The Old Lie

I wrote a version of this nearly eight years ago.

I meant it then, I mean it now.

We cannot casually justify then simply apologize for killing innocents.



I’m writing this for myself. You’re welcome to read it, but don’t feel obligated. It gets long-winded and obscure. Perhaps I’ll return and revise it, but it’s a picture of where I am right now.


Shortly after 9/11, we knew who and where the culprits were: The leaders of al-Quaeda, holed up in Afghanistan with permission of the Taliban. Understandably, the national blood was up; retaliation was inevitable.

Neither “right,” nor, as it turned out, “defensible.” But “inevitable” it was.

What was wrong with the retaliation, as we carried it out? The same thing that was wrong with our invasion of Iraq, the same thing that is wrong with our ongoing operations now in Afghanistan. We are killing innocent people.

There must be some answer to it, this raining down of death on civilians, this “collateral damage” which totals in the millions today, surely in the billions since military forces discovered how to combine airplanes and gunpowder. I’ve tried for years to wrap my head around it, and can show for the effort little more than empty aspirin boxes.

Does religion help? Can it? I long ago gave up on the Catholic Church for dependable, consistent moral guidance, but I did grow up in it, was educated in it through high school, and kept a tenuous connection to it well into my thirties. Willy-nilly, it is deeply embedded in me, just as it is in all of contemporary Western moral philosophy. So it was a reasonable place to begin research on that invisible line between right and wrong, insofar as war is concerned.

Reasonable, but frustrating.

The Vatican has an extensive and easily-accessed website, with what passes in an ecclesiastical setting for straightforward answers to difficult moral questions. There’s quite a list of sections dealing with the Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill. These two seemed most relevant:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

This last one actually precedes the other; I put it last because it was the most difficult to parse. It means — and I come to this from what follows as much as what went before — that killing someone else in self-defense does not violate the prohibition against murder. It is all right to kill in self-defense.

Of course, there is bickering about that as soon as we get back to that looming terror, “collateral damage.” As much sense as I can make of that comes from an exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books, concerning the death of civilians in Palestine — a very civilized debate between scholars and generals over the use of force — which included this footnote:

According to Michael Walzer, the Double Effect doctrine, derived from Catholic moral theology, holds that when you are attacking a military target (hence a legitimate target), you are not morally blameworthy for collateral damage (the second effect), even if you know with certainty that the attack will cause the damage, so long as you don’t intend the damage and so long as it is not disproportionate to the military value of destroying the target. In Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Walzer proposed a revision of this doctrine, to which the authors refer: that it isn’t enough not to intend the damage, it is morally necessary to intend that the damage not occur, and then to take positive measures, including measures costly to yourself, to avoid or minimize the damage.

If you are interested in hair-splitting over the spilling of innocent blood, that exchange of letters in NYRB, and the articles which precede it, make fascinating if grim reading.

The conclusion I come to is the same one which has been grating on my conscience for at least half a century: War is once in a while inescapable, yet it is always wrong. War, in theological terms, is a sin.

It’s not a startling conclusion, nor is it profound or unique. If you have come this far, grappled this long with my logic and my prose, you deserve a reward. It is this. A couple paragraphs from an essay by Chris Hedges, which reaches the same conclusion with harsher and harder-earned research. His title also is, “War is Sin.” Go read the whole thing.

War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.

War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor and heroism and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just…. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.

But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death. Human decency and tenderness are crushed. Those who make war work overtime to reduce love to smut, and all human beings become objects, pawns to use or kill…. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is tremendous.

The title of the post comes from a Wilfred Owen poem, Dulce et Decorum Est.

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