Andrew Fiala

To truly pay tribute this Memorial Day, war talk must focus on what is just and right

Loretta Reyna places a flag on the grave of her father, Korean War Army veteran Loman Orum, at the Clovis Cemetery on on Memorial Day, May 28, 2018.
Loretta Reyna places a flag on the grave of her father, Korean War Army veteran Loman Orum, at the Clovis Cemetery on on Memorial Day, May 28, 2018. Fresno Bee file

This Memorial Day, as we remember those who died in war, let’s also consider the moral miasma that leads to war. The fog of war refers to the complexity and uncertainty of war. But war is often preceded by a moral miasma, a noxious smog of hubris and hot air. The louder the war drums, the worse for critical moral judgment.

Threats are made. Strategic interests are calculated. Troops are deployed. Leaders thump their chests. Each side misjudges the other. Intelligence gathering is politicized. Shots are fired. Escalation occurs. And more names are added to the grim roster of Memorial Day.

Andrew Fiala Fresno Bee file

We’ve seen this play out in past wars. And today a war with Iran is slouching into view. President Trump recently tweeted, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.” How many would die to back up that boast? And would those deaths be justified?

The moral justification of war requires a just cause for war, understood as a response to aggression. It also teaches that war must be a proportional response undertaken with moral intention. War should also be a last resort. It must lead to a better outcome than a nonviolent alternative. And war must not deliberately harm the innocent.

It is difficult to see how a war with Iran would meet the standards of the just war theory. But the nuance of moral justification often gets lost in the fog of political rhetoric. Pundits and politicians fan the flames of war fever. Moral arguments give way to displays of power and patriotism. And once soldiers start killing and dying, it is difficult to admit we were wrong.

This is a lesson we prefer to ignore. We celebrate victory. We don’t talk about quagmires. We throw parades and build monuments. And we ignore the critics of war.

Pope Francis said, “Wars produce nothing other than cemeteries and death.” Albert Einstein said, “Our fight must be against war itself.” His friend, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, said “The evils of war are almost always greater than they seem to excited populations at the moment when war breaks out.”

The most poignant argument against war is made by veterans. Kurt Vonnegut said, “the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”

A veteran of the Iraq war recently shared his story with me. He signed up as a young man. He endured horrors and killing. And today he is hurting. We talked of veteran suicides and PTSD. We talked about moral injury and the soul-deep struggle to make sense of the morality of war. I’ve heard similar stories from veterans young and old.

One thing is clear. It is always the little guy who suffers most. The war-planners in Washington don’t suffer from PTSD and moral injury. They don’t bear the physical scars of war. Their wives and mothers won’t visit them in military graveyards.

The brave men and women who volunteer to fight on our behalf deserve our respect. This means that we must be morally serious about their gift of service. We must only ask them to fight and die in battles that are necessary and just.

On Memorial Day we remember those who died. Let’s also remember those who are suffering today from physical, psychological, and moral injuries. We honor their sacrifice by making sure that no other soldier is harmed in a morally questionable war.

Memorial Day creates an obligation of citizenship. Visit a cemetery. Talk to a veteran. Read up about the just war theory. And listen carefully to the critics of war.

It is not weak, cowardly, or un-American to say no to an unjust war. It is not unpatriotic to shed a moral light on the fog of war.

Pacifists and critics of war are often accused of being utopian dreamers who ignore the reality of power. But the defenders of war are utopian when they speak of easy victories and suggest that war is a cakewalk. It is impossible to imagine a war without trauma, moral injury and atrocity. It is impossible to imagine a war that does not leave us with suffering veterans and the white tombstones of Memorial Day.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala