Whenever I see anyone begin anything with the word “morality,” I immediately reach for Nietzsche in the library of my mind. But, of course, even as my arm shot out, I continued reading your post. I didn’t even have the book all the way off the shelf before I reshelved it. It wasn’t necessary.
The problem I was responding to is so common — and still so common — that it’s almost ubiquitous. It’s a reminder of just how slow spiritual progress is, and that’s regardless of Bell’s telephone and pocket telephony. Just the other day I was reading the most recent guest speech in Bentley University’s Center for Business Ethics’ series of presentations on — business ethics. The professor, who looks like Karl Marx having a bad beard day, began by observing what happens when he’s asked what his specialty is, and he replies, “Business ethics.” The reaction from students is typically stupefied silence or incredulous grins.
Of course, that’s not the result of business being immoral in itself, or of its operations being immoral most of the time. Think about it. Could the United States really operate if its foremost activity — business — was really completely unethical? “Genghis Enterprises is proud to announce its merger with Attila Corp. Only 13,000 middle executives will be beheaded. The price of widows is expected to fall.” Meanwhile, Euro-American world guilters who aspire to abase themselves apologetically to the world for their world-sweeping western civilization which everyone covets and copies now earnestly believe from their college courses that Genghis was a progressive fun-loving guy. I’m sure Attila will soon receive his cultural make-over, too. Perhaps Attila the Diverse?
Such thoughtless world picturization — such spiritual imagistic silliness — is the result of certain religions having acquired in the past regional monopolies on the word “morality.” For example, the Sermon on the Mount is one such popular monopoly. In that sweet screed, virtue consists of weakness and humility. When any other activity is judged against the Sermon, it’s found, not surprisingly, to be immoral. As I read the Sermon on the Mount, professional sports is as immoral as vigorous warfare fought to definitive victory and triumphant sex for the fun of love.
As with any monopoly, the users of monopoly moralities are at risk of paying more for the product than they should pay. They also risk getting an inferior product. And they risk getting a product that’s out of date. Without competition, morality becomes a despot. And if despotism is democratically immoral, then so, too, is such morality. Nietzsche did much superb work on this subject, which I’m continuing to augment.
Consider a few historical examples from the good old days of the moral Middle Ages. Back then the Church of Rome claimed to be the sole broker of everyone’s soul. Since the Church, humble and meek, wasn’t in the war business, warfare came in for some heavy ethical scolding. For example, when the crossbow was introduced, the Church ruled it to be an immoral weapon, and it banned its use with damnation for a fine. A casual perusal of medieval siege paintings readily comment on the effectiveness of that anathema. Notice the crossbowmen on both the parapets and the ground. And a lot of American families today who love the robustness of nature enjoy venison for dinner because of these “immoral” weapons.
Another maneuver the Church attempted was to limit warfare to certain days of the week. Warriors were allowed roughly half the week to fight, and the other half was mandatorily consigned to moral peace. There might have been several motivations behind that ethical ukase. One, it could cause warriors boredom and therefore ennui and malaise in their profession. Two, it might keep warriors from becoming too successful and therefore a threat to the material Church. And, three, it would provide warriors the opportunity to sit around and lapse into moral meditations, thereby to become saints militant perchance, or at least saintniks. But this attempted restriction didn’t work very well, either. Wars were waged throughout the week for centuries.
As Nietzsche was pleased both to observe and to proclaim, life and power submit to incapacity only when they’re sick and weak. Otherwise, they set the standards, and they write the codes. And, in Nietzsche’s assessment, they should.
As for the slowness of moral history, the Renaissance popes later changed that and much else in Christianity, much to Nietzsche’s relief. But that was soon corrected by the Reformation.
In your post, you use such phrases as “the morality of a military action” and “just cause” with reference to the ethics and morality of war. However, I notice that you put “just cause” in prophylactic quotes. That’s very good. Such prudence isn’t the caution of incapacity, but the wisdom that laughs at cynicism.
Let’s look briefly at that popular scholarly concept, “just war.”
You’re a philosophy major who’s already read Reality 101. Therefore you can probably surmise with conceptual swiftness that since I dismiss the concept “justice” because it signifies no distinct general content of its own, it’s obvious, then, that the word “justice,” when modified with any particular adjective, signifies equally nothing. In other words, the intrinsic content of justice is zero. And any modification of it — call it an adjectival if fractional multiplication — will still be zero. “Justice” is a large laudatory concept requiring situational embeddedness for its meaning. And “just war” is a smaller subset of “justice,” and equally empty of intrinsic meaning.
For example, you refer, perhaps with approval, to the usual moral or, more accurately, moralistic claim, that unnecessary collateral damage — of deaths to citizens and damage to their property — is immoral or unjust.
But how much collateral damage — just or unjust — could occur in total war? As an illustration of that category, consider WWII, which is universally identified as a total war. How much collateral damage could occur? The answer is obviously none. In total war, the totality of the engaged states — peoples, cultures, resources — are engaged in a struggle for survival and triumph. All aspects of these states — property, traditions, ideas, religion, dreams — are assets of war.
In WWII, Bomber Harris set out to defeat the Nazis and the Wehrmacht — the German military state — by discouraging the German factory workers by bombing them out of their homes. In the discouragement resulting from their domestic discomfort, Harris was morally certain they’d overthrow the Hitler regime or, at the very least, sabotage, slow, or stop armaments production so much, the Allies could then easily conquer Germany on the superior basis of their own overwhelming production. Harris and his ilk had a great word for this British city-wasting area bombing. They called dehousing. This must have been a pun on delousing, though I’ve never read any history make that connection.
Harris started out with the full support of Churchill. Churchill was then both Prime Minister and Minister of War, a potent minister if, perhaps not a potentate. But I notice that Churchill went about wearing various military uniforms — or military costumes — like Mussolini and Stalin.
Harris’s grand tactic in his strategy of morale bombing was to burn Berlin to the ground. Harris was convinced he could end the war if only he had 4000 bombers and several months’ unlimited supply of bombs. Harris must have had Hamburg’s firestorm in mind. Half of Hamburg was torched after several massive raids. But Hamburg was an old city with narrowly winding streets as well as many wooden buildings, including the one in which Brahms was born. In contrast, Berlin was a new city of many stone buildings built on wide boulevards, which acted as firebreaks. Harris ineffectively wasted so many — even myriad — British planes and crews, Churchill lost interest in him. Unfortunately, Churchill didn’t then relieve Harris. This lapse of command judgement was probably for a public show of policy for the propagation of the general public’s will to war. Churchill could have replaced Harris with an air marshal who prioritized the bombing of Germany’s synthetic oil plants and electrical grid system. An inflexible insistence on those targets beyond all regard for the immediate costs to Bomber Command’s assets, human and machine, would have knocked the wings and wheels off the German war machine — this is a war that was evermore machine-mobile. The Germans readily admitted this to themselves during the war, and to the Allies afterwards.
Go back to the very beginning of the war. Neither Germany nor England wanted to bomb each other’s cities. Such bombing was deemed the military equivalent of gas warfare: something each side could do; something which could be only partially defended against; something which would produce equal logistic waste and irritation of the troops; and something which wouldn’t change the outcome of the war. So why do it? Better ban it after the first war in the name of some nice and high morality. Say that gas warfare is uncivilized, or that the gasmasks look evil, or that gas death is cruel and icky. Meanwhile, being hamburgered by mortars remains the military ne plus ultra of fair death.
How Germany and England came to start bombing London and Berlin need not distract us. It was probably the result of an accident or some casual action which set off the tinder of a weapons system fully in place and complete with victory theories and operations arrangements. Once started, the result was vengeance warfare. But before it started, air marshals warned their hierarchies that air crews sent out to bomb military assets must not hit civilian property. Some crews were even warned early on not to hit Krupp’s gun factories. “It’s private property!” Such moral remarks soon came to elicit lewd chuckles and lusty guffaws from everyone. But that was before total war began.
And yes, as an aside, the bomber does get through. The pusillanimous problem with that remark isn’t the verity that the German bomber will always get through to London — some always did — but the missing diplomatic advisory to Germany that the British bomber will always get through to Berlin and what it will then do when it gets there. Recently Trump heatedly imparted such a thermal advisory to Ballistic Kim. And now our diplomats are coolly discussing the details of Korean happiness and accord.
Before total war began in the 20th century — with pre-season practice in the American Civil War — a remarkable change had come over warfare in Europe. Previous to the 18th century, much of warfare consisted of siege warfare: not just of castles and, later, fortifications, but of fortified towns and cities. These sieges often succeeded on the basis of the starvation and dehydration of the civilian populations. And then, as often as not, when a city fell or surrendered, the citizens were raped and slaughtered, and the city sacked and fired for the relaxation and compensation of the troops, and to eliminate that city as a future military asset.
The rise of the middle class changed warfare.
The middle class is a city people. Therefore they’re not wrongly called the bourgeoisie in Marxist rhetoric. The word is actually laudatory in origin. Not only are the bourgeoisie — the burghers — city people, they’re the people who own the cites they occupy. Not only that, but on the basis of the great medieval construction boom, the middle class turned Europe’s small towns and little cities into the booming metropolises of a world-transforming Europe. The middle class not only owned their cities and centered their wealth in them, they loved their cities and flourished in the pleasures of their pride. Such excellent city living hadn’t been seen since the Roman Empire. And then Europe surpassed Rome.
The economic ascendancy of the middle class was followed by the political ascendancy of the middle class. You’ll remember from my political course my formulation for the conclusion of the Glorious Revolution: “Parliament hires a king.” First these kings were Dutch, then later German. Sometimes they even spoke English. Back then Parliament was an equal-opportunity employer of royalty.
Parliament’s Kings were still allowed to exercise predominance in international affairs, including war. “War is the sport of kings.” But they were warned to perform and enjoy their wars in battle fields, and to leave the cities alone. That is, if they knew what was good for them. “Thems as does the hirin’ like does the firin’.” Not only did the kings get the message. Even Emperor Napoleon did his acclaimed fighting in fields. And when he didn’t — when he took Moscow or was allowed to take Moscow, and then had to watch his conquest burn I winter — the result wasn’t very heartwarming for him. Napoleon lost 90% of his large invasion army on that eastern outing. Of course, the French call it the Grand Army. The French call almost everything grand if it’s larger than small. Such a national sensibility would be rather easy to deflate. Oui, Messieurs Derrida et Foucault?
What all of this morally means in general ethical theory is that city bombing is immoral not because of some abstract and universal moral laws of justice which scholars will discover if only they fly to enough vita-filling seminars and read enough papers at each other. Rather, such bombing is immoral when the bourgeoisie structurally dominate the strictures of the military forces of their states and pronounce the wastage of cities to be despicable.
The general peacefulness of Europe in the 19th century can be attributed in part to the middle class’s political power and its will to conserve its beautiful cities. With WWI as a trial run for 20th century aerial bombardment, the inference must be that, by WWII, the middle class had lost control of its own cities.
To the socialists in their various manifestations. Communists. Nazis. Fascists. And the socialists proceeded to lay waste the cities of Europe. Why not? Socialists hate the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie love their cities. Therefore socialists hate cities. Or, at least, socialists will be flippant about cities in the face of power opportunities. “So what if the bourgeois cities burn if the proletariat meanwhile crush and obliterate the bourgeoisie and bring history to its beautiful beatific conclusion!” Sherman left the plantation Georgians only their tears. So why not watch the bourgeoisie weep for their cities? Besides, the people will build better more humane cities after the revolution. Like Sao Paulo and Mogadishu.
Alright. The socialists sacked Europe.
But what about England and America? They were wasting cities, too.
One trick answer would be that Churchill was an aristocrat and that Roosevelt was a socialist. And they both lived on country estates. Thus, their personal and domestic fealty wasn’t to cities. Furthermore, as applied policy, Churchill sought revenge on the rise of the middle class, and Roosevelt wanted to level the successful for the victims of failure.
And Europe burned.
Or, as the great American renegade poet wrote after WWI at the surmised receiving end of American industrial largesse in WWII to come,
Burning burning burning burning.
And that burning wasn’t Augustine contemplating his loins in the visage of the Lord. Or, for Eliot, was it?
To London then I came,
For naval oil.
Obviously there are less whimsical and more intrinsical explanations for the Allied imprecision bombing of Europe — of the high tech barbarity of the strategic air war.
But with both the summer deadline for home improvements and the fall start of school equally imminent, that’s a topic for next week.
If only I had a handy man on my staff.
Hey, Winston, could handle mortar, right?