Viewpoint: More Harm Than Good

Jan. 1, 1983
I am their leader, so I must follow them.—Alexander Ledru-Rollin (Interior Minister of French provisional government, 1848)

It all began in the sixties with ban-the-bomb marches generally led by individuals from the radical fringe. Those of us doing time in the Pentagon became accustomed to all of the solemn little groups posted outside the River Entrance protesting the way we made our living. The inference was clear that we were all pining for the day when we could push the button. Still, it is a free country, and no one really minded the protesters so long as they kept their distance. Besides, it was fruitless to attempt an explanation to those misguided souls that Armageddon could best be forestalled by preparedness.

Somehow or other, the nuclear disarmament movement has grown dramatically in recent years, perhaps spurred on, as both President Reagan and NATO’s Secretary General Joseph Luns have suggested, by some deft organizational assistance form the KGB. Whether or not the Soviets have had a hand in the game, the fact is that nuclear disarmament has become a popular cause. Of the nine states with a nuclear freeze referendum on the ballot this past November, eight voted in favor of it. Now, perhaps reacting in the manner of M. Ledru-Rollin, enter America’s Catholic bishops.

At their conclave in Washington last November, the bishops drafted a pastoral letter, subject to ratification next May, that would provide teaching guidance to America’s 50,000,000 Catholics. Since the draft letter was supported by seventy percent of the bishops in November, the likelihood of ratification appears good. And, since the Roman Catholic Church is a disciplined body as churches go, the pastoral letter promises to have a far-reaching and divisive effect on both the Church and America’s armed forces. The prospect of this is deeply disturbing to those of us who are both Catholic and military.

The bishops’ letter denounces as immoral the use of nuclear weapons or even the intent to use them. It condemns any targeting of nuclear weapons near cities or any first use of these weapons. In short, the bishops have placed themselves in the lead of the unilateral disarmament movement, for that is surely what this sort of language means. The Berrigan brothers, along with Protestant Reverend William Sloane Coffin and other religious leftists, must be experiencing a certain glow.

What the bishops have done is challenge the basic strategy of both the United States and the Atlantic Alliance—a strategy that defers to the Soviets the first hostile move. Our nuclear weapons are meant to match their nuclear weapons, one threat to offset the other. In the case of NATO, nuclear weapons are also intended as the equalizer, something that may be used if Europe is on the verge of falling to a Soviet attack. All things considered, including the remarkably long period of peace in Europe, it has been a pretty fair strategy.

There is something distinctly odd about Catholic bishops joining this unilateral disarmament movement and thus serving the cause of the atheists in Moscow. But what is truly disturbing about this draft pastoral letter is its potential effect on Catholics in the military. What is a Catholic skipper of a Trident submarine to think when his church tells him his job is immoral? What of the SAC bomber pilots, or, for that matter, CINCSAC himself when, as has happened, he is a Catholic?

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has departed from the path traditionally traveled by the Catholic clergy. Whatever misconceptions people may have had about Catholics, no one until now has ever accused them of being soft on the matter of national defense.

Looking back on the World War II, we did some terrible things to Germany. There was Hamburg, for instance, subjected in 1943 to merciless day and night, week-long attack by the RAF and ourselves. We hated doing it, most of us, but it was war. Hitler had done even more terrible things, and it was us or them. Our job was made easier, or at least less distasteful, by the clear support of our chaplains. If God wasn’t necessarily on our side, at least He wasn’t against us. All the while, of course, German aviators were getting similar reassurance. Priests on both sides aligned themselves with the spiritual needs of their flocks and not with matters of strategy.

War is a terrible business, and nuclear war may be the worst kind of war yet. We have no proof of that, but since wars have progressively grown more destructive with the development of weapons, it is probably true. Certainly, the decimation of French nobles at Crécy by a new instrument of destruction, the British longbow, increased the lethality of armed combat. It has gone that way ever since. Once at war, nations tend to do what they can to survive and win. Perhaps, as the antinuclear community contends, there can be no winner in a nuclear war. Without arguing that one, although Soviet doctrine does hold a different view, there remains the question as to whether a United States stripped of nuclear weapons would be able to exert any influence at all in this increasingly dangerous nuclear-armed world.

A long time ago, Sir James Barrie, who, in a lighter moment, had writer Peter Pan, gave an address to the students of St. Andrews University. It was a few years after World War I. Barrie was the retiring rector of the University, and his subject was courage. There are a couple of sentences in that address to which I would like to call the attention of the bishops.

There is a form of anaemia that is more rotting than even an unjust war. The end will indeed have come to our courage and to us when we are afraid in dire mischance to refer the final appeal to the arbitrament of arms.

It is worth remembering there was no war on the horizon, nor even a threat of one, when Barrie said those words. He was not, in any case, a jingoist.

Nuclear weapons are miserable things: so are machine guns, surface-to-air missiles, and napalm. The carnage at Waterloo was horrible, as it was at Gettysburg and the Battle of the Somme. Nothing would be closer to heaven on earth than a world disarmed and bent on peaceful coexistence. Nothing, alas, is more impossible of attainment.

We have kept the Minutemen in their silos for more than twenty years, contributing in their own ominous way to the peace the bishops seek. The MX, more accurate, more powerful, and less vulnerable, can make a similar contribution if only the mindless emotion of the antinuclear crowd does not prevail.

Meanwhile, the bishops should think hard about the damage they may do if they decide to circulate their letter.