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Wars and choices 

The false disjunction of “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity” applies to Ukraine today.

A volunteer places a cross with a number on a grave of an unidentified person during a mass burial ceremony in Bucha, Ukraine, Aug. 17, 2022, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues. (CNS photo/Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters)

One of the more irritating tropes of this age in which sloganeering has replaced argumentation is the alleged distinction between “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity.” That distorted and distorting antinomy was first deployed on the political left, with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq. It has now migrated to the starboard side of our politics, especially among soi-disant “national conservatives,” some of whom apply it to the war in Ukraine, now entering its seventh month.

The distinction is bogus (and analytically useless, from both a moral and political point of view) because all wars involve choices: including the most basic choice, which is to go to war. Every war is a “war of choice,” including the war now dubbed the paradigmatic “war of necessity,” World War II. Don’t believe it? Try this thought-experiment (the premise of which echoes Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America):

Isolationist Republicans waving “American First” placards nominate aviation hero Charles Lindbergh as their candidate in the 1940 presidential election. Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is breaking “George Washington’s Rule” by seeking a third term and whose New Deal hasn’t resolved the Great Depression. The Lone Eagle carries an isolationist Congress into office with him.

So what happens? There is no Lend-Lease Act and no surreptitious American convoying of merchant ships to Great Britain. There is no draft, and the U.S. Army is effectively dismantled. There is no American embargo on the export of oil and other raw materials to Japan, there is no reinforcement of the Philippines, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet remains based in San Diego rather than Pearl Harbor. The United States has chosen not to enter the world war then underway, imagining that American freedom can co-exist with a Nazi-dominated Europe and a Japanese-dominated Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Similarly, after the defeat of France in June 1940s, Great Britain could have chosen to accept Hitler’s offer of a negotiated peace that preserved the British Empire while giving Germany a free hand in continental Europe. The majority of the parliamentary Conservative Party, then in power, might well have taken that deal, and the Duke of Windsor (like Lindbergh, a Hitler aficionado) would have been happy to return home and resume his throne.

The false disjunction of “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity” even applies to Ukraine today. Faced with Vladimir Putin’s imperial mania, Russia’s seizure of Crimea and occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and what was imagined by many to be the overwhelming power of Russia’s armed forces, Ukrainians could, six months ago, have chosen to cut a deal with the Russian autocrat, settling for an internationally-guaranteed rump Ukrainian state centered on the city of Lviv, while leaving the rest of the country to be absorbed into Russia. That choice was, in theory, available, and doubtless some in the West were wishing that Ukraine would take that option, thus relieving them of the moral burden of making their own choices about facing down aggression.

But the Ukrainian people did not choose to surrender their nation and its sovereignty. And by majorities over 90% they continue to scorn that choice, despite the ruin and sorrow wrought by Putin’s savage warmaking, despite the counsel of unrealistic foreign policy “realists” like John Mearsheimer, and despite American politicians cowed by the charge that “elitists” are embroiling the United States in what is not a war of “necessity,” but of “choice.”

The choice Ukrainians have made — the choice to defend their nationhood and their democracy — poses choices for the rest of the world. At 50,000 feet above reality, the options include a “dialogue” with Vladimir Putin (moderated by the Vatican, in some minds) that would, after a cease-fire, re-establish the status quo before Russia’s February 24 invasion. History strongly suggests, however, that dictators like Putin regard such pauses as merely a strategic breather before resuming their aggression and perhaps extending it (in this case, to the Baltic states).

Moreover, what would be strategic foolishness is also moral cravenness: acquiescence to the sort of evil not seen in Europe in over seven decades. Ukrainians are not asking us to fight their fight. They are asking us to provide them the materials necessary to defend their sovereignty (which the U.S. guaranteed when Ukraine freely gave up its nuclear weapons) and for humanitarian assistance. To deny either of these is to play the coward.

It is also, “national conservatives” might note, to ignore the warning of that great conservative, Edmund Burke: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

• Related at CWR: “Ukraine and Questions of Just War” (May 24, 2022) by Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky


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About George Weigel 437 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).

13 Comments

  1. What, may I ask, does the author Mr. Weigel want?

    Does he want Ukraine to defeat Russia? If so, does he want the US and western and Central European countries to send jets and drones by the hundreds to Ukraine to help Ukraine win the war?

    What actually does Mr. Weigel want?

    Is he simply appealing that “proper-minded-Catholics” should show respect and support to our “Second-Katholik-Commander-in-Chief” and European “leaders-of-liberty-equality-fraternity” in their brilliant “engagement” against their nemesis “on-again-off-again-Hitler-Putin”?

    Poland offered the jets Ukraine was begging for, via German and western European air space and the US and the western European countries refused the aid to Ukraine. This is because the political-corporate establishments of Western Europe and the USA have sold out their very own people to the homicidal Russian-Chinese Communist-Venezuelan-Iranian-India-etc” (RCVI etc) puppet masters of the suicidal “green-energy-future” pact, cutting deals with for 40-plus years that have closed the western pathways to clean fossil fuels, and clean coal and clean nuclear power, and telling the sociopaths of RCVI etc: we will let you supply us with your dirty oil and dirty gas, and we will make you monsters super-rich in the process.

    And now we see the folly of the gargantuan fraud of the global “green-energy” fantasy-land: the sociopath Putin, empowered and enriched by virtue-signaling idiot-savants of the US and UK and Western Europe, has waged homicidal war against the Ukrainian people, and these same US, UK and Western European nations must just let it happen, because Putin and the rest of their RCVI “saviors” in the “global community” are going to shut off the oil and gas this winter.

    It’s not clear from reading Mr. Weigel’s narrative that Mr. Weigel knows what he wants.

    So what, pray tell, could it be?

    Is he criticizing POTUS Joseph-Katholik-Biden? I didn’t see that criticism above, only dumping in Mearsheimer (who last I checked, is not a president of the US or any European country).

    • Deeper than any proposed greenback and green energy explanation, maybe the more historic issue is whether the sovereign “nation-state” idiom–set in place at the Peace of Westphalia (1648)– is at least a stabilizing influence in a world spinning off meaningless into space? Hard to untangle, but wouldn’t want the 1991 Western and papal (St. Pope John Paul II and Solidarity) dismantling of the Soviet Union to now go up in smoke.

      Always value your comments.

  2. Agree with you, George!
    As a conservative, I’m somewhat shocked that other conservatives (not to mention those in the Vatican) seem willing to promote Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement of Putin in Ukraine.

  3. Mr. Weigel refers to the Ukrainians’ “choice to defend their nationhood and democracy.” Zelensky has outlawed a number of political parties and arrested a number of political opponents, so the term “democracy” may be a little bit of a stretch. Do an internet search on Ukraine/corruption.

    What does Mr. Weigel want? That is a good question. Zelensky has recently stated that an end to the war would require a return of the Donbas and Crimea. Is Weigel in favour of continuing the war until that happens? I don’t see how that would happen, so it would be a very long war.

    The article by Father Jerry Pokorsky is a very balanced presentation.

  4. Weigel has never seen a war to which he wasn’t eager to send other people’s sons to die. The war he and his ilk conned us into in Iraq was a bloody fiasco. For that matter what were the results of WWII – millions dead around the planet, communist enslaved eastern Europe and a communist enslaved China, North Korea, North Vietnam.

  5. Roe v Wade was overturned because Trump appointed justices to the Supreme Court who were willing to do so, just like he said he would. Thank God neocon never-Trumpers didn’t sway enough people to prevent Trump from being elected. Countless lives will be saved.

    Weigel’s flippant dismissal of Mearsheimer is as wrong as was his flippant dismissal of Trump. Weigel will once again be proven to be profoundly wrong.

  6. While I support the Ukrainians and some US support, the bigger question where is the EU in this support. In particular where is Germany. Germany and most of EU is looking for the US to provide most of the support. Also this would have never happed if the EU countries, and in particular Germany, lived up to their NATO commitments. The pursuit of their short sighted Green policies just added to fuel that in effect gave Putin the Red Light to invade. Also its interesting that Weigel didsn’t mention his good buddy Biden as a cause of this siuation. Surprised he somehow didn’t try to blame Trump.

  7. The Ukraine made its choice when it chose to pursue a policy of eradicating the Russian-speaking culture of its eastern territories. One wonders if the Ukraine was influenced to act in this way by anyone?
    And Russia too made its choice to act, in the face of an aggressive liberal world order commanded from Washington D.C. The respect one has for the Russians is mirrored by the shame we as Americans must feel for being implicated, however unwillingly, in the bloodletting.
    Yet the moral burden of recognizing that we are the aggression, does seem too much for some people. Kudos to the national conservatives… for not being international liberals.

  8. It is the Catholic Church who ‘chose’ WWII and the rise of the Russian menace to the world today. In the Second Secret of Fatima, God tells us that it is God, not man, who grants peace to the world.

    In the Second Secret of Fatima (1917), God offers the world peace instead of WWII. In God’s offer of peace to the world, God asks that Catholic leaders consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and that mankind repent of their massive sinfulness. Pope John Paul II consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984, forty years after God’s punishment of WWII had come and gone. Then, and even now, I see no Catholic leaders preaching to 2 billion Christians, aka The Church, and the world, to repent from their sinfulness to avoid war and have God bless us with peace.

    In 1982, Str. Lucia, the Fatima seer, indicated that God’s offer of world peace, for consecrating Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is not on the table anymore, and that now we face the dreaded punishment from God, of the Third Secret of Fatima.

    Thus the Second Secret of Fatima was a conditional choice for the Catholic Church to make. God made the Catholic Church an offer to avoid God’s Punishment of WWII. It is we, the Catholic Church, who chose WWII through non-compliance to God’s Offer, and thus chose the deaths of 73 million people.

    The Second Secret of Fatima
    “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
    Quoted From: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html

    Str. Lucia in 1982
    “Sister Lucia had already given an indication for interpreting the third part of the “secret” in a letter to the Holy Father, dated 12 May 1982:

    “The third part of the secret refers to Our Lady’s words: ‘If not [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated’ (13-VII-1917).

    The third part of the secret is a symbolic revelation, referring to this part of the Message, conditioned by whether we accept or not what the Message itself asks of us: ‘If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, etc.’.

    Since we did not heed this appeal of the Message, we see that it has been fulfilled, Russia has invaded the world with her errors. And if we have not yet seen the complete fulfilment of the final part of this prophecy, we are going towards it little by little with great strides. If we do not reject the path of sin, hatred, revenge, injustice, violations of the rights of the human person, immorality and violence, etc.

    And let us not say that it is God who is punishing us in this way; on the contrary it is people themselves who are preparing their own punishment. In his kindness God warns us and calls us to the right path, while respecting the freedom he has given us; hence people are responsible.”
    Quoted from the Vatican: The Message of Fatima
    https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html

    A Portion of the Third Secret of Fatima
    After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’
    Quoted from: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html

    Divine Mercy in my Soul, 635, The Blessed Virgin Mary :
    you have to speak to the world about His great mercy and prepare the world for the Second Coming of Him who will come, not as a merciful Savior, but as a just Judge. Oh, how terrible is that day! Determined is the day of justice, the day of divine wrath. The angels tremble before it. Speak to souls about this great mercy while it is still the time for [granting] mercy. If you keep silent now, you will be answering for a great number of souls on that terrible day

  9. Regarding the Charles Lindbergh and Phillip Roth’s dystopia: Is it really dystopic? At least more so than that which has unfolded? Perhaps it would have been more moral– and surely Mr. Weigel will agree– for us to have allied with National Socialist Germany against the Soviet Union? Would not this have been more appropriate Mr. Weigel? After all, one perplexing elephant in the room is that the Soviet Union rolled into Poland (and later other states) only weeks after Germany did.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Wars and choices  | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. Wars and choices  – Via Nova Media
  3. Wars and choices  | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya

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