Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Militia Vel Malitia: How Can the Military Contribute to a Just Society?

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Militia Vel Malitia: How Can the Military Contribute to a Just Society?

Article excerpt

ST. ANSELM IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE REMARKED, "militia vel malitia," a wonderful quip that loses in translation: "the militia or rather the malicious." While this remark is certainly right about the military in many times and places, it is worth pointing out that were it true always and everywhere, the project of building a just society, which is likely to entail some degree of military protection, would face a serious stumbling block. This problem is all the more urgent if we hope that a just society would be grounded in the culture of life.

The professions are quite central to culture, shaping the lives of millions and largely defining the contours and feel of public space. Along with medicine, law, and the ministry, the military is one of the traditional professions, and one that employs millions of Americans. Despite its illiberal, hierarchical, meritocratic tendencies, it has a cultural gravitas and prestige that has been able to withstand various scandals. And in the current climate (involving two ongoing wars, increased security measures, and so forth), the military is only likely to increase in cultural importance. Yet how could the military contribute to a just society? Negatively, it can fend off extinction (a "negative" but not negligible contribution, it should be noted), but can it make any positive contribution? Or we might ask: If the military is necessarily endowed with both the force and the right to kill, how could it be a part of a culture of life? Many occupations will have no place in such a culture: executioner, torturer, mercenary, gladiator, and so on. Should we add soldier to this list?

The primary mission of the military is, or at least can and should be, to protect--to provide, as our Constitution has it, for the common defense. The principles of just war endorsed, at least nominally, by most professional militaries today, and certainly by the U.S. military, place a premium on the protection of innocent life even in the midst of hostilities. Although the U.S. military has certainly committed its share of atrocities, recent wars have been marked by serious attempts to live, and fight, by these principles. In the war in Iraq, our military has shown an unprecedented, although still very imperfect, commitment to the jus in bello (justice in war) principles of discrimination and proportionality. While other features of the military, notably its commitment to excellence and tradition, are also salient (and I will touch on some of them), it is this commitment to life even while holding the power of deadly force--a commitment that is not just official but often real--on which I wish to focus in this paper. It is at the core of what the military can contribute to a just society and a culture of life. After contending that it can do this, I will argue that the military could do it much better if it reconceptualized some aspects of its ethic and ethos. I close with some suggestions concerning how it might do so.

I. Examples

Toward the end of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams considers a business leader who says in a meeting of his competitors, "Of course, we could have them killed, but we should lay that [option] aside right from the beginning." Lay it aside? It should never, Williams says, have come into his train of thought as an option in the first place. (1) Williams's remark is right on target--at least in business and most other human contexts. But war does put this option into our hands, and can even seem to force us to use it. Here are two real examples, which are particularly acute as they involve children.

First: In the recent war in Iraq, in the middle of a firefight with Fedayeen troops (paramilitary), a U.S. Marine sergeant on a rooftop spotted a boy about twelve years old running out into the street, where he gathered rocket-propelled grenade launchers from fallen men and carried them back to active fighters. In other words, he was rearming the enemy. …

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