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Morality and the military Print
Guest column
Thursday, Feb. 05, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Fr. Jim Murphy, in his letter in the December 25 edition of the Catholic Herald, argues that Catholics ought not participate in the U.S. military at this time because that participation "would likely involve immoral activity."

Guest Column

He cites papal and other ecclesiastical opinions that our invasion of Iraq was not moral, conditions at the Abu Ghraib prison, and the holding of people at the Guantanamo Naval Base, the rendition program, the condition of veterans returning from the theater of combat, the existence of nuclear weapons, and the shear size of annual military spending.

War in Iraq has changed

First: Whether you agree with the morality or lack thereof of our renewing suspended hostilities in Iraq to unseat a mad-man who was a clear danger to the region, treated his own nationals barbarically, directed multiple acts of war against coalition forces patrolling Iraq, allegedly attempted to assassinate a former U.S. president, and gave every indication that he was attempting to hide a nuclear weapons program (by, for example, menacing U.N. weapons inspectors) is quite moot.

The "present war" is not the same war against which the bishops and the pope counseled. The "U.S.-Iraq" war ended a long time ago, quickly became a war against resurgent Baathists, and then a war against foreigners who came to Iraq for the purpose of preventing peace. The war for the past several years has been mostly a peace-keeping action aimed at establishing a just society and workable system in Iraq, and fending off those who seek to prevent it.

The very reasonable moral concerns about the prudence of the invasion undertaken to topple Saddam simply do not apply now. The question those now considering joining the military ought to be asking themselves is: what is the best and most moral way to proceed NOW? Personally, in the current circumstance, I think a rash pullout would be the most immoral thing to do.

Torture is against military policy

Second: Torture is against U.S. military policy, and the participation of U.S. military personnel in torture is, to my knowledge, both already illegal and not the norm. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, for example, were already the subject of a criminal investigation within the U.S. Army the year before they became public.

The reader might note that the CIA is now going to be forced to use the U.S. Army interrogation manual to prevent CIA personnel from engaging in torture. Father Murphy's concern in regard to torture might be more properly directed toward those considering joining certain branches of certain U.S. intelligence agencies.

Role of intelligence agencies

Third: The renditions (the kidnapping of people in one country and delivering them to another country for interrogation) have generally been carried out and directed, again, by intelligence agencies, not the U.S. military, whose role was usually non-existent or peripheral.

Nuclear weapons rarely used

Fourth: Very few military personnel have anything to do with nuclear weapons. If one has a moral problem handling them, do not join (for example) the Strategic Air Command or the U.S Navy. One could, instead, volunteer for non-nuclear military units, which is the bulk of them.

The U.S. has used nuclear weapons only twice, in rapid succession, to end the war in Japan over 60 years ago. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that they will be used in the foreseeable future.

Dealing with terrorists

Fifth: Holding combatants at Guantanamo without "due process" is not inherently immoral. It is a matter of the prudential judgment of the chief executive. These men are not necessarily guilty of crimes in the classical sense. They are not regular soldiers for whom a nation-state can take responsibility either. Many of them are simply mis-guided zealots who have come to believe that God wants them to kill Americans and who will quickly set themselves about the task as soon as they can.

Faced with a threat such as this, the chief executive has a grave responsibility -- yes, before God -- to prevent men such as these from harming the people for whom the executive has responsibility. A place like Guantanamo -- under U.S. control but not where the Constitution applies (though courts are taking issue with this) -- is probably the best we can do given this odd situation: once those who are innocent or there by mistake are separated out and sent away, the rest can be kept -- in theory -- there until they cease to be a threat.

Morality does not require legal "due process" under these circumstances; it simply requires that those who detained are truly those who cannot be safely released or turned over to legal process elsewhere. In fact, the chief executive may be morally REQUIRED to do this, or something like it.

Wounded veterans

Sixth: The large number of sick and handicapped returning from the war zone is no indication that we do not value human life. To the contrary, these large numbers are a direct consequence of vastly improved field-treatment, stabilization, and medical evacuation of the injured, which improvements are a direct consequence of the value we place on the lives of our soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.

When we sacrificed the lives of thousands of marines daily during the Pacific island-hopping campaigns of WWII, a much greater fraction of injured men died before they could receive care. Caring for the large number of returning, injured veterans is a challenge to which we have yet to rise properly, but we are trying.

Size of military budget

Seventh: The size of the military budget is not pertinent to the question of whether or not it is ethical for a given individual to join the military.

Moral people needed in military

While I am not recruiting folks to join the military -- it is a dangerous business -- I think it important to make this final point: if moral people do not enter the military, that will leave a military made up of immoral people, who will have then their fingers on the triggers, launch buttons, and bomb releases. Do we want that?

Weak family structures and the exclusion of God and traditional morality from our public schools have already made it a greater challenge for the military to establish trust and moral discipline within the ranks. I do not think it wise to add to the problem, unless one actually wants more Abu Ghraibs and My Lais.

Father Murphy's concern that people consider the moral consequences of their professional moves is valid; I think he misfires by singling out the military.

Richard Bonomo lives in Madison.