The immorality of weapons and war

When diplomats from around the world convene in Paris Jan. 7 to 11 to discuss chemical weapons, there will be lots of topics on the table. Hovering overhead, however, will be some of this century's darkest moral issues. Why? Because chemical and biological warfare - as a recent Monitor series (``Poison on the Wind,'' Dec. 13-16) makes abundantly clear - includes some of the nastiest concepts of man's devising.

And so it raises, in stark simplicity, three questions:

Are chemical and biological weapons especially immoral?

The knee-jerk reaction - ``Yes, of course!'' - flows from an age-old repugnance to the use of poison against human beings. Shakespeare, when he wished to make a villain particularly vile, depicted him or her as a poisoner. The Nazi gas chambers, when discovered, mightily compounded the repulsiveness of the Third Reich. There's something inherently odious about that which creeps along the coward's path and kills unseen. Better, we almost want to say, the noisy visibility of a bomb.

Almost, that is, until a moment's thought deflates this ``special immorality'' argument. Are some weapons ``more moral'' than others? If so, then some forms of murder must be ``less immoral'' than others. To argue thus is to engage in futile hair-splitting. The simple answer is that killing is immoral. It is made so not by the means of but by the fact of death.

The real issue is not weapons. It is war.

Then is war immoral?

Again, an instant ``Yes,'' riding a centuries-old wave of religious and philosophical thinking. That view was long thought merely idealistic - until war came to include nuclear holocaust. The result: War has begun to shift from what might be called a tolerable to an intolerable immorality. Gen. Douglas MacArthur put it this way in 1961:

``Although the abolition of war has been the dream of man for centuries, every proposition to that end has been promptly discarded as impossible and fantastic. But that was before the science of the past decade made mass destruction a reality. ... [War] is no longer an ethical question to be pondered solely by learned philosophers and ecclesiastics, but a hard-core one for the decision of the masses whose survival is the issue.''

General MacArthur was right. In the years since 1961, it has become harder to think of war as just another tool in a nation's foreign-policy kit bag - and easier to understand that human survival depends on eradicating war. Still to come, however, is any serious realization that nonnuclear weapons - those unleashing the horrors of genetic technology, for example - may present challenges to arms control negotiators that make nuclear negotiations pale in comparison.

Can war be replaced?

The answer is ``Yes, if....'' As the moral issues surrounding nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry bubble to the surface, they create a growing demand for the end of warfare. But even warfare itself is not the central issue. At bottom, the issues are twofold: conflict and security.

Conflict, it seems, will always be with us. So the question is not how to rule it out but how to deal with it. War is by no means the only way: Humanity has hit on all sorts of other options, including compromise, legislation, education, and prayer. Conflict resolution, in fact, is a growth industry.

But can conflict resolution work on a global scale, when issues of national security are at stake? According to MacArthur's ``hard core'' imperative, there can be only one answer: ``Yes.'' Here, too, progress is being made - especially in the recognition that a nation's security in a globally interdependent world is enhanced, not by threatening the enemy's security, but by making the enemy feel more secure.

In the long run, chemical and biological weapons don't enhance anyone's security. Instead, they spur new and macabre arms races. They have, however, forced a sharpening of the moral vision. They are hastening the time when the world's opprobrium will fall, not on this or that weapons system, but on war itself. That used to sound naive. Never has it sounded more practical.

A Monday column

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