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The real evil that lurks in missile silos

Much has been made of young 1st Lt. Ryan Berry, the standout officer, West Point graduate and devout Catholic who objected to working in the close quarters of a missile silo with female officers.

Berry, 26, who is married and has a child, serves in the Air Force. He said his Catholic beliefs compelled him to request that he not be required to work with a woman who is not his wife in the close quarters of a silo on 24-hour shifts, 100 feet below the ground in a space where there is only one bed.

It has been said his convictions are rooted in traditional Catholic teaching about avoiding occasions of sin.

Reportedly a number of religious groups as well as Berry’s Air Force chaplain have championed his cause. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, himself a former military officer, said he’ll back Berry right up to the president.

We commend the young soldier for having the courage to stand on a matter of conscience even to the detriment of his career.

The sad thing, of course, is that no one -- from his chaplain to O’Connor -- is raising the more compelling moral issue of whether the young man should place himself in a situation where carrying out ultimate orders would cause the indiscriminate killing of countless thousands, including, inevitably, many innocent civilians.

Maybe Berry has worked through the moral thicket of how to spend days poised to push the nuclear button despite the persistent condemnations by a litany of popes, bishops and moral theologians of nuclear weaponry and modern warfare. In all we’ve read, no one has raised the question.

Perhaps here is where young Berry stands in for all of us who, hunkered down in our domestic bunkers, maintain a moral vision that stops at the front door. Many of us would sacrifice mightily to preserve marriages and families without giving a thought to the moral horror we assent to through our silence and military taxes.

During the decades of the Cold War, Americans tolerated the perennial raid on the national treasury by the Pentagon and military contractors because many were convinced a total effort was needed to thwart the ambitions of the Soviet empire.

So, year after year, the United States poured enormous sums of money into technology and armaments -- redundant to a ludicrous degree -- that we hoped we would never have to use.

Although the Soviet threat has disintegrated, the United States is still spending as if the “Evil Empire” were at the door, buying and developing the very weapons systems that belong to a past era.

Some will argue that we have gone soft, that defense spending has dropped to a dangerous level. But the figures don’t bear that out.

And the fact that we have become, post-Cold War, the world’s major arms merchant deepens our complicity in spreading violence around the globe.

The evil of our continued military gluttony is apparent on several levels. As a culture, we are squandering resources and our children’s future. Money that should be going to education, health care, the creation of jobs, restoring the infrastructure and a host of other pursuits keeps getting poured down the bottomless gullet of the military-industrial complex.

The figures -- the hundreds of billions -- are so large as to be nearly incomprehensible. The stakes, thus, are exceedingly high for a relative few who will not quickly, or without a fierce battle, give up such easy money.

The temptation to dream that all is well, that the nuclear threat is over, that the United States is the benign champion of the downtrodden, that the military spending is necessary to sustain our superpower status -- that is an occasion of sin.

The tug to go along, to be complicit in such enormous violence and waste, that’s an occasion of sin and a magnitude of evil that clearly dwarfs that of the impure thoughts of a lonely couple in a nuclear missile silo.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999