It all began in the sixties with ban-the-bomb marches generally led by individuals from the radical fringe. Those of us doing time in the Pentagon became accustomed to all of the solemn little groups posted outside the River Entrance protesting the way we made our living. The inference was clear that we were all pining for the day when we could push the button. Still, it is a free country, and no one really minded the protesters so long as they kept their distance. Besides, it was fruitless to attempt an explanation to those misguided souls that Armageddon could best be forestalled by preparedness.
At their conclave in Washington last November, the bishops drafted a pastoral letter, subject to ratification next May, that would provide teaching guidance to America’s 50,000,000 Catholics. Since the draft letter was supported by seventy percent of the bishops in November, the likelihood of ratification appears good. And, since the Roman Catholic Church is a disciplined body as churches go, the pastoral letter promises to have a far-reaching and divisive effect on both the Church and America’s armed forces. The prospect of this is deeply disturbing to those of us who are both Catholic and military.
What the bishops have done is challenge the basic strategy of both the United States and the Atlantic Alliance—a strategy that defers to the Soviets the first hostile move. Our nuclear weapons are meant to match their nuclear weapons, one threat to offset the other. In the case of NATO, nuclear weapons are also intended as the equalizer, something that may be used if Europe is on the verge of falling to a Soviet attack. All things considered, including the remarkably long period of peace in Europe, it has been a pretty fair strategy.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has departed from the path traditionally traveled by the Catholic clergy. Whatever misconceptions people may have had about Catholics, no one until now has ever accused them of being soft on the matter of national defense.
War is a terrible business, and nuclear war may be the worst kind of war yet. We have no proof of that, but since wars have progressively grown more destructive with the development of weapons, it is probably true. Certainly, the decimation of French nobles at Crécy by a new instrument of destruction, the British longbow, increased the lethality of armed combat. It has gone that way ever since. Once at war, nations tend to do what they can to survive and win. Perhaps, as the antinuclear community contends, there can be no winner in a nuclear war. Without arguing that one, although Soviet doctrine does hold a different view, there remains the question as to whether a United States stripped of nuclear weapons would be able to exert any influence at all in this increasingly dangerous nuclear-armed world.
There is a form of anaemia that is more rotting than even an unjust war. The end will indeed have come to our courage and to us when we are afraid in dire mischance to refer the final appeal to the arbitrament of arms.
Nuclear weapons are miserable things: so are machine guns, surface-to-air missiles, and napalm. The carnage at Waterloo was horrible, as it was at Gettysburg and the Battle of the Somme. Nothing would be closer to heaven on earth than a world disarmed and bent on peaceful coexistence. Nothing, alas, is more impossible of attainment.
Meanwhile, the bishops should think hard about the damage they may do if they decide to circulate their letter.
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