Why are Many People Afraid to Admit that
Some Moral Problems may Not have a Solution?
There are some people who think that it must be immoral to admit that there are any doubtful cases of morality, as if a man should refrain from discussing the precise boundary at the upper end of the Isthmus of Panama, for fear the inquiry should shake his belief in the existence of North America.
G. K. Chesterton
[Is it morally reprehensible for a German pilot to machine-gun a British pilot who has baled out of his burning Spitfire over friendly territory and is floating slowly down to earth? Would your opinion be influenced if you knew that the British pilot was a fighter ace? (You should know that the U.S. Air Force discovered during World War II that less than 1 percent of its military pilots became “aces”—five kills in aerial combat—and that these men accounted for roughly 30 to 40 percent of all enemy aircraft destroyed in the air.) In the following passage from his 1942 book, And the Floods Came, Arnold Lunn raises this awkward business with his old skiing and climbing companion, Hugh Dowding, chief of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.]
I remember one evening we were discussing the machine-gunning by Nazis of British pilots who had baled out over England. If the logic of war be unqualified by the conventions which we owe to chivalry, we cannot criticise the Nazis for shooting down pilots who have baled out. For such pilots are not in the position of prisoners who have surrendered, but of prisoners who are escaping.
I asked one of our pilots whether we had ever machine-gunned Nazis parachuting down behind the Nazi lines in France or in Flanders. “We should have been entitled to,” he replied; “particularly if the Nazis had set a precedent. But it was only an occasional tough who had the heart to machine-gun a defenseless man floating slowly down to earth.”
I quoted this to Dowding. “Well,” he replied, “there are also Germans who do not find it easy to machine-gun defenseless pilots. One of our pilots was forced down the other day on the seashore. He saw the Nazi diving down on top of him and expected to be shot. But the Nazi just leaned out of the cockpit to wave him goodbye, and disappeared again across the sea.”
[Is it immoral to enjoy war or enjoy killing the enemy, even when war is justifiable or unavoidable?]
War is the most violent form of controversy, and though it is criminal to make war because one delights in war, it would be idiotic to criticise a soldier because he enjoyed fighting. Certainly Lord Montgomery did not regard his war service as a distasteful duty. While my first wife, his first cousin, was alive he spent some weeks at Mürren every winter, and I am proud to possess an autographed copy of his book El Alamein to the River Sangro inscribed ‘To Arnold Lunn in the hopes that he will enjoy this tale of human endeavour by the soldiers of the Empire.’ What emerged very clearly from the book was how much Monty himself had enjoyed this ‘human endeavour.’ ‘It was a wonderful experience,’ he wrote in the Foreword, ‘to command such an Army in the days of its greatest success.’ Monty told me the story of his reception of the German delegation who had come to surrender. Monty came out of his caravan and said to his A.D.C., “And who are these gentlemen, pray?” “These, sir, are the German generals.” “And what do they want with me?”, asked Montgomery. “They want to surrender, sir.” “What a pity. I was just beginning to enjoy this war!”
Arnold Lunn (from And the Floods Came, 1942)
There is such a thing as a “natural soldier”: the kind of man who derives his greatest satisfaction from male companionship, from excitement, and from the conquering of physical and psychological obstacles. He doesn’t necessarily want to kill people as such, but he will have no objection if it occurs within a moral framework that gives him a justification—like war—and if it is the price of gaining admission to the kind of environment he craves. Whether such men are born or made, I do not know, but most of them end up in armies (and many move on again to become mercenaries, because regular army life in peacetime is too routine and boring). But armies are not full of such men. They are so rare that they form only a modest fraction even of small professional armies, mostly congregating in the commando-type special forces. In large conscript armies they virtually disappear beneath the weight of numbers of more ordinary men.
Gwynne Dyer (from War, 1985)
[Does it seem grossly unfair to you that the wretched of the earth run a higher risk of addiction or ill health by using the pleasures of food, alcohol, sex, drugs, etc. as a medication against the misery of their lives? If G. K. Chesterton’s ‘rule’ for the drinking of alcoholic beverages holds, could it be extended to other forms of pleasure?]
The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules—a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.
There are no rewards or punishments—only consequences.
[Given ordinary human feeling, would it have been possible to canonize Joan of Arc if she had fought and killed in the Battle of Patay? For the answer to this question to be non-trivial, assume that you belong to the second school of thought about war. To decide the question according to reason it may help to keep in mind C. S. Lewis’s observation, ‘The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or blame than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value.’]
There are four schools of thought on the subject of war:
1) There are the Prussians, who regard war as the most glorious activity of man.
2) There are the Realists, who regard war as an evil. But they realise that there are circumstances in which war is the lesser of two evils.
3) There are the quasi-Pacifists, who would make almost any concession to avoid war.
4) And there are the extreme Pacifists, who regard war as the ultimate evil, and who hold all participation in war as unacceptable—and certainly un-Christian.
The Battle of Patay, a French victory, may have been even more lopsided than the Battle of Agincourt where English casualties were 112 dead and French casualties amounted to between seven and ten thousand. At Patay the French suffered practically no casualties—three men, according to Perceval de Boulainvilliers, one, according to Thibaut d’Armagnac. One of the French commanders, Dunois, estimated the English dead at 4000, while the Burgundian mercenary, Wavrin, and the Journal du Siege, sources on the side of the English, put the English dead at 2000, and prisoners at 200. Unlike Agincourt, however, which had little strategic impact, the lesser known Battle of Patay was a major turning point in the Hundred Years War.
Now here is the problem. Joan, usually the hawk in military councils, was insistent that her fellow captains fight an open field engagement (where the English excelled) because her voices assured victory. Her co-commanders reluctantly agreed, though, having had a run of luck and knowing how fickle were the fortunes of war, they must have felt that they were tempting fate. Perhaps their way of getting back at her was to let the mercenary captain La Hire lead the advance guard, “which greatly annoyed Joan, who liked to command it herself,” according to her page Louis de Coutes.
Whereas everything went right for the English at Agincourt fourteen years earlier, everything went wrong for them at Patay, though they used exactly the same tactics. A stag burst out of the woods and bolted into the main body of the English, who raised a loud cry thereby alerting French scouts. In short order 1500 mounted men-at-arms (i.e. knights) descended on the 500 lightly armed English long bowmen who were still driving their stakes. Panic ensued, which was transmitted to the main body through mis-communication, followed by a rout and a bloodbath. Now if Joan had had her way, instead of arriving when the battle was all but over—a circumstance that gave her the opportunity to comfort a dying English prisoner and hear his confession—she would have been faced with four possible options, all either implausible or unpalatable.
1) Abandon the field rather than witness the slaughter. However, that would have been totally out of character given her past behavior. Moreover, she was firmly in the second school of thought on the subject of war.
2) Stand idly by while the slaughter unfolded around her. But if she refused to do any of the bloody work herself, this may have caused some resentment in her comrades, since they were killing at her (or her voices) behest.
3) Try to stop the slaughter. That’s an absurdity since she preached the necessity of this battle and made it happen. Moreover, armies in those days had no means to house and feed prisoners until hostilities ceased. The rich were ransomed and the poor were killed. That was the rule generally adhered to.
4) Take a hand in the slaughter. Many observers, military and non-military, testified than Joan wielded sword and lance like a professional soldier, and if she had truly participated in the battle she wouldn’t have been able to say at her trial “I have never killed anyone.”
It is doubtful that popular sentiment would have allowed the Church to canonize a person, however virtuous in every other respect, who had blood on their hands, despite the fact that the job of a soldier is to “kill, kill, and kill.” If killing is sometimes necessary and right, then somebody has to do it. Logically, if that somebody is a saint, it is still necessary and right. And it may have been necessary for Joan if she had got her way. The circumstance didn’t arise, but it could have arisen. Should we, or could we, try to retrain our emotions to accept that an appealing young woman could lead a life of heroic virtue—the condition for sainthood—while knowing at the same time she had run her sword or lance through half a dozen helpless enemies during the Battle of Patay? That’s the problem.
[Near the end of World War II, General Curtis LeMay was placed in charge of all strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands. According to Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ‘LeMay was a wild man, hard-driving and tough, a bomber pilot, a big-game hunter, a chewer of cigars, dark, fleshy, smart. “I’ll tell you what war is about,” he once said bluntly—but he said it after the war—“you’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.” In the passage below LeMay explains why he condoned the systematic laying waste of Japanese cities. Joan may well have agreed. When she was asked at her trial if God hated the English she replied, “Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.” George Bernard Shaw wrote in the introduction to his play Saint Joan, ‘She was the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare.’]
We were going after military targets. No point in slaughtering civilians for the mere sake of slaughter. Of course there is a pretty thin veneer in Japan, but the veneer was there. It was their system of dispersal of industry. All you had to do was visit one of those targets after we’d roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage of every home. The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war . . . men, women, children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned [a] town. Had to be done.
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