Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, he and his co-bloggers have done a number of posts under the heading "What if the Military were filled with Notre Dame grads," which takes as its starting point a conversation between Colman McCarthy and the President of Notre Dame:
When I suggested that Notre Dame's hosting of ROTC was a large negative among the school's many positives, Hesburgh disagreed. Notre Dame was a model of patriotism, he said, by training future officers who were churchgoers, who had taken courses in ethics, and who loved God and country. Notre Dame's ROTC program was a way to "Christianize the military," he stated firmly.
I asked if he actually believed there could be a Christian method of slaughtering people in combat, or a Christian way of firebombing cities, or a way to kill civilians in the name of Jesus. Did he think that if enough Notre Dame graduates became soldiers that the military would eventually embrace Christ's teaching of loving one's enemies?
The interview quickly slid downhill.
This has produced a series of follow up posts, the latest of which is of particular interest, from a Notre Dame MTS student who went on to become a Marine:
That Fr. Hesburgh would say that Notre Dame’s ROTC was a way to “Christianize the military” falls far beneath his demonstrated moral and intellectual par.
It is a way to get bright, competent and well-intentioned people into the military and thus improve it in myriad ways, but it’s a laughable, un-Christian suggestion that enfeebles the mission of both Christianity and a national military. I don’t mean to suggest that it is ipso facto un-Christian to serve in the military, rather that a certain amount of compartmentalization and humility is necessary to live with and possibly atone for the lack of concert between one’s religious and worldly commitments. I think the University would do well to deal with a more tractable moral issue of its ROTC program: that it’s primarily utilized because ND has priced itself out of the reach of most students.
The appeal of the military for many Catholics is obvious: we like rigor and pageantry. We also take seriously the call to put our faith into action. In light of our current wars, I now more than ever question the legitimacy of acting out one’s faith in military service—though I cannot bring myself to pacifism—but I think that it’s a decision best left to each individual and his or her conscience. Mainly, I decided to join the Marines because I thought it afforded me the opportunity to make a positive impact in the world in ways that pursing the life of an academic ethicist wouldn’t. Ultimately, even though my job now is very different than the one I would’ve had had I managed to make it through OCS, undoubtedly I’m still in the same predicament I would have been in: hoping but unsure if what I’m doing is making the world a better place.
This is the perennial problem of Christian ethics when it comes to war, isn't it. On the one hand, the pursuit of national security and the protection of the innocent is a moral good. On the other hand, the nature of warfare is such that it dehumanizes all who fight it. Very little done in the context of any war, modern or otherwise, can be justified on Christian moral grounds, even if the general principle of national defense can be justified.
While I can't quite bring myself to embrace pacifism as a position either, I think that there is a lot of integrity to the pacifist position when understood as a witness to a greater moral reality than the one in which we live. However, the default pro-military position that is held by many Americans can't be justified on Christian terms. The most you ought to be able to support is the general idea that some (very few) wars may be necessary (though still evil) some of the time (though exceptionally rarely). In contrast to the just war position, which is limited by its default presumption that warfare can be made to be moral, I prefer to think of myself as a prima facie pacifist. Which is to say my default presumption is deep skepticism of all war, which can be overcome in certain rare cases by a compelling set of circumstances.
The harder question is: What are those circumstances. It seems to me that this must always be at least partially ad hoc. It would be difficult to say in advance what kinds of circumstances would convince me to support a war. I can point to particular paradigm cases -- genocide in Darfur perhaps, or to repel an invasion of the United States -- but to say that I can lay out a set of general critera would likely be a fool's errand. I like how H. Richard Niebuhr once described himself. He didn't like the idea of "conscientious objector" which after all assumes that war is justifyable by default, but "conscientious participant," which take the anti-war position as the norm.