War as an Act of Love(?)

A variety of recent authors have re-examined the “Good War” approach to World War II.  I don’t think this trend is mere cynical debunking.  I applaud it.  World War II killed a much higher percentage of the world population than any other conflict by far.  That fact must forever remain a stain on the war, and we need not  stoop to moral equivication to think carefully about why it happened.

Ronald Schaffer’s Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in W.W. II is a book in this vein.  He does not try cheap arguments that paint American bombings as ‘genocide,’ but certain facts stare one in the face.  America dropped far more bombs on civilians than the German army did, and Shaffer dispassionately wants to know why, albeit a bit too dispassionately.

He writes carefully, suggesting but never advancing a few theories here and there.  He is at his best when describing the tug-of-war between different camps within the Air Force and government as it related to bombing civilians.  We learn a lot about the views of many generals and politicians.  We get an insightful look into the history of attitudes to bombing before World War II.  But we do not get a good answer as to why we dropped so many bombs on so many people.   The question of civilian bombing comes into sharp focus especially in Nazi occupied areas (at least 12,000 dead from our bombs in places like France), not just Germany and Japan proper.  His only real answer is the oft-heard ideas of the “pressures of the moment,” “group think,” and “the protection of American lives.”  These explanations have their place, but I think a better answer exists–closer to the root cause–one that Shaffer himself mentions but does not explore: the idea that war is of necessity evil.

Of course the idea that war is by its nature evil seems to make perfect sense.  The idea that “war is hell” resonates with anyone, and given that war means the deaths of so many, it seems hard to argue the point.  But, appealing as this position seems at first glance, it puts the Christian in a difficult spot.  At times God  orders wars to take place.  Can we say that God ordered an evil thing, and that He can therefore do evil?  Secondly, the idea of war= evil has not been the view of the Church historically.

I did not read his book, but very much enjoyed Ken Myers’ interview with Daniel Bell, author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Re-centering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State.  The book has received favorable reviews from pacifists and military chaplains alike, which must mean something good.  Bell believes in “Just War Theory” but argues that over time it has lost its true value, because it has been used outside its true purpose.  Politicians use the ideas as a mere checklist, that once fulfilled, grants one a blank check to fight.  Bell argues instead that “just war” didn’t stop when conditions for fighting resolved, but continued into the fighting itself.  To fight to relieve the oppression of others could be a positive, but fighting the oppressors was also, in St. Augustine’s view, good for the oppressors as well.  Stopping their ability to oppress spared them piling up judgment upon themselves, or might help them see the evil of their ways.  For Augustine, if one could not fight an enemy out of love for that enemy, and even potentially kill that enemy out of love for that person, one could not claim to be fighting a “just war.”  War could be a means of sanctification just as any other legitimate activity in life.  Neither the Old or New Testaments speak against being a soldier.

If abused, this idea could to disaster.  Aim high, and you have far to fall if you miss the mark.  One could imagine a deluded commander  perverting this high calling into something monstrous, like the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

But Wings of Judgment shows in some ways that far worse things can happen on a regular basis if governments and armies reject this view.  If war is evil, then once fighting begins nothing can be redeemed.  If one is already a lawbreaker, the checks on behavior disappear.  Though certain aspects of bombing got hotly debated, almost all agreed that since war was evil, we needed to end it as soon as possible.  Debates centered more on the tactics and efficacy of bombing than its strategic or moral value.  We dropped thousands of tons of bombs, with hundreds of thousands killed, in the name of war as a necessary evil.

Bell argues that if we are serious about just war, we need to accept the following:

  • When we fight, we cannot place the highest priority on sparing our own lives or the lives of our soldiers.  Love gives, love thinks of others, but to think of ourselves first denies the Golden Rule.
  • We cannot place the highest priority on speed.  Just war means taking time and great care to avoid any unnecessary loss of life, and we must regard the taking of innocent civilian life not as “collateral damage” but at best manslaughter, especially when done out of moral laziness or impatience.
  • Strange as it may seem, victory cannot be our supreme hope in “just wars.”  Our main goal should the increase of holiness, greater progress in sanctification.  Victory may come with such an approach, but we should fight because it’s the “right thing to do” in the “right way,” to increase in our capacity for love and holiness.

For many Christians these ideas will seem absurd, and for this, Bell indicts the Church.  We have forgotten our past and abdicated much of how we live and think to the state over the past few centuries.  Our current “War on Terror” will test us severely.  Predator drones, for example spare many American lives and allow us to go places people cannot.  But several such attacks have resulted in many civilian deaths.  The destruction is not wholesale, but still part of the same thinking that led to the destruction of Caen, Dresden, and Tokyo. If mistakes like this are in some ways inevitable, should we use them at all?   Torture may get us valuable information, but such terrible acts degrade nations who practice them.  Will we forego the information to save our souls?  Will we forego the information if not getting it puts our friends, neighbors, and children, at greater risk?

I agree with Bell, and if he’s right we must ask ourselves if we really want to fight a just war.


Thus ends the original post.  I had a conversation with a Marine friend of mine and he agreed with Bell in part.  He commented that one might love a society and be at war with a society  at the same time.  One could theoretically, “punish” a disobedient society, and just like a parent who never disciplined children, failure to “punish” would be a form of moral laziness.

But he disagreed that one could kill a particular person and still love them.  It may be permissible, but one cannot love another and kill him at the same time.  The soldier at that point is irrevocably intertwined with the “City of Man.”  I suggested that if he was right, Bell’s thesis breaks down entirely, but he thought it could partially survive.

Food for thought. . .

“Armies of the Raj,” and the Psychology of Empires

I picked up Byron Farwell’s Armies of the Raj on a whim, and was very pleasantly surprised.  From the title one might think this book has a very narrow focus, but this is not so.  Farwell uses the army as a springboard into England itself and the whole Victorian era.  Cultures come in many parts, but each diffracted part contains the whole, like light through a prism. So, while this book is military history, it is really cultural history disguised as military history, which I appreciate.

Many have made the point that Victorian era nations really worshipped themselves, and one certainly sees this confirmed by Farwell.  Part of this might have resulted from those India being away from the home country.  Perhaps they felt the need to overcompensate and out-English those in England itself.  I suppose this ‘diaspora’ psychology is not common to the English.  David Hackett-Fischer touched on this same psychology in his wonderful examination of New Zealand and America, both settled by Brits. This might not have been a problem, were it not for the over-inflated view of themselves the Victorians possessed. Toynbee comments,

The estrangement between India and a western world which, for India, has been represented by Great Britain, goes back behind the beginning of the Indian movement for independence in the eighteen- nineties, and behind the tragic conflict in 1857. It goes back to the reforms in the British administration in India that were started in the seventeen-eighties. This birth of estrangement from reform in the relations between Indians and English people is one of the ironies of history; and yet there is a genuine inner connection between the two events. In the eighteenth century the then newly installed British rulers of India were free and easy with their newly acquired Indian subjects in two senses. They were unscrupulous in using their political power to fleece and oppress them, and at the same time they were uninhibited in their social relations with them. They hob-nobbed with their Indian subjects off duty, besides meeting them at work on less agreeable terms. The more intellectual Englishmen in India in the eighteenth century enjoyed the game of capping Persian verses with Indian colleagues; the more lively Indians enjoyed being initiated into English sports. Look at Zoffany’s picture ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match at Lucknow’, painted in 1786. . .

It tells you at a glance that, at that date, Indians and Englishmen could be hail-fellow-well met with one another. The British rulers of India in the first generation behaved, in fact, very much as their Hindu and Moslem predecessors had behaved. They were humanly corrupt and therefore not inhumanly aloof; and the British reformers of British rule, who were rightly determined to stamp out the corruption and who were notably successful in this difficult undertaking, deliberately stamped out the familiarity as well, because they held that the British could not be induced to be superhumanly upright and just in their dealings with their Indian subjects without being made to feel and behave as if they were tin gods set on pedestals high and dry above those Indian human beings down below.

Exhibit B for Toynbee’s analysis might be this painting done of Queen Victoria’s visit to the “Jewel in the Crown”. . .

What can account for this shift, and how did it express itself?

One obvious reason was the Suez Canal, which made transportation to India quicker and safer.  This opened up the possibility of women and families traveling to India, which meant the end of India as a playground for English businessmen, and the arrival of more civilizing influences.  But if one looks at how Victorians dressed, one sees that their version of a “civilized” world was in effect a closed system.  They would not be able to fully reach out to Indians.  Even their clothes seem to send a message of, “Back!  Back, I say!”

Before slamming the British completely, Farwell argues (and I agree) that many if not most British had a sincere desire to do good in India.  And they did in fact accomplish a variety of good things.  As to whether or not the good outweighed the bad in the end, Farwell doesn’t say, and I would think it’s too soon to tell for sure.  He puts his focus on how  the British reformed the military after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, and how their innate prejudice kept getting in the way in a few key areas:

  • The British wanted to integrate Indian troops more into the regular army, but no Indian was ever allowed to command a British soldier
  • Indian officers never had the social privileges that British officers had
  • The British recruited troops very successfully in certain provinces, but never even tried to recruit in other areas of India, believing the people there to be less martial in temperment.  Indians in the British army could never really claim to represent India as a whole, and this had a terrible impact when India did gain its independence.

As time went on the British changed some of their attitudes and tried harder to treat Indians equally. Yet rarely could they go all they way.  Some officers clubs for example, came to allow Indian officers to the bar and billiard room, but not the “swimming bath,” as they called it (though some British officers refused to allow their troops to join if their Indian officers were not granted full membership).  When W.W. II came the British worked hard to recruit all the Indians they could, and the army served to break down a variety of social barriers between British and Indians, and between Indians themselves.  Yet when it came to actually declaring war, the British government announced that India was at war with Germany without even consulting the Indian National Congress, a foolish act that led to much violence and a tragic split between Moslems and Hindu’s within the Congress itself.  General Auchinleck commented in 1940 that,

In my opinion we have been playing a losing hand from the start in this matter of “Indianization.”  The Indian has always thought, rightly or wrongly, that we never intended this scheme to succeed and expected it to fail.  Colour was lent to this view by the way in which each new step had to be wrested from us, instead of being freely given.  Now that we have given a lot we get no credit because there was little grace in our giving.

In their foibles, the British are hardly alone.  Empires find it very difficult psychologically to fully open up themselves.  They tend to believe that the locals should be thankful, first and foremost, for the blessings they bring.  They want to be seen as benefactors.  At their worst, they insist that those they rule thank them for their kindness, and get angry if others fail to do so. . .

The book is another confirmation about how nations cannot do things halfway.  You cannot bring part of your civilization and trust that it will satisfy.  If you rule on the basis of the superiority of your civilization and claim to bring its blessings, you have to bring them all.  England could claim that they brought more economic opportunity to India, as well as modernization.  These are features of western culture.  But many of the Indians the British generously sent to Oxford and Cambridge (like Ghandi and Nehru) learned that there was more to western culture than railroads.  Others principles, like equality under the law and self-determination will be evident in a western education.  That the British did not see this coming testifies to their short sight, but again, their problems were human problems, and hardly uniquely their own.  In a fallen world, we often don’t recognize what’s best for ourselves, let alone others.

I, Robot

I discovered last summer when I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation that he makes great summer reading.  I mean this in the highest respect.  To create bad summer fiction  might be easy, but to keep it light, entertaining, but thought provoking enough to prevent the reader from feeling like a total sellout — that requires a graceful touch.

His I, Robot achieves this same delicate balance.  The book has a remarkable coherence for the fact that he culled it together from several short stories written over a period of about 15 years.  Like the best science fiction, it seems to grow only more relevant as time marches on.  As a special bonus, he anticipates the rise of Asia and the decline of Europe.  But nothing he wrote could top those sideburns.

Asimov muddies the waters well and creates complex questions, but comes down on the side that robots benefit mankind.  I remain unconvinced, though more for gut level reactions than anything absolute.  As technology progresses in the stories, robots become superior to humans in many ways.  They are faster, stronger, more durable, and more efficient than humans.  To help reinforce their control and perception of robots, humans build into their programming that robots call humans “master,” while many of the male characters call robots, “boy,” which Asimov surely knows conjures up connotations of slavery.  Perhaps we should not think so much about robots rising up and taking over.  Perhaps we should think what damage we would do to our own souls if we created servants to do our every bidding.

But if we treat robots with deference and respect, would that make them our equals, and essentially human?  Not necessarily — we can treat trees with respect.  But treating trees or even dogs with respect does not threaten us because such interactions do not threaten our sense of humanity.  The likely proliferation of walking, talking robots within the next few decades raises even the question over the tone of how we address them.  As Brian Christian noted, part of the confusion regarding our humanity may lie not just in the increase of technology, but in the fact that we are worse at being human than previously.

Asimov also makes us realize  that the very terms we use make a difference in our perceptions.  Is a robot essentially a computer?  If so, then are computers robots?  Very few of us, I think, would be comfortable with this.  I use a computer, not a robot, thank you very much.

As time marches on within I, Robot, the machines get more advanced and more integrated into society.  Eventually they come to direct the world’s economy and much of governance itself.  If the first law of robotics entails that robots may not harm humans, or allow humans to come to harm, then why fear anything they do?  For Asimov, with robots in charge the world unites, war stops, and people get more productive.

At the very end, Asimov tips his hand as to why he believes robots will be beneficial for us.  According to him, much of the misery mankind has suffered has resulted from impersonal factors like geographic resource distribution and macro-economics, rather than personal choice by individuals.  He asserts that mankind has always been at the mercy of forces beyond his control.  Forces beyond our comprehension drive us at times to try and destroy each other.  Well, robots/computers, with their vastly more efficient brains, can manage those things for us.  Factors that brought conflict in the past get effectively managed by robotic brains.

This is the root of why I fear the possible coming of increased computer/robotic domination.  Abdication of responsibility  to robots means a denial of part of our humanity.  If we put a robot in charge of our economy, it would be akin to moral and intellectual laziness–a denial of part of the image of God within us.  I find views of history that make us passive dangerous.  Should we reduce ourselves to, “Can’t somebody else do it?”

Of course, I’m probably overreacting and blind to the ways in which I rely on computers/robots all the time.  But still, Asimov tips the scales towards something problematic.

Another issue:   why was Asimov so high on science in the direct aftermath of the atomic bomb, but today we seem to be much warier?  Movies like Terminator and Matrix series, Blade Runner, the new Battlestar Galactica all proclaim doom for the future because of our continuing dependence on technology.  Even the recent Will Smith version of I, Robot strongly modifies Asimov’s original message in a more negative direction (while also strongly changing elements of the story, as you might expect).

But even an edgy show like The Outer Limits 50 years ago goes even further than Asimov in proclaiming the “robots = good,” message.  The prosecutor and sheriff represent pure ignorant anti-science sentiment in this episode. . .

We use computers much more than they did 50 years ago.  Why do we proclaim our fear out of one side of our mouths, while rejoicing in the latest gadget with the other?  How can we make sense of this? Why did an era that lived within the shadow of nuclear annihilation to a much greater degree than us believe much more in robots?  Many have claimed that Hiroshima marked the high-water mark of the scientific worldview in the west.  Is this true, or do we still live within an era dominated by an Enlightenment oriented scientific era?

I, for one,  do not have the answers, but would be curious for any feedback.