Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Technology and the impossibility of a "just" war

"War is hell"; Sherman torches Atlanta; painting by Mort Künstler
In his book, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age, Brad Kallenberg argues that we live in an age where we (Americans) have become "Bewitched by Technopoly" (the title of his first chapter). This technopoly, or technological monopoly, on our social imagination can be seen gaining its early footholds in 19th century American history.

As a nation born out of revolutionary violence and struggling to assert itself as a sovereign nation on the world stage, military leadership of this young nation saw that things were not well with the U.S. military. Kallenberg cites military brass of the day "(p)ointing to insufficient supplies, tactical errors, and faulty arms" following the War of 1812, and their desire "to draw up a system of regulations for the uniformity of manufacturers of all arms ordnance, ordnance stores, implements, and apparatus" (quoting Merritt Roe Smith).

This martial urge to standardize and exert new mastery over the gears of war was inextricably linked with the rapid industrialization of the United States in the 19th century. It was in the blood-letting ritual of the Civil War which the grisly face of modern warfare as we now see it began to emerge. In the brief time between the Mexican War and the Civil War, military technology had advanced considerably but military tactics had not budged an inch. As blogger and former career military man-turned-Christian pacifist, Stan Goff puts it in this stunning piece:
The actual Civil War was not a duel; it was a charnel house.  It was the merger of mass technologies of efficiency with warfare, and human bodies paid the shocking price. ... The West Point graduates who were directing troops [on both sides] were schooled in the frontal assault, which was effective in the Mexican War.  The frontal assault was always finished with a bayonet charge, which became a masculine icon within the tactical repertoire – every officer wanted to be there for a successful bayonet charge, at least in his imagination.... Even after a series of frontal assaults against entrenched defense had racked up corpses by the tens of thousands, the Generals continued with their bloody anachronism – even to be celebrated on the home front based on the number of lives lost in battles.
As Goff indicates at the close of his post/essay, the rise (I won't call it "improvement") in industrialized military technology brought about a moral sea change in war, even over the course of the Civil War itself. Moral justifications had to change in the face of these developments, where suddenly tens of thousands of human lives/bodies could be destroyed in the course of a single battle. Appeals to virtue and honor gave way to cold-blooded utilitarian arguments about lofty ideals and grim necessity. Tactics shifted; the previously dishonorable role of the "sniper" was made legit, and Sherman's scorched earth march through the South - burning, pillaging, raping people and land alike.

Goff, throughout his piece, draws lines to the present and recent past (including his own experience in Vietnam) to make the argument that the moral shifts in the Civil War have become lodged in the American imagination. For instance:
If the ethos of the sniper evolves into the unmanned drone, the ethos of Sherman, pillaging his way to the sea to crush the material basis of society, prefigures strategic bombing.  The Civil War let a genie out that won’t go back in.  Modern war, at the end of the day, is about one thing and one thing only: efficacy.
He finally argues against "just war" doctrine in the Christian tradition:
As the Civil War prefigured in so many ways, changes in the technology and doctrine of modern war have carried us into a new moral universe... My basic argument regarding Jus In Bello [the criteria that the conduct of war be just] is that there is no longer any such thing, if there ever was. Civilian casualties [the logic of Sherman] now are accepted, and the number that are acceptable are even calculated into various algorithms.  They are a subset of the planning category, 'collateral damage'...
He then challenges the father of just war doctrine itself, Augustine of Hippo, the imperial church's first political theologian:
Augustine's idea that a good human heart could guide the sword never grasped the reality - the reality I have seen with my own eyes in the modern military - that the sword can drive every goodness out of one's heart.  War is a practice that forms it participants more than its participants form it.
Jesus witnessed one of his disciples cutting off the ear of a man attempting to seize him, and Jesus chided the disciple: "all who draw the sword will die by the sword." Perhaps this statement can be seen in a sense that the author above points out, i.e. not an actual dying by the sword (though there certainly is that), but rather a moral death by the sword. Or put another way: As Christians do we want to be sword-shaped people, or cross-shaped people?

As a former soldier himself, Goff has reflected on these tough questions of history and morality in ways I'll never be able to. In the days before this nation's celebration of independence by way of bloody revolution and its expansion and maintenance by way of bloody wars ever since, it's a terribly important and timely testimony and reflection for Christian in America to ponder.

And this:

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