"MORALISTS are unhappy people," wrote Jacques Maritain. A great many Americans are turning into unhappy moralists about the war in Viet Nam. It is a new sensation. Americans are accustomed to feeling right about the fights they get into. The majority probably still feels right—but troubled. The President summed up the uneasy moral choice in his State of the Union Address. "It is the melancholy law of human societies," he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson, "to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater evil." On the other side, a chorus of clerics, academics and polemicists of every tone proclaims that the U.S. position is evil, or at least morally questionable. When Cardinal Spellman exhorted American soldiers to hope and fight for victory in Viet Nam, he was widely criticized by other churchmen, many of them Roman Catholics. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale University, has said: "It may well be that, morally speaking, the United States ship of state is today comparable to the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg."

There are in the U.S. remarkably few Machiavellians who believe that war is simply a matter of state, beyond questions of good or evil. At the other extreme, there are also relatively few all-out pacifists. Most critics concede that in certain conditions, war is morally justifiable—but assert that this is not the case in Viet Nam. Why one war is justified but not another is an immensely difficult question; the answer, tentative at best, requires logic, precision and a measure of emotional detachment. These qualities are largely missing in the Viet Nam debate. The tendency is to call anything there that is distasteful or tragic "immoral." Yet the concept of a just or an unjust use of force involves complex judgments of means and aims—an accounting of lives and deaths and intentions—that go to the very heart of civilization.

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