Two military ethicists agree that a controversial Air Force ethics course, incorporating Bible passages and Christian theology, presents appropriate subject matter but needs revision.
“As clumsy as this lecture seems to be, it would be equally bad to try to drive out, from any presentation about just war theory, its intellectual history,” said Monsignor Stuart Swetland, a former Naval officer who has taught military ethics courses and now holds the Endowed Chair for Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland.
In late July, California's Vandenberg Air Force Base suspended its Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare course after students and activists objected to its section on “Christian Just War Theory.” Msgr. Swetland has his own criticisms of the course, but says the Church's just war tradition has its place in a secular classroom.
Rutgers Professor James Turner Johnson, a specialist in just war thought, also expressed “serious concerns about the course” after reviewing its materials. But his concerns differ from the objections of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a secular group whose agitations prompted a review of the contents.
Foundation president Mikey Weinstein has called the course's “Christian Just War Theory” section “an outrage and a deliberate attempt to torture and distort our constitution.” He claims the course violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, and imposes a “religious test” on officers.
Johnson, who believes secular institutions can legitimately present religious perspectives on war, presented his own critiques of the material to CNA on Aug. 5.
“The Vandenberg course misrepresents the nature of the idea of just war,” he said. “It not only presents just war as a specifically Christian idea, but its way of describing its Christian nature is at odds with the teaching on just war of major strands of Christianity.”
“Medieval just war thinking was 'Christian' in a broad, undifferentiated sense as a product of a Christian culture and as having been contributed to by Christian canonists and theologians,” Johnson explained. “But that is not the same thing as calling it 'Christian' in the narrow sense used in the Vandenberg course.”
Weinstein says that the group of Air Force officers who brought the course to his attention consisted mostly of Catholic and Protestant Christians, rather than atheists or agnostics.
Its PowerPoint slides contained material likely to raise suspicion among both believers and nonbelievers – including implicit comparisons of modern warfare to the religious wars of the Old Testament, and a presentation of Jesus Christ as “the mighty warrior.”
Johnson said the presentation, despite its use of St. Augustine's writings, did not present the Church Fathers' and medieval theologians' synthesis of faith and reason.
These writers, he said, “were working from secular sources as well as Christian ones, and the conception of just war they produced was set squarely within the frame of natural law and the moral responsibilities of temporal government.”
“They emphatically did not develop this conception out of the Bible itself, though they saw it as consistent with biblical revelation. The only Bible verse they cited with any regularity was Romans 13:4,” used to explain “that the responsibility for using armed force lies with the temporal ruler and follows from the ruler’s obligation in the natural world” to maintain order, justice, and peace.
Johnson said that St. Augustine and the medieval theologians, unlike the authors of the Vanderberg course, had no need to make references to Old Testament wars, or draw on metaphorical descriptions of Christ as a “warrior” – because these earlier authors believed that “the requirements of just war could and should be understood and followed by anyone simply by use of natural reason.”
The Rutgers professor maintains that a careful and thorough presentation of “specifically Christian teachings and arguments” can be appropriate matter for a military classroom.
“While there is no place for Christian indoctrination as a part of American military professional education,” Johnson stated, “it is going too far, as sometimes argued by critics, to seek to deny any place for consideration of religious teachings and arguments in the course of such education.”
Msgr. Swetland told CNA on Aug. 5 that such critics were applying a “false understanding of the separation of Church and state,” in attempting to argue that religious material has no place in a military ethics course.
“To show intellectual patronage, to show the lineage of an idea, to present objective facts about how these ideas developed – that's not evangelizing or proselytizing,” the priest and professor pointed out. “That's just showing the development of intellectual history.”
“Anyone who's intellectually honest, if they present the just war tradition and its intellectual heritage, will have to admit that it's rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition.”
“It intellectually developed, especially beginning with Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, in the late fourth and early fifth century, as Christians began to deal with the question, 'Can you fight for the Roman Empire, in defense against the invading barbarians?'”
Reflection on this question led to the larger question of whether Christians could fight in wars at all. The Church answered in the affirmative, but took care to distinguish between just and unjust wars – and also between moral and immoral actions within war. In subsequent centuries, Msgr. Swetland noted, these same principles became a part of secular reflection and law.
He criticized the Vandenberg course for its heavy reliance on Biblical allusions – which he said were helpful in a limited way, but largely extraneous to the Church's just war tradition.
“A just war presentation is about ethics that anyone should have access to, through reason alone. You don't need to proof-text with Scripture. I think that's not the best way of teaching in any setting, let alone in a multi-faith setting like the military. Pedagogically, it's not the best method.”
Classroom time spent on Old Testament references, he said, could be better spent solidifying officers' knowledge of the just war theory's important distinctions.
“The presentation, as given in those slides, left out a lot of the just war tradition when it came to the requires of both the 'ius ad bellum' – the justice of war – and the 'ius in bello,' the justice in war. There are a lot more criteria there, than the ones they were presenting on the slides.”
A revised course, he said, “should present the just war theory in its entirety – as far as the criteria for a war itself to be just, and the criteria for action in war to be justified.”
Msgr. Swetland also noted that the Catholic Church's just war teaching rules out any use of nuclear weapons that would indiscriminately kill both civilians and combatants, such as the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Vandenberg's course in nuclear ethics is partly intended to guide students toward a signed, formal commitment, saying they would authorize nuclear launches of this type under certain conditions.
“One of the problems that the chaplain instructor at Vandenberg might have, is that the very weapons he's talking about are the kinds of weapons that, more than likely, if ever launched, would be both disproportionate and indiscriminate,” Msgr. Swetland said, explaining why most possible uses of nuclear weapons are intrinsically evil.
“It's hard to even imagine a scenario where they would be proportionate and discriminate,” he stated.