Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: July-August 1989

July-August 1989

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.”

Martin Young

Graduate School of Management, University of New Mexico

Fresno, California


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.

Genevieve Walsh

Dept. of Philosophy, University of Detroit

Derwood, Maryland

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.

Detroit, Michigan

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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