The Vocation of a Soldier is Next in Dignity to the Priesthood

Sunday, February 28, AD 2010

There are some whom denigrate soldiers and policemen and the plan God has for them in Salvation.  I disagree completely and there are many examples of saints and popes who have honored the soldier and policeman in defense of justice and peace.

I found this quote by Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen‘s Wartime Prayer Book:

“The great French Lacordaire once said the vocation of a soldier is next in dignity to the priesthood, not only because it commissioned him to defend justice on the field of battle and order on the field of peace, but also because it called him to the spirit and intention of sacrifice.”

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105 Responses to The Vocation of a Soldier is Next in Dignity to the Priesthood

  • I was given this book just before my 1st deployment to Iraq in 2003 (the initial surge). When I came back to the states I decided to finally get confirmed. The great bishop is and will always be an influence in my spirtuality.

  • Thank you for your great service to our country.

  • The Church fathers had a radically different view. I think it was St. Basil who advised soliders to abstain from communion for a fixed period of time.

    And even today, the Church supports the conscience protections in the military – just as no Catholic medical practioner should be forced to engage in immoral acts, no Catholic soldier should be forced to fight an unjust war – and the Iraq war was patently unjust. Where the the Catholic military consciences? Where those people calling loudly for conscience protections in other areas? Silent.

  • Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
    – Tertullian

    “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
    – St. Clement of Alexandria

    “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”
    – St. Cyprian

    “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
    – St. Athanasius

    “I am a soldier of Christ and it is not permissible for me to fight”
    – St. Martin of Tours

    “For certainly it is a greater work and much more marvelous to change the minds of opponents and to bring about a change of soul than to kill them…”
    – St. John Chrysostom

  • “Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. Among such persons was the holy David, to whom God gave so great a testimony; among them also were many righteous men of that time; among them was also that centurion who said to the Lord: I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed: for I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come, and he comes; and to my servant, Do this, and he does it; and concerning whom the Lord said: Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. Matthew 8:8-10 Among them was that Cornelius to whom an angel said: Cornelius, your alms are accepted, and your prayers are heard, Acts 10:4 when he directed him to send to the blessed Apostle Peter, and to hear from him what he ought to do, to which apostle he sent a devout soldier, requesting him to come to him. Among them were also the soldiers who, when they had come to be baptized by John,— the sacred forerunner of the Lord, and the friend of the Bridegroom, of whom the Lord says: Among them that are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist, Matthew 11:11 — and had inquired of him what they should do, received the answer, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. Luke 3:14 Certainly he did not prohibit them to serve as soldiers when he commanded them to be content with their pay for the service.

    5. They occupy indeed a higher place before God who, abandoning all these secular employments, serve Him with the strictest chastity; but every one, as the apostle says, has his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 1 Corinthians 7:7 Some, then, in praying for you, fight against your invisible enemies; you, in fighting for them, contend against the barbarians, their visible enemies. Would that one faith existed in all, for then there would be less weary struggling, and the devil with his angels would be more easily conquered; but since it is necessary in this life that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven should be subjected to temptations among erring and impious men, that they may be exercised, and tried as gold in the furnace, Wisdom 3:6 we ought not before the appointed time to desire to live with those alone who are holy and righteous, so that, by patience, we may deserve to receive this blessedness in its proper time.

    6. Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared.”

    Saint Augustine to Count Boniface (418AD) Boniface was governor of the diocese of Africa and a Roman general.

    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102189.htm

  • The soldier is next in dignity to the priesthood? Well, so much for all the holy monks and nuns.

  • Henry,

    I guess you know better than the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

  • MM

    Notice how they idolize the makers of death, and follow through with the errors they claim is had in liberation theology.

  • Tito

    Well, I guess you think he knew better than St Basil the Great? It is interesting to see how you go about this. What about Servant of God Dorothy Day? Seriously, Fulton Sheen did good work, but I am sure what I say about him being able to make mistakes is how you would respond to St Basil. But the fact remains, the Christian tradition doesn’t raise soldiers to this status — but they have consistently called those who are holy virgins to this level of sanctity. Take that as you will.

  • Henry,

    Leaving all that aside, the point of this post is to show soldiers that God has a place in salvation for them.

    To many times do well-meaning Catholics denigrate solider and police officers for their vocations. Without them we would have anarchy.

    The hate that comes from those that put down soldiers is unwarranted and not Christian.

    “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

    – Holy Gospel of Saint John 15:18

  • Plus, if you want to go further, Sheen is quoting someone else — though it seems in affirmation, it does leave him room for correcting it as well. It is not his statement — and indeed, it seems to be a rhetorical flourish that is being quoted, which also suggests something of the value of this quote. Again, it is interesting to see how you use might for the sake of salvation, when Scripture consistently suggests otherwise. That says much.

  • “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, 24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46). Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.”

    Pope Benedict April 16, 2008

    http://wcbstv.com/papalvisit/pope.benedict.speech.2.701076.html

  • Tito

    If you wanted to say “they too can be saved” and “we can honor the good they have done,” I would have no problem. Indeed, I did a post on that theme several years back: http://vox-nova.com/2007/11/12/for-veterans-monday/

    To suggest “they are like priests” and “they are saving us” is I would say dangerous — very dangerous.

  • Donald’s typically selective, and equivocal, quotes to the contrary, Pope Benedict has been consistent that true freedom is in Christ, not war. Pope Benedict recognizes, of course, the temporal realm, but he would not equivocate this to priesthood and soteriology.

  • Henry,

    Bishop Sheen was quoting the Abbe Lacordaire. Remember Bishop Sheen said “next in dignity”, not the next best thing. Next in dignity in the context of spiritually sacrificing themselves for justice.

    I also agree with your quotes in context, nuns and monks are next in spirituality. There is room for many in God’s Kingdom.

  • Donald wasn’t contradicting Papa Bene. He was showing that soldiers have a place in God’s kingdom through their vocations.

  • for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but thy right hand, and thy arm, and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them. (Psalms 44:3)

    1 “Woe to the rebellious children,” says the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine; and who make a league, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin; 2 who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! 3 Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation. 4 For though his officials are at Zoan and his envoys reach Hanes, 5 every one comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace.” 6 An oracle on the beasts of the Negeb. Through a land of trouble and anguish, from where come the lioness and the lion, the viper and the flying serpent, they carry their riches on the backs of asses, and their treasures on the humps of camels, to a people that cannot profit them. 7 For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her “Rahab who sits still.” (Isaiah 30:1 -7)

    1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD! 2 And yet he is wise and brings disaster, he does not call back his words, but will arise against the house of the evildoers, and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. 3 The Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together. (Isaiah 31: 1-3)

  • Karlson, unlike you Pope Benedict understands that peace and freedom in this fallen world can often be had only through the lives of soldiers:

    “On the 6th of June, 1944, when the landing of the allied troops in German-occupied France commenced, a signal of hope was given to people throughout the world, and also to many in Germany itself, of imminent peace and freedom in Europe. What had happened? A criminal and his party faithful had succeeded in usurping the power of the German state. In consequence of such party rule, law and injustice became intertwined, and often indistinguishable. The legal system itself, which continued, in some respects, still to function in an everyday context, had, at the same time, become a force destructive of law and right. This rule of lies served a system of fear, in which no one could trust another, since each person had somehow to shield himself behind a mask of lies, which, on the one hand, functioned as self defense, while, in equal measure, it served to consolidate the power of evil. And so it was that the whole world had to intervene to force open this ring of crime, so that freedom, law and justice might be restored.

    We give thanks at this hour that this deliverance, in fact, took place. And not just those nations that suffered occupation by German troops, and were thus delivered over to Nazi terror, give thanks. We Germans, too, give thanks that by this action, freedom, law and justice would be restored to us. If nowhere else in history, here clearly is a case where, in the form of the Allied invasion, a justum bellum worked, ultimately, for the benefit of the very country against which it was waged.”
    http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.2/ratzinger.htm

    I realize this is all very galling for a Leftist ideologue like yourself, but facts are stubborn things.

  • “A few days after the liberation of Rome, Lieutenant General Mark Clark, Commander of the Fifth Allied Army, paid his respects to the Pope: “I am afraid you have been disturbed by the noise of my tanks. I am sorry.” Pius XII smiled and replied: “General, any time you come to liberate Rome, you can make just as much noise as you like.””

    http://www.piusxiipope.info/papacy.htm

  • Henry,

    As much as I disagree with some of your perceptions and interpretations of Catholic teaching and its implementation, I see the fruitfulness of charitable dialogue and engagement on issues pertaining to the Church.

    Thank you for all your comments!

  • I argued in a paper that is currently under review for publication that the u.s. military is seen by many americans to be another type of priesthood. Tito, Donald, et al. make that view explicit when they place u.s. soldiers inside the hierarchy of the church. This combination of u.s. militarism and Catholicism is PRECISELY fascist.

  • At the root of this idolatry is a profound misunderstanding of the reality of Christian sacrifice. Tito, et al. substitute a secular, pagan, nationalistic understanding of sacrifice for the understanding we have of sacrifice as following the non-violent way of the cross.

  • Donald R. McClare-
    Now that is classy. Would that I could come up with a response like that on the fly!

  • I’m always amazed that people who denigrate the military are oblivious to the fact that they only possess that right because someone somewhere gave their life in order to preserve our freedom of speech.

  • Truth be told – I have said in the past and live by it – I would gladly die for a person’s freedom of speech.. Sad to me that they usually do not rescipicate that feeling…

  • Michael,

    I am quoting both Servant of God Fulton Sheen and Lacordaire. Where have I said that soldiers are an institutional vocation?

    As to the second approved comment, review what I typed above.

    Please argue the substance of the posting and stop denigrating the writers of this website and anyone else that doesn’t fit into your bizarre construct of Catholicism.

  • I’d say ‘next in dignity’ is taking it a bit far.

  • John – Good to hear. I like the distancing going on at this blog.

  • Soldiers and priests can be good, bad or mixed, usually mixed, depending upon the soldier or priest. What is clear however, is that Catholicism has recognized a role for both of them. There has been an attempt over the past few decades by some Catholics to contend that the profession of arms is dishonorable and contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. That is simply not true as even a cursory look at the history of the Church reveals.

  • “Donald R. McClarey
    Now that is classy. Would that I could come up with a response like that on the fly!”

    Thank you Foxfier! Coming from such an able combox warrior as yourself that is high praise!

  • John Henry,

    Take it up with the Abbe.

    I know he’s gone, just getting punchy this evening. It’s been a looong week.

  • What is clear however, is that Catholicism has recognized a role for both of them. There has been an attempt over the past few decades by some Catholics to contend that the profession of arms is dishonorable and contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. That is simply not true

    I agree, Donald. I think we can over-praise the military, and that doing so can have very real harms. At the same time, the denigration of soldiers that takes place in some quarters contradicts a great deal of the Christian Tradition.

    To be sure, I think there is an honorable place for pacificism also within that Christian tradition, but I don’t think either pacifists or soldiers have the right to excommunicate the other.

  • I don’t think Donald was excommunicating pacifists (at least not in this thread).

  • I don’t think Donald was excommunicating pacifists (at least not in this thread).

    Agreed.

  • Michael,

    It’s called constructive dialogue.

    Something of which you are incapable of.

  • After chaplains John Henry, my highest esteem goes to pacifists who have served as medics. This gentleman especially:

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/desmond_doss_pacifist_medal_of_honor_recipient_dies_at_87/

  • Soldiers, firefighters and policemen put their lives at risk every day for other people. This is part of their job description. Putting your life at risk for another person only a daily basis is a noble thing. I think this is probably what Sheen meant. At the root of his comment is a simple understanding of self-sacrifice; there is no deep evil; there is no understanding of the soldier as priest; there is no militarism; there is no paganism. And I hope every person’s life’s work is placed in the hierarchy of the Church. Everything ought to be for God.

  • Henry,

    As I recall, a week or two ago, you wrote a post arguing against moral rigorism in regards to “cooperation with evil” by pointing to the example of St. George, who was a Roman soldier in close service to Emperor Diocletian. Now you’re arguing, from the example of St. Basil that the Church Fathers held soldiering to be immoral. Which is it?

    Is it, perhaps, that St. Basil was adhering to ideas regarding the purity required for receiving the Eucharist which would seem beyond Jansenist to us today? After all, he also held, if memory serves, that married couples should not receive the Eucharist after performing the marital act, for a similar period. If you want to hold the one as normative, would you similarly hold the other?

  • “I was given this book just before my 1st deployment to Iraq in 2003 (the initial surge). When I came back to the states I decided to finally get confirmed. The great bishop is and will always be an influence in my spirtuality.”

    Robert thank you for your service. Most Americans greatly appreciate it and honor you for it.

  • I’d say ‘next in dignity’ is taking it a bit far.

    I would assume that the logic behind the quote is that just as the consecrated life required the denial of self for the world of the Church, so the vocation of soldiering involves the risk of one’s life on behalf of the lives of others.

    In this sense, I can see how the vocation taken in its essentials would be seen as next in dignity to the consecrated life — and at the same time I don’t think that would necessarily be a claim that soldiers as individuals possess superior moral virtue. Indeed, clearly, soldiering is a vocation with rather extreme moral risks built into it. That said, however, it is singular in the sense in which soldiering involves potential sacrifice on behalf of others — which is why being a soldier is so frequently used as a metaphor both in the Scriptures and in the writings of the saints.

    It is, I must admit, a bit confusing to me how pacifists (if they are really serious about pacifism and believe soldiering to be thoroughly evil, as Michael seems to claim to do) fill this rhetorical and literary gap. Looking at the canon of literature, mythology and history, it seems a rather sparse shelf once one has rejected everything that involves violence.

  • Listening to a German woman speak about her experience as a ten-year old at the end of WWII, she told me that her family could hear the American guns and hoped they would reach their house before the Russian soldiers. She, as well as others, are grateful to the American soldiers for defeating Nazi Germany.

    We all owe our service people gratitude for their protection.

  • Darwin-
    Might one say that Priests offer their lives, and Soldiers offer their deaths?

  • Henry is right. Economic justice is prohibited because we live in a fallen world, but military action is not. Why?

    Is there such a thing as a just war? I think so, but the bar is set really really high. There must always be a presumption against war. As John Paul called for in Centesimus Annus, we must all say “never again war” and move on to different ways of solving conflicts, and by treating underlying issues of justice that often cause war.

    Or, as Benedict put it, nothing good ever comes from war. War is the ultimate last resort, the ultimate sign of failure. It is a time for mourning, not rejoicing. The kind of military glorifiction on display here should be offensive to all followers of Jesus the Christ. It embodies a pagan ethic. Consider again the quotes from the Church fathers from my earlier comment – these men knew what it was like to stand up against the pagan mindset.

  • Actually Tony Pope Benedict in his D-Day quotation I cited above said that a very good thing, liberation, came for the people of Europe from the victories of the Western Allies in World War ii, including his native Germany.

  • The kind of military glorifiction on display here should be offensive to all followers of Jesus the Christ. It embodies a pagan ethic.

    What military glorification? The quote from Fulton Sheen? For real?

    Come now, you can’t let the fact that a blog you don’t like prints something make you respond irrationally.

  • Just curious about what this would mean for Christian soldiers in Iraq during the most recent war. Would it have been their Christian duty to country to fight against the armies that invaded in a pre-emptive war?

    Cathy – I have a simliar story. A good friend of mine told me recently of the liberation of his village from the Soviets by Germans in World War 2. He was just a child at the time, but he remembers the German soldiers re-opening their churches (shut down by the communists). The men were more than happy to join the German army and fight for their liberators against the Russians and Allies, as was their Christian duty.

  • DC

    Re-read my comments. Take care to read them and the context. And take care to do what they told you to do. Then you will see your comment (and Donald’s) are completely offbase.

  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom and a force for liberation. In recent years, this essential truth has become the object of reflection for theologians, with a new kind of attention which is itself full of promise.

    Liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin. Its end and its goal is the freedom of the children of God, which is the gift of grace. As a logical consequence, it calls for freedom from many different kinds of slavery in the cultural, economic, social, and political spheres, all of which derive ultimately from sin, and so often prevent people from living in a manner befitting their dignity. To discern clearly what is fundamental to this issue and what is a by-product of it, is an indispensable condition for any theological reflection on liberation.

    Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind. They do so in such a way that they seem to put liberation from sin in second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due. Thus, their very presentation of the problems is confused and ambiguous. Others, in an effort to learn more precisely what are the causes of the slavery which they want to end, make use of different concepts without sufficient critical caution. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to purify these borrowed concepts of an ideological inspiration which is compatible with Christian faith and the ethical requirements which flow from it.

  • You want a quote. How about this quote from a Roman Centurion found in the third edition of the Missale Romanum:

    “Lord, I am not worthy
    that you should enter under my roof,
    but only say the word
    and my soul (my servant) shall be healed.”

    And unlike the woman taken in adultery, no follows on orders to soldier no more.

  • “Poison.”

    What does a hair band from the 80’s have to do with anything here?

  • “Just curious about what this would mean for Christian soldiers in Iraq during the most recent war. Would it have been their Christian duty to country to fight against the armies that invaded in a pre-emptive war?”

    Yes. Because American’s invasion of Iraq did not fall under the criteria of a just war, the only Christian soldiers deserving praise (from Christians) for fighting in that war are any Iraqi Christians who were defending their homeland against the unjust invader. This is not to say that American Christian soldiers can be held subjectively culpable for participating in the war; only that their participation in what was in fact an unjust action should not be described as something it was not–i.e. virtuous, etc.

  • WJ-
    you do realize that there’s a case for Iraq being a just war, and that such a determination is for the nation’s leaders, not folks who want to drag comboxes off topic?

  • “I’d say ‘next in dignity is taking it a bit far.”

    Anyone intimately familiar with the sacrifices the men and women of a nation’s military make – not for glory, but for love of country and countrymen – should not find fault with the sentiment expressed in Archbishop Sheen’s book.

    “Greater love than this no man hath than to lay down his life for his friends.”

    My family has a close relative who just returned from Iraq and suffers terribly from PTSD. He left 4 years ago a vigorous young man, full of life. He returned a broken man … physically, mentally, and emotionally. No one intimately familiar with the physical, psychological, and emotional toll that war often (if not always) takes on those who fight it could EVER “glorify” war. There’s nothing glorious about it.

    But the soldiers themselves who fight those wars are due our honor and esteem, and I will place them very high among those worthy of such. It is no stretch to me, at all, to find the dignity of the vocation of those who sacrifice so much for so many … something for which there is no true recompense beyond recognizing and honoring said sacrifice … to be ranked among the highest of vocations.

  • At the risk of being despised by both sides of this lively debate, might I offer a philosophical point that appears overlooked? I hope the length of this comment does not deter all the fine minds on this stream.

    The question is this: What is the nature of a soldier?
    This seemingly simple question might appear simple to answer as well. But how this is answered reveals part of what appears to be, what MacIntyre once termed, a “conceptual incompensurability” between the two sides of the debate here.

    If we look to Archbishop Sheen, we could define soldier as one who is “commissioned by the spirit and intention of sacrifice to defend justice on the field of battle and order on the field of peace.”

    Now, this definition is, rightly, quite generic enabling its universal application. All of its elements (sacrifice, justice, field of battle, order and peace) are in no way simple and universally accepted elements, i.e., much of how these elements are understood will depend upon the cultural context that ‘thickens’ them. I’m not denying an ‘objectivity’ to them, but asserting that the objectivity is in excess of any one definition (which is why they are defined, thought, examined etc. over and over.)

    This generic and universal definition of ‘soldier’ is necessary to any ecclesial advocacy of its ‘vocational’ component. I think all would agree that were the Church to say “being a US soldier,” or “being a British soldier,” is next in dignity to the priesthood, something would clearly be amiss.

    But if this term soldier is generic and universal, then it is applicable in any number of ways. Didn’t Dorothy Day “defend justice and order” and was hers also not a “field of battle”? Doesn’t the nurse who sees her work as a Christian Calling also not “defend justice and order” on a “field of battle”? Doesn’t a teacher? A mother, father, grandparent?

    So, in this broad, universal sense of soldier, there ought to be nothing overtly offensive – for it describes every lay Christian in the Church Militant.

    If one is unhappy or unconvinced by this analogical use of ‘soldier’ and believes that these ecclesial voices (Sheen, JPII, John XXIII) clearly intends a military application of the term (where ‘military’ means an association with the the armed forces of modern nation states), then, it appears to me, one faces the unhappy consequence of finding a way to defend the post’s interpretation of its three citation without exposing an a priori allegiance to a particular nation state’s military that the citations did not – indeed could not – intend.

    In other words, it seems that when the nature of the term ‘soldier’ and its use in the post’s citations are taken into consideration, one can endorse the idea only when the term ‘soldier’ is taken analogously to include the likes of all Christians whose vocation is intrinsically to “Defend justice and order on the field of battle called by the intention of sacrifice.”

    Sure, this may also include members of the armed forces who do look at their role as somehow serving God. But here we would have to include all members of all military machines, including those we in the West find unjust.

    At the risk of violating the Godwin principle, and because it makes the point quite clearly, this would have to include even the Nazi soldier who, firmly buying into the propaganda, is willing to sacrifice his life for the defense of justice and order. Denying this claim would require one to invoke the particularities of the Nazi context that are not intrinsically included in the universal sense of soldier. But refusing these particulars is precisely what allows one to endorse the term. So one runs into an inconsistency.

    If this last point is not conceded, then any endorsement of the citations in this post betray a form of American Exceptionalism which, clearly, the citations do not intend. One may very well admit to being an American Exceptionalist, but one ought not suggest that Sheen, JPII, or John XXIII were also.
    Consequently, in this case, the interpretations of these citations would be in error, inferring upon the words of these fine upstanding members of the Church (Sheen, JPII, John XXIII) meaning that they did not intend.

    One might argue that John XXIII is clearly speaking about the soldier of a military, since he himself is referring to his own experience as such. But it seems that in this case, his experience, which does indeed invoke his own personal particular experience with a military, is the concrete ground upon which his universal, more generic, endorsement of ‘being a soldier’ is founded. In other words, it is not the particularities of his military experience he is praising, but the way that it enabled him to understand the deeper meaning in all sacrifice for the good, which also shines in the works of lay people in general. Otherwise, John XXIII would have declared his own military a key part the definition of soldiering.

    And here is the conceptual incommensurability I spoke of: the objection to the use of soldier in this post may be directed to a particular thickening of the term within a given context (e.g., the current US military actions) while those defending it seem to be defending the universal idea of self-sacrifice for justice and order. The debate will go on and on if this is the case because there is no conceptual common ground.

    So underneath this debate is still a more concrete debate about the consistency of national interest with Christian teaching, really. Soldiers do not exist in the universal, generic sense; unless Christians are all strict Platonists, universals are not real even though they have, what Aquinas called, a ‘fundamentum in re’, a foundation in reality.

    So to sing the praises of soldiering, one must have in mind a particular soldier, upon a particular field of battle. This, it seems, redirects the whole discussion to these particularities rather than to the universal, generic truisms of the good of self-sacrifice for justice and order.

    For it seems we can all agree that the Christian laity, all of us soldiers for the Church militant, merit just as much dignity as the clergy, though in a different manner.

  • “you do realize that there’s a case for Iraq being a just war, and that such a determination is for the nation’s leaders, not folks who want to drag comboxes off topic?”

    Hitler determined his war was just. In fact, everyone on every side of a war believes there war is just. So we just listen to the leaders? No, that is not what the Church teaches.

  • And lest we forget, not all of those who fight the wars have the opportunity to return with physical, psychological, and emotional scars. Many pay the ultimate sacrifice.

  • “Just curious about what this would mean for Christian soldiers in Iraq during the most recent war. Would it have been their Christian duty to country to fight against the armies that invaded in a pre-emptive war?”

    Yes. Because American’s invasion of Iraq did not fall under the criteria of a just war, the only Christian soldiers deserving praise (from Christians) for fighting in that war are any Iraqi Christians who were defending their homeland against the unjust invader. This is not to say that American Christian soldiers can be held subjectively culpable for participating in the war; only that their participation in what was in fact an unjust action should not be described as something it was not–i.e. virtuous, etc.

    In other words, American soldiers battling on behalf of the Ba’ath Party / Tikriti clan meets the criteria for a just war.

  • Foxfier,

    Sadly, no. There is no plausible interpretation of Just War theory according to which the U.S. invasion of Iraq was just. I wish it wasn’t so. I supported the Iraq War on the basis of the facts as they were presented by “the nation’s leaders” at the outset of that war. Those facts have all been shown to be not facts at all, but distortions, half-truths, and lies. Indeed, *even if* one were to accept George Weigel’s cockamamie interpretation of JWT and how that theory applied to America in early 2003, that would *still* not be enough to warrant our calling the invasion just.

    By the way, our “nation’s leaders” don’t get to “determine” whether a war they begin is just or unjust, anymore than they get to determine whether a piece of legislation they enact is just or unjust.

    I’m sorry for dragging this off-topic. I was responding to Ryan Klassen’s question.

  • “In other words, American soldiers battling on behalf of the Ba’ath Party / Tikriti clan meets the criteria for a just war.”

    I think you must mean “Christian soldiers” in the sentence above.

  • Supposing that you do mean “Christian soldiers” in your response, I’d have to say that your formulation is unclear.

    “Battling on behalf of” is not precise enough of a descriptor, since one can easily imagine a Christian solider battling on behalf of Iraq during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which was of course unjust.

    Also, whether and to what extent any particular solider *identifies* his defense of Iraq with the defense of the Ba’ath Party is an empirical question, one which is elided in your formulation.

  • WJ-
    you make a ‘determination’ when you make a decision. As per Catholic Answers, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

    WMDs? Mass-murder? Secret nuke program? Nerve gassing the swamp Arabs? Bah, why would soldier willing to fight against THAT be worthy of any respect.

  • Foxfier:

    The confusion of CA is that the evaluation of whether or not to engage a war is indeed in the hands of the leaders of the nation; but that is not what determines whether or not a war is just.

    Here is a statement from someone who has actual ecclesial authority: http://www.catholicpeacefellowship.org/nextpage.asp?m=2123

  • Brendan,

    I don’t think you will find both sides disagree with you — yes, the word soldier can have many implications and meanings, and that is an issue which I didn’t raise and you are right to do so.

    Nonetheless, I do think many people arguing against my views have only argued against something which I didn’t say (or believe), which is why I recommended my Veteran’s Day post. The context of my reply is with the glorification of military might as for the sake of liberation – something which is very dangerous indeed to hold to, as the Church has pointed out time and time again.

  • If you want to make it all a matter of ecclesiastical authority, Henry, it bears pointing out that while Catholic Answers is not an ecclesiastical authority, the Bishop of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton, OH likewise has no ecclesiastical authority over Roman Catholics, much less Roman Catholics at a national level.

  • Foxfier,

    I think you are confusing two distinct issues here. On the one hand, it is true that JWT gives political authorities the final responsibility for determining, in any given instance, whether a war they are about to embark *should* be embarked upon; on the other hand, in we are make any sense of what it means to “evaluate…conditions” and to make a “prudential judgment,” we have to allow for the possibility of *mis*evaluating this conditions and of making the *wrong* judgment. Otherwise whatever the political authorities decided was a just war *would be* a just war, and this is absurd.

  • Brendan,

    Very good point — though I think it’s fairly clear in the quotes that these are all refering to “soldier” in the military sense, it is clearly “soldier” as a universal, not the absolutizing of the cause of a single nation.

  • DC

    And while it is true he has no direct authority except over his flock, it is also clear that as a bishop, and a part of the Magisterium, he has far more authority than CA — CA when it gets beyond the realm of apologetics is sadly quite bad.

  • WJ,

    A question for you: You argue that because you think that just war teaching cannot possibly justify the Iraq War, that the only Christian soldiers fighting for a just cause in the war were any Iraqi Christian soldiers fighting for Hussein.

    However, is it not questionably whether fighting to protect the Baathist dictatorship is itself just even if one posits that the US did not at that time have a just cause to topple the regime.

    Further, it’s important to recall that not only did many in the US believe that Iraq possessed WMD, but many in Iraq did as well. There were a number of cases where groups of Iraqi soldiers surrended and immediately begged for chemical warfare protective gear, because they believed that their own army was about to launch a chemical attack on the Americans, and many of the units in the regular army hadn’t been given any protective gear to keep them safe from any chemical weapons used by their own side.

    The situation since 2003 is even more complicated, since one of the primary tactics of the insurgency has been to attack Iraqi civilians and the Iraqi government. American soldiers in the last seven years have primarily been asked to fight alongside the Iraqi military against tribal and foreign fighters seeking to destablize the Iraqi government. In such a situation, would fighting with the Americans not be the just course?

    And indeed, statements from the Vatican and USCCB since the initial invasion have essentially supported this — though many “peace advocates” still seem to favor the idea of immediate pull out, apparently because the number of Iraqis who suffer as a result do not matter so long as it is clear the the US “loses”.

  • DarwinCatholic,

    You make two good points here, let me address them in turn:

    1: However, is it not questionabl[e] whether fighting to protect the Baathist dictatorship is itself just even if one posits that the US did not at that time have a just cause to topple the regime[?]

    Granted that Iraq was an unjust regime, does this make it unjust for soldiers to defend that regime against an unjust attack? This is a tricky question. My sense of JWT (and I am open to correction here) is that the Justness or Unjustness of each regime, as it handles its own internal affairs, is insufficient by itself for determining, in any particular case, whether a defense action taken on behalf of that regime falls under a Just War properly understood. My sense is that the tradition is *very*, perhaps *too* conservative here, so that one could determine that, even *granted* that Iraq was an unjust regime, still, according to JWT, that regime has a right to protect itself against a foreign unjust action. I wonder whether your own sense of JWT fits with this, and if it does not, I’d like to hear an alternate view.

    Second, even granted that the Iraqi defense was a Just one, I agree with you that it is very likely that many of the soldiers fighting in its cause did so in an unjust way, insofar as their aim was the continued propping up of the “Baathist dictatorship” rather than a defense of their nation, or homeland, or families. But I think that this question is an empirical one: surely many Iraqis fighting against the US were motivated by duty to country, by a sense of wanting to protect their families, etc.; and many others had the “intention” of supporting the “Baathists.”

    I suppose my final, hesitant, answer would be that the U.S. invasion of Iraq at least allowed for the *possibility* of a just resistance to that invasion, without being sufficient for it.

    2: I agree that the years following the unjust invasion complicate things significantly, and that any decision in this area has to take into account what would befall the Iraqis if the U.S. were to leave as precipitously as we arrived. And I am much less sure of what the correct course here would be.

  • I think Darwin’s last paragraph gets to the heart of the pathologies of our political discourse.

  • Something tells me that Just War Theory in the hands of some has degenerated into a sterile intellectual exercise completely removed from the dilemmas that actual policy makers face.

  • Henry,
    You are correct, of course, that the question of whether a war is just cannot be collapsed into the question of who decides. That is, just because those who are responsible for making the decision do so does not render their decision correct. But I don’t think that there was any “confusion” on that point in CA. This is the nature of a prudential calculus. The consequence of this is that the Church normally cannot speak authoritatively as to the calculus’s outcome, which is why a Catholics may often differ as to their assessments and normally cannot be assumed to non-compliant with Church teaching even if they take a view that differs from that of their bishop or even the Holy Father (which does not mean that the views of Church leaders should not be very seriously considered, of course). All that said, the job of individuals to make such prudential calculuses cannot be used as an excuse for rationalization. Just because the Church may not be in a position to authoritatively object to one’s calculus, does not mean that one’s calculus is somehow protected from culpable moral error.

  • Art Deco,

    As I understand it, theorizing about just war is important just because “actual policy makers” are usually motivated by many different things, precious few of which concern justice. Is bioethics a “sterile intellectual exercise” that is completely removed from the “dilemmas” that actual scientists must face?

  • FWIW, I think the justness or unjustness of the current invasion of Iraq hinges on whether the one a decade earlier was just. A logical thought process would go like this: Iraq unjustly invaded Kuwait. Kuwait was just resist and ask for assistance for other nations. The US was just in taking up that cause. The US, Kuwait and a host of other nations succeeded in driving Iraq out of Kuwait and would have been justified in seeing it through until Saddam’s regine was toppled.

    They didn’t do it, they instead agreed to a conditional cease fire and withdrawl. Saddam Hussein violated those terms almost immediately. Everything from flying fighters in the no-fly zone, to locking on and/or firing at coalition aircraft to not allowing UN inspectors do their job. Most instances were dealt with directly and in a very measured manner even though they were cause enough to resume full hostilities. Note that Saddam also used the situation to severely persecute many of his own people.

    Barring any change in Saddam’s attitude and actions or an outright regime change a continuation of the hostilities were imminent. After 9/11 those in charge made the call that Saddam’s belligerence needed to come to end.

    I’m not 100% sure what to think because like the rest here I don’t have *all* the facts, but I reject the notion that no person of good will and informed conscience could come to the conclusion that the war was just.

  • In retrospect, I want to take back my too-strong claim that *only* Christian Iraqi soldiers could be described as behaving “virtuously,” or “with Christian honor,” etc. in the Iraq War. In making this claim I was trying to show that because the U.S. did not fulfill the “jus ad bellum” criteria of Just War, an American solider’s participation *in* that war was different from an Iraqi solider’s–since at least the Iraqi solider *might* be engaging in an activity that fulfills “jus ad bellum” criteria.

    What I oversimplified, and, unfortunately, may have misrepresented, was the principle of the moral equality of combatants, according to which a soldier is responsible only for his “jus in bello” behavior. The reasoning goes that because individual soldiers cannot be expected to have the knowledge or power to inform the political “ad bellum” decision, their moral status *in* war derives from their behavior within the war. This principle is not uncontroversial, but it is unsettled enough that I need to at least affirm the possibility that American soldiers *may* be praised for their conduct in the Iraq War, even granted that that war was unjust.

    I don’t have a settled opinion on the moral equality of combatants principle; good arguments can be found on both sides.

  • WJ,

    I would say no. But those practical dilemmas are what prudential judgments are formed from, not only from the moral principles. And that’s were scientists and physicians may come to different conclusions. Even more so it seems in deciding if a war meets just criteria.

  • This refers to WJ’s 10:54 am comment.

  • Phillip,

    I agree with you that practical dilemmas are where prudential judgments are made. I was only responding to Art Deco’s assertion that, because this is so, *therefore* thinking hard about the structure of moral action is a “sterile intellectual exercise.” Just the opposite, it is a *necessary*, if insufficient, to make clear to political actors and to scientists just what these moral principles are, and why they are important.

    Now I simply *must* get back to my real writing.
    Thanks for the conversation.

  • …lest I give my wife the grounds for a just military action…:)

  • This is not meant to be an insult, but it seems to me that most of you don’t have any idea of what you’re talking about. There’s ideal musings, and then there’s actual experience. God’s gave me an experience that very few will ever have: that of being a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment. The so called ‘tip’ of the spear.

    It is quite possible to have ‘served’ in the military, and never come close to experiencing what I did. It is even possible to have gone to war in Iraq, and never to have come close to experiencing what I did. For what I experienced was the raw spirit of modern violence, and in particular, the culture that such a spirit forms.

    Those who belong to the officer corps, or to non-combat units, or even to combat units of a lesser sort, these soldiers do not tend to experience the essential spirit of modern warfare. They get whiffs, but they do not breathe and eat the stuff.

    I want to tell it to you straight, apart from the doctrines, apart from the philosophies and the ideals: Modern warfare is demonic, and these demons savage the souls of those at the heart of it. It endangers a person’s soul to enter certain parts of the U.S. military – those units with the most responsibility for directly killing in close-quarters.

    Ideally, yes, perhaps saints with swords could kill enemies in a just-war via double-effect. Maybe it has even happened throughout history. But I tell you this – modern war, today, with its machines and dehumanization and propaganda and materialistic-totalitarianism . . . this type of war distorts the souls of those who really engage it. The demonic danger is real, and it is overwhelming. I do not blame the military, I do not blame the soldiers. I blame the fallen world, and I blame Satan.

    If we think the world is fallen enough to require war, we should be able to see that the world is too fallen to wage war without being destroyed by the demons such violence unleashes. God help the young men we place into such hell!

  • Thank you, again, for sharing your experiences Nate. The personal testimony of one person is not always the best basis for formulating public policy, but it certainly is more valuable than most of the abstract theorizing that takes place on these topics (including my own abstract theorizing).

  • Thank you, John. I agree – my experience is just one of many, and we should listen to them all. Most soldiers who have seen the real face of war (and I’m not sure I can include myself among them) do not want to talk about it. I’ve been agonizing over this all morning, honestly. I do not mean to offend anyone with a different opinion than mine, and if my words are strong, it’s a reflection of the intensity of what I went through, and my empathy for those who might have to endure the same thing.

    Catholics often scrutinize where they send their kids to school, what books their kids read, what friends their kids make, and so forth. But when it comes to the military – a government run institution – I find that we become blind believers. If a secular college is a dangerous place for a young Catholic, how much more a secular military?

    One small nugget: ‘cursing like a sailor’ isn’t just a phrase. F*ck was the word we used most often, about everything, in literally every other sentence. You might think I’m kidding about every other sentence, but it’s really true. The constant cursing is probably the ‘smallest’ thing I can think of, in terms of demonic influence, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

  • Nate,

    I appreciate your experiences and cannot relate to them. I don’t know if the modern battlefield involves more direct killing than the ancient. Can one begin to imagine the horrors of the Greek phalanx with the direct killing involved there. Siege warfare of the middle ages is also brought to mind. The Church was aware of these and still considered the place for a just war.
    Then there is the continued modern day demands on the police officer and the coarsening that can result from that. Yet police are still needed and their actions, when performed morally, are just.

  • One small nugget: ‘cursing like a sailor’ isn’t just a phrase. F*ck was the word we used most often, about everything, in literally every other sentence. You might think I’m kidding about every other sentence, but it’s really true. The constant cursing is probably the ’smallest’ thing I can think of, in terms of demonic influence, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

    FWIW, that seems to be a fairly common thing among people our age (men in particular, but women as well) in situations where it’s not actively cracked down on. I’ve run into f**k-speak everywhere from archeology digs to forklift operators to sales teams — basically anywhere that “the management” doesn’t make it clear it’s not acceptable on business premises. We live in an uncivilized age. (Like just about all ages…)

    That said, I think you make an important practical point, which people would do very well to keep in mind at the same time they contemplate more abstract points. No matter how much the risk of self for others may bring an opportunity for saintliness and nobility to the calling, being a soldier is also going to mean seeing and being involved in horrible things, being far from home, being in fear, having at your hands the tools for intimidation and violence, and by turns being extremely bored — all things which provide ample opportunity for grave sin.

    While I think Sheens point has an essential validity, it’s clear that soldiering involves a host of temptations which young men far from home are often not good at resisting. While I continue to think that serving in the military is an honorable and necessary thing which Catholics should not universally shrink from (though clearly not everyon is not called to such a thing), one would be pretty foolish to think, “Oh, I better encourage my son to join the army. Clearly, he’ll never to be tempted to sin there.”

    And come to that, this is true (though in different ways) of other professions where personal sacrifice and helping others would seem to be central — as seen in alcoholism and other personal dysfunction rates for doctors, priests, policemen, etc.

  • I am generally quite sick of debates over issues that have absolutely no chance whatsoever of changing a mind or even getting one to bend a little. That’s why I haven’t said anything about this.

    I will say this: I oppose America’s foreign policy of the moment – and if the political sympathies and donations made by many of the actual troops themselves are any indication, so are the people who are being asked to die for it – but I also completely reject any attempt to denigrate American soldiers or patriotism in general as “fascist” or somehow immoral.

    So I am equally disgusted by two opposite viewpoints: 1) the view that to oppose the insane think-tank fantasies that have guided foreign policy is to somehow oppose the troops or be unpatriotic, and 2) the view that to support the troops in any capacity is somehow “fascist.”

  • My view of soldiers and public attitudes towards them was summed up by Mr. Kipling:

    TOMMY

    I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
    The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
    The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
    I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
    O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
    But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
    The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
    O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

    I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
    They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
    They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
    But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
    But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
    The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
    O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

    Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
    Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
    An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
    Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
    Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
    But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

    We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
    But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
    An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
    Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
    While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
    But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
    There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
    O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

    You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
    We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
    Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
    The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
    An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
    An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

  • Rick Lugari – Great comment. That’s exactly the way I look at it.

  • “F*ck was the word we used most often, about everything, in literally every other sentence. You might think I’m kidding about every other sentence, but it’s really true.”

    Well that was certainly also true when I was in the Army back in the Seventies. It was also true of the English Army that fought against Joan of Arc. Their favorite expression was G-dd-mn. Some things remain true across the centuries when it comes to the military experience. I do not swear and I did not when I was in the Army. The swearing bothered me to some extent, although quite a few of my profane colleagues became good friends with me. In spite of their profanity many of them were good-hearted and men of honor. In regard to swearing in civilian life, that has radically increased since the Sixties, certainly when it comes to public swearing.

  • Don would probably know for sure, but I believe that back in the day the English Army was so enamored with “G-dd-mn that their French opponents routinely referred to English soldiers as the “G-dd-mns.”

  • Quite right Mike.

  • WJ & Mike Petrik,

    How about a nifty pic to go with your icon?

  • Mike,

    I remember reading that.

  • On the use of the F-bomb, remember: this about a decade old.
    (F* rap.)

    Men in their twenties also greet each other with “f*ker.”

  • I seem to recall reading that it was the Ausies who made f*ck military standard usage in the Great War. At which time its use are noun, adjective, adverb and verb all rolled into one was still comparatively new.

    Though my grandfather who began his 30-year career in the navy in 1945 (and past whose lips I never heard a single profanity pass) always insisted that when he was in the Navy profanity was not nearly as pervasive as in modern WW2 dramas like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers — the which are in turn far more clean-cut in their language than the Mamet and Tarantino-esque speech patterns of many ordinary civilians my age.

  • I recommend “No Victory, No Peace” by Angelo Codevilla.

  • “Lord, I am not worthy
    that you should enter under my roof,
    but only say the word
    and my soul (my servant) shall be healed.”

    And unlike the woman taken in adultery, no follows on orders to soldier no more.

    Argument from silence.

    Anyone intimately familiar with the sacrifices the men and women of a nation’s military make – not for glory, but for love of country and countrymen – should not find fault with the sentiment expressed in Archbishop Sheen’s book.

    You can’t be serious. You can say this about any person or group of people who is willing to kill and die for what they believe. You could say it about “the terrorists.” Sacrifice does not equal Christianity. Sorry.

    It is telling that all of you agree with Sheen’s comment about soldiers being just below priests. How about sisters? Oh yeah, it fits in with your sexism.

    Many pay the ultimate sacrifice.

    Last I checked, Calvary was the ultimate sacrifice. NOT U.S. SOLDIERS.

    2) the view that to support the troops in any capacity is somehow “fascist.”

    Caricature.

  • While I’ve worked jobs where people cursed – from janitors to cadets to high school students – I’ve never encountered the level of cursing that I found in the Ranger regiment. It’s a small thing, however. More startling is the open display of pornography, the constant boasting and announcements of masturbation (“I gotta go jack off – you got some porn?”), the songs of not only killing children and nuns, but of raping women, and so on and so forth. I should re-iterate that this is the experience of a private in an elite special operations unit, not the experience of a desk clerk in a non-combat unit. I would also add upon Donald’s comment that this didn’t make us bad. I’m only pointing out the cultural current and demonic activity, which I associate with the mission: killing other human beings like ourselves.

  • I think there are probably countless volumes of untold stories of heroism, sacrifice and compassion demonstrated by our American soldiers, stories that stay within the confines of family, only to be briefly revealed at the death of an old soldier. One such story was recently related to me — the story of an 18-year-old sergeant, serving in Italy during World War II, who was machine-gunned by a German soldier. The young American was able to shoot back and, while both were lying wounded on the ground, an American patrol happened upon them. The young American insisted that the German not be killed, so instead of firing a fatal shot into the German, the American troops took both wounded men to a hospital to convalesce. These untold stories demonstrate the character of our soldiers, character that has been instilled in our young men by their families, communities, country, and belief in Christ. So what if that utilitarian Anglo-Saxon word is used in excess — our soldiers are not attending tea parties and picking daisies.

  • It’s so sad how someone like Nate can so passionate share his experiences, here, at Vox Nova, on his own website, on the Catholic Peace Fellowship site, etc., yet what he is saying just does not sink in for some people. Instead, he gets “Oh but Nate, yours is just one person’s experience.” These people will praise a complete stranger on this blog who happens to mention his “service”, praising his heroism, etc., without knowing a damn thing about him. When Nate continually shares from his heart his very personal experience and his judgment about the nightmarish dimensions of the military, he is usually brushed off. Another flag waving post follows on the next day.

    Some of us listen, Nate, and refuse to remain on the level of abstraction that some of the bloggers here do. They have an image of the u.s. military in mind, not reality.

  • “Some of us listen, Nate…”

    Don’t confuse listening and agreement, Michael.

  • Thanks, Michael. And thanks to all who have patiently listened to me. Thanks be to God for those who have gone further, and agreed with me. Cuz’ I know it ain’t easy! 🙂

    Also, I really encourage everyone to read Michael’s paper once it becomes available. It’s an in-depth theological examination of what every new military recruit will be forced to face: an anti-Christ culture. Granted, anti-Christ cultures do abound in America. I think we should just remember that the military is (at the least) no exception.

Changed My Mind: Three Strikes Laws

Monday, September 21, AD 2009

I’ve been challenged on a few occasions, as one tends to be if one is a fairly strong adherent of one end of the political spectrum or another, as to whether I’ve ever changed my mind on anything to a position contrary to the standard conservative one. And so, an example:

When a three strikes law was put on the ballot in California (where I lived at the time) I was a strong supporter. California was one of the first states to pass a three strikes law, and there was huge support for it because California was suffering badly from the 90s crime wave. The case for it seemed simple: If you’ve committed three felonies, you’re clearly not learning your lesson, and 25-life will take you off the streets and prevent you from continuing to be a danger to society. Support for the bill was heavily fueled by frustration with a justice system which seemed to act far too much like a revolving door, with rapists and murderers often being back on the streets within 5-8 years, and proceeding to commit similar crimes again. With the judiciary and prison system seemingly unwilling to do their job in keeping criminals off the streets, the case seemed strong for citizens to pass legislation forcing them to, and the three strikes law seemed like an obvious way to do it.

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28 Responses to Changed My Mind: Three Strikes Laws

  • In a similar vein, mandatory minimum sentencing was also a bad, albeit quite understandable, idea.

  • Good post Darwin, and I agree.

    This is an example of democracy gone sour. People cannot be made to suffer to appease the frustrations of the electorate. People should be able to choose from among just and rational options – not to impose mob mentality through the ballot box.

  • “This is an example of democracy gone sour. People cannot be made to suffer to appease the frustrations of the electorate. People should be able to choose from among just and rational options – not to impose mob mentality through the ballot box”.

    The idea seems on the face of it to be rational. What arguments have you against it?

    And a reminder. GKC said that there is nothing infallible about democracy. What will you substitute – rule by “experts”?

  • What about the victims? Who looks out for them?

    I don’t know if 3-strikes or mandatory minimums is the right approach, but stiffer sentences (longer or harder time) is absolutely necessary. Maybe throwing judges out of office who’s sentences do not meet with public demands for protection. How about just “honesty” in sentencing? 10 years = 10 years, instead of out in 2 with good behavior or whatever the ratio is. This is especially problematic in plea bargain cases. Think of a guy who commits a crime with a 10 year sentence, but the prosecutor justifiably pleas it to a 5 year and the offender is out in 2 or so…

  • This post raises a long-standing discussion in criminal law, which is the question of why and how we ought to punish criminals. Specifically, some of the interesting questions involved are:

    What factors play (or should play) into sentencing:

    1. Prior bad actions?
    2. Prior convictions?
    3. Nature of the crime at hand and prior crimes (bad in and of itself (murder) versus bad because of law (felon possessing a weapon)).

    Why do we punish?

    1. Reform the criminal.
    2. Retribution.
    3. Safety of society.
    4. Deter others from committing the crime.

    How long and what type of punishment ought to be given for which crimes?

    The last question is what seems to be most relevant here. Most people in the general public favor a fairly tight relation between crime committed and punishment given. Obviously, the three-strikes law is a departure, sometimes significantly in practice, from that idea.

    The interesting questions is, why does it seem unjust to us that these laws should work as they do? Taking a easier case, if a person has committed three felonies, and is fully aware that his third felony will result in a lengthy prison stay, why would it follow that it is unjust if he is fully aware of the consequences of his actions? On one hand, we could posit some sort of idea that it is not just knowledge of the punishment, but also the justice of the punishment in and of itself that is in question. Therefore, without congruence between punishment and crime, the law itself is unjust.

    On the other hand, knowledge of and ability to knowingly avoid committing a crime is a large part of justice. From whence can we derive the idea that, if a felon knew of the law, and knew how to avoid it, and knew the punishment for committing it, the length of time itself is unjust?

  • Matt,

    I’m very much in favor of strict sentencing and sticking to those sentences. It’s just that I’ve come around to thinking that three strikes laws are a pretty poor way of achieving that — although motivated by legitimate indignation at failure to enforce the law.

    The big problem, as I see it, is that felonies have come to be a very wide range of crimes in most states. Stealing and expensive set of golf clubs, or being caught with a few ounces of pot, while both activities that I heartily disapprove of, don’t strike me as things meriting a 25-life sentence — even if the same person had done similar things twice in the past. It’s that kind of lack of precision that is the problem, in my mind.

    Jonathan,

    Good points all round. I’d say we punish criminals for all four of the reasons you cite — though primarily for 2-4, 1 is more up to the criminal than the state in many cases.

    I do think it’s often legit to take frequency of offense into consideration in sentencing — I just think that the three strikes law proved to be too broad brush and thus resulted in a lot of poor results. The last thing I want is to see a first time offender for armed robbery or rape given a lighter sentence because the prison system is clogged up with a bunch of petty shoplifters and druggies who have been locked up by three strikes.

  • DC,

    If you have not read it, here’s an interesting essay by C.S. Lewis on punishment – http://www.angelfire.com/pro/lewiscs/humanitarian.html.

    May I also recommend this – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-punishment/?

    Forgive me – I am not sure how much study you have done of punishment theory…

  • “The idea seems on the face of it to be rational. What arguments have you against it?”

    Well, I did say rational AND just… I suppose if one’s goal is to be as vindictive and unmerciful as possible, establishing a law that could send a person to prison for decades because they stole a pair of socks is rational in the instrumental sense. It gets the job done.

    My argument against it is Darwin’s argument. We are in agreement. I know someone whose father may be going to prison for shoplifting for life, because 20 years ago they were in a gang and had two previous felonies. That is an injustice.

    “And a reminder. GKC said that there is nothing infallible about democracy. What will you substitute – rule by “experts”?”

    I don’t object to citizens being able to choose from among rational and just policies. I do object to the notion that the fury of the mob can be represented by laws.

  • California has clearly suffered from too much democracy.

    I think sex offender laws are even more unjust. Constituents want ever harsher sex offender laws and there is absolutely no impetus to scale them back. That California case of the sex offender who managed to kidnap and rape a girl in his backyard for 18 years should demonstrate that many sex offender laws are just feel-good laws that don’t actually work. Unfortunately, the public will probably get the idea that the laws aren’t harsh enough.

  • My argument against it:
    sentence folks properly the first time— doesn’t it basically boil down to “you guys in charge of keeping bad guys in jail aren’t doing your job, so we’ll force you to do it”?

    If the folks in charge of that can’t manage their jobs, we might need ta replace ’em….

    RR-
    I know a guy who is…well, very dumb. There’s no nice way to put it. Not a bad person, just very very very low IQ and lacking in reasoning skills.

    He and a friend were accused by a 15 year old daughter of the friend’s girlfriend of rape. The other guy hired a lawyer; this guy went with public council, who told him to just say he was guilty and he’d be able to get out on bail. So he did.

    Girl admitted during the other guy’s trial that it was all a lie to hurt her mom, who wouldn’t do something or other the 15 year old wanted. So the other guy got off.

    The dumb guy is listed as a sex offender, is still under supervision and spent six months in jail, on an accusation that is known false.

    Sex offender laws *do* need some work….

  • Yes, I agree there are serious problems with “three strikes” and some sex offender laws.

    The main problem, I think, is that the general public and to some degree politicians equate “felony” with “violent crime,” and “sex offender” with “mad degenerate lurking in the bushes waiting to attack someone.”

    However, many non-violent offenses are felonies, and not all sex offenses involve violence or coercion. Felonies can include everything from murder to calling in a false fire alarm or shoplifiting an item worth more than $300 (or whatever the cutoff point for felony theft is in your state).

    Sex offenses, meanwhile, can include anything from rape and child molestation to a teenage boy grabbing a girl’s breasts as a prank — again, depending on how the laws of one’s state read. Sex offenders in some states may be required to register with law enforcement and severe restrictions placed on where they can live, regardless of the nature of their offense. Restricting people who have repeatedly molested children or raped women on the street is one thing; doing so to an 18-year-old guy who went too far with his 15-year-old girlfriend is another thing entirely.

  • I don’t think anecdotal cases of false convictions due to stupid confessions are evidence for a need to reform the sex offender system.

    Having said that, their is a serious problem when true sexual predators are not distinguished from teenage Lothario’s and pranksters, there is also a serious problem when you converge multiple attempts to curb crime (3 strikes and low thresholds for felonies).

    I would say that, on the whole, a proper reform of our justice system would generally enhance punishment, not diminish it.

  • I would say that, on the whole, a proper reform of our justice system would generally enhance punishment, not diminish it.

    /agree

    Create a new area of sex crimes, too– false accusations.

  • foxfier,

    Create a new area of sex crimes, too– false accusations.

    i don’t think so, if the person is innocent then they should not confess or be convicted, don’t add a new problem to fix another problem.

    There certainly is an issue with excessive pressure on defendants to confess even if they’re innocent. This has nothing to do with sex offender laws but with the structure of the judicial system.

  • i don’t think so, if the person is innocent then they should not confess or be convicted, don’t add a new problem to fix another problem.

    Perhaps they should raise the level of proof needed for conviction, then, because the rape laws are a joke right now. It’s entirely possible to be convicted of rape on week-old say-so of a woman, without so much as proof you were at the same party.

    Filing false reports of arson, murder or assault has consequences– why is rape different?

  • foxfier,

    Perhaps they should raise the level of proof needed for conviction, then, because the rape laws are a joke right now. It’s entirely possible to be convicted of rape on week-old say-so of a woman, without so much as proof you were at the same party.

    The standard is beyond a reasonable doubt for any crime, but at the same time I believe that in many places the laws limit the defense’s options for cross-examination in ways which MIGHT actually skew the result.

    Without any physical evidence of rape I would be hard pressed to convict beyond reasonable doubt. There would have to be something beyond the he said/she said.

    Filing false reports of arson, murder or assault has consequences– why is rape different?

    they shouldn’t be… are they???

  • False accusations/filing a false police report– yes they’re illegal! Or they’re supposed to be, though the recent woman who claimed to have been gang raped by four or five men up until one of them produced a cellphone video that showed she was stone-cold sober and utterly willing is the only case I’ve ever heard of the law even *considering* prosecuting false claims of rape.

    Remember that stripper that accused the lacrosse team of raping her? Turned out she makes this accusation a LOT, with no harm to her should it be shown to be a lie?

    It’s a disgusting abuse of the protections set in place for people who truly are victimized by scum– it turns them on their head to victimize someone else. A rape conviction can ruin your life faster than one for murder, for crying out loud….

  • foxfier,

    agreed.

    I think this problem should be solved by throwing the bums out of office, not some new legislation to layer on the existing ones.

  • The problem, IMO, is that three strikes laws are crude measures which have the ad man’s virtue of being reducible to slogans. A layman’s suggestions for replacements:

    –End indeterminate sentencing.

    –End judicial discretion over sentancing. Have the sentance or sentancing formulae dependent upon circumstance specified in the statute.

    –Have the sentance reduced by a statutorily specified percentage should the defendant plead guilty.

    –Track an individuals convictions over time and ‘award’ points for each based on the severity of the statutorily specified penalty. Establish a formula in law by which the statutorily specified sentance is to be enhanced given the number of points a defendant has accumulated.

    –Follow the same fact-finding procedures for juvenile crime as for adult crime. Have a separate and more lenient schedule of penalties and a separate set of prisons.

    –Limit the use of fines the most minor offenses and to corporate defendants.

    –Scrap probation, conditional discharge, and unconditional discharge.

    –Make use of restitution for property crimes in addition to incarceration.

    –Scrap prison furloughs.

    –Require a convict to serve at least half of his pronounced prison sentance before parole review is undertaken. Base parole review strictly on reported adherence to prison rules and avoidance of criminal conduct in prison.

    –Construct prisons so as to give each convict a small individual cell. Limit the amount of time out of the cell to a few hours a day, at most. Have simple and monotonous meals served in the cell. Eliminate prison amenites beyond electricity, heat, bedding, uniforms, and food.

    –Make statutory sentances short, but be sure they are served. A sentance longer than six years should be rare.

    –When you have finished your parole, you may be prohibited from receipt of certain public trusts (jury service, positions in law enforcement &c., pistol licenses). However, you are a free man, entititled to live where you please.

  • Art Deco,

    great post, let’s get down to details:

    –End indeterminate sentencing.

    –End judicial discretion over sentancing. Have the sentance or sentancing formulae dependent upon circumstance specified in the statute.

    I don’t think this would work, we still need a judge to sentence based on the circumstance and sometimes deviate from the expected sentence (up or down). Perhaps some sort of review board with citizen representation for all cases which deviate from the fixed sentence, or something like that.

    –Have the sentance reduced by a statutorily specified percentage should the defendant plead guilty.

    I like that, no getting off scot-free or pleading to some lesser offense, concealling the reality of the actual crime.

    –Track an individuals convictions over time and ‘award’ points for each based on the severity of the statutorily specified penalty. Establish a formula in law by which the statutorily specified sentance is to be enhanced given the number of points a defendant has accumulated.

    A little to complicated, though I like the intent. THere really should be a substantial escalation of penalties for repeat offenders, but I don’t think this would work.

    –Follow the same fact-finding procedures for juvenile crime as for adult crime. Have a separate and more lenient schedule of penalties and a separate set of prisons.

    that’s not how it works?

    –Limit the use of fines the most minor offenses and to corporate defendants.

    that’s not how it works?

    –Scrap probation, conditional discharge, and unconditional discharge.

    for minor first offenses this really does make sense.

    –Make use of restitution for property crimes in addition to incarceration.

    absolutely.

    –Scrap prison furloughs.

    absolutely.

    –Require a convict to serve at least half of his pronounced prison sentance before parole review is undertaken. Base parole review strictly on reported adherence to prison rules and avoidance of criminal conduct in prison.

    absolutely.

    –Construct prisons so as to give each convict a small individual cell. Limit the amount of time out of the cell to a few hours a day, at most. Have simple and monotonous meals served in the cell. Eliminate prison amenites beyond electricity, heat, bedding, uniforms, and food.

    I think it would be better to expand prison work, make it hard work that would help fund the prison, good behavior and effort would lead to increased comforts and privileges as well as better work and even job training. One of the most successful programs is a commercial diver training program in California, it has an incredibly low recidivism rate because it instills disciple and is a lot of hard physical work. The graduates make good money and are closely watched for drug use due to the nature of the work, they’re actually in high demand by employers.

    ps. no exposure to the public! None of these call centers that have been setup in places, it’s absurd.

    –Make statutory sentances short, but be sure they are served. A sentance longer than six years should be rare.

    no way. 6 is only sufficient for moderate property crimes, or very minor assaults. Robbery, aggravated assault, etc. should be twice that, with at least 6 years before parole.

    –When you have finished your parole, you may be prohibited from receipt of certain public trusts (jury service, positions in law enforcement &c., pistol licenses). However, you are a free man, entititled to live where you please.

    Additional conditions on a case by case basis, true sexual offenders need mandatory conditions and possibly lifetime ones beyond the original sentence.

  • Art,

    Many of these present problems. The ones which seem the most problematic, and which raise other questions, are:

    1. “End judicial discretion over sentancing.” – This is precisely the problem with the three-strikes laws. They are crude because judges have no discretion to hone sentencing finely.

    2. “Have the sentance reduced by a statutorily specified percentage should the defendant plead guilty.” This bothers me. There is too much potential for this to result in defendants who are innocent, but who think they will be steamrolled in court, to plead guilty. This is the same thing that happens in plea-bargaining.

    3. “Track an individuals convictions over time and ‘award’ points for each based on the severity of the statutorily specified penalty.” This could be construed as penalizing someone multiple times for the same offense.

    4. Why would you limit the use of fines, especially if the crime is not a violent one and / or is more white collar?

    5. Why should a sentence longer than six years be rare?

    6.

  • 3. “Track an individuals convictions over time and ‘award’ points for each based on the severity of the statutorily specified penalty.” This could be construed as penalizing someone multiple times for the same offense.

    I think it’s already established that subsequent offenses can involve escalating sentences, am I wrong here?

  • I think the sticking point would be formalizing it– right now, it’s something the Judge can take into account; if it’s added automatically, especially if we start doing so retroactively, they might successfully challenge it on the double-jeopardy basis.

  • I don’t think this would work, we still need a judge to sentence based on the circumstance and sometimes deviate from the expected sentence (up or down). Perhaps some sort of review board with citizen representation for all cases which deviate from the fixed sentence, or something like that.

    You can incorporate some circumstances into the provisions that specify the sentance, e.g. having sentances on drug charges computed by a formula dependent upon the units of contraband involved (one unit being so-and-so many ounces of marijuana, so and so many grams of cocaine, &c.) and incorporating a constant set at 1 for possession and 1+x for sale. One other thing one might attempt is devolving the function of executive clemency on county executives.

    Question: do we, by allowing judicial discretion, approach or recede from justice in the application of punishment. That depends on how reliable we regard the judgment of judges as a class of people. Mr. McClarey or Mr. Price might educate us here. My own understanding is that judges are knowledgeable about questions of law and serve their function by ruling on them and providing for regularized procedures, and are more practiced at explicit reasoning. I am not persuaded that judges have a more reliable moral sense than ordinary men, or that their comparative judgments in this realm will be better. We have three strikes laws because the conjoined judgments of prosecutors, judges, and parole boards generate decisions that are mad.

    that’s not how it works?

    The last time I studied the Penal Law of New York (some 20 years ago), the discretion to make use of alternatives to incarceration was broad but not unlimited. I think felony convictions mandated some prison time, but the exceptions and qualifications written into the sentancing rules were so rococo I am not sure I understood them. As of 1985, we had 35,000 people incarcerated here and 250,000 convictions per year, which is to say that convicts served a mean of about 52 days; about 73% of those convicted in New York’s courts served no time whatsoever. (I recall at that time that 38% of those initially charged in New York courts were hit with at least one felony count). When I say the most minor offense, I mean traffic tickets and sub-misdemeanor ‘violations’. If you plead guilty to disorderly conduct, you get three days in jail and a $120 fine.

    I think it would be better to expand prison work, make it hard work that would help fund the prison, good behavior and effort would lead to increased comforts and privileges as well as better work and even job training. One of the most successful programs is a commercial diver training program in California, it has an incredibly low recidivism rate because it instills disciple and is a lot of hard physical work. The graduates make good money and are closely watched for drug use due to the nature of the work, they’re actually in high demand by employers.

    I have several objections. One is that prison factories are a source of weapons. Another is that a penal system should be about punishment, not therapy. Allocate the task of straightening people out to philanthropies like the Church and the Salvation Army, who can get to work when the convicts are released. A third is Charles Murray’s objection that successful social work and education programs are often so because of factors peculiar to their founders, and difficult to standardize and replicate. I also think that guards allocating privileges to specified convicts is likely to have an unsalutary effect on prison society.

    no way. 6 is only sufficient for moderate property crimes, or very minor assaults. Robbery, aggravated assault, etc. should be twice that, with at least 6 years before parole.

    I think you can, within and between societies, garner considerable agreement on a rank ordering of offenses according to their severity. (One exception would be sex offenses). The thing is, it is difficult to have any sort of fruitful discussion of precise quanta of punishment for particular offenses. We might agree that robbery merits more than burglary, but could not on the precise number of years accorded to each. We are going to have to agree to disagree. Several points…

    –I am proposing a penal system quite different and much more austere than that which currently prevails. A convict sits in his cell 21 hours a day, lives on bulgar wheat and lard, and does not interact socially with anyone other than a weekly (non-conjugal) visitor, his lawyer, the guards, and the chaplains.

    –It is a commonplace (and I imagine substantiated somewhere) that the surety of punishment is a more powerful vector than the severity of punishment in deterring bad behavior. One needs to consider an optimal balance of resources between law enforcement and all other claims and between the various components of law enforcement (police patrols v. prison space). You start locking up burglars for six year sentances, it is going to get mighty expensive.

    –I am not persuaded that the procedures of the court system are all that accurate. Short determinate sentances are a hedge.

  • Art-
    look to Japan’s jails. Shoot, look at the whole system Japan came up with in something like the 50s to deal with their high crime numbers.

  • 1. “End judicial discretion over sentancing.” – This is precisely the problem with the three-strikes laws. They are crude because judges have no discretion to hone sentencing finely.

    That might be your problem with ‘three-strikes’ laws. It is not mine. “Three strikes” laws prescribe a life sentance for an offense in the nominal category ‘felony’ without regard without regard to what the crime is or how severe the previous felonies were. The sentances prescribed are cockeyed, not the procedures by which they are imposed. I am suggesting that sentances be specified in the statute or that formulae to compute them be so specified. If you commit a robbery, you get 24 months. If you commit a second robbery, you get 29 months. If you commit a third, you get 38 months, not 25 years to Life.

    This bothers me. There is too much potential for this to result in defendants who are innocent, but who think they will be steamrolled in court, to plead guilty. This is the same thing that happens in plea-bargaining.

    Defendants already face these dilemmas. Remissions specified in the statute make the consequences of particular courses of action more apparent to defendants. This particular suggestion does not provide for disposing of plea bargaining, it merely alters one of the parameters which influence negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys. It is my understanding that certain states have disposed of plea bargaining with success and that is something I would like to see.

    This could be construed as penalizing someone multiple times for the same offense.

    There were in 1989 provisions in the Penal Law of New York for modified sentencing schedules for people classified as ‘persistent felony offenders’ and the like. As far as I know, these have not been adjudged to violate constitutional provisions proscribing double jeopardy, so I think they are in accord with positive law. If you think they are unjust in spite of that you are suggesting that deterrence can play no proper role in penology or that escalation of punishments is inherently unjust, no?

    Why would you limit the use of fines, especially if the crime is not a violent one and / or is more white collar?

    I am more concerned to dispose of alternatives to incarceration. The utility of incarceration is that it robs people of time and freedom, and these are goods most equally distributed in the population at large. I do not understand the principle which finds that violent offenses merit prison time and property crimes do not (as opposed to less prison time), or that the local thug who took ninety dollars off you gets prison and the broker who embezzled the savings you accumulated over twenty years does not.

    Why should a sentence longer than six years be rare?

    See above. Consider that in New York, you had six classes of felonies. The most serious are Class A-I felonies, and of these there are only five: first and second degree murder, first degree kidnapping, first degree arson, and trafficking in large quanta of narcotics. IIRC, the only Class A-II felonies were certain drug charges. Back when I made it my business to study the crime statistics, you had 250,000 convictions in New York. The sum of murders and aggressive manslaughters was, IIRC, under 2,000. I think about 40% of these went unsolved, so the ratio of resolved homicides (many of which are class B felonies due to circumstances or plea bargaining) to total convictions would be about 0.35%. It seems to me that kidnapping for ransom and blowing up buildings are quite unusual, so I do not think convictions for 1st degree kidnapping and 1st degree arson are going to add much to that. Drug charges might. The most serious crimes are just not that common.

  • ” I am not persuaded that judges have a more reliable moral sense than ordinary men, or that their comparative judgments in this realm will be better.”

    You can bank on that! All you can say about judges as a group is that they will usually have a firm grasp of the law and court room procedures. Their grasp of morality is about the same as any group of individuals who have not been convicted of serious crime. Judges should have some discretion within a range of possible sentences, but given too much discretion and sentences for serious felonies will vary wildly from judge to judge. I believe a large amount of judicial discretion makes sense for first time offenders, misdemeanors and lesser or nonviolent felonies. Serious felonies involving violence however need a uniformity of sentencing to deter others from these acts and to ensure punishment for heinous crimes.

  • Art,

    I am proposing a penal system quite different and much more austere than that which currently prevails. A convict sits in his cell 21 hours a day, lives on bulgar wheat and lard, and does not interact socially with anyone other than a weekly (non-conjugal) visitor, his lawyer, the guards, and the chaplains.

    I’m surprised that nobody has come out and labelled your proposal to be torture… Honestly, I have no problem with this treatment for convicted criminals, I just think hard labor is going to be more effective at preventing recividism, which is important.

    You start locking up burglars for six year sentances, it is going to get mighty expensive.

    I’m not so sure, but 6 years with parole in 3 sounds fine to me for committing a serious property crime which potentially would have escalated to assault or murder if the premise had been occupied. I would probably settle for a 4/2 for burglary of an UNOCCUPIED residence.

    If you commit a robbery, you get 24 months. If you commit a second robbery, you get 29 months. If you commit a third, you get 38 months, not 25 years to Life.

    that’s absurd. 2 year sentence, serve only 1 year for robbery???? 38 months, serving only 19 for the THIRD offense? Robbery is not a property crime (ie. burglary or theft) it is by definition violent, and it is against a person, generally a vulnerable one. Sorry, this has to be 6 year/3 year parole on first offense, escalating on subsequent, and is completely justified for life in prison on the 3rd. I’m speaking here of 3 separate convictions, not so much a case where a man is simultaneously convicted of multiple offenses. To qualify for escalation, it would have to be offenses subsequent to the original conviction.

    Keep in mind also, that we’re talking about convictions, it’s entirely likely that these guys have committed many other similar or worse crimes that they got off on or were never even picked up. Most guys convicted on 3 separate occaisions would have been known to have committed many other offenses to which conviction didn’t seem likely.

    While we’re at it, we need to look at reducing the amount of concurrent sentencing. I don’t know if they should be completely consecutive, but each additional offense MUST result in at least a portion of additional punishment.

    Remember the “justice” in justice system refers to justice for the victim and society who have been harmed, and the punishment must reflect the severity of the offense upon the victim.

    Donald,

    I agree with you on discretion for first time offenders, and less discretion for subsequent ones. I still believe though, that in the current environment a citizens committee should have prior review on judicial sentences outside of a standard (except perhaps for jury sentences).

Understanding the Police

Friday, July 24, AD 2009

The nation (or at least, that portion of it which follows the news cycle) suddenly found itself in one of these “national conversations” about policing this week, after President Obama accused the Cambridge, Mass. police of having “acted stupidly” in arresting his friend and supporter Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his own home for “disorderly conduct”. The police report, minus some privacy data such as addresses, can be viewed here. The short version, is as follows: Prof. Gates returned from a trip to China and found himself having trouble getting into his house, so he and his cab driver forced the door open. A passerby saw this, feared a burglary was taking place, and called the police. Officer James Crowley of CPD arrived on the scene shortly thereafter, saw Prof. Gates in the house as he approached it, and though he looked to be a resident, but knocked, explained the situation, and asked for ID to be sure.

Here the two versions of the story diverge. According to Prof. Gates, Officer Crowley repeatedly refused to identify himself, lured him out onto the porch, and then arrested him. (You can read the Professor’s version in an extended interview here.) According to Officer Crowley, Prof. Gates did provide identification, Crowley was satisfied that he was the homeowner, but Gates had immediately taken an angry tone (repeatedly accusing Crowley of treating him this way because he was black) and that Gates followed him outside, accusing him of racial bias and generally shouting at him, until after a warning Officer Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Now, I think it’s pretty appalling to be arrested at your own house for yelling at someone, even a police officer. At the same time, the police report rings a lot truer to me that Prof. Gates’. And while even given that account, I don’t like the idea of arresting someone in front of his own house for being loud and rude towards the police, it strikes me that Prof. Gates violated a lot of the very basic rules that everyone knows about interacting with police. Perhaps I can best explain with an example:

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29 Responses to Understanding the Police

  • I have 2 reactions to this:

    (1) I believe you are being far too deferential to what has become a great abuse of authority by law enforcement agents — they will arrest you for simply not showing them the respect they think they deserve. It might have been imprudent for Gates to yell at the cop (though as a black man in the this country, I sympathize with him), but there is no law against being rude to a cop. We are all trained to be as polite as possible around cops, as even looking at them the wrong way might risk an adverse reaction. This is a daily abuse of power that attracts minimal attention. It’s even worse when they use weapons of violence such as “tasers”. As Josh Marshall put it, this particular cop should not have gotten into a “macho pissing match which ends up getting decided in the favor of the cop because he has the handcuffs and the gun”.

    (2) Your interaction with this particular cop arises from the lack of gun control in this country. Law enforcement agents could be faced by people with guns any time. The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

  • The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

    What color is the sky in your world?

  • The same color as the sky of the USCCB, when they called for a handgun ban.

  • Ah yes, the USCCB, always to be relied on in a pinch as the authoritative and final voice in any conflict.

    Unless of course you disagree with them coughNotreDamecough.

  • Heather MacDonald, who has done a lot of crime stat and police research for the Manhattan Institute, is worth reading here:
    http://article.nationalreview.com/print/?q=YTU4MGE4MDkwYzhiYjY4OTk2OWRlZjcyMWY0MjFkNmE=

    Obama and Patrick are, I think, being pretty irresponsible here, especially given the police report and the strong support given by officers of varied backgrounds in the CPD.

  • (1) I believe you are being far too deferential to what has become a great abuse of authority by law enforcement agents — they will arrest you for simply not showing them the respect they think they deserve.

    Seriously, you should try reading Barker’s book — especially as someone who lives in the DC area and thus deals with another big city police department. You’re talking in stereotypes so incredibly broad that you’d mock them viciously if applied to any topic you knew anything about.

    (though as a black man in the this country, I sympathize with him)

    Interesting. I never knew you were black.

    (2) Your interaction with this particular cop arises from the lack of gun control in this country. Law enforcement agents could be faced by people with guns any time. The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

    Given that the rising number of gun crimes in the UK has caused them to seriously consider arming their police now, years after enacting a total handgun ban, I’m not sure how this adds up. Also, your point about police elsewhere being unarmed doesn’t really fit with my experience of routinely seeing police carrying submachine guns in France and Italy.

  • Something tells me that cops will always be wary of whether the people they are approaching are armed.

    Anyway, my fiance got pulled over today for going 72 although she was in a 1994 Nissan Pathfinder that shudders at about 65. She was polite and nothing terrible happened (other than the ticket, but as the cop forgot to check her insurance, it was clear he was in a hurry to meet a quota). Still a BS ticket (it will be fixed), but I think cops do enough for so little payment that being polite is a reasonable thing. They’re paid too little to do too much, and they are human beings, after all.

  • The USCCB has a position on Notre Dame? I must have missed that. But while you are busy fighting symbolic battles, I care about the real world, and how policy decisions affect real people. And yes, the the “right” to own a firearm is *not* an unqualified right, and I belive it to be gravely immoral to support such an unqualified right in at atmosphere of such off-the-charts gun deaths.

    Darwin– I’m familiar with the UK debate. But let’s have some perspective– look at the gun deaths per capita here and there. Gun homicides per 100,000: 3.7, England/ Wales: 0.11. In Europe, you will often have an unarmed police force, with special divisions allowed to carry weapons (such as those dedicated to fighting organozed crime). That may be remote in the United States, but can….hope.

  • I would hazard a guess that poverty levels are a much greater influence on crime than access to guns.

    Anyhow, on the Gates affair–from everything I’ve read, it sounds like both parties behaved pretty badly, escalating it to a level where the cop took Gates into custody seemingly to avoid losing face.

  • I might suggest that constricted time horizons and the effect of same on self-control and personal discipline have an influence over poverty levels and crime rates in tandem.

  • But while you are busy fighting symbolic battles, I care about the real world, and how policy decisions affect real people. And yes, the the “right” to own a firearm is *not* an unqualified right, and I belive it to be gravely immoral to support such an unqualified right in at atmosphere of such off-the-charts gun deaths.

    Given that you have repeatedly argued that it’s appropriate for Catholics to essentially ignore the abortion legality issue in regards to politics because the issue is “dead” when only one party supports outlawing abortion, I’m not sure how arguing for a handgun ban is “real world” when neither party even remotely supports that.

    Even if one supported a total US handgun ban (which arguably would not achieve your stated objectives anyway), it is obviously a total political impossibility at this point. Why bring it up? (Note that the USCCB has not recently.)

    Besides, this is a total red herring to the topic of this post, which has to do with the appropriate interaction with police officers. In regards to which, I advise you to educate yourself if your above comments are representative of your knowledge level.

  • I advise you to educate yourself if your above comments are representative of your knowledge level.

    Seconded. How about a ridealong, MM?

  • Indeed, save the Second Amendment issues for another date; this Gates debacle has nothing to do with them and, as DC astutely observed, nothing more than a red-herring/baiting tactic.

    An irrefutable point remains that Obama acted irresponsibly and ignorantly by offering his opinion (even though he was “asked” by a pre-screened reporter), particularly in light of his own admission/preface that he did not have all the facts before him. He recklessly escalated a local, municipal issue into that of a national “race” issue.

    But, Obama has his own agenda and as has been discussed elsewhere at length, Obama’s relationship with Gates, Gates’ attorney Ogletree and Obama’s issues with (if not contempt of) the Cambridge Police Department are long-standing.

  • Gates received precisely the same treatmant a white man would have received who lipped off to the police. I have many clients who can sorrowfully attest to that fact. As I never weary of telling my clients who run afoul of the police, you treat them with courtesy, ask to see your attorney, and leave it to me to battle with them in court. This is not rocket science. Some cops are bullies, most are just normal people trying to make it through the day. Treat cops with courtesy and a situation almost always improves. Shoot your mouth off at them, and you end up paying expensive fees to someone like me to straighten out a completely avoidable situation.

    Personally if I had been Gates I would have been pretty ticked off too. However, I would have been smart enough to have treated the cop with courtesy, resolved the initial situation quickly, and then have a discussion with the States’ Attorney, the Police Chief, and the head of the police review board the next day. Of course I would also have had a word or two with local media outlets. Life goes so much smoother if you engage the brain first instead of the tongue.

  • I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.

    In this age of video cameras we’ve seen instances where cops, not knowing they are being watched, at like fascist thugs. I saw one case where a cop taunted a man, saying, “I can say whatever I want and they’ll believe me instead of you.”

    It is because of the rash actions of police that some violent criminals get off on ‘technicalities’, while people who did nothing more than utter a remark some cop found annoying end up being harassed with court dates, fines, etc. Abuse of power is something that always needs to be taken seriously.

    That said, I couldn’t disagree more about a ‘handgun ban’. With due respect to the USCCB, I want to hear the moral reasoning as to why I, a responsible, law-abiding citizen, should not be allowed to purchase a handgun for home and self-defense. An approach that only looks at raw statistics misses the fact that it is precisely those people inclined to break laws already that are going to use guns for evil.

    I think it is possible that their reasoning is flawed.

  • Given that you have repeatedly argued that it’s appropriate for Catholics to essentially ignore the abortion legality issue in regards to politics because the issue is “dead” when only one party supports outlawing abortion…

    I never said that. I said that I believe it is deeply wrong to support the party in question, and that its tactics will set back the pro-life cause. That is my own judgment only.

  • “I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.”

    Most states have fairly broad “disorderly conduct” statutes Joe. Here is a link to the Illinois statute:

    http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=072000050K26-1

    Now I can usually win these cases for clients as most jurors and judges tend to sympathize with the Defendant as long as only words were exchanged. However the client is still out my fee plus time off from work. I think that is a high price for venting spleen, but if people wish to do so I am always happy to represent them. After going through the legal system most agree with me that courtesy is normally a cheaper way to go.

  • In this age of video cameras we’ve seen instances where cops, not knowing they are being watched, at like fascist thugs.

    On the contrary, Joe, I think that the vast majority of those police cameras show that the police act with incredible restraint in the face of fairly regular hostile encounters. For every Rodney King incident there are hundreds of non-incidents. They don’t make the news, however.

  • My perspective on law enforcement tends to be favorable — most likely, because I am a white, middle class female whose only run-ins with the law have been a few speeding tickets, and who as a newspaper reporter for 2 years on a small-town police and court beat, had to treat them with courtesy and professionalism. I did not happen to encounter any blatant instances of police brutality or corruption on my beat, but if I had stuck with it longer, or covered a bigger city, I probably would have eventually.

    I agree with j. christian that for every instance in which a cop acts like a thug there are probably at least 50 other times when they don’t. Bad cops (like bad teachers, bad priests, etc.) always get more attention than good ones.

    As for gun control, I’ve never owned a gun, and only fired a gun once in my entire life (skeet shooting on a camping trip). But — I firmly believe that since people have a natural right to defend themselves, any adult should have the right to own a gun UNLESS a good reason exists to deny them that right (criminal record, mental instability, failing to be properly trained in the use of firearms, etc.) If someone uses a gun to commit a crime, punish them with an additional fine or prison sentence for the misuse of the gun, just as we punish motorists who drive drunk or reckelessly.

  • I have a few relatives who are cops. The thing to remember is when the police enter a home, they have no idea what to expect. It might be nothing or there might be one or more armed criminals in the shadows. How do they know? When you are dealing with a cop who is already on edge, the wise thing is to defuse the tension, not pour fuel on it.

    I can understand why it happens, but there are blacks who are too quick to assume that somebody of a different race who is being a jerk to them is doing so because they are black. I worked with a black woman once who was sure that the Greek sandwich shop owner in our building hated her because she was black. But he was rude to me, rude to just about everyone who came in the place. He was like the Seinfeld soup Nazi; he was nasty to everyone, and unlike the soup Nazi, it’s not like his food was so great that you were willing to tolerate abuse. The place eventually closed and let us hope he is making a living in some business that does not involve customer service. There are racists, and then there are just people with king-sized chips on their shoulders.

  • I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.

    Well, obviously, as a person qua person, there’s no reason why talking back to a cop should result in being arrested, any more than it would be fair for me to be arrested for talking back to you.

    I think the key thing here, however, is that when an officer is attempting to do his job (investigating a potential crime) if people just talk back and yell at him and accuse him of being a racist and generally are disruptive, it prevents the cop from being able to do his job.

    When you’re the one being stopped by the police, and you know there’s nothing all that bad you were doing, it’s natural to be indignant. I’m sure the last thing that Prof. Gates wanted to deal with the day he got back form China was some police officer showing up on his doorstep wanting to know if he was supposed to be in the house. The thing to understand is, not only does the officer have no idea if you’re really innocent or not, but he very frequently deals with people who are not innocent and try to bluster or fight their way out of the situation.

    That’s why many states or cities have “contempt of cop” laws — so that people understand they need to cooperate or else face consequences. (Though often, the consequences are just hanging out in the cooler for a couple hours and then being released without charges.)

    Anyway, I know I must sound like a broken record on this, but I do strongly recommend Barker’s book, which you might be able to find at a decent library. It’s certainly not a “cops are always right” book but it both helps you understand what cops deal with and where they’re coming from — which often makes things more sympathetic, and in other cases at least helps one understand what the life of being a big city police officer tends to do to people. To understand all is not necessarily to forgive all, but it is useful nonetheless.

  • Police officers are trained to respond professionally to provocation. When an officer fails to do so, it is a serious problem.

    My guess is that the behavior in question was far more than merely “being rude.” (I make that assertion based upon the reputation of the officer involved.)

    In most of the arrests that I have seen “go wrong,” it is the failure to follow lawful orders that pushes officers up the “ladder of force.” It isn’t that the SUBJECT is merely rude but that an officer orders them to “show me your hands” or “stop where you are” and the SUBJECT continues to approach and refuses to comply. Officers then become all too aware of their vulnerability, particularly in enclosed spaces.

    There are a number of simulators that officers receive regular training on that provide reasonably close simulation of such incidents. It is disturbing to die in these simulations but virtually everyone does since correctly gauging the conditions is incredibly difficult. The inclination is either to be too aggressive or too reserved. Either one can get someone killed.

    As to the firearms issue… Whether or not handguns were illegal would not have changed THIS situation, as best I can tell. Officers will continue to assume the worst since doing otherwise will get you or your partner killed.

  • Interesting that no one here has law enforcement experience. Lots of first stones cast, though.

    I wonder how many people could do the job for one day, let alone a full career.

    Meanwhile, be sure to take such domestic tranquility as we have for granted.

  • I wonder if we are not overlooking one aspect: that of the tendency overpaid Harvard professors [whatever their color] to be rude and overbearing.

    I would be curious to know what would have been Prof. Gates’ reaction if, while he was in China, his house had been burglarized.

  • I am a family man and huge advocate of Law and Order- see my post “Take Back America Street by Street” from April 21 here at American Catholic.

    We need a really strong police presence, and we need really effective means of watchdogging police powers- to make sure abuses do not become systemic institutionally or along racial lines- for example. Targeting the bad neighborhoods to help break the cycles of crime and criminals, and fostering solid team values among police by bringing together mixed-race squads, with family wages to protect against corruption and add to the community prestige and role-modeling potential.

    With this must be very transparent policing departmental policies, and citizen board advisory and oversight committees- to make necessary reforms and weed out bad apples.

    How much of this is going on with the Cambridge police situation? If charges of racial abuse are being made, police should be trained to call for back-up quickly and to have minority officiers also prepped for responding to put more diverse perspectives at the scene asap.

    In an unfallen world, we wouldn’t need to do all of this, and after getting America under a better code of conduct, and breaking down many of the root causes of criminal behavior, we can begin then to cut back on the policing presence- but right now is the time to push forward not pull back to armed fortresses while the streets go more and more into the hands of the criminally-inclined.

    On the Gates particular situation- Obama was wrong to weigh in with only a partial set of facts- and if Gates was getting out-of-hand verbally, but not violently- that would have been the time to call for a racially-mixed back-up team to get that diversity check to ensure that there wasn’t something racial in the mix that was adding fuel to the fire rather like the firemen in Fahrenheit “451”? who start fires rather than put them out. I don’t have all the facts so I won’t go out on a limb and say one or the other parties was at primary fault.

  • Elaine,
    Though being a white female may help, it’s no guarantee (trust me) that you’ll never find yourself face-to-gun barrel with an officer (even when you’re not breaking any laws!) Prudence dictates not elevating the threatcon level.

    There’s been a lot of weighing in here on the appropriate way for police to deal with an unruly individual who has otherwise not broken the law. It was my impression that shouting and behaving in a threatening manner toward another person constitutes assault and is therefore grounds enough for arrest. I’d be interested to get the perspective of some of the legal eagles who write for or read this blog on that.

  • I am not a legal eagle, but I can tell you that there are provisions of the Penal Law of New York which define the crime of ‘Menacing’ and the crime of ‘Harrassment’. These are class b misdemeanors and more serious than ‘disorderly conduct’. I am not sure either would apply given the precise facts of the case. If Dr. Gates had brandished a truncheon as a weapon the former might apply and if he had followed the officer down the block shouting obscenities at him the latter might.

  • Tim: One of the officers on the scene at the Gates house was black. He backs Crowley’s account. And Crowley has taught courses on racial profiling. He has been praised by the other officers in his Department for being an excellent cop.

    That’s why the attempt to make this into an example of racist injustice has backfired. If Crowley had a record of harassing minorities in the past or was rumored to be a less than honest cop, I’d have a different take on it.

    Remember, Cambridge is not only wealthy but one of the most liberal of communities in a very blue state. I am finding attempts to equate this to Alabama in 1958 rather risible.

    Gabriel Austin: You make a good point. This is probably as much about class as it is about race. Haaavard professors of any color undoubtably get quite a bit of deference in Cambridge, which is probably why Gates thought showing the cop a Harvard ID (with no address on it) would be sufficient. When the cop was unimpressed, Gates played the race card.

  • What I find most irritating about this is Obama’s remarks. I recall that Nixon also put his foot into it when he publicly opined that Charles Manson was guilty – while the trial was still going on. The press, rightly, criticized him for that. I’ve not seen much press criticism of Obama – but then he is “The Won”.