burden of criminality.

[34] But, of course, whatever we think of Walzer’s reasoning about such dishonoring, it is not exactly morality at work. It is closer to religion. For the move Walzer makes here at the end of his long discussion must be related to an important biblical story that he learned as a young Jewish boy. Surely, what we have in the dishonoring of Arthur Harris is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement ritual, sent off into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people.

[35] At the end of the day — at the end of a very fine book that is an extended piece of moral reasoning — it turns out that morality cannot save us. Something other, something more is needed, which we can only call expiation. The very best moral reasoning can take us only so far, and it is not far enough.

[36] There is also a second angle from which to think of morality’s limits. Consider the moral and spiritual danger that soldiers face simply by virtue of what they do — and do rightly. They find themselves caught up in a field of force that threatens to subvert their ability to act as moral agents. It makes them, as Simone Weil argued, “things” rather than subjects.

[37] Day after day soldiers may find themselves facing decisions and necessities that human beings cannot easily sort through or bear. Weil writes of how those who are in battle, who day after day are caught up in a world of force, may find it very hard to retain a sense of limits. Or, as she puts it in an unforgettable phrase describing the life of those in combat, “every morning the soul castrates itself of aspiration.” One gets swallowed up in the pure momentum of this field of force, a momentum that is dangerous, because it threatens to overwhelm our ability to make the kinds of distinctions between right and wrong that we need to make.

[38] The locus classicus in our history for this insight does not come from a piece of Christian writing but from Vergil’s Aeneid. The crucial passage — and problem — for understanding the nature of force in the Aeneid, a passage about which (as I understand it) scholarly debate among classicists is not likely to cease, comes in the poem’s concluding lines. But we have to start further back in the poem.

[39] Much earlier, in Book VI of the Aeneid, journeying into the underworld, Aeneas finds his father, Anchises, who shows him the future greatness of the Roman people whom Aeneas is destined to found. Other peoples, Anchises says, may excel in art, argument, or astrology, but Roman greatness will lie elsewhere: in the arts of rule; in the controlled use of force, in empire.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.

This is what it means to be Roman — perhaps especially, Vergil probably means, to be Roman in the age of Augustus.

[40] How, then, are we to read the end of the poem, when Aeneas faces Turnus, who leads the Italian forces resisting the invading Trojans? Aeneas runs his sword through Turnus’ thigh, bringing him to his knees.

The man brought down, brought low, lifted his eyes
And held his right hand out to make his plea:
“Clearly, I earned this, and I ask no quarter.
Make the most of your good fortune here.
If you can feel a father’s grief — and you, too,
Had such a father in Anchises — then
Let me bespeak your mercy for old age
In Daunus
[Turnus’ father], and return me, or my body,
Stripped, if you will, of life, to my own kin.
You have defeated me. The Ausonians
Have seen me in defeat, spreading my hands.
Lavinia is your bride. But go no further
Out of hatred.

[41] Aeneas pauses, experiencing perhaps what Simone Weil called an “interval of hesitation” before the humanity even of the conquered enemy. And what a moment that pause is. It is a moment in which, perhaps, the character of Roman empire hangs in the balance. Aeneas has “battle[d] down the proud.” Will he now also “remember,” as Anchises had advised, “to spare the conquered”?

[42] Having paused, having stayed his hand for a moment, Aeneas suddenly notices that Turnus is wearing the swordbelt of young Pallas, whom he had killed in battle — Pallas, whom Aeneas had loved and for whom he had taken responsibility.

Aeneas raged at the relic of his anguish
Worn by this man as trophy. Blazing up
And terrible in his anger, he called out:
“You in your plunder, torn from one of mine,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due.”
He sank his blade in fury
[furor] in Turnus’ chest.
Then all the body slackened in death’s chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below.

With those words the poem ends in what we can only regard as studied ambiguity.

[43] What is the meaning of this ending for the Rome of Vergil’s day, the empire of Augustus? Aeneas has fulfilled his destiny — or, perhaps even we should say, powers greater than Aeneas have brought that destiny to fulfillment. With Turnus out of the way, peace will now be possible. Native Latins and invading Trojans will learn to live together and will forge Roman greatness, all made possible because Aeneas does not shrink from back from the world of force, but puts it to good purposes. That is one way to read the end of the poem.

[44] But does such an ending — if this is its meaning — really display pietas, Roman greatness as Anchises had described it? For in the end Aeneas seems overwhelmed by the world of force. In the end he is governed more by furor than pietas, and the greatness that spares the conquered exists only in Anchises’ imagination. That is surely a possible alternative reading of the poem’s final lines.

[45] Perhaps, then, Vergil’s great epic does not aim only to magnify the greatness of Augustus’ Rome but also to sound a note of caution or, even, warning. Anchises’ vision is one possible Rome, but so is the end of the Aeneid. For given precisely the opportunity to spare the suppliant, Aeneas — in a moment of blind momentum, more a “thing” than an agent — does the opposite. From that picture of human possibilities and dangers, Vergil might be read to say, all of us should learn.

[45] We cannot without danger to ourselves exist indefinitely or exclusively within the world of force. That world of pure momentum may subvert our powers of moral reasoning, and we may be surprised at our own weakness. Even when we do what is right, as conceivably Aeneas did what was right, we may not be wholeheartedly “in the right.” We may, in fact, be in danger of falling into the grip of some of those powers and principalities of which St. Paul wrote, and which we have forgotten how to take seriously.

[46] What we need then, I suspect, is not simply more or better moral reasoning, but the gift that pastoral care offers: the opportunity to reclaim our baptism and renounce those powers, to acknowledge again our dependence on God, even to argue with God if need be. And to pray in the words of one of the church’s most beautiful prayers: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.