A Vietnam Veteran Responds to Fr. Fessio
Fr. Joseph Fessio S.J.’s letter to the Editor (Apribpcriticizing Christopher Derrick’s guest column “Humanity’s Ancient & Passionate Love Affair with War” (Jan.-Feb.) bothers me greatly.
Fessio charges that Derrick’s essay isn’t worthy of intelligent discussion. Because I enjoyed Derrick’s essay immensely, I presume I fail Fessio’s test of intelligence. That’s the core of my discontent, but there’s more at stake than my hurt feelings. I think Fessio is deficient on several counts. First is the stridency of his letter, second is his failure to delve deeper into the facts, and third is his unawareness of war as I have experienced it.
As to the stridency of his letter, Fessio seems to be more interested in attacking Derrick than the ideas Derrick posits.
As to the factual shallowness of Fessio’s letter, specifically his citation of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 to contradict Derrick’s supposition that peaceful alternatives to war always exist, I agree he is correct. But only partially.
Barbara Tuchman’s books The Guns of August and The Proud Towers aptly prove there were many peaceful alternatives to World War I before the troops crossed the border. Also, Tuchman suggests that World War I couldn’t have been stopped once the mobilization started. It seems the elaborate train schedules for mobilization couldn’t be undone because there wasn’t any way to notify — officially — all the players. So the troop trains rolled on. I fear the same conditions exist today, and that one miscue will lead to World War III and nuclear annihilation.
Also, Fessio’s letter contradicts my personal experience with war and misses the relationship between the stupidity of war and the lust for it. Although I can’t take Fessio to task for not knowing about me, I offer the following recollections to those who might be pondering the issues Derrick aptly set forth regarding man’s lust for war. (I won’t bother with the issue of competitive sports as the training ground for war skills other than to cite the Duke of Wellington, who said, “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”)
Before I went to ‘Nam, I recruited college graduates to serve as Marine Corps officers. I’ve been to war; I’ve known war lovers; I’ve learned how the church has blessed politicians who order up wars; I’ve believed in the flag, mother, and apple pie; I’ve seen men die in the attempt to get their military records “blooded”; I’ve heard the screams of the wounded; I’ve seen triage performed; I’ve touched corpses; I’ve been shelled; I’ve seen fork lifts load “body boxes” onto trucks; I’ve seen the whore houses that sprout up where the action is; and I’ve also been a death teller, one who had to tell mothers their sons were dead in Vietnam. Never once did the platitude, “He died for his country,” mitigate the tears I saw shed at the graves of the boys I helped bury.
All the while I was terrified. But I had a smart uniform to contain me, a position that provided early, albeit undeserved, recognition, a church to bless me, and most of all I had the fear of letting anyone know I was afraid. What man wants to shame himself in the eyes of his buddies by not having the balls to die for God and country? Thank God I never had to run the risk of front-line combat. I would have been killed. Wives and baby children don’t count as much as glorious death in war. Men aren’t the only ones implicated in the insanity. Patriotic women offer their sons as sacrifices on the “altar” of freedom too. What woman wants to marry a wimp?
From all this I have concluded that the phrase “just war” is merely a way of saying evil is good. In light of the Gospel, and with some recent help from the American bishops, I have concluded that all wars are evil, and that the obligation to participate in one can only be legitimized as the ugly, frightful choice between two evils, one worse than the other.
In spite of these painful memories, I acknowledge with sadness the legitimate use of force to protect the helpless, but I renounce the use of force for gaining territory, protecting oil fields, heating up the economy, or defending the faith. Old men call up wars, but young men die — seldom in glory, most often in agony and fear, and many times with certain knowledge that nobody really gives a damn.
I suspect Fessio is a just-war theorist who simply doesn’t understand. I fear he’s one of those politically reactionary Catholics who is trying to take control of today’s church. I’m afraid of zealots and suspicious of the clerical authorities who talk tough, bless war, and tell boys that killing and getting killed is okay. I’m not positing my suspicions of Fessio’s motives as proof of anything more than the suspicion his letter has evoked within me.
In conclusion, allow me to support Christopher Derrick’s suppositions about the connection between lust and war. It comes from a story told me by the man who got me interested in joining the Marines. He had been severely wounded on Iwo Jima. “You must have been in great pain,” I said after he told me his story. “Hell no,” he answered. “I got the million-dollar wound, just bad enough to get me home to a hero’s welcome with both balls attached. I earned my bones. By the time I got home I was well enough to go on liberty in San Francisco. Man, were those girls accommodating. Anything for the troops, you know.”
Graduate School of Management, University of New Mexico
James J. Thompson Jr.’s review of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. V (May) was the best thing I’ve read on Chesterton. So many commentators go too far one way or the other — seeing Chesterton either as a lightweight or as one who has all the right answers about what it means to be a Catholic — but Thompson really captured Chesterton.
More generally, Thompson is a brilliant reviewer and rare critic who dissects issues and authors like a surgeon, not to destroy, but to make healthy — as well as to aid the reader.
Dept. of Philosophy, University of Detroit
Don't Paint Curran & Novak with the Same Brush
In your recent editorial commentary (Apribpin response to a letter by Thomas Storck, you find the “challenges” of Charles Curran and Michael Novak equally scandalous and worthy of repudiation.
Evidently you misunderstand the nature of scandal. Furthermore, making the kind of connection you do between Curran and Novak appears to be a product on your part of either ignorance or disingenuousness.
The traditional understanding of the possible mischief of real “scandal,” by dissenting theologians or anyone else for that matter, at least in the development of Roman Catholic moral theology, is hardly adequately described, let alone defined, on the basis of the phrase, “partisan public crusade.” At worst, scandal is activity that facilitates another’s sin. A more benign, if general, interpretation is that it is activity which makes it less easy for another to be ecclesially fiducial or conventionally virtuous. The topic is one about which the manuals of moral theology are replete with distinctions.
Accordingly, some theologians would say that Curran does give scandal. He is a “stumbling block” to others. But, in his case, the scandal is of the kind these theologians would consider actually unreal. The manualists called it, in Latin, scandalum pusillanimorum. The usage translates quite literally into English.
What’s more, to paint Curran and Novak with the same brush is in the unsavory tradition of the cheap shot. Your own John Cort dealt quite admirably with Novak in his article critiquing Novak’s views in your November 1988 issue. The fact is, few theologians of any stripe have represented either the collegial social teaching of the North American bishops or continuing papal social teaching as accurately as Curran has, precisely as Novak has not. Or has Novak produced some body of writing on sexual morality of which the NOR editors are uniquely aware, and you align their “scandalous” behavior on that very unlikely basis? In any event, exactly of what does the NOR find Curran a “partisan”? And, what exactly constitutes his scandalous “challenge”?
Prof. Michael E. Daly
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Ed. Note: It is not merely “some theologians” who find that Curran has given scandal. If his scandal were, as you put it, “actually unreal,” we doubt the Holy See would have taken the action against him, which it did. Curran is a partisan of a situational sexual ethic; for a list of his particular challenges to Catholic teaching, consult Cardinal Ratzinger.
Contrary to what you suggest, we are not aware of — and are not contending that there are — any problems in Curran’s rendering of Catholic social teaching. Rather, it is his rendering of Catholic sexual teaching that rankles. As for Novak, he is a public dissenter from Church teaching on birth control, though he seems to have retreated from a crusading stance of late; currently, his dissenting energies are focused on social, not sexual, issues.
We did not claim that Curran and Novak are “equally” scandalous; we said they are “both” scandalous. Yet, while we aren’t known for our defense of Novak’s views, we cannot concur with your apparent opinion that Novak is a greater danger to Catholicism than Curran.
Prof. Arthur F. McGovern, S.J.
Marx: A Poor Guide with Some Useful Insights
I would like to respond to John Cort’s “Why Socialists Should Drop Marx” (June). Coincidentally, I was reading Michael Harrington’s autobiography The Long-Distance Runner when the June issue arrived. Both men strongly endorse “democratic socialism”; both strongly oppose Soviet-style communism. But Harrington considers himself a Marxist socialist; Cort clearly rejects use of Marx. Their agreements and differences offer a framework for my comments.
Do appeals to Marx for promoting socialism serve a useful purpose? On this point I agree with Cort; they do not. Perhaps they still do in some circles in Europe, but in the United States any political emphasis on Marx seems clearly counterproductive. In Latin America, at least among liberation theologians, Marxism represents not a program of change but an analysis aimed at an exploitive form of capitalism (with continuing remnants of feudalism). Even there, critiques of the prevailing system could be made without explicit reference to Marx, and the critiques might gain greater support and engender fewer misunderstandings by dropping Marx. But then I would also go further than Harrington or Cort and argue that “socialism” itself carries too many negative associations (namely, the state hegemony and one-party rule that Cort opposes), so that democratic-socialist goals might be better achieved under another name (for example, economic democracy).
Is Marxist analysis so flawed as to be useless in critiquing capitalism, and is Soviet-style communism really what Marx intended? On these questions I would differ with Cort. While it is true that historically the use of Marxist ideas has led to Soviet-style communist rule, I think Cort reduces Marx’s thought to a set of absolutes that most scholars of Marxism would strongly contest. Marx was personally autocratic in his mannerisms, and he neglected any serious consideration of what political forms socialism might take. But scholars like Richard Hunt and Hal Draper have argued, with extended textual evidence, that Marx did not intend “dictatorship of the proletariat” in a Leninist sense, and that, in theory at least, Marx intended a radical participatory democracy, not a one-party, state-controlled system.
Harrington and others have argued, again on textual grounds, that Marx’s view of surplus value is far more nuanced than the description given it by Cort. Few scholars would accept Cort’s view that Marx was a determinist who denied free will. Cort legitimately recognizes Marx’s disdain for religion. But Cort’s citation from Marx’s On the Jewish Question is taken out of context. The quote, “the state can and must proceed to abolish and destroy religion,” refers to separation of church and state, to abolishing an official state religion. This separation, Marx goes on to say, actually reinforces religion in the private sector.
Many of Marx’s scientific predictions proved clearly wrong; he had a very flawed understanding of human nature; much of his thought reflects mid-19th-century conditions that no longer pertain. I agree, then, with Cort that Marx is a poor guide for establishing a more just society today. But Marx had insights into capitalist society that remain useful, as Harrington’s writings show. Learning from Marx does not entail espousing a Marxist-Leninist program of change.
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