If not me, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not ham, then no cheese. I throw eggs at a UP professor’s scrambled take on morality, Christianity, and the military. Humpty Dumpty had a big fall.
The following nonsense appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Portland Magazine, a University of Portland publication:
The Spring issue’s editorial, about the late Army Sgt. Keith Robbins and his granddaughter, Air Force cadet Tiffany Anderson ’04, prompted University philosophy professor Thom Faller to share some remarks he offered at the annual commissioning ceremony on The Bluff for new Air Force cadet lieutenants.
There are many ways to look at military officers. Some regard them as robotic projects devoid of human values; some regard them as hired assassins. They have been described as mournful, sweet-tempered, and doomed. They have been romanticized and abused, esteemed and ridiculed. All these views are mistaken, of course, and generally held by people who do not know a single officer.
The officer lives an ordered life. It is the sort of life that has been admired by many over the centuries. Its orderliness is liberating rather than oppressive. It is not incompatible with Christianity; the biblical accounts of Jesus Christ show Him patient with soldiers, even kind to them. (The same Christ was rough with politicians, lawyers, financers, clergymen, and even professors, I note.)
A person can be selfish, cowardly, disloyal, false, fleeting, and morally corrupt in a wide variety of other ways and still be outstanding in some of life’s pursuits. That is, a person can be a superb creative artist, or a scientist of the highest caliber, and still be a bad person. But what the bad person can not be is a good officer. Military institutions form a treasury of moral wealth that should always be a source of strength within a country. One of the major services of the military to the community it serves may well lie in the moral realm. The military is certainly a mirror of its parent society, reflecting strengths and weaknesses; but it can also be, and perhaps should be, a well from which to draw needed moral refreshment.
In a trying world darkened by hate and misunderstanding, newly commissioned military officers like these are a symbol of the virtues in which people of all nations and creeds find gallant faith. They are representative of the good from which a person might distill a well-lived life. May God bless them and watch over them, as they watch over their fellow citizens.
My response, which follows, was published in the Winter 2003 issue of Portland Magazine:
Perhaps the speech simply didn’t translate well to the printed page or maybe the text was too severely edited to maintain coherence, but the pile of assertions that was philosophy professor Thom Faller’s note on “Military Morals” (Letters, Summer 2003) made for painful reading.
Although there can and probably should be a healthy debate in your pages about whether “military morals” is as oxymoronic as human history would make it seem, the most crucial point for a Catholic universityâ€”particularly one with ROTC programsâ€”concerns the compatibility of Christianity and the military.
Faller asserts that soldiering is not incompatible with Christianity. His contention would be disputed by a number of Christian denominations including the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish as well as a sizable membership of the Catholic Church. As justification for his view, Faller offers the idea that because Jesus was patient with soldiers while giving rougher treatment to “politicians, lawyers, financiers, clergymen, and even professors,” this supposedly implies divine approval of a military career.
It does no such thing, of course. Jesus was also kind to prostitutes and rough on His disciples. Are any Christians in doubt as to which of these career paths He would wish us to take?
I think it telling that in the 300 years closest to the life of Christ, it was impossible to be both a Christian and a soldier. The two were seen as wholly incongruent. Only after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire was this restriction lifted and, some would argue, Christianity mutated: It became impossible to be a Roman soldier and not be a Christian.
Even if one can somehow reconcile the nonviolent Jesus of the scripturesâ€”not to mention His teachingsâ€”with a life of military service, surely the committed Christian soldier would refuse any order which was illegal or immoral. (One of the larger points of the post-World War II Nuremberg trials being that “I was just following orders” provides no excuse for immoral conduct.) Yet how many Catholics in the US military refused to participate in the blatantly illegal invasion of Iraq even when the Holy Father himself stood in opposition?
Indeed, when faith and nationalism collide, which does Faller’s “good officer” follow? I ask because the officers of the German military during World Wars I & II meet perfectly Faller’s standards for a “good officer” and many were Christians. I intend no comparison between Nazis and today’s U.S. armed forces, but I submit that Faller may want to rethink, among other things, his notion of military morals as they relate to Christianity and his definition of a “good officer.”
My letter apparently got under the skin of at least one long-time military man whose response was published in Portland Magazine‘s autumn 2004 issue:
War & Morality
I cannot ignore Ty Davison’s letter in the Winter 2003 magazine. So you know where I’m coming from, I spent 22 years in the Air Force, with most of my life from 1969 to 1974 spent flying combat in Southeast Asia or training combat crews in Thailand. I flew as an air marshal from 1988 to 1990, when it wasn’t as hazardous as it is today. From 1988 to the present I’ve been a special agent for the FAA performing security and dangerous goods inspections and investigations of airports, air carriers, freight forwarders, and shippers. I am not ashamed of my careers. So I cannot ignore Ty’s backhand slap when he says that he is not comparing today’s armed forces with the Nazis. Half of his letter is based on the Nuremberg trials and the statement that Nazis were only following orders. His sole point is that the current military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are in identical situations as the Nazis who slaughtered civilian populations, tortured innocent civilians, and murdered prisoners of war. His contention is that the military members serving in the Middle East are immoral because they do not live up to his criteria of morality and threfore are in the same class as the Nazis.
I deeply resent the arrogance of a person who tries to impose his idea of morality on other members of his society. To all who think as he does: How do you know that the individuals serving in the Middle East are not doing so as a result of how they view their responsibility under their personal moral code and code of honor? How do you know that they have not studied the situation and resolved that a stand must be made and that now is the time? Who are you to decide that those who fight are not moral individuals and Christians giving their lives for their fellow man?
The Second World War, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the illegal invasion of Kuwait, Saddam’s sending SCUDS against innocent civilians and cities in a non-belligerent country (Israel), Saddam cutting off tongues and throwing people off buildingsâ€”all of these problems were resolved in large part by American force of arms and the sacrifice of the American military. We’re taken to task for not sending troops into Rwanda to stop the ethnic killings and we’re taken to task for sending troops into the Gulf twice. Make up your minds exactly what you want to do. You can’t have it both ways, sitting in the safety of the bleachers throwing stones at the players.
Tony Tepedino ’64
Ewa Beach, Hawaii
Portland Magazine promised to publish but did not my small refutation:
Tony Tepedino’s otherwise reasonable follow-up to my letter on war and morality seriously misrepresents my position and misstates much of what I wrote. According to Mr. Tepedino, my “…sole point is that the current military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are in identical situations as the Nazis who slaughtered civilian populations, tortured innocent civilians and murdered prisoners of war.” Though recent events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq might lend support to such a claim, I did not make it and indeed specifically disowned that intention. The similarity that exists, and what I referred to specifically, was the choice soldiers faced when their faith told them one thing and their nation another.
My full response, which Portland Magazine declined to publish because they understandably didn’t wish to have an on-going back-and-forth on their letters page, follows:
Tony Tepedino’s otherwise reasonable follow-up to my letter on war and morality seriously misrepresents my position and misstates much of what I wrote. According to Mr. Tepedino, my “…sole point is that the current military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are in identical situations as the Nazis who slaughtered civilian populations, tortured innocent civilians and murdered prisoners of war.” Though recent events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq might lend support to such a claim, I did not make it and indeed specifically disowned that intention. Since I also never even mentioned Afghanistan in my letter, I am baffled as to how I can stand accused of drawing such a comparison.
Nevertheless, Mr. Tepedino’s efforts helpfully throw into stark relief our varying approaches to moral decision-making and why we, and perhaps many others, see the issue of Iraq’s invasion differently. When he writes, “I deeply resent the arrogance of a person who tries to impose his idea of morality on other members of society,” he tells the tale. Although one wonders if this resentment extends to the Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders who would guide our moral development, the more germane point is that, like it or not, we are all subject to the others’ moral determinations. Rightly or wrongly, what is law other than society attempting to impose its morality on its members?
Further, Mr. Tepedino’s illuminating statement betrays a moral relativism which ought be cause for shuddering among most Christian readers and certainly Roman Catholics. For he mistakes the matter when he accuses me of trying impose “my” morality on others, as if somehow moral truth were particular to me or any other individual. While today many people similarly conceive of moral truthâ€”you have yours, I have mineâ€”the Church has long spoken out regarding the dangers of such a rationalizing stance since virtually any behavior may then be privately justified depending on circumstance, whim, or, frankly, nothing at all.
Which is, in part, why externally-derived moral guidance and wisdom are so important. Not that the Church is always right, but when the Holy Father and the leader of virtually every major Christian denomination says that that invading Iraq is morally wrong, it should weigh heavily upon the properly formed conscience of Christiansâ€”one would think particularly those in the US armed forces.
Perhaps Christian soldiers in the US military met this challenge in the way that Mr. Tepedino supposes they might and engaged in the study, prayer, and reflection necessary to with clear conscience invade a country that had no involvement with 9/11 and was not remotely a threat to US national security. Or perhaps, as I believe was overwhelmingly the case, in this collision of faith and nationalism they derived their answer and resolved this tension the way Mr. Tepedino did.
Ty Davison ’91