Why War?

bulletsI recently read a profound statement penned by G.K. Chesterton. Although he was not a military veteran himself, he was absolutely on target when he wrote: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

Terrible things are happening today in Syria. Yesterday, over lunch, I “debated” one of my sons regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of American intervention in that Levantine cauldron.

He believes we can’t “stand by” while the world watches as a civil war rages around another of the world’s mad dictators. I argued the United States isn’t morally responsible to serve as the world’s guardian of peace. And, even if we as a single, fallible, divided people were accountable . . . what about the violence and injustice in so very many other places. Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), the Congo, and scores of other lands cry out for intervention on behalf of the oppressed.

There is an almost unlimited amount of injustice around the globe today. And, looking in the mirror, it’s evident we have problems to resolve right here.

Sending American troops to intervene in foreign civil wars is ugly business. Taking sides against dictators does not always provide a safer and more just world—we need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring to reveal that.

I was proud to serve my nation—and causes I believed in—during the liberation of Kuwait and the retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the United States a decade later.

I am now retired from active duty, and I’ve lived long enough to witness how little positive fruit seems to follow war.

Like C.S. Lewis, I remain persuaded that some evils are so malevolent (Hitler, for example, comes to mind) . . . that they must be confronted. As he wrote in “The Conditions for a Just War,”

If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful.

At the same time, however, war is something into which we should never rush. It demands our conscious consideration of the cost and an accurate determination that the blood spilled—include that of noncombatants inevitably caught up in the horror—is a price worth paying.

It is that question which moral men and women must debate and ponder.

“Learning in War-Time” is a brilliant essay included in the collection which goes by the name of Lewis’ speech, “The Weight of Glory.” In the essay, Lewis discusses the seriousness of war. As a combat casualty during the First World War, he vividly understood its nature.

However, as a Christian, Lewis recognized that warfare is not the worst thing that can befall a human being.

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.

Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.

Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.

True. To die at enmity with God is a fearful thing. Still, even better than coming to faith during war (Lewis would surely agree), is recognizing God’s love and living a life of peace.

18 thoughts on “Why War?

  1. Having lived overseas for 13 and a half years, 11 of them in the same country, I’ve heard many foreigners ask, “Who made you (the U.S.) the world policemen?” A very good question and one we might well ask. Is Iraq any better for all the billions of dollars spent there and the countless precious lives lost? Ditto Afghanistan. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but we need to ask the question and think seriously about the answer before we dive into the next “nation-making” conflict.

    1. Yes, it’s not my desire here to suggest the answer to any specific “questions,” but to agree with you in saying that the question most certainly must be asked. (And answered before the decision to engage is made.)

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful article. I struggle with this topic often and must admit this may be one of the few areas where Lewis and I would disagree. Does confronting malevolent evil necessarily require war? WWII did not happen out of inevitability but because, when given the opportunity to confront Hitler non-violently (at the ballot box for example; we forget his rise began in an election), many chose to ignore him or the consequences of his plans instead. Second, considering “if war is ever lawful,” I wonder what he means by lawful. I myself question many of the moral reasonings behind “just war” theory. Finally, I cannot answer his third question so definitively. Sherman was right too: “War is hell.” Few come through the experience unscathed; none, I would guess, come through unchanged. Having served yourself, both you and Lewis would know that better than I. I have met some who came through war spiritually damaged, unable any longer to see the image of God in themselves, others, or even apprehend a loving God anymore. In as much as our own response to God’s grace is involved in dying at peace with God, doesn’t that put that peace in jeopardy.

    My convictions against war aside, I want to thank you for your service to our country. It is the soldier who often bears the weight of decisions both citizens like me make when we vote and the leaders we elect setting policy — right or wrong — that puts our soldiers in peril. So thank you. Above all else, your article reminds me that these are not trivial decisions, neither for those who seem to march toward war nor folks like myself who retreat from it.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Yes, German citizens could have derailed Hitler’s rise, and some groups (notably including many Christians) attempted just that. Of course, once he accumulated totalitarian power, it was virtually impossible to dislodge him, but even then small groups of Germans sacrificed their lives attempting to do just that. (I believe a score of such efforts are documented.)

      Just War theology is a complex subject that merits candid and deep conversation, such as that modeled by your own comment. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

  3. Important discussion. Growing up in a family of pacifists, I came slowly and painfully to realize some bullies must be stopped by force. I appreciate this post and the comments so far. Just finished watching The Postman (I got it mixed up with Il Postino and kept waiting for the quiet scenes of the an riding his bicycle through quaint Italian villages. . .) I HATED the movie and was very conflicted about Kevin Costner’s character–as I think the character was himself–until the very end when it all came together in a satisfying way. But talk about bringing to a head the issues involved in dealing with, or avoiding dealing with, a bully!

  4. One again these are times that try men’s souls.
    Chesterton’s quote is something like I heard growing up from those who fought in WWII.
    Discouraging that it is so much like that myth with the guy rolling the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down so he had to start all over again.
    Human condition? Maybe worth looking for the gene that triggers violent behavior?
    Post worth several readings.

  5. My boyfriend is pursuing a career in the military and I have found myself pondering all of these ideas/thoughts often, especially with the potential of being a military wife and undoubtedly being presented similar questions from others. The quote about the true soldier relates to my boyfriend well. It took me a long time to understand why he would actively pursue such a path and that quote put it in good perspective. Thanks so much for your thoughts, all well said!

    1. There are many reasons for enlisting in the armed forces. And, most of them are good. It’s very possible to be an honorable soldier, a faithful husband and a doting father, all at the same time. If you move forward with your boyfriend, I hope that he becomes all three. That likelihood rises dramatically if he loves God first and foremost.

  6. Eimi

    Why does the United States, a morally conscious nation, not have a moral responsibility to serve as guardian of truth and justice? Is it perhaps the sentiment, “Who are we to say how other nations govern their people?” I think that this stems from an irrational fear of being hypocritical. If we’re trying to avoid hypocrisy then we should be consistent in our quest for civil rights. There are blatant injustices around the globe that need to be stopped. I would rather see evil overcome by the death of heroes than evil prolonged by the death of innocents.

    1. A good, and difficult, question to answer. If we could isolate ourselves from “selfish” considerations… if we could unanimously agree as a people on which interventions were appropriate… if our international efforts did not so often seriously strain our relationships with so many other countries… if we could be assured that the post-intervention environment was more just than the regime it replaced… if we could actually “afford” the cost rather than (arguably) robbing future generations of Americans who will have to pay for it… then the decisions would be simple to make. It’s very complex, indeed. But I agree… to stand by, witness an evil as great as genocide, and not do anything… is sin.

  7. Pingback: Mere Inkling

  8. Pingback: An Allied War Crime « Mere Inkling Press

  9. Pingback: C.S. Lewis and the Horrors of War « Mere Inkling Press

Leave a Reply to Kas-a-fras Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.