As I walked along the streets of Hiroshima I tried to imagine the city on fire. Fifty-six years earlier the atomic bomb “Little Boy” had set the area aflame, killing nearly a third of the population within twenty-four hours. According to the local prefectural health department estimates, of the people who perished on the day of the explosion, 60 percent died from flash or flame burns. Most of the dead were “noncombatants”—innocent men, women, and children.
Like many Americans I had always believed that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan had been a necessary evil, the only way to end the bloody, protracted war. Now, looking into the faces of smiling children strolling down the bustling sidewalks, I wasn’t so sure. Civilians just like the ones I was watching—mothers fussing over infants, grandmothers holding the hands of little girls—had been targeted by my country in order to bend the will of Japan’s political and military leaders.
Being an American, I had heard all of the arguments for why sacrificing these noncombatants was the only way to spare the lives of thousands that would be killed in the inevitable invasion. Being a Christian, though, I struggled with a more essential question: How is it ever justifiable to target innocent men, women, and children?
I was preoccupied by that question during the thirty-mile trip back to the Marine air station at Iwakuni. And then, once I stepped back onto the base, I put it out of mind.
That was in August 2001.
Two weeks later, in the predawn hours, I stood with my squadron in a hanger bay waiting to hear news from the east coast of the United States. Despite living in an age of fiber optics and satellite communications, the information couldn’t reach us on the other side of the world quickly enough. We were desperate to know what was happening back home. A few Marines knew people who were scheduled to fly out of Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C. Many knew someone who lived or worked in downtown Manhattan. Everyone knew someone in the Pentagon.
We felt helpless. While we were in a foreign land “defending our country” thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—were dead or dying in America. Almost all were “noncombatants”—innocent men, women, and children.
Thinking about the deaths of civilians on my own soil caused me to reconsider the deaths of civilians in WWII-era Japan. After much prayer, reflection, and study I came to some radically unpopular conclusions. I realized, for instance, that no matter how much my country might have benefited from the decision, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the indiscriminate fire-bombing of 67 other Japanese cities could not be squared with my view of Christian morality.
In retrospect it seems like an obvious position for a Christian. Yet despite having been a Marine for 13 years I had never heard anyone other than pacifists claim that was an acceptable, much less obligatory opinion to hold. There were few resources available to help me think through my moral obligations as a Christian who served in the vocation of a warrior.
Recently, I was reminded of this lack of instruction on justice in warfare. The Air Force has suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers because it used Bible passages and religious imagery to teach them about the ethics of war.
The impetus, of course, was another ludicrous campaign by the Church-State seperationists. In this case, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is the group of screwy, shortsighted ideologues who believes that when it comes to launching a nuclear weapon, its best not to have anyone who might be influenced by an ethic of “love your neighbor.” Unfortunately, as happens all too often nowadays, the Christians sided with the secularists. According to the reports, the anti-religion group was “approached late last month by about 30 officers, most of them Protestant or Roman Catholic, who said they objected to the presentation.”
Despite the group’s ridiculous motives, they have done us a service by bringing attention to this program, a counterproductive training session that has been going on for decades.
The problem with the religious section of the ethics training—dubbed by the attendees as the “Jesus loves nukes speech”—is that it appears to present a truncated and distorted view of just war thinking, particularly as it applies to the use of nuclear weapons.
The PowerPoint presentation briefly lists “Augustine’s Qualifications for Just War” as “Just Cause” and “Just Intent.” Although these are a couple of the qualifications for jus ad bellum ("right to wage war"), there is no mention of jus in bello (“justice in war”). Instead, the presentation merely lists a few Old Testament figures who engaged in war (Abraham, Samson, David) and a handful of verses from the New Testament that present a positive impression of soldiers.
From there it shifts to the section on Hiroshima. The presentation mentions that 80,000 were killed instantly and that 200,000 died by 1950 before adding a “However . . .” that points out “Tokyo firebombed 80,000 to 100,000 in one night!” and “If the Japanese or Germans had made the atomic bomb first, they have testified that they would have used it.” Arguing that the people behind the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking would have done it too if they had the opportunity is not exactly a compelling ethical justification. Sadly, this appears to be the primary mode of reasoning used in the presentation.
Judging the training based solely on the supporting materials is admittedly unfair. Perhaps the complete presentation was more nuanced and rooted in Christian moral reasoning. That is certainly my hope, though it appears the training had less to do with teaching Christian ethics than with salving the qualms of religious airmen who may have to “turn the key” and launch nuclear weapons against civilian populations.
Therein lies the true problem with this sort of training. If the role of the chaplain in ethical training is reduced to providing Bible verses to support whatever choices are made in warfare, then it is worse than ineffective. And if the chaplaincy is disappointed and considers the training a failure when an airmen decides that maybe Jesus doesn’t loves nukes, they have failed to do their duty as religious counselors.
This is not the type of training that is needed. The men and women of the military do not need pastors who will tell them that sometimes you have to destroy a village in order to save it. They need religious leaders who will inform them about the rich tradition of just warfare thinking that has been handed down by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Vitoria, Grotius and others.
Most of all, Christians in the military need to be inculturated in a Christianity that does not put the interest of the nation-state ahead of the Kingdom of God. By doing so we are creating a climate of consequentialism, where the morality of an action is judged based on whether it leads to a favorable outcome. This not only leads to unethical post hoc rationalizations for previous actions, it provides cover for future violations. If Christian civilians are willing to overlook and justify outrages in war when they align with the nation’s strategic interests, we should not be surprised when outrages in warfare become more frequent.
Christians were at the forefront of providing a moral context for warfare. But we are in danger of losing all that we have achieved. “The distinction between combatants and the civilian population has been characterized not only as one of the fundamental principles of international law, but as its greatest triumph,” wrote Capt. Lester Nurick in the American Journal of International Law, two months after the bombing of Hiroshima. Yet he also noted that, “The trend in war is to treat combatant and noncombatant alike, if to do so will realize any substantial military gain.” This trend starts not with the military but with a civilian population that is willing to subscribe to a “do what needs to be done” attitude to waging war.
Although none of us are likely to have to enter the codes to launch a nuclear missile, all thinking Christians are obligated to reason through the underlying moral issues. If we are willing and able to set aside our moral obligations when they conflict with the strategic needs of our nation, how can we argue that the same obligations can’t be set aside for the personal needs of the individual? If we can target children in war, then why can children not be targeted in the womb?
The Machiavellian pragmatism that justifies the slaughter of innocents in a foreign city eventually leads to the devaluation of innocent life in our country. We can’t leave the consequentialism on the battlefield, for it always follows us back home. Once we untether justice from warfare, there is no firebreak that can hold back the inferno of relativism from scorching our own land.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Washington Post, Air Force suspends ethics course that used Bible passages to train missile launch officers
Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear War PowerPoint Presentation
Joe Carter, A Jus In Bello Defense of Nuclear Weapons
James Turner Johnson, Just War, As It Was and Is
Catholic Moral Theology, On the Vandenberg Air Force Base Nuclear Ethics & Nuclear War Course
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