This month marked the 16th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan. With every day that passes, that conflict sets a new record in the category of “longest lasting American war.” And for many of these 16 years, we as a nation have simultaneously carried on other conflicts, as well. Considering those facts, it seems hard to believe that we still do not appreciate the costs and risks of war. But, judging from President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea and conservative Christians’ general silence in response, what other conclusion can be drawn?
The just war tradition, which has roots in Christian thought and which many American Christians ostensibly embrace, has historically taught the importance of weighing the goals and possible benefits of war against the likely risks and costs. Reflection on these factors takes place under the jus ad bellum criterion of proportionality, as Michael Walzer notes in Just and Unjust Wars (129.)
As President Trump rattles his sword at North Korea, we must ask ourselves if we have actually considered the price of such a war. There are human costs to our already depleted military. There will be financial burdens. There will be diplomatic crises in our relations with other nations, especially China. And there will be a severe moral cost if and when parties to the conflict use weapons incapable of discriminating between combatants and non-combatants. Is there a possible positive outcome that could justify all these burdens for the United States?
But the just war tradition has also suggested that we in the United States are increasingly unable to appreciate and understand the costs of war, let alone weigh them against benefits. Paul Ramsey thought that the logic of nuclear deterrence isolated American citizens from the real costs of war.
For Ramsey, the “free world taxpayer” desperately needed to (but simply could not) understand what modern military conflict entails. This detached figure, he argued, in his book The Just War “must be told in no uncertain terms that his unexamined reliance on deterrence of total war by threat of total war and mutual homicide policies are themselves of a piece with his unwillingness to prepare for any real trial of strength. He must be told that he is in mortal danger precisely because at every level of warfare he is so completely non-political and unpurposive” (235).
Ramsey believed that American citizens had become content to pay taxes in support of the military, vote every so often, and hide behind weapons that we hoped would never hurt us. This posture fails to reckon adequately with the true costs of war, especially when that war involves nuclear weapons. Ramsey’s words should serve as a wake-up call for American citizens today.
Daniel Bell has made a similar argument about our inability to understand the costs of war. While Ramsey identified nuclear deterrence and the “taxpayer” mentality as causes of our detachment from the costs of war, Bell believes drone technology is partly to blame. Weaponized drones make it morally easier to kill people. They remove combatants from the theater in which they meet each other in the flesh. In the process, it is more possible and likely for someone deploying fatal force to minimize the human value of his or her target.
Seeing a person face to face conveys the weight of killing more readily than seeing a person through a screen at a distance of thousands of miles. For Bell, drones lead us to think of human life as cheap and to become sloppy in our commitment to moral standards in war. Weaponized drones, Bell writes, “make it easier to dismiss the moral responsibility to carefully distinguish combatants from non-combatants and to restrict the amount of force and killing to only what is necessary to pursue the just cause of the war.”
If nuclear deterrence and drone warfare have made us incapable of understanding the moral costs of war, to say nothing of weighing them well, President Trump’s comments on North Korea show our moral detachment and ineptitude at their logical conclusion. His improvised “fire and fury” statement demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about proportionality and the costs of war. It also exhibited ignorance of other jus ad bellum criteria such as “aim of peace” and “last resort.”
His descent into a name-calling contest with Kim Jong Un shows the same tendencies, except with less dignity. His treatment of Guam as bait shows a gratuitous disregard for innocent lives. And after all that, Trump scorned diplomacy and de-escalation, which were strategies apparently being pursued by Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State. After Tillerson attempted to open new lines of communication with North Korea, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump seems incapable of weighing the costs of war, and this inability has enormously high stakes for people across the globe. The phenomenon of moral detachment that Ramsey saw in nuclear deterrence and Bell sees in drone warfare has reached its peak in a man with five draft deferments threatening nuclear war as improvisation.
These moments show moral detachment and ineptitude in the context of war that should trouble any society, especially one that thinks of itself as “Christian.” And yet, conservative American Christians have been silent in response. What, for example, has Eric Metaxas, who has written about the plight of North Korean Christians, to say about escalating tensions with North Korea and the increasing possibility of a nuclear encounter? He had a lot to say in support of Trump during the presidential campaign.
Those words come with great responsibility, especially after Trump’s victory. But he is silent on the heightened tension with between the United States and North Korea, despite the fact that each moment moves us closer to using weapons that cannot make the most basic distinction in the ethics of war, between combatants and non-combatants. The time has come for Metaxas and others to repent and speak up. American Christians must remind themselves that war carries costs and to denounce any rhetoric that forgets this basic fact.
Daniel A. Morris is an independent scholar living in Northfield, Vermont. In 2015, his book Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, was published with Lexington Books. His research in Christian ethics and American religious history has appeared in The Journal of Religion, Soundings, and Journal of Religious Ethics. He is the author of Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr (Lexington Books, 2015).