A hundred years ago, we thought it was inevitable. Is it really?
One hundred years ago this month, Europe was spiraling rapidly into what would later be called “The Great War” and later still “World War One.” The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife had been murdered in Sarajevo on June 28, but July was the critical month. During July Europe’s great powers began to converge on a consensus that war between them was inevitable. As Winston Churchill later described the unfolding events, “Nothing in human power could break the fatal chain, once it had begun to unroll. A situation had been created where hundreds of officials had only to do their prescribed duty to their respective countries to wreck the world. They did their duty.”
In hindsight, of course, most everyone acknowledges that World War I was not in fact inevitable. There was no “fatal chain” that human power was too weak to break. As early as 1916, Dr. Rudolf Steiner, referring to England’s failure to warn Germany over its violation of Belgian neutrality, claimed that, “a single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.” Alas, that sentence was never uttered. The great powers chose war. Sixteen million lost their lives and another 20 million were wounded, many grievously. Crowns fell across Europe, including in Russia, where 70 years of Communist despotism descended. And of course the stage was set for a far more deadly war two decades later.
Throughout the summer of 2014, we’ve been accommodating ourselves to the notion that war is again inevitable. The cruel depredations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including video of the beheadings of two American journalists, have shocked the world. They have captured the apocalyptic imagination of many Christians, who see ISIS as proof that we are engaged in a global religious war with Muslims everywhere. The brutality of ISIS has even provided a convenient excuse for Americans to avoid confronting our own role in the destabilization of the Middle East, where ancient Christian communities have now been eradicated.
When President Obama admitted last week that, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” for dealing with ISIS in Syria, he was widely ridiculed. On television’s Fox & Friends, host Steve Doocey mocked Obama for being “reluctant to use that three letter word that is spelled W-A-R.” Many Americans apparently agree with Doocey. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on Monday, 61% of respondents approved of military action against ISIS, including 34% who said that we should use ground troops.
This turnaround in public opinion – just last year most Americans were dead set against intervention in Syria – should be no surprise. “If all you have is a hammer,” said the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, “everything looks like a nail.” Since the end of the Cold War the United States has looked beyond its borders and seen a world bristling with nothing but nails. As a result, we’ve wielded the hammer of US military power with alarming regularity.
In the 45 years between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the United States was involved in four significant military conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Grenada. In the 25 years since, the US military has taken lethal action over a sustained period of time in 11 countries or conflicts: Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. In Afghanistan we are still embroiled in our nation’s longest war, we may soon be at war in Syria, and we increasingly risk war with Russia over Ukraine.
The pattern, sadly, is nearly always the same. A brutal dictator or terrorist threat surfaces into the American consciousness, often as the result of media or government manipulation. The “reductio ad Hitlerum" – the reduction to Hitler – is deployed, depicting our time as a replay of the late 1930’s, with the enemy du jour reprising the role of the Nazi Führer. In just the last 25 years, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, Hugo Chavez, Bahar al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Taliban, Vladimir Putin, Hamas and al-Qaeda have all starred as the principal antagonist in the remake of Munich 1938.
Whoever the contemporary Hitler may be, his atrocities are collated into an electronic indictment and featured on the 24-hour news carousel. Various Beltway courtiers, especially veterans of the national security industry’s revolving door, reappear from the past to darkly suggest an imminent threat to the “homeland.” The enemy is painted as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Meetings are held, speeches are made, ultimatums are delivered and refused, television specials are aired, polls are taken, flags are raised, troops deploy, ships sail, aircraft launch, airtime is sold, the market rocks, the blood rises, drums pound, and dissenters are dismissed as weaklings or traitors. Then, shock and awe.
Does this pattern itself argue for pacifism, for a rejection of all war? No. The Catholic Church has long held that some wars, though always regrettable, can nevertheless be just, so long as they are initiated and conducted according to a rigorous set of principles. In August, Pope Francis himself invoked the language of this teaching with reference to ISIS. “In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” said the Holy Father. “I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.”
But just this week, the Pope also reminded us that war, whether just or not, is always a disaster and can lead to even greater violence. Speaking to a conference sponsored by the Sant’Egidio Community on Sunday, Francis declared that “war is never a satisfactory way to right injustices. War leads people into a spiral of violence that becomes difficult to control. It destroys what it has taken generations to establish and leads the way to even worse conflicts and injustices.”
Is war the answer to the challenge of ISIS? It may well be, but only a careful assessment of whether military action conforms to the Church’s teaching on just war, both prior to initiation (jus ad bellum) and during the conduct of operations (jus in bello). Special consideration should be given to whether such action will lead to even more dire destabilization and violence in the region, questions that directly affect the duty of policymakers to evaluate the probability of success.
As this analysis is being conducted, it would behoove Christians to keep several things in mind. First, the question, “What should the Christian response be?” begs an even deeper question: “What or who is a Christian?” A Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ, who rejected violence and declared that those who “live by the sword die by the sword.”
As such, Christians should always exercise what might be called a “preferential option for peace,” even when we reluctantly conclude that war is necessary. We should reject the counsel of those whose only recommendation, time after time, is war. Not only are they wolves in sheep’s clothing, but they are often hypocrites who avoid risking war themselves and thereby practice a kind of personal pacifism at odds with their stated principles. For Christians, the world is not dotted with nails to be hammered down by violence.
We should also be conscious of the manipulation of the government and its handmaidens in the media. The United States is a secular state with economic, political and military interests around the globe. It is not the defender of Christianity, much less its exemplar. Patriotism, love of one’s country and people, is a virtue and a duty, but nationalism is a form of idolatry that Christians must reject.
By the same token, the secular media are not truth-tellers. They are corporate entities whose mission is to sell advertising and curry favor with the state. War is always good business for the media and its advertisers: they will prime the pump and dispense the Kool-Aid; they will even produce tear-jerking segments about wounded warriors, hiding the reality of war behind the fluffy gauze of sentimentality. But their mission is profit and their means are access to the highest levels of power.
Last, we should honor the witness of those who take a principled stand for peace, especially conscientious objectors, but also those who advocate pacifism. Rather than ridiculing or marginalizing them – which is a sign of fear – we should invite them into the discussion and listen to their concerns. After all, “Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.” (CCC #2304, 2306)
Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.