John Courtney Murray and WMDs

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Many Catholics on the Right were highly critical of this Jesuit in the years immediately after Vatican II for his role in formulating the “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” The critics took him to task for surrendering too much of the Church’s authority in the lawmaking process of democratic countries.

Let’s leave that issue for another day, because, whatever one thinks of Murray’s views on the separation of church and state, his insights into one of the moral dimensions to the United States’ stance against the Soviet Union during the Cold War are illuminating in regard to current military involvement in Iraq.

Let us also agree for the time being to set aside the question of whether the Bush administration misled us about the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and focus on another issue: the question of why the administration felt it crucial to beat the drums about the existence of those weapons. Why did the Bush team think the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the key to rallying American public opinion in support of the war? What does that say about us? Is it an admirable trait, or a troubling one? Why, asks Murray, must “national survival” appear to be at risk before Americans are willing to back a large-scale application of military force in the world arena?

To see what all this has to do with the war in Iraq, in the passages from Murray’s essay that follow substitute the terms “al Qaeda,” “Islamic fundamentalists” or “Muslim terrorists” for “the Soviet Union,” “Communist Revolution,” and “Communist leadership.”

Murray begins by noting that our adversary during the Cold War was not irrational:

We may be quite sure that the Communist [Islamic fundamentalist] mind, with its realistic and strategic habits of thought, has carefully separated the problem of the “survival” of the Communist [Muslim fundamentalist] Revolution from the problem of war. The Communist [Muslim fundamentalist] leadership has not the slightest intention of making “survival” the issue to be settled by force of arms.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that contention. The leaders of al Qaeda and the other Muslim terrorist groups are quite willing to send young men and women to their deaths in suicide missions, but they also go to great pains to keep themselves hidden and safe. They have no intention of being wiped out in a direct military confrontation with the West. They do not put their survival, or their movement’s survival, at risk.

But here’s the rub: “In contrast,” Murray contends,

America is not prepared to resort to arms until the issue of “survival” is raised. Survival is the only thing it is willing to risk. Not the least irony in the current situation is the fact that the West has surrendered to the East its own traditional doctrine, that “survival” is not, and should never be allowed to become, the issue at stake in war.

The result?

The major problem put to American policy at the moment is the problem that the Soviet Union [Muslim fundamentalism] has already solved in terms of policy, namely, how to be prepared to use force on all necessary or useful occasions, and at the same time to withdraw “survival” from the issues at stake in the use of force. “The children of this world are shrewder than the children of light in their dealings with their own kind” (Luke 16:9). The children of this world understand better the uses, and the uselessnesses, of this world’s darkest thing, force. They are shrewd enough to know that the institutions of this world can be advanced by force, but that their survival should not be put to the test of force.

The leaders of al Qaeda would object to being called “children of this world,” of course; they see themselves as a spiritual force and the instruments of God’s will. But Murray’s description of the “children of this world’s” understanding of how to employ the drip-drip-drip of a patient escalation and disengagement of violence in pursuit of a long-term military objective fits their conduct of the war against the West. They will not permit us a Normandy-like assault against the gathered forces of Muslim fundamentalism. They hide and launch their bombing attacks where and when they are convinced that their attacks will weaken the resolve of the West. They know, as did the old Soviets, that “[f]orce is to be employed only when the historical moment is right and the military or political risk is minimal.”

In contrast, writes Murray, America’s strategy in dealing with our enemies “seems to have been conceived to insure ‘survival’ but not to fight a legitimate war for limited and justifiable ends.” Our leaders proceed under the assumption that they cannot “get their budgets through the Congress unless they have ‘proved’ that ‘survival’ is the issue at stake.” And who is to blame for this? We are, says Murray. Congress understands that it cannot “levy taxes on the people” for military engagements until it has been demonstrated that the “survival” of the people is at stake. “But,” says Murray, “this is moral absurdity, not least because it is military absurdity. We have got the problem of ‘survival’ and the problem of war so mixed up that we may finally be incapable of solving either.”

The need then, he says, is for American policy-makers and the American people to understand that the Soviet Union [al Qaeda] is a product of “power-imperialism” that “must be confronted by power, steadily and at every point. But when the question is military engagement it is quite false to say that the issue is ‘survival.’ And American persistence in thinking this could easily reduce American power to impotence.”

What is needed, he argues, are “clearly defined strategic purposes that would be consonant with the institution of war as a valid instrument for altering the political will of an enemy,” an enemy “whose political will, and whose doctrine on the limited use of force in support of his will, are by no means mysterious or unknowable.”

Murray calls for

discourse on success in war — concretely, on the kind of success that is politically valuable in the kind of war that is possible or likely, in present circumstances, against a particular enemy, who has a fully constructed “compass” (as Stalin called it) whereby to set his intentions and to direct his action in history, and who, finally, has an articulated doctrine with regard to the limited uses of military force in support of his political will.

I repeat: We are not dealing with the question of whether Iraq should have been invaded. It would be easy to use Murray’s thesis to make the case that our efforts against al Qaeda should have been concentrated in Afghanistan and not extended to Iraq. It can be argued that there was no need to overthrow Saddam. But that does not diminish the relevance of Murray’s warnings about what he calls “the American Protestant taint of pacifism” that morally disarms us unless and until we are faced with the imminent danger of an enemy with weapons of mass destruction pointed at New York and Los Angeles.

If he is correct about the effect of that “taint” on our national psyche, it will be difficult for the United States to act patiently and assertively in a protracted struggle against a determined enemy. You may think that a desirable outcome. I don’t. I defy anyone to make the case that the ascendancy of the modern powers looking to take our place as the dominant player in the world arena will make the world a better place.

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