Sunday, March 07, 2010

Chesterton On The Treatment Of Enemies

GKC had a combination of views about morality in warfare that are found together in few, if any, in the 21st C.* This is of course the great advantage of reading works written in another era. Those writers slice the pie differently. It is a reminder that all men share the same ethical principles, but value them very differently in other times and places. In an era when all morality in military matters is framed in the context of either WWII or Vietnam, it is instructive to read someone who is framing in terms of WWI, the Balkan Wars, and the Boer War.
These people are always telling us to make a larger morality and a more universal creed that shall take in all sorts of and conditions of men. But the truth is that they themselves are the chief obstacle and exception to such universal agreement. There really are some things upon which humanity is practically agreed, but unfortunately these are exactly the things with which the humanitarians do not agree. In short, there is sympathy between all men, with the exception of these apostles of sympathy. For instance, all men, savage and civilised, feel that they are in some spiritual way different from the beasts. When Europeans kill a man they do it with a ceremonial which would be absurd in killing a beast. When South Sea Islanders eat a man they do it with a ceremonial quite absent from their ordinary meals. Both peoples feel that the act, however traditional or necessary, is still possibly wicked and certainly dreadful. But the only men who do not feel this special sanctity of humanity are the humanitarians. They are the very people who tell us that it is cannibalism to eat a veal cutlet. So there goes one plank of the platform on which all men might stand together. "Humanitarian Hate" 1909
Chesterton believed that decent treatment of prisoners was one of the things which set us apart from those we are fighting – in his case the Prussians. It was not those differences which gave us authority to go to war –treaty obligations and defense against aggression provided that – but did provide the authority to prosecute the war to their complete defeat and humiliation. He draws a distinction we do not. He sees two types of war. There is war for safety of the nation, a “usual” war over territory, trade, or to set limits on an aggressor, which is necessarily limited and does not involve the destruction of the enemy, but his containment. But there is also what Chesterton calls religious war in the broadest sense of values, where an enemy can and should be entirely defeated, “his altars thrown down,” because he is evil. GKC did not regard such a war as less justified, but more so. The lesser, contained wars are ultimately about money – the religious wars are about good and evil. We use that rhetoric, but do not act that way.

One difference he considers key is whether we are going into battle against their faults or against their virtues. If we war against their faults, we are inevitably on the same ground as our enemy. They intend in their best moments the same things we do. They may fail and mistreat innocents out of anger, or sell their honor for money, but we will have our own who do the same. That we might have some moral authority to prosecute war on the basis that we do these things less often, even far less often, Chesterton does not deny. We might have practical and defensive authority, but are necessarily constrained from utter victories, humiliations, and the throwing down of altars.
The vices of the Superman might easily be pardoned. It is his virtues that are unpardonable. "Prussian Pride" 1914
Yet if we are going to war against their virtues – if the things they call good are in fact evil – we not only have authority but obligation to defeat them utterly. In WWI, it was the German (actually Prussian) belief in their racial superiority of the Teutonic tribes, their inevitable ascendancy, and their right to rule. This, said Chesterton, must be rooted out, the leaders and propagandists executed. Else, he claimed, it would rise again, and we would again be stuck fighting the relative innocents, common German soldiers, killing them when they might otherwise have lived lives like our own.
On the one side, the Pacifist congratulates himself on avoiding the 'militarism" when he turns the whole world over to be trampled by the Prussian Guard. On the other side, the Jingo congratulates himself on avoiding sentimentalism so long as he is allowed to butcher and blunder out of pure sentiment...
If a European State, at war with other States, suddenly began to eat its prisoners, the other States would be justified in breaking off all intercourse and international discussion, and destroying it without further speech. But if the other States began, however reluctantly, to eat a prisoner here and there, they might still maintain much of their logical case, and even something of a rather relative superior morality. But obviously there is one thing they could not maintain, and that is the innocent and instantaneous disgust at the mere sight of a cannibal. Yet it would be precisely upon that innocent disgust that they would place their whole claim to crush a mere nest of cannibals. Even if they only on rare occasions took a bite of a man, even if they were found cautiously and considerately nibbling at a man, they would be biting holes in their own case: they would be nibbling away the natural instincts which were their chief ally in the whole war.
"Averting The Peril" 1916
He was horribly prophetic. We did not prosecute the German leaders after WWI, but only punished the nation with the payment of great fines. Because we in our false humanity were unwilling to embarrass the rich and noble – they had suffered enough merely by the ignominy of losing – they rose again and we had to go to war against the common men again. He did not consider them entire innocents, and believed the English should not feel any guilt about having to kill them. But he thought it was a great sadness. He greatly opposed the targeting of civilians, even in direst need. We are enormously more aware of this in our rules of engagement now. They seem slightly insane, for us to be far more protective of the civilians of Iraq than even our enemies in Iraq are, but Chesterton would have approved highly. I am guessing, though I do not know, that he would also be against torture – even statutory torture, marginal torture, so-called torture, or any of the other qualifiers we create. I think he would consider them evasions.

I am not certain of this, however, and don’t want to put words in his mouth. He was in favor of punishment to the utmost for leaders and intellectual encouragers. But I suspect he would still be opposed, not for the effect on world opinion, or the effect on the enemy, but for the effect on us. He saw engaging in such practices as damaging to the country which performs them.

We often regard WWII as the most moral of wars fought, despite the alliance with the USSR. But we bombed civilians in Dresden and Nagasaki. GKC might well say we had squandered all our moral advantage there. That the Holocaust was in full carnage, necessitating the quick defeat of the Germans by any means might sway him, but he might more likely say “Then find a series of military targets more quickly.” That fewer Japanese died than would in an invasion might also not sway him. Chesterton might well say “Then find a military target, even with less destruction.” The Americans wanted the most destruction quickly, as they only had two atomic bombs, and were not sure they would work. But perhaps that still did not give us the right.

Certainly, we would not do such things now. We might wreak destruction on a military target and consider unintended casualties the fault of our enemies – I doubt we would even do that, but we could at least find people who advocated it - but we would no longer target a civilian population.

*John McCain and Lindsay Graham may be the closest, but still not there.


Anonymous said...

I read The Proud Tower recently and was struck by the German (Prussian?) belief not that they were a master race - although they surely considered themselves such - but that war was good for the country and race.

Daran said...

I'd say the separation between civilians and the militairy is a false one, given that normally most soldiers would have been drafted (or 'guided' into signing up due to propaganda), and civilians may well have been cheering their leaders on when the going was good.

karrde said...

It is true that the separation between civilians and military (as targets) is a modern one, in historical terms.

Whether that changes the argument at hand is another question.

Whether the difference between cheering non-uniformed partisans and soldiers is material is another question.

I think the most important question is still this: are there some deeds which are beyond the pale when dealing with prisoners?

What about when the prisoners are not soldiers in the modern sense, but are soldiers in the ancient sense? (That is, non-uniformed, and not answering to any recognizable command-structure linked to an operating government...but people willing to deal out death to anyone who is opposed, or supports those opposed.)

Does that case change the logic, or no?

Jonathan said...

This post needs more Copithorne...