Subscribe via RSS Feed

Does Jesus Love Nukes, or Does He Merely Tolerate Them?

[ 76 ] August 16, 2011 |

As a mild-mannered atheist and a harsh critic of the Air Force, you might expect me to be up in arms regarding the use of Christian just war theory in a USAF PowerPoint presentation to missile jocks.  Really, though… not so much.

If you reject the idea that the United States Air Force should prepare young men and women to fire nukes at China and Russia, then the religious versus secular content of missile training is largely irrelevant.  There are a fair number of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists who hold to the position that preparing to destroy a city full of people, much less actually pushing the button, is wrong in an absolute sense.  This is an entirely reasonable belief, and is completely compatible with a wide variety of interpretation of major religious and non-religious doctrines.  However, people who hold to the belief that firing nuclear weapons is always going to be wrong, regardless of how sensible that belief may be, probably shouldn’t seek secular careers in which the firing of nuclear weapons is a significant part of the job description.  There’s an obvious parallel to pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control or Plan “B”; if you want to be a pharmacist licensed by the state, your secular role requires you to set aside certain religious beliefs.

Understood in these terms, I think that what the Air Force presentation is really doing is putting forth an interpretation of Christianity that makes it possible for missile jocks to set aside their religious beliefs in favor of doing their secular job.  The presentation is pretty clearly NOT arguing that there is a Christian or Jewish duty to launch nukes at the Russians or the Chinese.  Rather, it’s arguing that launching nukes is compatible with Christian religious belief.  These two claims are very different, and I don’t think that from a secular point of view the latter is objectionable.  I also think that the case for nuclear weapons in the cause of Christian just war is a good deal more complicated than is discussed here. While on the whole I’m inclined to agree that Christians should abhor nuclear weapons, the body of just war theology is immense and complex, and plausible-ish arguments for at least the preparation for defensive or retaliatory use of nukes can be made.

Another objection to the presentation is that it does focus very heavily on  Christian and Jewish moral principles, to the exclusion of Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc.  On this point, I’m inclined to bow to the needs of practical necessity.  If the Air Force had lots of Muslims or atheists who were sketchy on the prospect of wasting Moscow, then the PowerPoint might have a few more slides.  I’m also genuinely curious as to the content of similar presentations in Russia and China.  I don’t doubt that a certain wariness about incinerating millions of people is a problem common to nuclear armed military organizations, but I do doubt that a Soviet course on the morality of nukes focused on Russian Orthodox just war theory.

Comments (76)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Murc says:

    Legitimate question on my part:

    Under modern treaties and understandings of the law of war, how is ordering the launch of nuclear weapons at a populated area or participating willingly in said launch NOT an illegal war crime?

    No snark, genuinely curious.

    • Amanda in the South Bay says:

      Well, it may very well be that military and industrial areas that are targeted are co located or very near located to cities. In that sense, they’d be secondary victims.

    • Stag Party Palin says:

      There’s no way to set off a nuke anywhere in the world without killing some non-combatant, eventually. Therefore, unless nukes themselves are made “illegal”, the fact that they are *not* illegal means there can be no crime. And besides, war crimes today are like the allegorical tree falling where nobody hears it – they don’t make a sound.

      I may not be a lawyer, but I am a sophist.

      • ajay says:

        There’s no way to set off a nuke anywhere in the world without killing some non-combatant, eventually.

        Underground tests? Or even war use of something like a Mk 45?

      • Robert Farley says:

        You’re not a lawyer, and you don’t understand just war theory. Non-combatants can legally be killed by military actions under certain circumstances, and there are imaginable uses of nuclear weapons which would not necessarily fall afoul of proportionality and doctrine of double effect rules. For example, a strike against a hardened enemy missile silo or submarine base that incidentally wiped out a civilian village might nevertheless fall within jus in bello restrictions.

        • Bill Murray says:

          well the lawyers back it, that makes it OK

        • Stag Party Palin says:

          … and you don’t understand just war theory.

          Wrong twice. I do understand it – but I reject it. We’ve had this discussion many times before. IMHO you’re just arguing over how many angels can impale themselves on the head of a pin.

          Secondly, if you will carefully observe the last sentence in my post, you just might pick up on some sardonic self-deprecation, indicating a certain lack of conviction in the preceding statement. So please don’t accuse me of being ignorant when all I am is someone who doesn’t believe in your religion.

          • SPP,

            It may be true that you reject just war theory; this is not, in and of itself, problematic. Just war theory has all kinds of problems, and sensible people can reject it. However, you have repeatedly made clear that you don’t *understand* just war theory, especially its jus in bello aspects. Moreover, over time you have made no effort to try to understand jus in bello theory, which leads to comments like the one prior, in which you make the following claim:

            Therefore, unless nukes themselves are made “illegal”, the fact that they are *not* illegal means there can be no crime.

            This claim, to anyone who has the faintest understanding of jus in bello theory (whether they accept it or no) runs the gamut from ignorant to idiotic…

            • Stag Party Palin says:

              Therefore, unless nukes themselves are made “illegal”, the fact that they are *not* illegal means there can be no crime.

              This claim, to anyone who has the faintest understanding of jus in bello theory (whether they accept it or no) runs the gamut from ignorant to idiotic…

              Jeebus Robert, do I have to tell you three times? Does the phrase “lack of conviction” have any meaning to you? “Sardonic?” “Self-deprecation?” “Sophist?” Of course it’s an idiotic ignorant claim, a reductio ad absurdum per ardua ad astra non carborundum.. I’m tempted to say I *meant* to ensnare you but I really thought it was obvious snark. Next time I’ll put the subtext at the top.

      • fluffytuna says:

        There’s no way to fight any modern conflict between states without causing significant civilian casualties. That’s been true for a long time now. War crimes need also to factor in intent or conflict would need to be legally banned. That being said, let’s go after Bush and Cheyney for war crimes before we start on the hypotheticals.

    • I think that most moral/legal conceptions of nuclear launch would rely on supreme exception thinking, which to simplify to an almost unacceptable degree is the idea that when everything is tremendously fucked up, the normal rules go out the window. This isn’t terribly satisfying, but then nuclear weapons tend to be supremely exceptional…

  2. dave says:

    I do doubt that a Soviet course on the morality of nukes focused on Russian Orthodox just war theory.

    I think you needed to work a bit harder to lift that observation out of the realm of the obvious. We’re all deeply familiar with Soviet official atheism, after all. To find out how current-day Russian strategic forces justify their role, and whether Orthodox belief, as part of the re-hegemonising of Russian nationalist dogma, play a part in it would be genuinely interesting. If scary.

  3. Asteele says:

    Well sure. In the sense that if you want a job in a Nazi concentration camp, you really shouldn’t be opposed to genocide, and if the the party twists Christian theology to accept the neccesity of mass killings, how can we really complain. I mean, it’s just like plan B for birth control.

    Or shorter: go fuck yourself.

    • Although the “How dare you make an analogy between this thing I like and this thing I don’t like” is probably the most useless comment genre I can think of, I’ll bite. First off, the analogy between missile launchers and death camp guards is a good deal more compelling than the analogy between pharmacists and death camp guards, and anti-choicers make the latter analogy all the time. More importantly, if you really think that concentration camp guard and missile jock are effectively interchangeable, then the use of Christian just war arguments in a PPT isn’t really your primary objection to the situation.

      • Asteele says:

        Your right, I don’t know why people object to using tendentious readings of religion to justify killing people. When one looks at the warp and weft of the world, it’s never been a problem before, so people should probably accept that this harmless activity will continue, and not try to do anything about it.
        Nothing bad will probably happen, and if it did, it’d probably only be as bad as not handing out emergency contraception.

  4. wengler says:

    I’d be OK with it too if it was any branch other than the Air Force.

    We aren’t that far removed from a scandal that had the academy remade as Christian Bible Summer Camp with nukes.

  5. Christopher says:

    Well, first off I’m inclined to go with my first instinct which is to say that if you have to have a presentation explaining why what you do is not actually evil, that’s always a bad sign.

    As somebody who feels religion should be taken at least a bit serious, it’s also questionable how good the theology is going to be when you start with the conclusion (Which pretty much has to be that American policy is compatible with any set of religious ethics) and work your way backwards, explaining that god is totally cool with you doing exactly what you’d be doing if he wasn’t watching.

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    Problem with this is that the AF has a rep as being hostile to everything except evangelical Christianity (OK Catholics are allowed if they behave)

  7. Anderson says:

    Just-war theory with the Christian authors subtracted would be a little like plane geometry with Euclid subtracted.

  8. c u n d gulag says:

    WWJN?

    Who Would Jesus Nuke?

    • Njorl says:

      Well, Jesus was God, and God nuked Sodom and Gomorrah.

      Within the Abrahamic religions, justifying wholesale slaughter of civilians is easy. I’m curious to see how they would deal with Buddhists, though.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Well, the Hindu have Shiva, who could give as well as anyone.

      • Jon H says:

        I suppose you’d just have to argue that nuking can be done with compassion, and with the wish that the victims go on to a better rebirth. Or that a nuke is just a way of burning off lots of bad karma from lots of people really quickly.

        One of the SEALs in the helicopter that was shot down, a dog handler, was probably at least culturally Buddhist. He was Laotian, and a photo was run of his mother in front of a little Buddhist-style altar with his photo, some incense, and what I assume was an offering of his favorite fast food.

  9. Michael H Schneider says:

    what the Air Force presentation is really doing is putting forth an interpretation of Christianity

    But isn’t the whole point of the establishment clause that the US government has absolutely no business putting forth interpretations of religious doctrines? All Henry VIII was doing was putting forth an interpretation of Catholicism, and look where that led.

    • “But isn’t the whole point of the establishment clause that the US government has absolutely no business putting forth interpretations of religious doctrines? All Henry VIII was doing was putting forth an interpretation of Catholicism, and look where that led.”

      There may be some difference between establishing a Church of England and developing a PowerPoint presentation and discussing Christian theology in a PowerPoint presentation intended for airmen who happen to be Christian.

      • mds says:

        and discussing Christian theology in a PowerPoint presentation intended for airmen who happen to be Christian.

        Given the recent scandals at the Academy, the crankiness of Mikey Weinstein, etc, etc, etc, I think “happen to be Christian” is doing an awful lot of work here. This seems wilfully tone-deaf to the context of the whole proselytization and harassment problem. “I understand you have legitimate concerns about the use of nuclear weapons, so here’s a sectarian Christian justification for it.” Your run-of-the-mill American Christian who has already joined the military is probably willing to accept an argument based on what’s necessary to defend the United States without an explicit appeal to a particular subset of religious belief.

        • mds,

          Your run-of-the-mill American Christian who has already joined the military is probably willing to accept an argument based on what’s necessary to defend the United States without an explicit appeal to a particular subset of religious belief.

          There’s a general belief in the military, not without cause, that launching a nuclear weapon (or being part of a nuclear weapon launch) is likely to be more morally and psychologically problematic than other military duties. Thus the additional training/reliability testing.

        • Jon H says:

          The run of the mill American Christian who has already joined the military might have expected to be driving trucks, fixing engines, or doing computer networking, not playing a role in the use of a nuke in anger.

    • Do military chaplains, with their officer ranks and government paychecks, have no business putting forth interpretations of religious doctrines?

      Or, shorter: too broad!

      • JL says:

        Military chaplains, talking to people of their own faith or others who seek them out, actually seems like the right way to go here. Particularly given the history of religious harassment against non-Christians in the US military, and the USAF in particular, I’m not keen on this idea that presentations intended for all airmen in a particular field should take a Christian-centric approach. But military chaplains are supposed to minister to their faith communities within the military, and Christian just war theory, and its implications for military practice, seem like perfectly reasonable things for a Christian chaplain to discuss with his/her flock.

        • If there was an actual problem with missile jocks going wobbly because of their Christian-informed consciences telling them their jobs were evil, wouldn’t the Air Force have a legitimate secular purpose in acting proactively to address those specific concerns?

          I don’t have any actual knowledge about the circumstances under which this slide show was used; I’m just raising this hypothetical in response to the hypothesis about the government having no business discussing religious doctrines.

          • There’s actually a fair amount of evidence that people (Christians and otherwise) do go wobbly at the prospect of launching nukes. Mormons in particular, for whatever reason.

            • Holden Pattern says:

              Which suggests that those people are, y’know, not completely insane.

              • Bill Murray says:

                and maybe we should rethink our military priorities and the priority of our military

                • Jon H says:

                  Then you’re going to need to talk to politicians, not the Air Force.

                  Thinking you can end the nuclear arsenal by ending a PowerPoint presentation is putting the cart before the horse.

                  You want the Air Force to stop training and indoctrinating its personnel to be effective silo crews, then you need to get the politicians to tell the Air Force to shut down the silos.

                • And what do you proposed the officer corps of missile command do while “we’re” rethinking our military position?

                  “Nah, that’s cool, Sergeant. Just do whatever.”

              • Njorl says:

                It is an interesting problem. You can know that for deterrence to work, you must be willing to turn the key. However, once you are ordered to turn the key, deterrence has already failed.

        • Jon H says:

          “Military chaplains, talking to people of their own faith or others who seek them out, actually seems like the right way to go here. ”

          I’m pretty sure that won’t work once the crew is locked into the silo for their shift.

  10. DrDick says:

    Does Jesus Love Nukes, or Does He Merely Tolerate Them?

    I do believe he beats them into x-ray machines.

    • Hogan says:

      I hear Jesus is all about the EMPs.

    • ajay says:

      Tragic missed chance to refer to Operation Plowshare.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Plowshare

      Proposed uses included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems. Other proposals involved blasting underground caverns for water, natural gas, and petroleum storage… Project Carryall would have used 22 nuclear explosions to excavate a massive roadcut through the Bristol Mountains in the Mojave Desert, to accommodate construction of Interstate 40 and a new rail line.

      I think I may have thought of a way to get the right wing to support the construction of high-speed rail projects.

  11. Yog Sothoth, Devourer of Souls says:

    I endorse any and all attempts you mortals can use to justify using nuclear weapons. I admire your puny creativity. Really, imagining that a religion that teaches “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” can justify the wholesale slaughter of civilians from a distance using nuclear weapons shows the kind of innovative thinking that makes your souls so very, very tasty.

  12. Jon H says:

    Yeah, the complaints about this were about 90% anti-nuke, and 10% anti-proselytization.

    It would have been more compelling if they’d managed to stifle the anti-nuke frothing and stick to the case they claimed to be making. The Air Force has a job to do, and as such has the responsibility to make sure its staff are prepared to carry out their orders. If lefties have a problem with our nuclear arsenal, they should take it up with politicians. The arsenal, and its use, is not the Air Force’s call. Expecting the Air Force to knowingly staff its silos with hippies, Quakers, and Buddhist monks is stupid. As is expecting them to staff the silos with personnel who might freak out or not follow the launch order passed down from the President.

    The just war stuff might be religiously founded, but it’s also part of Western philosophical culture. Kinda hard to tease them apart, as I’d think the ideas have been part of government thinking about making war for centuries, at some level.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site