Thursday, November 02, 2006


There is a report that the Catholic Archbishop in charge of all the US military was in Rome for a meeting of his opposite numbers from other nations, and that he has been using the Pentagon Power-Point talking points in making comments about the activities ongoing in Iraq.

What we have here is an instance of a much larger problem: that of professionals in the military.

A ‘professional’, traditionally, is someone who has gone to great trouble to acquire knowledge and expertise in some area that is of particular use and need to society, and makes that knowledge and expertise available to persons who need it. This discipline of service becomes a life-project, rather than a one-shot got-my-ticket graduation rush. And when properly undertaken, it shapes a life as well as creates a daily schedule. In theory, then, professionals are not motivated by quite the same level of self-interest and greed and calculation and lust as the average person. Consequently, society accords them a certain respect. In a way, professionals become like spacecraft, orbiting above the hot turbulence of the planet’s atmospheric envelope, doing their good things from above the ordinary fray.

But because human need is so great in this darkling world we call ‘life’, the professional’s availability must be relied upon by persons in emergency situations, in tight spots that demand a more-than-ordinary bond. In the service of such persons in need, the professional must sustain the focused deployment of all that knowledge and expertise. The professional cannot be a ‘summer soldier’, but rather must sustain an all-weather capability to serve. And to sustain that level of service, the professional commits to a higher plane of being. The doctor serves Well-Being, the lawyer serves Law and Justice, the clergy serves Love and God.. In fact, all of them may serve God as well as their respective Ideal, but the clergy commit to God – through some religion – in a more focused way. But however it’s sliced, professionals serve a Higher Law, and that commitment is fundamental to their status and their role in society.

Which brings us to the problem of professionals in the military. The military is an organization that has its own Law, an iron one: Victory. And to achieve that object, all the members of its orderly hierarchy must accept the orders of those above them and then work their hardest to do their bit in achieving the objective. That’s how it’s done and it is done in no other way. Militaries, like the governments that are their masters, acknowledge no Higher Law than their own. They may pay lip service to Higher Law, they may piously burble and bray all the old slogans, but when it comes right down to it, they are seeking only to Win. Once they have Won, then they can write the history of how they so decently did it. If they lose … well, losing isn’t an option. The respective guilds of professionals operating in the military are thus well-advised to make sure that their particular capital-letter word does not get in the way of the military’s capital-letter word. Not ever, nohow, nowhere, no time. Not if they want to be considered a team player. Not if they want to stay on the team.

Now for quite some time the American military and professionals have mutually managed to skate over this abyss. In peacetime, or when America was winning, or at least when that fantasy could reasonably be indulged, there was no need to look the horse too closely in the mouth. And things have worked out cozily enough. The military gets to own its own doctors and lawyers and clergy. The various professionals get all the bennys accruing and appertaining to military service, especially in the officer ranks: status and rank, decent and steady pay with a nice enough benefits package, medals and ribbons and decorations, the chance for travel, and the priceless boon of being considered a heroic patriot simply by getting out of the rack in the morning and putting your butt into one of those great uniforms. Of course, the professional butt is not often ‘out there’. It’s the little people (and upon them be many blessings) who do the heavy lifting. It is the little people whose butts are out there where the lead flies, where the superannuated or experimental aircraft fall out of the sky, where the under-armored combat vehicles encounter explosive devices, where the aluminum-alloy ships suffer magnesium fires.

But situations other-than-victory have a way of concentrating the public mind. Before 1942 very few Germans felt they needed to know just how the Fuhrer made his signature sausages; by the end of 1942 many of them had started wondering – even if they didn’t ask openly – if the Fuhrer hadn’t somehow not got the recipe quite right. Not everybody responded to History’s evolving challenge by looking more closely at things, of course. Not a few German civilians were killed by Party members who would entertain no doubts, who were actually galvanized by the lack of victory, who would tolerate no dissent from the great delusion. Even as the Soviet tanks blew through all the west-bound stop signs in Budapest and floored it, towing Stalin’s particular version of Hell behind them.

Thus recently we have seen some curious official positions taken and statements made by national professional organizations. The American Bar Association is in a tight spot indeed. Many of its membership gathered unto themselves the aforementioned bennys by serving as the high, middle, and low priests and keepers of the sacred and unknowable mysteries of military justice.

It might seem strange that a profession dedicated to Justice could so entangle itself in a system where one party – and that party the government in its military mode – owns the judge, the jury, the police and investigators, the prosecutor, most of the witnesses, and the defense counsel. And where the conviction rates are only tenths of a point below the achievements of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in their prime. We are assured however, that the lawyers would not betray Justice, for they are honorable men (and women). And we are further assured that their commanders would never require them to betray Justice, for their commanders are honorable men (and women). And, in the general glow of War’s forge, they can all be seen to be heroes, in the dusk with the light behind them (as Gilbert or Sullivan put it against another generation of honorables).

Recently, some of the highest of those priests, still on the take or retired and trading on their glory in new pastures, made a great show of the fact that they have opposed the regime all along, and are deeply concerned for Truth, Justice, and all those good things. One might wonder where these patriotic Perry Masons have been for the past five years, but it’s a war and should one really ask? One might wonder if these same honorables would be standing tall today if we were Winning in Iraq. If Justice is so important to them, why didn’t they stand tall five years ago? But no. Only now. Once upon a time, in a certain capital, high-ranking officers suddenly began to wonder how their records would look if reviewed by unsympathetic eyes. You can still see the results in the old newsreel clips: when they met each other, the same correct and hearty Prussian bonhomie; but the necks didn’t quite fill the gold-encrusted collars, and the splendidly tailored tunics now hung loose on their shoulders, even on the porkloin Keitel.

You might think that the media would pick up on this, but since it’s hard to get a soundbite out of a Virtue, or a photo-op with one, and most media types consider themselves every bit as professional as a brain surgeon, if not more, then the wise citizen is well-advised not to expect much from that quarter at present. There’s always room for improvement, however, and the prospect of not being taken seriously might concentrate the media’s collective mind wonderfully. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The American Psychiatric Association has prohibited its members – all doctors – from participating in torture. First, one must do no harm. The American Psychological Association – not doctors – has also declared it unethical for its members to further torture … except when they do, which they should only do at the behest of the command. After all, aren’t they there to provide their expertise? What good are they if they’re not there to advise and instruct when the occasion arises? Nor do they wish to attract the attentions of the justice system over which their fellow guild presides. They might add that the Romans themselves, the great lawgivers to the West, said that ‘contra armas silent leges’. And anyhoo, hasn’t God pretty much Deputized the American nation, the US government, and its warrior forces, as His instrument to bring to the entire world, by force of arms, the blessings of Love and Democracy? Yah, the damned commie drug-loving hippies were for filling the world with Love too; but those sumbees didn’t know how to really do it. The big boys, the real men, are in charge now. And they’re Deputies. It says so on the badge here.

Which brings us to the chaplains. One would think that of all the professionals the chaplains would have been precisely attuned to the problem they faced: the clergy’s Higher Law has been known to be rather demanding, jealous, and – when crossed – irascible. And very very personal. Up closely so. But no. The chaplains are right in there along with the rest. And the manner of it is on this wise. There is a fundamentalist ascendancy in the chaplain corps of the several Services nowadays (the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy; the Marines use Navy professionals, who then get to own and wear a set of great Marine uniforms as well as a set of Navy uniforms. Ditto the Coast Guard.) The Ascendancy, undistracted by a hierarchical, world-encompassing Church or a complex system of sacraments, or a vast body of accumulated thought requiring familiarity with a great deal of reading material, must find some other peg on which to hang its assorted uniform hats. This is not a new problem; humans have many times sought divinity or its intimations in assorted livestock (bulls and eagles being especially popular), golden totems of the foregoing, or – in our more enlightened modern era – governments.

Thoroughly modern, the Ascendancy has chosen a government, ours in fact. And for this government, and with this government, it will preach, it will struggle, it will pray, and it will abide until the Final Trumpet (or just moments before it). And unlike the Kathliks, it heroically refrains from sin, with occasional but prayerful forays into gay sex and crystal meth, in the abiding quest for an ecstasy that attains the spiritual while rooted in the physical.

And that brings us to the Kathliks – or Catholics, as they pretentiously prefer to spell it. One would be forgiven for imagining that no greater potential threat to the Ascendancy of a quasi-sacramentalized earthly government exists than the spirit of Roman Catholicism. Historically, a large footprint, hugely experienced – the oldest surviving organizational entity on the planet, the font of Western civilization. Conceptually, an intricate, delicately but sturdily webbed Vision of life and this world, nuanced but logical, and immovably connected by hoops of Spirit to that Higher world, that Higher Law, that God Who is Himself the font of Being. And He has Deputized the Church, although for a mission more of Light and of Love than of Darkness and Conquest. I cannot think of any entity that would antagonize an earthly government more.

But the Catholic Church, especially in America, has been on the ropes for a bit. It has its enemies, and they are as numerous within as they are without. Within the Church there are traditionalists who want the gays out, the women back in their place, and Time restored, preferably as it was in the Twelfth or Thirteenth century. There are womenists who want the men out of the priesthood or at least themselves in, and others who want the right to an abortion should the need arise. There are slothful priests, there are sleazy priests, there are drunken priests, there are loudmouth priests, there are gay priests, and none of them are perfect. Only in a transport of fundamentalist ecstasy or calculated duplicity could any serious student of humankind deny that the Church is humankind writ small, but in Capital Letters.

At the higher levels of the hierarchy, a different problem arose. The late John Paul II, marvelous in his popely prime, became a little less so in his later years. Possessed of a physical constitution that outdistanced LBJ and was closing in on Churchill, he wanted to ensure the safety of the Church by appointing conservative and strong bishops. He made the mistake – nor was he the first human being to do so – of presuming that being of sound conservative doctrine automatically conferred a strong character. But what one espouses – even if it is honestly espoused – does not automatically bring with it strength and the several Virtues of character. Grace has been known to do the job – often splendidly – but we live in a thoroughly modern postmodern age, where fairytales are only for children and high-level conferences.

To its enemies, the Church seemed to be low-hanging fruit. And they purposed to pluck it. This has been partially achieved in the past few years, the fruits vigorously pursued with great hue and cry. Advantage was taken of the Church’s tremendous patience and circumspectness and patience, evolved over the course of millennia, in dealing with the most fundamental foibles of human beings, who stagger in having broken themselves or something or someone else, seeking whatever might be done for them. The Church’s wisdom has been to try to patch up what can be patched up. This is not the typical path of many Prophets in the Old Testament, but the peasant wisdom of the Church has been that even Hosea only had to live a single lifetime; when you’re in it until the End, you’ve got to pace yourself. Unwilling to be a bull in a china shop, the Church has sometimes avoided sweeping up as much as could be wished. But whether wielded with brooms or bombs the dangerous – perhaps fatal - unwisdom of aggressive pre-emption and swift judgment has been more than amply demonstrated of late.

Thus the present Archbishop for the Military Services. He met with his peers in Rome a few weeks ago. Each nation has a bishop – called an Ordinary – for its military services (smaller countries get a lesser hierarch). Our own seems to be worried, as he is quoted, that the good news isn’t getting out. By that he does not mean the Good News, but rather the earthly variant: that things aren’t so bad over there in Iraq, and would be better if the media were a little more honest and less biased (or more based in the right way).

What can he be thinking? Is he thinking at all? Is he suffering from a lack of spine? Or does he see himself as the government’s personal chaplain, as Laud saw himself the King’s? Or has he so identified himself with his charges that he has taken for his own their views? It would be nice to think it’s the latter: Catholics have always had a better ‘trench/foxhole ministry’, probably because their clergy are bred to sustain a constant round of ministry (all those sacraments and all the times they’re needed) whereas the main fundamentalist punch comes in a preach, which need only be sustained for a few minutes or – on a roll – hours.

But he’s a little too clever by half. Stunningly, he justifies the presence of Catholic chaplains not by their sacramental ministry, but by their role as ‘ethicists’. On first glance this simply looks odd, but maybe interesting, and in the absence of any overtly offensive wording it would be glanced over and the reader would move on. It has a vaguely familiar ring to it, and so it should: hospitals now have ethicists on staff and there are very specific procedures required by policy when a difficult medico-ethical choice comes up and a special committee is, in due course, convened. All well and good. But such a role hardly applies in a military setting, for three reasons.

First, there’s no place in the crush of events where one would have the space to ethically intervene: a small patrol under fire out in the field, probably not having the chaplain with them, will hardly have the time or the inclination to have one or several choppered in for a conference, and on the other end of the ladder, colonels and generals are not going to be asking for ethical advice when making strategy – hell, they don’t even take it from the military lawyers, who speak from the slightly more tangible authority of the Geneva Conventions.

Second, in the hierarchical, Victory-oriented organization that is the military, ‘ethics’ counts for little unless a particularly canny chaplain can convince officers senior to him (always a techy job) that ‘being ethical’ will bring a better prospect of Victory. Stalin may have said it out loud, but just about any modern military boss operates on the assumption: the Pope has no divisions.

Third, chaplains who get into the habit of raising ‘sua sponte’ the distractions of ethical questions will soon find themselves dis-employed or worse.

And would it have done any good? Did Harry Truman consult with then-Archbishop Spellman before he atom-bombed Japan twice? If so, either the good prelate was overruled or – sorta like now – the good prelate told Harry he was doing a heckuvva job. More recently, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, a prelate in Georgia allowed as how Yes, the pope and other foreign diplomats were against the idea of invasion, but they were … well, foreign. This from a man elevated and consecrated to the episcopacy by a papal authority which he now acknowledges – as if by inadvertence – as merely another whiney foreigner. Now I am referring here not to Georgia over there in the old Soviet Union, but Georgia the Great State Of, the one General Sherman went through.

At any rate, to imagine all of the worthies seated under a Michelangelo ceiling somewhere in Rome, discussing their work, cannot but bring to mind French and German bishops, each supporting their respective nation’s troops. What would happen to this meeting if word suddenly came that this and that nation had suddenly declared war? Or, in the evolved modern usage, one government had simply decided on its own to start shooting at another. What would the X bishop and the Y bishop do? Does their Churchhood mean more to them than their nationality? Does their consciously declared service to the Higher Law override the commitment arising out of the particular accidents of their birth?

One hopes that the Military Ordinary is not so ordinary. But the current hiring practices of both Rome and Washington do not encourage. Meanwhile, who will speak for the Higher Law? Who, even, will speak for America – as she committed herself to be, two-hundred and some-odd short years ago?

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Blogger Davidco said...

There's a good analysis of the absence of traditional'just war' grounds for the Iraq 'preemption':

In the light of flat and vociferous opposition from Rome, the resounding silence of the American Catholic hierarchy on the invasion and occupation Iraq shames us all.

From press accounts, there seemed to be three conflicting currents operating at the meeting of military ordinaries in Rome.

First you have the crusading chauvinism (Deus vult!) of the American archbishop.

The pope held out for an ideal 'that armed forces are to be at the exclusive service of the defense, security and freedom of peoples. 'Unfortunately', he added weakly, 'sometimes other interests - economic and political fostered by international tensions have raised obstacles and delayed this constructive tendency.'

Apparently, for Benedict, even the 'just war' calculus has become merely a constructive tendency whose arrival we must await as we peer into the eschatological distance. (Peace train sounding louder, now.)

Then we have the realpolitik of Cardinal Bertone who offered prayers 'for those who seek to spread and defend peace in every part of the planet'. Without a link to justice, however, peace just becomes the cause of those with an interest in the status quo.

JPII, on the other hand, was as plain as a pikestaff: "No justice. No peace'. Apparently his ghost has already been exorcised from the proceedings.

8:02 AM  

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