Implausible Deniability
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross / Edith Stein

Sunday Night Journal &mdash August 6, 2006

Masters of War

The week was saturated with news of the war in Lebanon, featuring the civilian body count and terrible photographs, and with furious argumentation, on the Internet and elsewhere, as to which side is more right or more wrong. The division emerges clearly once again between those who see Israel and the United States as the root of the trouble in the Middle East, and those who see Islamic fanaticism and oppressive Muslim and/or Arab governments as the problem.

My natural sympathies lie with Israel. It seems to me that open war aimed at the destruction of Israel was Hezbollah’s intention, and that Israel concluded that sooner would be less terrible than later. But it’s at best an open question whether the level of civilian death and hardship involved in the effort to destroy Hezbollah’s war-making ability can be justified morally.

The questions are agonizing, the debate full of anger and incomprehension. Several weeks of reading everything I could find and make time for on the subject have left me certain only that war is a terrible thing. It has always been terrible, but the enormous and indiscriminate power of high explosives have made it far more so. The ruler of a nation under attack will probably have to choose between allowing these weapons to be used on his people or using them on someone else’s, even if his is one of the nations that at least makes an effort to avoid civilian deaths.

On the way home from work Friday afternoon I was listening to Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home,” in which a man on the way home from his wife’s funeral looks back on their life together, regretting small failures of love. Still turning over in my mind the arguments for and against each side in this war, and more abstract arguments about the legitimacy of the use of force, and seeing all this in light of the simple human story in the song, I found myself unexpectedly overtaken by rage at the folly and evil that produce war. Isn’t it enough that we have to face natural death, and that we struggle day by day to lead decent lives? Must we also and always be vulnerable to the violence that not only devours good young men by the thousands but leaves women and children crushed, torn, and burned in the ruins of their homes?

Upon the release of his song “Masters of War,” Bob Dylan expressed misgivings about having wished death upon the masters of war. The song gives a naïve and superficial view of the causes of war (arms merchants), but although its outrage may not be very well-aimed, it’s appropriate.

We choose whom to believe about the facts of this war, and we remain, if we’re sensible, mindful that no nation’s hands are ever perfectly clean. And in the end, none of us who can only learn about it from a great distance can really know the moral status of the participants. But God knows. And I tremble for anyone who would set such violence in motion for reasons that will not bear his scrutiny.

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