Moral Confusion



Moral Confusion in the Nuclear Age


Justus George Lawler




About ten years after Herman Kahn had published his massive summa demonica, Nuclear War (insouciantly subtitled, "Three Lectures and Several Suggestions"), and five years after the appearance of my own little book with the same title (if great things to small may be compared), I found myself late at night seated behind him on the last Washington-New York shuttle-a rainy, lightning-streaked, wind-buffeting flight. Kahn, who had written unblinkingly of the relative tolerability of a major nuclear exchange between the two superpowers, and who had reaffirmed such tolerability in his next book with the bromide that, "People can and do rise to the occasion"-Kahn was on this stormy night so visibly agitated as to constitute a public embarrassment to the surrounding passengers avoiding him and to the hovering stewardesses ministering to him.


Probably not much should be read into this; we all have our private phobias. But it still seems symbolic of a certain type of mentality and personality. The historical image of Thomas Aquinas comes to mind-as suggested by the reference to the Summa above. Kahn certainly seems to have resembled him physically, and both appear to have been at once all benignity and all icy rationality. On the basis of the latter, it may be recalled, Aquinas consigned the majority of mankind to eternal damnation, deftly deploying to that end one fragile syllogism and a simplistic exegesis of a gospel phrase.


We seem to be now compassed about by a vast new brood of Kahns, and most of them, curiously, cut their intellectual teeth on Aquinas, still read the Bible literally, and profess to believe in everlasting hellfire. In the 1960's when Kahn's first book sparked the great debate over nuclear morality, religious defenders of the massive deterrent were usually undistinguished political scientists, popular journalists, former members of the military, or people so hung over from the McCarthy era and so fixated on the Communist Menace as to be intellectually negligible. Among Catholics, Archbishop Roberts and Thomas Merton were voices of responsibility, basing their position on the traditional just-war doctrine. The leading Protestant in this debate was unquestionably Paul Ramsey, and it is a canard to say of him, as did a writer in The Thomist (October 1983), that his writings "on just-war in the sixties have effectively given carte blanche moral approval to all U.S. military moves, nuclear or otherwise, since World War II." Ramsey's position was highly nuanced, and I shall have more to say about it shortly; but it remains unquestionable that on the crucial moral issue of noncombatant immunity, as I wrote at the time, "Ramsey has more in common with nuclear pacifists than with massive deterrers" (Continuum, Summer 1966). Now in the 1980's-the debate sparked this time by Jonathan Schell's Fate of the Earth-there is an entirely different constellation of religious thinkers participating, and one is tempted to invoke Marx's saw about historical repetition.


Marx, one recalls, had in mind the end of the first French Republic and the death of the second under Louis Napoleon, pallid travesty of Napoleon, First Consul of the post-Revolutionary period. Though Napoleon III was something out of opéra bouffe, he may deserve the historian's attention now, if only because he did prop up the tottering Pius IX and thus helped generate that ultramontanism under whose banner contemporary Catholic rightists have with monolithic accord sought to evacuate of all practical meaning the principle of noncombatant immunity. James Hitchcock, Robert Spaeth, James V. Schall, all roughly of the same generation, mute during the intense debates two decades ago, suddenly have been launched from their academic pads and think tanks and, airborne on their own rhetoric, now constitute a clamorous and bellicose formation led by that weathercock of American Catholicism, Michael Novak, whose susceptibility to being blown about by every new trend of doctrine seems bottomless. The bare ruined choirs, which Garry Wills wrote about in the 1970's, have been infested with hawks, shrikes, and maybe even a few cuckoos.


Herman Kahn would have been surprised, if not necessarily pleased. Writing with characteristic woodenness in The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, Kahn described "problems of nuclear war" as a "field" he had "practically left"; and then went on to observe that "there are few younger people entering the profession" (November 1970). To this the only response must be that though these new fledglings entering "the profession" aren't exactly poulets de printemps, there is unquestionably a very large flock of them. Moreover, since the fundamental moral questions are no different at present than they were twenty years ago when such matters never surfaced in the writings of several of the most vocal current discussants, one is compelled to wonder whence comes this tardy conversion to airing the issues of nuclear warfare. Now, it is certainly possible this collective metanoia stems from heightened ethical sensitivity, and it is equally possible that middle age and the circumambient terror of our time have begotten a kind of wisdom. Tellingly, Novak in his book Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (Nelson, 1983) which was first published as a complete issue of the National Review (on April Fools day, 1983), cites the Proverb: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This is accompanied by several other apocalyptic citations dear to the hearts of the sclerotic. "The God of the Last Judgment," we are told, "will not be satisfied that the Christian followed the general authority of his bishop." (This, in eighteen-point type in National Review's Ur-text, embodies the classic ultramontanist appeal from a national episcopate to Rome.) And from his aerie at the American Enterprise Institute-Patmos on the Potomac-Novak with eagle eye stares at the pacifist and casually opines: "To live under threat of flood, fire, glacier, plague, pestilence, war, and destruction is not novel for an imagination attuned to biblical history." Such invocation of biblical history brings to mind one of Novak's predecessors in this interpretive genre, William V. Kennedy-a frequent apologete for total war in America and The Catholic World-who in reply to criticism of his defense of the destruction of Dresden, stated: "I do not propose to 'defend' the slaughter of children in Dresden or anywhere else except to note that a number of children must have perished in Sodom and Gomorrah." But that was twenty years ago, and Kennedy did not write from such an eminence as that of Novak, who was virtually silent on such matters then, so it still does not explain why it is only now that he and his followers have, so to speak, come out of the silo.


Perhaps the fox is really in the henhouse. Or is it that age and age's safety breeds reaction and bellicosity? That it may do so, and particularly for institutionally regimented Roman Catholics, was the thesis of J. M. Paupert in Vieillards de Chrétienté et Chrétiens de l'an 2000 who sketched the typology-almost a definition of contemporary ultramontanism-as "Le stalinisme pio-duodécimal." (The Pope Joan of this movement is Ayn Rand.) Was Siegfried Sassoon right of every "new generation: of vieillards?


If I were fierce and bald and short of breath,


I'd live with scarlet Majors at the base,


And speed glum heroes up the line to death. . . .


And when the war is done and youth stone dead,


I'd toddle safely home and die-in bed. Certainly such a conclusion might be decried as uncharitable by "the God of the Last Judgment"-but maybe not, since His message, again in Novak's exegesis, "is a divisive force in history, dividing even families, a two-edged sword that 'pierces to the division of soul. . .'" (How many divisions has this fictive "God of the Last Judgment"?)


I do not want to make too much of Novak's personal transmogrifications, but his present exercise in Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age merits attention, first, as one of the more devious recent expressions of unthinking about the thinkable; second, as the manifesto of a growing body of putatively religious thought on deterrence; third, as an exhumation of issues aired and in many cases resolved-at least according to just-war standards-by Paul Ramsey and his critics in the1960's; and lastly, as an occasion for looking at some of the few but significant controversial items left on this particular moral agenda. Nor will I undertake the kind of rhetorical analysis that Ramsey both chided and commended in those earlier debates-though I cannot resist scoring the pomp and sanctimony of Novak's encyclical which, quite properly, begins: "We are moved [in fact, it's a motu proprio] by our responsibilities to the Gospel of Jesus." But it is important to note that this kind of religious co-optation, as it is called nowadays, functions as a screen for logical flaws and as an implicit imprimatur for dubious ethical conclusions-and the more perfervid the language, the more dubious the conclusions. (Similarly with Novak's pseudo-Augustinian foray, Confession of a Catholic. We are told that the author of this defense of sexism, egoism, and capitalism wrote it "in the presence of God"-presumably to the mutual benefit of both parties. Just as, presumably, again imagining he is emulating Augustine, our quondam McGovernite will write his Retractatio when Reagan goes out of office.)


As I have noted, the crux of the issue in this recently discovered "nuclear age" is the same as it was during the earlier debates: the enduring validity of the principle of noncombatant immunity and, as a consequence, the absolute immorality of a strategy based on the directly intended destruction of civilian centers. In the lexicon of nuclear deterrence the latter strategy is called "countervalue" (which is newspeak for what ought to be called "countersociety"), in contrast with "counterforce," i.e., the directly intended destruction of an enemy's military capabilities only. Herman Kahn developed an elaborate calculus of variants, some of which can be characterized parenthetically in terms of the just-war doctrine: counterforce-and-countervalue (immoral); counterforce-and-bonus, that is, attach against military with intended secondary destruction of civilian centers (immoral); counterforce-plus-avoidance, that is, attack against military targets with possible but unintended damage to civilian centers (moral).


Efforts to negate or weaken the principle of noncombatant immunity have in recent years taken several forms-apart from sheer Realpolitik; the latter, stripped of its pious rhetoric, being what grounds the position of Novak and his followers. First, as a matter of mere technology, it has been argued that the very immensity of the destructive power unleashed by nuclear weapons makes them intrinsically indiscriminate. Whether this was ever true is somewhat questionable; it is certainly not true today. Second, as a matter of sectarian religion, people like William V. O'Brien have argued that if the Catholic Church could change its position on other traditional moral teachings, such as contraception, it could change on noncombatant immunity. In fact, the latter is not an issue of Church doctrine as such. Moreover, though Roman authorities and their defenders have tried to base contraception on that natural law which is the foundation of noncombatant immunity, neither their philosophical nor O'Brien's ecclesiological arguments have proved persuasive. Third, on abstract political grounds, William V. Kennedy and others have maintained that in a totalitarian society there are no noncombatants, since by the very structure of such a society all of its members are engaged in a single unified undertaking, in this instance a military undertaking. This argument is specious both because it relies on a selective definition of "totalitarian" and because it is precisely a totalitarian society that is most likely to engender active and manifest dissent among its citizens. The irony is that this argument works more to the disadvantage of certain types of democratic societies, particularly if in fact they foster a climate of repressive tolerance. The Soviets might well find their rationale for an indiscriminate nuclear attack against the kind of "democratic" society


Novak defines:


For the physical, material weapon is by itself no deterrent without the engagement of intellect and will on the part of the entire public that called it into being . . . . In order to construct and to maintain a nuclear deterrent force [it is a question of a deterrent force judged immoral by just-war standards] a democratic society must generate a complex, highly rational, socially organized objective intentionality. Citizens through their representatives vote funds for it; research and production are organized; elaborate systems of communication and command are maintained. The architectonic of objective political intention suffuses the entire process. [italics added]




Finally, on specific contemporary political grounds the principle of noncombatant immunity has been etiolated by such moralists as the Jesuit John Connery who affirmed that with regard to a "Communist" society no distinction need be drawn between the civilian and the military: "Soviet civilian property could be destroyed even if the military and industrial targets existing there were negligible or non-existent "because" . . . this concept of property rather than military targets is particularly relevant when we are speaking of a Communistic society." The circularity of the argument is patent, and the immorality of the conclusion equally such, since it is impossible to conceive of any civilian property-vis-à-vis military-of any significance which would be devoid of civilian presence. Lurking behind all of these arguments, particularly the last two, is the assumption of one of Novak's ancestral specters, Thomas Molnar, that in the conflict between the two superpowers, the winner will be the one which is "not afraid to hold unilaterally the Damocles sword of extinction over the head of the enemy."


Though there is some diversionary verbal legerdemain-a multiplicity of statistics, acronyms, authorities, pieties both religious and chauvinistic-Novak's cancellation of just-war principles is based not even on the (highly inadequate) grounds set forth above, but rather on pure expediency. The unquestionably immoral countervalue strategy-based on the directly intended destruction of civilian centers-is treated as virtually au pair with the unquestionably moral counterforce-plus avoidance strategy, which is based on the directly intended destruction of an enemy's military capabilities only. "It must be said that both strategies make one sad, except by comparison with the only current alternative. That alternative is to fail in the duty of defending the innocent, by having no deterrent at all."(italics added) Novak's emotional lability does not, however, constitute an argument. A counterforce deterrent is by definition a deterrent. The even-handed legitimation of both strategies continues: "On its face [which is where most of Novak's arguments are situated] it would seem that countervalue strategies are less to be approved, by the just-war criteria of lack of proportionality and indiscriminate taking of innocent life"-as though this were not the very essence of the issue, and as though we were not talking about two different species of act, the first being denominated "murder," the second, "legitimate self-defense."


In the end, Novak's treatment of the two strategies eschews matters of morality entirely and envisages the choice of alternatives not as an absolute necessity but as a mere matter of opinion.


. . . some say that countervalue strategies are immoral in substance but preferable on grounds of economy and sufficiency; that the counterforce strategies, more moral in substance, are immoral because more dangerous. A similar dilemma arises when some say that making nuclear weapons smaller and more precise, so as to approximate the force of larger conventional weapons, thus reducing the moral problem of proportionality and discrimination, makes the use of nuclear weapons more thinkable and so should be avoided. If the use of both sorts of nuclear weapons is to be deterred total reliance on one alone is likely to enlarge the options and temptations of an aggressor.



The first sentence is ethically self-annulling. There is no way to balance immorality with economy and sufficiency: from an ethical point of view the latter two qualities are neutral and cannot be offered as moral justification for an immoral act. A similar confusion is apparent in the contrast between an act "immoral in substance" and an act "more moral in substance": the opposite of an immoral act is not a more moral act. Again, an act immoral in substance is of a different species from a moral act, and the distinction between them is not merely one of degree. Furthermore, to suggest that "smallness" and "precision" are commensurate is to introduce another irrelevancy. It is a moral imperative to make a weapons system-whether small or big-as precise as possible in order to limit it to its only moral target, although there may also be some unintended collateral civilian damage. As John Courtney Murray noted: "To say that the possibility of limited nuclear war cannot be created by intelligence and energy, under the direction of a moral imperative, is to succumb to some sort of determinism in human affairs." Lastly, Novak's concluding sentence above embodies a gross non sequitur: "both sorts of nuclear weapons"-meaning small or big, precise or inaccurate-possessed by an enemy can be adequately deterred by opposing counterforce weaponry. The real upshot of Novak's arguments is the kind of ethical trivializing Charles Krauthammer engages in--in an essay explicitly dependent on Novak (Commentary, October 1983): "Nevertheless, whichever side of the intramural debate among deterrence advocates one takes, it seems to me that deterrence wins the debate with its opponents. . . ." But the ethical argument here is not over deterrence as such, but over a moral v. an immoral deterrent-and this is not a mere matter of "intramural debate."


Throughout Novak's "some say" paragraph above, and indeed throughout his entire book, it is affirmed almost as dogma that there must be a conflict between ethical and strategic means, both directed to a presumably good end. But in fact, a rationally conducted military policy must be a morally acceptable one. Thus it should not prove difficult to sustain counterforce-plus-avoidance on strategic as well as on ethical grounds since it is the only moral deterrent doctrine. I offer two examples, which I think could be multiplied, though strategy as such is certainly not my primary concern here. First, since we are repeatedly told by Novak and those who share his views that Soviet ideologues are intent on extending their empire as universally as possible, and this by primarily military means, it seems obvious that the survival of their military forces must be their overriding goal; similarly, we are repeatedly told that the well-being of the civilian sector is a secondary and almost negligible goal. This being so, a concentrated counterforce deterrent will certainly appear more cogent to such ideologues than a necessarily diffusive counterforce-and-countervalue deterrent. Secondly, because a counterforce-and-countervalue strategy would almost certainly destroy an enemy's effective political leadership, the decision, after such destruction, to deploy scattered and isolated weapons systems would be in the hands of individual commanders who would undoubtedly respond to such an attack uncontrolledly and uncontrollably. The result would be what Herman Kahn called "spasm warfare." It is to the benefit of both rival powers that command and control centers not be destroyed and that political leadership not be annihilated. Only a counterforce strategy could assure this. Countervalue-and-counterforce warfare is total warfare, warfare pushed beyond its rational and ethical and strategic limits. This is the kind of warfare condemned by Pius XII and by the second Vatican Council and it is the kind of warfare and the kind of deterrence Archbishop Philip Hannan, one of Novak's heroes in the issue of the bishops' Pastoral Letter ("fought often alone and bravely against the left"), has been defending since the time of Vatican II. Far from deterring an enemy with an overwhelming nuclear superiority, this kind of strategy makes that enemy's first strike more attractive because it would obviate this subsequent possibility of spasm warfare.


The verbal sleight of hand I referred to above is evident primarily in Novak's treatment of intentionality. (So varied and extensive is his armamentarium of strawmen, weasel words, non sequiturs, and waffling judgments here that it makes one wonder if all hawks really do live off red herrings.) He writes: "It is clear that the complexities of nuclear deterrence change the meaning of 'intention' and 'threat' as these words are usually used in moral discourse." This is clear only by Novak's ipse dixit-and in fact, as we shall see, it is not clear even to him. For, if the meaning of "intention" and "threat" is changed there can be no effective deterrent. Unless the words mean what they have always meant, and mean the same thing in other languages as in English, the putative enemy will not know what is "intended" and will experience no "threat." Novak continues:


Those who intend to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by maintaining a system of deterrence in readiness for use do intend to use such weapons but only in order not to use them, and do threaten to use them, but only in order to deter their use.




It is ontologically impossible to intend to use something in order to not use it. This curious surd is highlighted if the second clause is rendered as parallel with the first. It then reads: "[We] do threaten to use them, but only in order to not threaten to use them...." No mere fiat by Novak can ordain these to be rational statements.


Novak seems to take cognizance of some of the reservations introduced above, but in fact continues only to beg the question.


Some find the moral flaw in deterrence in the choice of an evil means to attain a good end, calling this "consequentialism." They admit that the end of preventing nuclear war is good. But they hold it evil actually to intend to use any deterrent force lacking proportionality and moral discrimination in order to attain this end. This formulation contains, we judge, two flaws. First, the appropriate moral principle is not the relation of means to ends but the choice of a moral act that prevents greater evil. Clearly sic] it is a moral choice and occasions less evil to hold a deterrent intention than it is to allow nuclear attack. Second, the nature of the intention in deterrence is different from intention in ordinary moral action. There is a paradox in its nature, such that the word "intention" is clearly sic] equivocal.




This formulation contains, I judge, several flaws. The relation of means to end clearly is the appropriate moral principle.. The allegedly moral act is the means; the alleged prevention of greater evil is the end. What Novak proffers resolves nothing. The question that is totally begged is whether this is indeed a moral act. Nor would there be any need for all this semantic juggling if the deterrent relies on counterforce-plus-avoidance strategy.


But this Novak will not allow. His goal-more evident as one works through the book-is simply to justify prevailing American nuclear strategy, not to guide it. He is concerned not with what ideally ought to be, morality guiding conduct (however short of the goal we may fall), but with what practically is: policy upholding the strategic status quo. Thus the coinage above, "deterrent intention," is an obfuscation. There is only one intention which is-under certain conditions-to devastate an enemy's society; it is this intention alone which, it is believed, will deter that enemy. Certainly, between the intention and the deed falls the shadow, but that shadow does not justify the intention if it is evil. To use an example Novak introduces to other purposes: if the Enola Gay had crashed while landing to refuel, a murderous deed would have been prevented; but that would not have altered the evil of the original murderous intention. Equally certainly, between intending murder and committing murder there is a vast difference, but it is the intention which is the controlling factor-so much so that if one commits an ostensibly murderous act without the intention to do so, there is no murder. The ethical principle remains firm: if something is wrong when done, it is wrong when intended.


Nor is there anything "equivocal" about the word "intention," even in this newly dawning "nuclear age"; nor is the nature of intention in deterrence different from intention in ordinary moral actions; nor, finally, do Novak's examples prove otherwise. In wearisome detail he goes on about the different "meanings"-his term-the word "intention" has with regard to the use of a weapon by respectively, policeman, burglar, murderer. But the word "intention" throughout has but one univocal meaning. Only its object changes. Of the policeman-the other personae being smokescreens-Novak says that "he intends no actual use unless governed by justice." But this example is not of equivocatio but of petitio principii. Governance "by justice" remains the crux which Novak simply ignores.


He continues: "In nuclear matters, we would further distinguish between a fundamental, secondary, and architectonic intention." "The fundamental moral intention in nuclear deterrence is never to have to use the deterrent force." But he then declares that the "secondary intention" entails a "willingness to use the deterrent." Two hundred words on he forgets all about the definition of "the fundamental moral intention," and-developing the most blatant self-contradiction in the book-goes on to say that there are two "subjective intentions which are both fundamental." These subjective intentions are "that the deterrent succeed in never being used" (originally the fundamental moral intention) and that "the deterrent be held in readiness for use." At this schizophrenic point all effort at logical rigor has been abandoned in a labyrinth of oxymorons. Novak then concludes this part of the discussion:


The proposition that a nation may possess a deterrent but may not intend to use it is fulfilled by the fundamental intention but not by the objective intention and the


secondary intention. [Never mind that the secondary intention has been defined as


being as "fundamental" as is the "fundamental intention" itself.] To condemn the latter is to frustrate the former and to invite a host of greater evils.




The last sentence is the "architectonic" rationale of the whole heinous tessellation, and it translates: Intend to do evil to avoid an allegedly greater evil. Novak's last judgment is an endorsement of what used to be called "massive retaliation": ". . . we judge the best of the ambiguous but morally good options to reside in a combination of counterforce and countervalue deterrence." (italics added)


To all of this I would simply juxtapose the following by way of summary from Ramsey's The Morality of War: "It can never do any good to do wrong that good may come of it. Neither is it right to intend to do wrong that good may come of it. If deterrence rests upon genuinely intending massive retaliation, it is clearly wrong no matter how much peace results." These are severe ethical perceptions that cannot be erased by the pieties with which Novak closes: "Institutions of liberties and rights, peaceful competition and cooperative labors, and the conversion of every human heart are devoutly to be labored for. They cannot be said to have yet been attained. Like Christ, we see ahead the cross: Not our will, but Thine be done." End of book. "But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'?"


A profound insight by a great moralist and a patriotic soldier has taught us that everything begins in mystique and ends in politique. And Cardinal Newman wrote to Lord Acton: "The great point is to open men's minds, to educate them and make them logical. It does not matter what the subject matter is. . . . If you make them think in politics, you will make them think in religion." What we are faced with in this new generation of "connoisseurs of chaos" (Wallace Stevens) is nothing that would ever have been recognized by Péguy or Newman. We have politique being raised to the level of mystique, and we have a vulgar politics of expediency decked out in the trappings of mystagogy. We have thoughtlessness in politics leading to even greater thoughtlessness in religion.


Originally Published in The Christian Century (April 4, 1984)