Monday, August 8, 2011

Air Force Closes Ethics Course Due to Christian References

(This story is from several days ago, but the topic endures.  After several days of coping with the amplitude of my allergies to antibiotics, I return with thoughts on whether historical Christianity can be divorced from the study of ethics, particularly Just War Theory, in the West.)

The US Air Force, specifically in the form of the Air Force Education & Training Command at Vandenburg AFB, has recently announced that it is suspending its course titled "Christian Just War Theory", which is an introduction to the ICBM Missile Officer instruction.  This is the result of a complaint filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation on the behalf of "31 missile launch officers -- both instructors and students".  (The MRFF was mentioned briefly in my previous post dealing with the soldier who was designated a conscientious objector as far as fighting Muslims, but who was just fine with trying to slaughter US soldiers and their families here.)

The AFE&TC spokesman, SSgt David Smith, said:
“In an effort to serve all faiths, we try to introduce none in our briefings and our lectures. . . . Once we heard there were concerns, we looked at the course and said we could do better.” 
Smith said the inclusion of the Bible verses was an “inappropriate approach” in a “pluralistic society.”
“The use of Bible passage and other elements was just inappropriate.”
The story previously stated that "The class is currently under review by Air Force officials who will determine whether or not to revise the material or end the class."  It sounds as if SSgt Smith has already made up his mind about "whether or not to revise the material".

The PowerPoint slides for the course, which comprise the first 43 of this compilation of the entire introductory course, show pictures of Augustine of Hippo, along with a painting of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410.  This is an apparent reference to the impact of the event upon Augustine, who was moved thereby to write his seminal work, the City of God.  I say ‘apparent reference’ because none of the stories posted on a web search of this topic contains any of the actual curriculum itself, only the PowerPoint slides.

The story also quotes ‘Mikey’ Weinstein, founder of the MRFF and the prospective litigant (had not the Air Force immediately backed down upon his filing of the complaint):
"The United States Air Force was promoting a particular brand of right-wing fundamentalist Christianity," he said. "The main essence was that war is a natural part of the human experience and it’s something that is favored by this particular perspective of the New Testament."  
Absent my auditing of the class, I cannot see how one can arrive immediately at these conclusions based on just viewing the slides.  If Chaplain Shin Soh (the instructor) were actually proselytising for Christianity in his curriculum, that is one thing.  If it is being taught and discussed in an effort for the students to understand their duty in the field of nuclear deterrence, then that is fine.  One should not be tasked with the concrete responsibility of launching nuclear weapons unless potential doubts about their duty are addressed.

And how easily does the phrase ‘right-wing fundamentalist Christianity’ come trippingly off the tongue?  It is as if the words are parroted repeatedly in the media (and they are), that such a historical non sequitur survives its uttering without comment.  Augustine is right-wing, and a fundamentalist?  What is ‘fundamental’ about Just War Theory?  The fundamentalist movement did not exist arguably until the beginning of the 20th century, and has metastasised into an altered religious movement within Pentecostalism, yet its political definition is altered and convenient to a greater degree.  And war is now “favored by this particular perspective of the New Testament”?  Not only are the students instructed in the philosophical under-pinnings of their huge responsibility, they are actually encouraged to believe that we should seek war as a favored solution?  Weinstein’s ignorance shows his knee-jerk response to be a cheap shot indeed.

So what exactly is proposed to replace this course of instruction?  How does one address the ethics of warfare in the West without reference to the culture’s historical Christian foundation?  What modern, secular theory of warfare exists that can give a valid perspective on the topic?  Should only atheists be included as mentors, since they express a faith that there is no god?  Who should be chosen as exemplars, and why?  And who is it who can declare that they can be the ones to decide?

Are we instead to be more ‘inclusive’ of other cultures in our ‘pluralistic’ society when it comes to altering our centuries-old approach to war, or not?  Sun-Tzu was a Taoist – should he then be excluded?  Von Clausewitz came from a Lutheran family of pastors and theologians – would that exclude him, or would his rationalist background allow him entrance into our new Valhalla of politically correct strategists, despite the fact that a nuclear exchange would likely be more acceptable under his precepts?

Perhaps, to be even-handed, we should include Islamic Just War Theory.  Averroës and Ibn Khaldan are rather specific that it is the nature of Islam to war on nations outside the umma (the Islamic version of the old Christendom), because Islam has presented the call to accept their true faith (or at least submit and pay the jizyah) and the West has not heeded it.  All other cultures have no standing when it comes to the subject of war – they must submit or be defeated.  (Incidentally, the Spanish of the 16th century have been roundly criticised, even contemporaneously, for the Requerimiento – the call on the indios of the New World to submit to Spain and the Church or be conquered.  This was created in direct response to the Islamic call for submission expostulated in Averroës.)

One does not have to be religious to recognise the Christian foundation of Western philosophical thought.  Philosophers in this area such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas functioned within a thoroughly Christian world-view of their time, and the fact that a huge religious entity like the Roman Catholic Church granted them the title of ‘saints’ posthumously should have no bearing in our study of their body of ethical work.  This same addled notion of expunging Christian thought would have us strike the idea that all men (meaning ‘everyone’ in the meaning of the time, and now) are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”.

There are still claims of a ‘constitutionally guaranteed wall of separation between church and state’, but I still encourage the reading of the Federalist Papers, particularly numbers 10, 39, 51 and 70, in dealing with ‘factions’.  Thomas Jefferson never intended the ‘wall of separation’ phrase to take the meaning given it by the political secularists, as a reading of his letter to the Danbury Baptists would show.

The government cannot preach a specific religious philosophy.  Nor can it “prohibit the free exercise thereof”.  Expunging religion from the public square in its entirety was certainly never the intent; rather America provides a context wherein all people may discuss their views in an open way, including atheists, without fear of retaliation or expectation that such thought is banned.

So is a religion being preached to the students in this class?  That case has not been made, certainly not in the context of the news reports rushed to print, and certainly not in the knee-jerk comments of Mikey Weinstein or the whip-lash response of the Air Force.  But is there a responsibility to teach and discuss our ethical understanding of the nature of war to people with such a great responsibility for waging it?  Absolutely.
Update:  Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) has asked for an explanation from the Secretary of the Air Force, and has given his view of the matter.

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