An Incorrect Analog
Classicists, military officers and scholars, and community organizers are—to my knowledge—the three professions in the United States today for whom Thucydides’s “Melian Dialogue” is a foundational text.
As with any foundational text, we practitioners run the risk of overusing it and applying it to cases that do not fit. (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”) That is the trap, it seems to me, into which Gregory M. Reichberg, Stein Tønnesson, and Henrik Syse fall in your March 2023 issue (“When Right Does Not Make Might”). Sven Holstmark rightly rebuts them in the same issue, in his article “Ukraine Is Not Melos.” To begin with, Ukraine is not a small island cut off from its prospective allies; it’s a large (41 million-person) country that borders four of its allies in the current war.
What’s more, NATO is not Sparta. Already, NATO and its allies have delivered tens of billions of dollars worth of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, while imposing significant economic sanctions against Russia.
And Russia is not Athens. One of the grand themes of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is the corrosive effect of long-term and far-flung war on a democratic society (i.e., Athens). Better comparisons—and they have been made at U.S. war colleges and elsewhere—are the U.S. wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Yes, “The Time For Diplomacy Will Come,” but military scholars will have to look somewhere other than to Thucydides for historical analogs to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Beating Plowshares into Swords
Inside a probing and serious exchange on the war in Ukraine, and how it might be resolved, readers face an unsettling takeaway. Namely, to the dictum “war is hell,” we should now add “and so is ending it” (“Diplomacy in Ukraine,” March 2023). Ironically, such unhappy resignation conforms to Vladimir Putin’s strategy for victory: exhaust Western backing over time and ultimately declare a larger portion of Ukraine a vassal extension of the Russian Federation—a grim prospect indeed.
Relatedly, broadly trumpeted Western opposition to Putin’s autocratic ambitions combines with our bloated and seemingly insatiable military-industrial budgets to stifle those of us questioning the war. Generally, we are cast as dupes, isolationists or Neville Chamberlain wannabes, blind to the risks of appeasing an enemy. Yet few who fully support the war acknowledge one overarching irony: while nations mobilize against expansionist totalitarian tyranny—with all the treasure, risk, and human cost that entails—political dissent is marginalized, even deemed treasonous.
Also missing in our debates is recognition that proponents of war are usually only checked by massive groundswells that dare oppose them. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And today as purported believers, if we simply allow this war to grind on, with minimal pushback, isn’t this a grievous affront to God, the planet, and human aspirations for a more liveable future?
R. Jay Allain
Who Can Know God’s Will?
Although Cole Hartin’s article (“Assisted Suicide & the Cure of Souls,” March 2023) was more nuanced and gentle than most I have seen regarding assisted suicide, it nonetheless neglected to discuss the spirituality (at least in potential form) that may well explain why a person would choose to end their life through their own choice rather than passively waiting for the inevitable.
While Christians are expected to develop informed consciences and to take active roles throughout their lives in bearing witness to Jesus’ way, these elements seem to disappear when it comes to this question of end-of-life decisions.
As one who turns eighty next month, it seems to me that the Church—especially its “officialdom”—continues to struggle with patriarchy, top-down decision-making, and the sense that its understanding of “God’s will” necessarily exceeds that of individuals. Since I think the entire matter of knowing God’s will is problematic at best, I wish to briefly address the concept of human agency and the primacy of individual conscience.
Why is it so hard to understand the possibility that a mature person, having developed a relationship over the years with Jesus and the one he called Father, can come to a decision regarding how her/his life should end that does not require merely passively submitting to “nature”? That “nature” is the same as God’s will is, at least for me, a highly dubious proposition.
Is it not possible that a person—spurred by love and gratitude for the great gift of life and for the beautiful fellow beings who have accompanied them through it—can decide that by choosing to end one’s life before the person they are slips slowly away, or before they have to undergo months of pain and suffering, they are performing a sacramental act of self-sacrifice and thanksgiving? Is it so impossible to imagine a genuine prayer equivalent to: Dearest Father, I thank you for the gift of life and with all respect and love I now give it back to you while all of the “me” that I am is still present to do so?
If life is truly sacred—and I believe it is for all life—and if we are all somehow children of God, then why are we as individuals supposed to be powerless and reduced to passivity at the closing act of our lives?
The Church still struggles with its temptation to prescribe paths that are in effect one-size-fits-all. If we truly see each other as precious, then perhaps we ought to extend greater respect to the choices people make regarding their own life’s end. After all, who are we to judge? Are we so certain that we know better?
The Famine Continues
Thank you for publishing Karen Kilby’s excellent article “Famine and the Living God” (May 2023). The drought-induced famine in the countries of the Horn of Africa region has been the topic of appeals for aid by the UN and UNICEF for over a year, but the international response has been woefully inadequate. As Kilby noted, both secular and religious media have largely ignored the crisis, limiting the awareness and response of private donors. I pray that Catholic Relief Services will follow their English and German counterparts and UNICEF in issuing appeals in the United States and sending aid to save the lives of the tens of thousands of children facing starvation in East Africa.
Richard F. Gillum
Silver Spring, Md.