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The Theology of Armageddon

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The woo-woo nuttiness of it all defies the imagination, beginning with the idea of a course in "Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare" at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Nuclear ethics?

Does that mean no nuclear weapons should ever be used to promote sexual harassment?

Well actually, turns out the point of the mandatory course recently canceled by the Air Force after officers of numerous faiths complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation about it and TruthOut published an exposé in July -- was to give officers in the first week of missile-launch training a Bible-verse-studded indoctrination in faux-Just War Theory, cynically known in the ranks as the "Jesus Loves Nukes" training.

"Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war."

This verse, Revelation 19:11, has nothing to do with Just War Theory, Christian or otherwise. It sounds more like the theology of Armageddon, or the ethics of end times -- scary enough on the social fringe but, my God, here was the U.S. Air Force, guardian of the country's nuclear arsenal, pushing it as a basic part of missile-launch training.

There were plenty of other religiously pushy declarations in this mandatory course, such as these words from Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who teamed up with the U.S. military after the war to develop its space and missile programs, regarding his surrender to the Americans in 1945:

"We knew that we had created a new means of warfare and the question as to what nation... we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else," von Braun is quoted as saying. "We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured."

This is too strange to be irony. The Nazi rocket wizard sought moral reassurance in Christian exceptionalism, and his words then became part of America's official ethics of nuclear war: We're with Jesus on that white horse, and if/when we launch Armageddon, we're only doing the work of the Lord. To my mind, there are few people on the planet scarier than self-proclaimed "Christian soldiers," at least those who feed from the evangelical trough and belong to the U.S. military, because their agenda transcends rationality. In righteousness they judge and make war.

But my sense of shock and awe over this nuclear ethics course isn't simply about evangelicals in the military and their zeal to proselytize. It's about the official sanctioning of a nuclear morality that allows their use: that transforms America and its military machine into an instrument of the will of God.

The canceled course was called Christian Just War Theory. Even leaving aside the "Christian" part, this theory -- or rather the public-relations perversion thereof (Just Window Dressing) -- is at the center of the smug delusions of armed righteousness in this country and beyond. Some form of it is used to justify every modern war when, in point of fact, an honest reading of just war theory makes modern war impossible.

"Civilians are never permissible targets of war..."

What part of this do we not understand? Even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has acknowledged the moral quicksand of modern war, commenting in 2003 that "we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a 'just war' might exist."

Of course, the theory is always presented with wiggle room, making it, you know, fair for the war makers, too: "The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatant," Vincent Ferraro explains in his discussion of the principles of the theory, as referenced at justwartheory.com. "Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target."

Aha, loophole! While the actual point of the theory is to acknowledge -- to bless -- a people's need to fight back in self-defense against an aggressor, or to protect the innocent, its language is so hopelessly wishy-washy that its blessing is there for the taking for any armed cynic who wants moral cover. A warring nation has unlimited permission to kill indiscriminately as long as it "makes every effort" to avoid killing civilians.

Thus Harry Truman announced, on Aug. 9, 1945: "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."

There is no moral honesty in a discussion of war for the simple reason that there can't be. War is its own end, the perversion of every just cause. As soon as we begin worshipping it, we can tolerate moral authority only as a cover for our crimes. Before you know it, Jesus loves nukes.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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