The Human Conscience and the Warfare State

In a recent episode of my favorite television show, Boston Legal, the main character, Alan Shore, gets arrested for instigating a barroom brawl. Shore, after a big man named Joe punches him, pays someone $300 to hit Joe. When Joe’s buddies jump in to help, Shore doles out $100 bills to anyone who joins the fray against Joe and his friends. Later, defending himself in court, Shore realizes the immaturity of his actions, telling the jury he started a fight he could not finish. Even worse, he inflamed the situation by sending more men into the fight. Nothing, he says, could be more craven.

Shore’s trial parallels the Bush administration’s position in Iraq. President Bush invaded Iraq believing the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers with roses. Instead, the Iraqis have greeted Americans with violence. As a result, more and more soldiers are refusing to reenlist. Moreover, recruitment has declined; the Army has failed to satisfy its recruiting goals for three months straight. The Bush administration, instead of taking this lack of enthusiasm as a sign that it should end its aggressive foreign policies, is taking drastic measures to increase the military’s size (offering large enlistment bonuses, for example). Many commentators — both left and right — have called for a permanent increase in the military’s size, utilizing conscription if necessary. These people want Bush to convince (or conscript) young men to continue a fight he started but cannot finish. Nothing could be more craven.

Of all the abuses states heap upon their subjects, war and conscription are the most craven. Besides assuming that the state owns its people’s lives, conscription gives the state ultimate authority over the most important moral issue: when it is morally acceptable to kill another human being. When draftees (or soldiers in general, for that matter) kill for the state, they justify their actions because the state, not their religion or sense of ethics, sanctions them.

Some may ask why we should not trust the state with such an important moral issue. If our leaders think we must draft young men to defend the country, why should we not trust them? The answer to this question should be obvious, but, unfortunately, too many miss it. The warfare state emerged in the twentieth century, which was the bloodiest in human history, with two world wars and the first use of nuclear weapons against civilians. Most, if not all, of the countries involved in the wars of the twentieth century utilized conscription. The twentieth century proves that, when we give the state ultimate moral authority, disaster follows.

As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have argued, most of the twentieth century’s atrocities can be attributed to the emergence of the warfare state. When the state claims superiority over the Church and other sources of moral authority, totalitarianism and atrocities will inevitably follow. Pope Benedict XVI, in his essay "Theology and the Church’s Political Stance," makes this point:

"Where the Church itself becomes the state freedom becomes lost. But also when the Church is done away with as a public and publicly relevant authority, then too freedom is extinguished, because there the state once again claims completely for itself the justification of morality; in the profane post-Christian world it does not admittedly do this in the form of a sacral authority but as an ideological authority — that means that the state becomes the party, and since there can no longer be any other authority of the same rank it once again becomes total itself. The ideological state is totalitarian; it must become ideological if it is not balanced by a free but publicly recognized authority of conscience. When this kind of duality does not exist the totalitarian system is unavoidable."

In short, governments can easily become corrupt. Therefore, we cannot trust them as the ultimate sources of moral authority; we must instead rely on the human conscience. John Paul II, in his Centesimus Annus, illustrates this point:

"In the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the principle that force predominates over reason was carried to the extreme. Man was compelled to submit to a conception of reality imposed on him by coercion, and not reached by virtue of his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom. This principle must be overturned and total recognition must be given to the rights of the human conscience, which is bound only to the truth, both natural and revealed. The recognition of these rights represents the primary foundation of every authentically free political order."

When people rely on the state’s moral reasoning, they are apt to behave immorally, since the state (unlike the human conscience) is not bound to truth, but to itself.

Some soldiers I know of that have returned from Iraq prove this point. While in combat, they videotaped themselves shooting "insurgents" and proudly play the videos for anyone who will watch. Moreover, many of them took pictures of mutilated corpses. Not only do they feel no remorse for killing, they are proud of it. Why are they proud of actions that, in any other situation, would land them in prison or an asylum? I will suggest two reasons.

First, the state sanctioned their actions. As Albert Jay Nock pointed out in his classic essay "Anarchist’s Progress," the state’s blessing allows men to justify deeds they would never consider under other circumstances. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Leo Tolstoy have all expressed this view. Second, today’s violent video games have desensitized young men to violence. Not surprisingly, many glorify America’s previous wars, particularly World War II. The U.S. Army has even developed its own video game to further desensitize American teenagers to state-sponsored mass murder.

The Bush administration in particular has repeatedly proven itself undeserving of moral authority. The invasion of Iraq, for example, clearly violated international law. Though the Bush administration justified the invasion as a preemptive war, which is acceptable under international law, the attack actually qualifies as an illegal preventive war. A preemptive war "preempts" an imminent attack; a preventive war crushes a threat that could potentially emerge. The Hussein regime had no plans of attacking the United States; Bush invaded on the grounds that Hussein might attack in the future. The doctrine of preventive war opens the door for endless warfare because it allows state leaders to justify war against any country they choose. All they must do is declare that a threat may exist later; no evidence is necessary. International legal scholars and the Roman Catholic Church have long recognized this, which is why international law and the Catechism both forbid preventive wars.

Richard Perle, one of the Iraq war’s architects, even conceded its illegality to a British audience, saying "I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing." Perle failed, however, to explain how launching an illegal war under false pretenses and killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process involves "doing the right thing."

The Church has served as a source of moral authority against the warfare state. For example, Pope Benedict XV vehemently opposed World War I. Pope John Paul II stood up against the Bush administration’s push to war in Iraq, as has his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Let us hope that, as the Bush administration tries, through bribes, force, or both, to gain more soldiers for its endless wars, America’s youth will accept the Vatican’s reasoning and follow their consciences, not the state.