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    PloughCast 35: War, Peace, and Nuclear Weapons

    Hope in Apocalypse, Part 5

    By Christopher Tollefsen, Samuel Moyn, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 26, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk with Christopher Tollefsen about his piece on the history and ethics of nuclear deterrence, and the prospect of an antinuclear movement post-Ukraine. They discuss Tollefsen’s conviction that nuclear war is a pro-life issue.

    Then, they speak with Samuel Moyn about his new book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. Is making war more “humane” actually removing the urgency of actual pacifism? What if we simply aimed to have fewer wars? Have we given up on that?

    The gang get into it about Just War Theory, pacifism, the Peace and Truce of God movement, and many other things.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Christopher Tollefsen: Nuclear Weapons in Christian Thought

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m Susannah Black Roberts, Senior editor at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with Chris Tollefsen about nuclear war and the obligation of nuclear disarmament post Ukraine, and with Sam Moyn about war in general.

    Peter Mommsen: Chris Tollefsen is professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics and coauthor of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life with Robert P. George and of The Way of Medicine: Ethics and the Healing Profession with Farr Curlin. Welcome Chris.

    Chris Tollefsen: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Chris Tollefsen has a piece in our current issue: “The Problem with Nuclear Deterrence.” The slug line is “Catholic teaching on just war forbids not just using nuclear weapons, but also threatening to use them.” Do you want to give our listeners a background on how that teaching came to be articulated?

    Chris Tollefsen: Really, the article is about an argumentative gap that gets filled in over the last fifty years between a very well established Catholic principle that extends beyond Catholic teaching into just war theory more generally, about discrimination in warfare. It holds that it’s impermissible to intend the deaths of non-combatants. And there’s an extremely well and very strongly held principle taught by the Second Vatican Council, that that principle is violated in the Second World War on a number of occasions by the Allies, in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and then most manifestly in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are intended to bring about the death of many civilians in order to demoralize the enemy and end the war.

    That’s a pretty well established Catholic view. There’s a little bit of backsliding here and there. We find ourselves in the last five years on at least two occasions with Pope Francis saying that not only is it wrong to use nuclear weapons, something that the church has been very firm on, but it’s also wrong to threaten the use of those weapons, and it’s even wrong to hold onto those weapons.

    The Pope seems to be recommending pretty considerable steps towards disarmament, and the piece identifies what I think is a crucial moment in the history of the last fifty years of the church’s life, going in that argumentative gap with, I think, two pretty intuitively correct notions. One is that if it’s wrong to do something, then it’s wrong to intend to do that something. If it’s wrong for you to cheat on an exam, it’s wrong for you to intend to cheat on exam. If it’s wrong – I don’t know why I was thinking about this, but this morning I was thinking about Calvin and Hobbes. If you remember, there’s a bully in Calvin and Hobbes, I think Moe might be his name. Occasionally, he’ll just go up to Calvin and slug him. That’s wrong.

    We’ll stipulate that, but if it’s wrong for him to do that, then it’s wrong for him to wake up in the morning and think to himself “at lunchtime, I’m going to go and slug Calvin,” for it’s wrong for him to intend to do what it’s wrong to do.

    And it also seems like that intention is wrong, even if it’s only a conditional intention. If Moe thinks to himself, “I’m going to slug Calvin if he doesn’t give me his lunch money,” right? It seems that conditional intention is wrong. It involves that orientation contrary to Calvin’s good.

    And on a much larger scale of nuclear threats, it does involve an intention contrary to the lives of the civilian populaces who would be bombed if the conditions that the threat outlines are met. Threatening to bomb civilians, threatening to engage in swapping of cities is wrong, even if the intention is only conditional, if it’s an intention to do that only if your opponent bombs you first.

    These principles are laid out in a book called Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism by John Finnis, Germain Grisez and Joseph Boyle who are three very eminent late twentieth century moral philosophers and theologians. I think if you accept those premises, then nuclear deterrence is wrong. And if nuclear deterrence is wrong, then it’s a pretty short step from there to think that what a country should do is unilaterally disarm, even in the face of other countries that are still posing that threat, and that seems to be what the Pope is suggesting, right? That’s wrong to hold onto those weapons and that we should disarm.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You talked about backsliding or contrary views, even among Catholics. Can you sort of give us what the steel man version of those arguments are and why they fail?

    Chris Tollefsen: As I mentioned in the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes, the church says pretty clearly: this is absolutely to be condemned. It’s just horrifying when a country engages in the deliberate targeting of whole cities or of significant parts of cities in order to bring about military ends. Generally speaking, Catholics accept that as an indication that the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong, but there is a strand of thought that’s present in the work of people who I think are otherwise extremely admirable Catholic thinkers on matters of war and also on pro-life matters more generally, such as Father Wilson Miscamble at Notre Dame or George Weigel, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel recently wrote a piece in First Things, arguing that in fact, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although in his own words, it seems to clearly contradict what the church teaches, nevertheless was a decision that had to be taken, and Father Miscamble makes similar claims.

    I think part of the thought here is that in some sense, a statesman takes on some kind of burden on behalf of the nation of acting for the common good, even if in some sense that means operating outside the moral norms that are traditionally taught by the Catholic church. Seems to me, that’s not at all the Catholic church’s view. For the church, if something is wrong, then what that means is it’s just not to be done, period. You don’t weigh it against other responsibilities, you don’t weigh it against other goods that are available to be obtained by doing the thing. You just rule it out with practical deliberation right away. I do think that those attempts to square the bombings in the Second World War with Catholic teaching, I do think that they are a form of backsliding.

    Peter Mommsen: Now, of course, we’re talking right now at a time when the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence is current in a way it hasn’t seemed to be for decades, right? This kind of backsliding isn’t just about things that happened in the 1940s. It’s about things that we are doing today, and of course, Ukraine is the reason for that, and Taiwan too, to a certain extent.

    Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons upon independence in a deal that was remembered early on in the beginning of this conflict after Russia invaded it, and the kind of intuitive lesson for many observers and I think just your average person is, Wow, I mean, that was really too bad that Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons. They just did that thing that Pope Francis and Christian teaching presumably would tell them to have done, and we wish they wouldn’t have done it.

    I think it’s just kind of worth noting at the beginning that we’re not talking about something that’s purely historical or theoretical, right? I guess I’d like to press in on this issue that you just highlighted for us, which is that there was some course of action that seemed intuitively like it would make a lot of sense, that we’re saying, people should just rule out of practical consideration from the get go. That seems kind of in conflict with the way that people try to win wars in general.

    Chris Tollefsen: It does. That’s right. I mean, when the Nuclear Deterrence book came out, one of the things that people found most objectionable about it was that it drew, I think what had to be the obvious conclusion that unilateral disarmament was likely to have terrible consequences for the free West and the authors were extremely clear-sighted about what those terrible consequences would be. They acknowledged the virtues of the West by comparison with the vices of the Soviet Union, the radical limitations of freedom and human rights that would be a consequence of unilateral disarmament. But the underlying thought was that at least from a Christian standpoint – and it’s difficult to see how even natural reason can deny this – if something is determined in your practical thinking or through revelation or through what you take to be the church’s teachings that you accept to be something that you just shouldn’t do, then yes, sometimes that’s going to come with terrible consequences and require tremendous sacrifice on the part of those who are upholding those moral norms.

    I think it is plausible that deciding not to pursue nuclear weaponry on the part of Ukraine has played a part in what then has turned out to be a disastrous state of affairs for Ukraine. From a moral standpoint, I think if they had those nuclear weapons, that would be in an important sense scandalous for them. It would be an invitation for them to sin and engage in wrongdoing by being willing in some sense to use those weapons against Russia in ways that would be, if not violations of the principle of discrimination, almost certainly violations of the additional principle that governs right conduct in warfare of proportionality.

    And use of nuclear weapons just has such immense long range consequences for the pollution of the land and harm to people of future generations, that if there wasn’t intentional harm being directed towards non-combatants, still the proportional use would be problematic from the standpoint of just war theory. I think it just has to be accepted that there are in fact sacrifices that are demanded of people who accept a moral view that holds that there are some things that should never be done.

    Peter Mommsen: Of course, nuclear weapons aside, just war theory says, Don’t kill non-combatants in general, right? There are things in war, apart from nuclear weapons, you’re just not allowed to do. You’re not allowed to torture an innocent person to gain some military goal.

    Chris Tollefsen: No, that’s right. I start the piece for Plough by talking a little bit about the great English Catholic convert Elizabeth Anscombe, who wrote three pieces about this earlier in her career, one centered around her protest against Oxford’s granting to President Truman an honorary degree, which she thought shouldn’t have been given to him on grounds that, in fact, he had participated in the murder of many hundreds of thousands of people.

    Anscombe says, look, this is a norm of warfare, and it’s a norm of morality, more generally. You can’t kill people, you can’t intend the death of people who aren’t actually attacking you or posing some sort of threat to you. That norm is not the sort of norm that gets lifted when the other guys do it first, right? It’s not a justification for you to engage in intentional killing of civilians to say that the bad guys did it first. That’s part of what it means to adhere to moral norms in the course of warfare.

    I think that it’s easy to lose sight of that, especially in the context of the completely unjust invasion that your own country is suffering from with regard to Ukraine and Russia. It would be extremely tempting if there were nuclear weapons available to Ukraine to want to use them, whether as acts of revenge or as acts of deterrence, or just to make the threat of them. But none of those actions are themselves justified simply on grounds that the Russians have behaved badly first, or that they’re engaged in gross violations of human rights or in war crimes. That’s just not the way that morality in warfare operates in the just war tradition, in the Catholic view more broadly, I think in any humane approach to just fighting.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, a lot of these questions do seem to me to come down to: Sometimes hard teachings are hard. We recently interviewed someone who is currently in Ukraine. One of the things that he was saying which really hit home is he was reflecting on his own previous visits to Azerbaijan and the Christian pacifism that he had espoused then, and feeling ashamed of it, and saying at this point, nobody other than the people who are actually under attack, whose country is under attack really has any standing to be a pacifist or not be a pacifist.

    It’s just too easy to stand aside and make moral pronouncements about a country, when your country is not the one being threatened. And that’s the thing that really kicks you in the stomach and really kind of makes me instinctively want to pull back on moral judgments about what Ukraine should have done or should not have done and what it might do now.

    But at the same time, if moral teachings are right, they’re right and that can be a hard teaching. I guess one of the things that Christianity says is that sometimes you have to die rather than do wrong. It all just seems incredibly difficult to actually talk about even if it’s possible to think about. Have you run into that kind of thing in your own writing and teaching, et cetera?

    Section 2: Christopher Tollefsen: Nuclear War as a Pro-Life Issue

    Chris Tollefsen: Absolutely. I have immense sympathy for the view that there are limits to the extent that I should be making judgements about people who are in a much, much more difficult existential crisis than I am. Of course, that same argument is made in relationship to problem of abortion, and the problem of suffering at the end of life. Any one of the neuralgic issues that our culture is presented with are such that one could say, unless you are enmeshed in the experience of this and suffering the effects of this particular situation, you’re not really in a position to be able to say what’s right or what’s wrong, or at least you should keep your judgments to yourself.

    In all of those contexts, and especially in the context of war, there are at least two things though that are additionally important. One is that, and in some sense, our future as a human race, learning to pursue peace together and to resolve conflict in ways that don’t immediately default to war as the automatic way to solve them, depend upon us having pretty robust discussions about what the norms for warfare should be. When those norms are violated, those violations inevitably tend in the direction of moving away from peace, right? They create context in which people seek revenge, the hostility goes on for generation after generation. I think it’s only by having a good account of how people should act in warfare that’s widely accepted, that we can hope to overcome the brutality of war. Pope after Pope have thought maybe there’s just no hope for such thing as a just war, because we always seem to end up in a state of constant hostility when we go down that path. If we have a more widely accepted set of norms, then that’s at least some block against that.

    But I think also that too much, I don’t want to say pacifism because I’m not using it the word in the way that is used more traditionally, but too much willingness to step back and say, I have no business getting involved here, I have no business saying anything here, probably has pretty bad consequences for one’s own self when one is faced, as one inevitably is, with the opportunity to violate something that one takes to be very important morally, because a lot is at stake, whether there’s some great good to be achieved or whether you’re going to suffer some evil.

    And so if you think as I do, along with maybe three or four other people in the world, that is always wrong to lie, I think I would find it a lot easier to lie if I just stopped talking about it, didn’t write about it, didn’t make sort of a public face that identified myself as taking this position. It’s tempting enough to lie, right? For all kinds of reasons. But if I hadn’t sort of spoken publicly about it and made a public argument that I thought was defensible and sound, I would probably be tempted to that a lot more often, and it seems to me that something similar has to be the case here with regard to how we approach even the wars that other people are involved in.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I do think that sort of creating and shoring up the utter taboo of nuclear war is an important thing. I think that one of the things that astonishes me in the current discussion is that there have been people who have said things like, “Well, what about a little tactical nuclear weapon? That might be okay!” And that strikes me as insane.

    Chris Tollefsen: I don’t think that there’s anything that we know about human nature that suggests that a little use of nuclear weaponry against people who also have that same weaponry won’t be met with a little bit more use, and then you just get what seems to me a virtually inevitable escalation from side to side. I don’t think that there’s any reason to be confident that two countries with a full nuclear arsenal could engage in just a little bit of nuclear warfare between the two of them. That just seems to me an overwhelming, even apart from everything that we’ve been talking about, an overwhelming prudential reason not to go down that route.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I think that prudence is the right category here in the sense, in a much stronger sense than prudence is normally used, like prudence as kind of the center of morality. Even if, as you say, there’s essentially close to zero possibility that if we used a small nuclear weapon that wouldn’t result in some kind of civilization ending escalation.

    Chris Tollefsen: There is some reason to think that I, at least reason to hope that small use of nuclear weaponry on the part of Russians would at least initially be met with some restraint by the United States. That is my passionate hope is that if Russia crosses that line, that we don’t cross it next. But I think there’s clearly a limit to the provocation that the United States would accept before it decided to cross that line, too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What are your thoughts about our ability to renew this anti-nuclear movement? The movement that it seemed like in the ’80s was something people were talking about. I think it was ’89, that the Grisez and Finnis book came out and O’Donovan wrote a book in the same year that was making quite a different case, but also a case against deterrence as legitimate. Can we renew this anti-nuclear movement that we’ve sort of let go, because it didn’t really seem to be that important over the last thirty years?

    Chris Tollefsen: That’s a great question. I mean, I do, I admire Pope Francis for making this really a kind of cornerstone of his papacy. I mean, he talks about it much more than you might otherwise have thought was warranted up until the last four months, but at least every couple of years, and maybe more frequently, he has extremely strong things to say about this. I think and my sense, my understanding of the history of these movements is that this was also true back thirty years ago, forty years ago, there needs to be a greater alliance of people who would consider themselves part of the pro-life movement, generally speaking, to see that this is a pro-life issue, one of tremendous consequence, and that needs to be addressed with the same energy by people who are jointly opposed to abortion and capital punishment, who see the need for an alliance between opposition to both of those anti-life practices, right? Those are people with great energy who have the imagination to see two things that to others seem very different and see them as part of the same moral set of difficulties.

    I think those folks, who I think are just tremendously admirable and are perhaps on the verge of accomplishing something great in the domain of abortion, they need to also widen their scope to recognize, as I think people genuinely did in the ’70s and ’80s that nuclear weapons are one of the great life issues that are still with us and look like they’re going to be with us not in any lessening degree over the coming years.

    Susannah Black Roberts: How would you sort of walk someone through thinking about that?

    Chris Tollefsen: Yeah, well, I think the two pillar principles are the value of human life, and especially from a Christian standpoint, the thought that God is the Lord of that life. I mean, each human life that is given is in a really profound sense, a special gift, a special personal gift made by the Creator to that particular person. It’s a tremendous, just an incredible violation to think that we have sovereignty over the lives of individual human beings, such that we can take them, whether they’re the lives of unborn human beings, or even the lives of convicted criminals, certainly the lives of the disabled or the aged, but then to move from that to a principle that is clearly is more difficult, but it seems to me absolutely central to Christianity and to moral philosophy done well, which is that its one’s intention towards that good – That really is the ground floor of morality.

    If you think that’s the case, then you’re not going to be swayed by the thought that there’s no actual killing in nuclear deterrence, right? You’re not going to be swayed by the thought that actually, nuclear deterrence is aimed to prevent actual killing, right? It’s the intentionality of the directedness against the good of human life over which God has sovereignty that’s really central to the moral act of nuclear deterrence.

    That intentionality is, I think, I mean, we have to recognize, that’s really what morality is all about. It’s really about a rectification of the will towards the goods that God has presented with us. We can go wrong with regard to that will even if our wrong intentions don’t bear fruit, even if they don’t get carried out. It’s wrong to intend to kill somebody, even if you don’t succeed in killing them. It’s wrong to threaten somebody with killing them, even if you don’t get around to actually killing them.

    It’s not enough just to prevent or avoid actually bringing about that death, but also one needs to stand in an attitude of, I would say, reverence towards that good. That includes one’s intentional relation to that good. I think that’s the crucial step that needs to be made here. That, to me, links up all the human life issues, even those that don’t involve actual life but merely involve potential life.

    Peter Mommsen: Could you clear some distinctions up for me from a Catholic point of view? I’m obviously coming from Anabaptist view that sees all killing as wrong all the time. I find one thing that’s interesting about this conversation is that Pope Francis’s teaching on nuclear disarmament seem to be pushing people who hold to just war theory into a kind of emotional position that is pacifist – to use that term advisedly as you did. What makes nuclear deterrence different than just building up massive conventional capacity?

    Chris Tollefsen: Aquinas thought that it was always wrong for any private person to intend the death of another person of any sort, always wrong, no exception, but he also thought that self-defense was permissible. In defending that claim, he introduced what eventually came to be known as the idea of double effect. Aquinas thought that there was a good effect, that saving of the life of yourself as you’re defending yourself, and then possible lethal harm that might be inflicted upon the person who’s attacking you as you use justified force to respond to that harm.

    But Aquinas thought that those with public authority could intend death. He thought this in the context of capital punishment, and he also thought this in the context of warfare that authorities could intend the death of their enemies, and they could also delegate others to intend death on their behalf. I think that the church has moved and you can see this in the catechism in the section on war. The catechism makes a pretty unvarnished claim that the church teaches that it’s always wrong to intend death, right? It doesn’t qualify that. It doesn’t make a claim that is different for private citizens or public officials.

    And yet, it does seem clear that the church is, has always been, is I think likely to be for the foreseeable future, not pacifist in the sense in which I think we’re now agreeing to use it. And the reason for that is that the church doesn’t think that every instance in which death is brought about as a result of the use of force is an instance of intentional killing, right? We do accept that principle of double effect. Double effect that, I think, is necessary in order to justify not just personal defense against another, through the use of force that might be lethal, but also collective acts or policies that are defensive in purpose, right?

    It seems to me that is also the direction the church necessarily moves in this conversation. The only justified use of force is one that is for the sake of defense, whether of one’s own country and perhaps of another. That ultimately to be justified, the deaths of those who are killed as a result of the use of that force can’t be intended, right? They can’t be brought about as a deliberate means in order to achieve your end.

    That is another very hard teaching certainly of the Catholic church. If it was adopted and believed in, it would have radical consequences for how military fighting and policing for that matter are taught, right? You’d be taught to think of yourself as doing something very different from what most people who enter the army are taught to do. If you look at it in that guise, then nuclear weapons isn’t really different from the rest of the church’s teaching on the ethics of killing. The teaching simply is that there’s to be no intentional killing of human beings, right? That any death that does result from a use of force has to be a side effect of an otherwise defensive intention.

    I think that is the most radical part of the story of what’s going on in this development of Catholic teaching, but I also think that it’s the most important. I think that distinction allows us to separate out two things that are often just collapsed together. People talk pretty regularly about the justified use of force or the justified use of violence that the just war tradition defends. But I think we should say that the just war theory in its strictly Catholic form only permits justified use of force, right? It doesn’t permit justified use of violence. Violence  just is force when it’s motivated by some intention that’s not upright.

    And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of force. If I pushed my child out of the way of a car and in doing so break his or her arm, nobody’s going to talk about that as a use of violence, right? I used force in order to defend somebody. It did have harmful consequences, but those weren’t part of my intention. It’s kind of very small example, very personal example, but it’s one that I think the church’s view is needs to be expanded to not just individual acts, but the corporate acts, even on a geopolitical scale, even when the existence in some sense of nations is at stake. I’m sorry, that’s a lot like impressed into a pretty short narrative, Peter, but that’s the sort of direction that I would take in answering your question.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and I appreciate that. Obviously, from my point of view I applaud, what I kind of see as the chipping away action of condemning nuclear deterrence, because it is to me hard to distinguish between a small tactical nuke and some of the big conventional bombs that have been developed. You’re really talking a bit about a spectrum at some point, not a hard line, and I find that super interesting. As you point out in the new catechism, a condemnation of intentional killing by anyone, that seems like a genuinely big deal, which if you look at what actually happens down the Hudson River from me at West Point in terms of what kinds of military doctrines are being taught, it’s kind of incompatible with . . .

    Chris Tollefsen: With what goes on.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, it’s incompatible with a deliberate desensitization to the act of killing that is pretty central to military training.

    Chris Tollefsen: I mean, I completely agree with that. And I think of course that same attitude then seeps down into our popular thought about even individual acts of self-defense. I think people who have guns in their houses on grounds that they will serve to prevent unjust intruders from coming in and threatening them. What they typically think is that if such an intruder came in, it would be permissible to shoot to kill.

    I think that’s not the Catholic view. I think that’s not the view of a well worked out natural law thinking. I think there needs to be much better pedagogy about the morality of defense, whether individual or collective, informing our children, informing citizens, informing our leaders. That’s a tall order, of course. I’m doing my little bit, but I think the cultural sense that it is permissible to intentionally kill goes very deep and pervades many, many facets of life. Even those of us who are opposed to something like abortion might think, oh, well, over here, this sort of thing is permissible.

    I mean, it is still the case that the Catholic church thinks that those with rightful authority in a polity do have an obligation to act on behalf of their citizenry to defend them, to act for the sake of peace and justice. I think that those authorities can do that, even mindful of the fact that inevitably in the context of fulfilling those responsibilities, mistakes, moral errors will be made, moral crimes and sins will probably be committed. I think what they need to do is have a firm resolve to avoid being responsible for those and to identify them when they’re present.

    Peter Mommsen: I guess as we are climbing into the pacifism thing, and as you’ve said, it’s a terrible word to use, and we’re just using it as a kind of stand in, right? Anabaptists and the early church for that matter, who were quote marks “pacifist” to a larger degree than subsequent churches have been, never denied that the government could use force, right? That there was a responsibility to protect the innocent, and in fact, punish the wicked, right? That’s Romans 13, but the Anabaptists’ point of view has always been, well, that’s the government’s job, not the Christian’s job.

    The thing is that there’s a way in which giving permission to use force to the government allows greater and greater uses of force, and invites basically the kind of sinful, wrong use of force in more and more cases. I guess just as a historical matter, it does seem there’s been very few wars that haven’t claimed just cause, and that haven’t claimed right conduct at least while they were happening. What are the kind of guardrails against that happening?

    Chris Tollefsen: Yeah. The Catholic view is similar to the view that you just outlined in that, but draws the boundaries a little bit differently. The Catholic church has never denied that there are some Christians whose special vocation means that they shouldn’t have anything to do with war. Aquinas talks about the impermissibility of clerics fighting in war. We draw the boundaries a little bit differently, but I don’t think that we see the dangers all that much differently. I remember, I mean, so this was a long time ago when I was fairly youthful, but still it’s vividly stuck in my mind, having a conversation with Joseph Boyle, one of the authors of the Nuclear Deterrence book, and he was talking about the Vietnam War, which was a war that he and Grisez had been both very opposed to. I mean, Grisez was very outspoken about the immorality of the Vietnam War. And Boyle said, he said, “It breaks my heart to think of all the young men who must have died in mortal sin in Vietnam,” right? They were sent out to carry out a task for which they were morally unprepared.

    Life is rife with moral hazards. I think it’s a real problem. I don’t think that we do enough in this particular context to address it, but you know, the spiritual stakes are enormous.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you so much, Chris, and we look forward to having you on again.

    Section 3: Samuel Moyn: The Problem with Humane War

    Peter Mommsen: Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a Professor of History at Yale University. For this issue, he’s given an interview to Phil Klay, entitled “War Is Worse Than Almost Anything.”

    Well, welcome, Sam, to the podcast. We’re so glad to have you on, and you’ve done a lot of work on issues of war and on human rights, specifically looking at how Christian traditions have played into those. Could you just tell us a little bit about your latest book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War?

    Samuel Moyn: The book is trying to place our time in a longer historical perspective. I’m very interested in the way in which American war has been made in some cases, and to some extent, less brutal than it was before, and this was intentional. I try to show that it is a legal project, also a moral and political project. It came to high visibility in Barack Obama’s presidency. His main speeches about the War on Terror, first, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2009; then four years later, when the drone program was rolled out, featured this claim that while great powers may have to fight some wars and maybe do so indefinitely, they can sign on to a moral way of fighting them, making them more humane.

    I just wondered how we ended up here: that central to American thinking about war would be less whether to have it, how long it lasts, and much more, Is it fought humanely enough yet. And so I look back and I try to show that there were these originally Christian traditions that had worldwide ramifications and they really stressed the importance of avoiding war or stopping it once it starts. Those climax, I think, in the middle of the twentieth century, although there are some vestiges of them, I think most notably in George McGovern’s peace candidacy at the end of the Vietnam War.

    I guess my trouble is we’ve lost those, they’ve become less credible or gotten marginalized and instead we’ve substituted this ethic, which also has some Christian sources, of reducing suffering in ongoing conflict. I’m not against that. If we have to have war, it ought to be less brutal and more humane if possible. And those who struggle to make it humane are doing a noble thing, but somehow we could retrieve that older focus on not having unjust wars or stopping them once they start.

    Peter Mommsen: Is there a conflict between making war humane and the older tradition associated with McGovern or the older pacifist movement?

    Samuel Moyn: If you or I mobilize around the death penalty, supposing we think it’s wrong, full stop, we may decide that for the moment our best tactic is to reduce the cruelty within it, the way it’s administered. But advocates in that space accept that there’s a risk when you improve morally, that the way that violence is muted out and it’s that it becomes more acceptable to at least some people and therefore harder to contain, let alone abolish. In the war space now that after all these centuries, there’s been a political and legal movement to reduce the suffering in it by prohibiting the targeting of civilians or prohibiting excess collateral death of civilians when combatants are the target. Is this a case where our desire to stop the war if we think it’s unjust is conflicting with this other desire also noble to make it more humane?

    Peter Mommsen: That’s an interesting analogy to death penalty activism, because historically, especially back in the ’90s when the anti-capital punishment movement was really getting a bit of traction, there was this split down the middle of it between those who would argue strongly for life without parole as a replacement for capital punishment as this more humane alternative, and those who were trying to confront what they saw as injustices in the system as a whole, and there’s this kind of split. It was definitely a demographic split too, down the center of that movement of people who said, actually life without parole is arguably more horrible than capital punishment and to roll that out as the humane solution is – the medicine’s worse than the disease.

    Samuel Moyn: I mean, I close my book by raising the prospect that we could succeed in making warfare so humane that in a sense, the violence is not left in war, only the geopolitical domination of one people over another. That sounds really sinister to me. I mean, it’s utopian for some, that’s what they’re aiming for, but it seems like not worth striving for, at least not by itself. I would want to not just reduce suffering, but reduce the domination.

    In your pages, I raised an edgier comparison, because Leo Tolstoy raised it, and it’s with the old project of humanizing slavery. You could have these same debates, like was it wrong to attempt to reduce the cruelty of slavery when you thought maybe rightly that you couldn’t mount an abolitionist campaign? You didn’t have the coalition yet. What I worry about at the end of the book is that we’re kind of slowly crossing into a threshold where we’re inventing something that may not seem like war anymore, but actually it’s war without the violence or without as much of it, because it seems like we could be lying to ourselves about this thing that’s being humanized.

    Peter Mommsen: The essay that we’re referring to here, and we’ll drop a link in the show notes, “Tolstoy’s Case Against Humane War” by Samuel Moyn, appeared in pages of Plough, and it’s a pre-publication excerpt from the book Humane, definitely worth checking out both.

    Of course, the case where we saw that happening a lot is in with drone warfare in Afghanistan. In a one remark you make in the prologue to your book, in our time, swords have not been beaten into ploughshares, they’ve been melted down for drones. There’s another aspect to this where the drones symbolize violence that only goes in one direction, where the inflictor of violence is at no personal risk. That seems something that also belongs to this idea of this clean humane war. We just don’t see the mess afterwards.

    Samuel Moyn: As I thought about it and worked on the literature, especially on wars of empires, like the British and French in the old days: asymmetry is not a novelty. We have famous battles that have taken place, and I mentioned some in the book, where it’s like the casualty ratio between Europeans and non-Europeans is so lopsided.

    With the Kosovo bombing, which was called virtual war, and with drones, you get a situation in which there’s literally no risk. In Kosovo, your plane could go down, or if the drone goes down today, no Americans die and so the asymmetry is perfected. And so to me, this big change happens that the drone epitomizes.

    Peter Mommsen: We should say that on this podcast, we have some disagreement. I’ll just reveal where I’m coming from. I’m from the Anabaptist tradition that has historically been pacifist. Susannah is Anglican, and she is not.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m a just war theory person. I am a just war dove, so I’m very, very cautious, but I’m not pacifist.

    Peter Mommsen: Maybe Sam will mediate between us here. What you’re seeing in your book to some degree is a war between two Christian traditions of war. One based on the prophecy of Isaiah, that promises that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, this idea that when the kingdom comes, whenever that is however you visualize that, war is one of the things that gets abolished. Then a more pragmatic Christian view that sought to minimize violence, that accepted that war is going to happen and since we’re going to do have war, well, let’s at least make sure it’s less horrible.

    As somebody who only conditionally will sign on to Christian just war theory, sort of as a tool to get somewhere else, you would have to admit, and I think you write in your book, Sam, that this is true. The attempt to humanize war has been successful in some ways. Less people died in Iraq than died in Korea and Vietnam.

    Samuel Moyn: I think I would mediate by siding with Susannah, but saying that it turns out that almost all wars are unjust in their initiation and continuation. Then I think something the just war tradition missed, but is so vivid in our time is that even when you have a just war, you’re setting up the possibility of protectoral abuse and you’re creating a more permissive environment for later actors. I was involved as a committed just war partisan to the Kosovo campaign, worked in the National Security Council on it. And yet, I think we have to judge what it meant differently after its precedent is invoked in Iraq by our country and after its precedent is invoked the other month by Vladimir Putin in Vietnam, sorry, in Ukraine.

    That said, I agree that we’re ultimately operating in the aftermath or ongoing reality of the Christian traditions, and even those who purport to be secular owe a huge debt just for the frameworks of their ethical thinking to those traditions. I’m interested in the sources, but also in how we can make arguments for a reset in our war mongering, if you will, more credible, both to Christian and secular and other folk alike in our moment.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thanks for mediating, Sam. I can live with that. The interesting thing is whenever we argue about this, which is often, the fact is that, as the great pacifist Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, just war theory is a pacifist’s best friend, because if you would really apply it, you’d have very few wars to start with.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There is also this sort of third tradition, which I feel like is in some ways more akin to what you’re getting at or what you’re attempting to do, and also to what you’re seeing in a newer approach to harm reduction, which is the Peace and Truce of God movement. Or I don’t know if you’d call it a movement, but sort of shtick, I guess, which in a way, I think, is even more effective than just war theory at kind of massive harm reduction, especially as it was applied in kind of the early “let’s try to attempt to get these French and German tribes to stop killing each other occasionally” centuries. I think it was originally, you can’t kill each other on Sundays and then it’s like, you can’t kill each other on Sundays and Wednesdays, and then during Lent.

    Then it just kept moving and it really, to a certain degree, it was a fantastic psyop, which I deeply love, by the early evangelists of those extraordinarily brutal Europeans. That kind of approach is really helpful because with cultures like those, it’s kind of like, well, if you’re not going to do war, what are you going to do? What are you going to do with yourself? And just getting people used to not fighting, and maybe interested in doing other things and sort of seeing how things can be different, was I think essentially what made civilization in Europe possible. I wonder whether that model might be even more useful for us. Like let’s get America not at war occasionally and see where we can go with that.

    Samuel Moyn: I’m totally with you. I love the idea that we should think of the Truce of God tradition as a kind of more pragmatic, less theoretical set of resources than the kind of parallel just war tradition, and I totally agree that it does resonate with some things I’m saying, which is basically, Can we have a few less wars? Maybe we end up evolving into pacifists, but for the moment just to get a foot in the door and bypass one or more of these misbegotten wars.

    But I also wanted to raise this disturbing possibility, which we covered before: When it comes to the struggle to contain the brutality of the fighting, that harm reduction can actually postpone an abolitionist stance. Could we not have war on Tuesday that it doesn’t come to seem more legitimate to have wars all the other days of the week? I don’t think it would. I think the risk to me that making war humane seems riskier than canceling a few wars. Yeah. But the same kind of possibilities can theoretically apply on both sides of this line I’m establishing between having wars at all and having wars, brutal or humane.

    Section 4: Samuel Moyn: The War in Ukraine

    Peter Mommsen: Now, of course, since your book came out, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the issue of war changed its focus from the Middle East to things happening in Europe, at least in ways that it’s talked about in US media.

    It seems like just a single war breaking out can kind of wipe out any gains that might have been made either by humanizing or abolishing efforts, because there’s this thing that kicks in as soon as there’s a real fight going on. It’s amazing how quickly the public conversation changes. That all strikes me as like a really, really tough dynamic that the broader peace movement, whether pacifist or not, has never really found a way of cracking through that.

    Samuel Moyn: The Ukraine thing has revived a certain set of assumptions about the necessity of American funding of participation in wars. It’s just a very hard thing to face down, but I think it’s wrong to think of it as like a binary or light switch, either we’re against or for war. These things, it’s more like the tide and we can be somewhere in a process and we don’t lose all our gains. I think there’s always a chance to have pretty fundamental changes. There was one in American history, as I talk about in the book in 1941, where we chose to be a global hegemon with all the wars that subsequently required. There was a process of revisiting that role in the later phases of the second decade of the War on Terror. Now, we’re back in a really interesting situation.

    I do think it’s quite interesting that in the early days of the war, there was a sudden interest like never since Vietnam, or even the Nuremberg trials, in holding statesmen to account for starting illegal wars. If that’s taken seriously by Americans elites or masses, I think we have an opportunity to press to make sure it’s not selective, that it’s not just statesmen who we don’t like, who get held to account. Selective justice is not justice, but we have an opportunity and something to work with there: the new prominence of concerns about people who start wars that are unjust and obviously incredibly damaging.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In the interview with Phil [Klay], you do talk about the odd way in which Putin felt the need to frame his action in terms of international law. You imply that international law, that law has a kind of magic, a good kind of magic that once it’s accepted requires people to justify themselves using that framework. You obviously sort of point out that that can be deceptive, that you can bamboozle people using that, but it does largely seem to be a potential force for good to me.

    Samuel Moyn: The old French moralist said, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” It’s not necessarily the case that it’s like a win to have international laws, the language of virtue, but it’s clear that it has become that. Because otherwise you can’t explain how Putin, about to embark on a war of aggression, spends a lot of time embracing international law and claiming that the West violated it, starting a lot of illegal wars, which is true.

    Now, maybe we go back and we say it could be superior to have statesmen invoking the categories of just war, which are more moral categories, and not the United Nations Charter or other instruments. I think that those legal instruments have set a certain baseline. They’re pretty restrictive. They’re actually more restrictive than just war theory, which had some more permissive elements.

    And so to me, it’s not so much that it’s about law now, it’s that the content of the law, the moral content of the United Nations Charter is more restrictive than anything prior centuries entertained and part of the reason is because twentieth century war was just so terrible, that it was thought as a default to just prohibit it. That was a victory of Peter’s pacifist friends in the past that they really did reset a kind of ethical expectations and got them embedded in law in the middle of the twentieth century. That’s like a precious thing to me. Law is a tool. It’s a moral tool and it’s what we have now and it is amazing that Putin embraced it, when he was ordering its violation too.

    Peter Mommsen: You just said, Sam, you don’t see right now the peace movement having much of an in or much of a way of yanking the levers of power. Now, there is this leftist inflected peace movement, right? But there’s also a very old anti interventionist right, which was quite recently in power. Any horseshoe possible there?

    Samuel Moyn: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’m part of this thing called the Quincy Institute, founded by Andrew Bacevich and some people on the left, and it was a kind of extremes meet against the middle project. I’ve even written for Dissent magazine about why it’s not a compromise, let alone a rotten one, to work with your political enemies in some situations, and I think this is one. Now, it’s very revealing that when it’s come to the Ukraine war that the congressional left represented by Bernie Sanders or the so-called Squad has not stuck to its emergent critique of American war, and gave Joe Biden more billions than he actually asked for in the most recent funding vote.

    Whereas, those kind of so-called isolationist are Republicans voted against, and partly for partisan reasons, but partly because as you say, they reflect this right wing tradition of wanting a non-interventionist and non-entangled America. I think it’s incredibly interesting that on my side, the progressive side, there’s not much support right now for a push against militarism in general and US militarism in particular. That puts people like me in a difficult situation and I don’t see how you don’t look across, far across the ideological spectrum for allies in that kind of situation.

    Now, note that Trump out of office said that he would’ve prosecuted a war against Putin in response to this intervention too. In that case, you would’ve seen the Squad vote against funding because a lot of it is just partisan opposition. I do narrate in the book what we call the Left in the United States, the Democratic party, after the long period when it actually had this Midwestern Christian pacifist tradition well represented in it, including in its leadership, has really converted in part because McGovern lost so badly to a different stance, which is always very worried about being accused of being dovish or soft.

    Barack Obama was said to have opposed two Georges in setting his foreign policy, one, his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, but then, his democratic forbear, George McGovern. I think that it’s really important to see anti-war traditions on the left, but we should also acknowledge that we’re dealing with two very warlike parties in American politics. There’s something to choose between when you compare them, but in a kind of global framework, I think we have to see them as much more alike than different, especially in the last 50 years, on these questions.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s, again, a kind of interesting parallel to capital punishment. Bill Clinton famously presided over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector while he was running for office, just to prove his toughness and that he wasn’t like that kind of soft leftist. I guess I’d like to return to, is there any way to actually flip that switch off? You mentioned earlier there was an actual movement that managed to largely reconfigure international law that actually argued for the abolition of war. Is that a plausible, a realistic goal? And based on your work through the history, what would that even look like?

    Samuel Moyn: Well, I’m an idealist, so I hold out the possibility that people’s minds can be changed just through argument and rhetoric and not merely because their interests are at stake. But clearly, as I mentioned before, the strength of what had originated as a kind of Christian millennialist campaign as it got generalized depended on Americans suffering losses and above all Europeans suffering losses of their own in ways that were visible to them, their husbands, sons, and brothers. Again, you can’t discount the role of specifically women’s internationalism in the early days, making peace its cornerstone. If that’s true, I think we don’t have to wait long in a sense because American power, formidable as it is, is not forever. We’re already heading into, we’re substantially into, a multipolar era.

    Actually, Russia is not that powerful, if you just look at very basic facts like its national income and military spending. But China is, and it seems as if we’re not going to have for very much longer that era in which Americans are completely immune themselves to their global policies. Americans will see skin in the game and war will not be something so easy to choose because they’re not exposed to its risks. I think morality can make a difference, but so can just changed geopolitics in which it’s more and more in America’s interest to keep other states from initiating wars in the way that we have so routinely and really without much domestic pushback.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thanks so much, Sam, this has been a great conversation. Again, we absolutely recommend this book to our listeners, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. We’ll look forward to having you back again some time.

    Samuel Moyn: Thank you. I’m grateful for all the opportunities you’ve given me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And for a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe, $32 a year will get you the print magazine, or for $99 a year and you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits from free books to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as an extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week as we talk with Michael Sacasas about the looming AI apocalypse, or not, and the dangers and promises of technology. We’ll also take your questions!

    Contributed By ChristopherTollefsen Christopher Tollefsen

    Christopher Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

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    Contributed By SamuelMoyn Samuel Moyn

    Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History at Yale University.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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