War as an Act of Love(?)

A variety of recent authors have re-examined the “Good War” approach to World War II.  I don’t think this trend is mere cynical debunking.  I applaud it.  World War II killed a much higher percentage of the world population than any other conflict by far.  That fact must forever remain a stain on the war, and we need not  stoop to moral equivication to think carefully about why it happened.

Ronald Schaffer’s Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in W.W. II is a book in this vein.  He does not try cheap arguments that paint American bombings as ‘genocide,’ but certain facts stare one in the face.  America dropped far more bombs on civilians than the German army did, and Shaffer dispassionately wants to know why, albeit a bit too dispassionately.

He writes carefully, suggesting but never advancing a few theories here and there.  He is at his best when describing the tug-of-war between different camps within the Air Force and government as it related to bombing civilians.  We learn a lot about the views of many generals and politicians.  We get an insightful look into the history of attitudes to bombing before World War II.  But we do not get a good answer as to why we dropped so many bombs on so many people.   The question of civilian bombing comes into sharp focus especially in Nazi occupied areas (at least 12,000 dead from our bombs in places like France), not just Germany and Japan proper.  His only real answer is the oft-heard ideas of the “pressures of the moment,” “group think,” and “the protection of American lives.”  These explanations have their place, but I think a better answer exists–closer to the root cause–one that Shaffer himself mentions but does not explore: the idea that war is of necessity evil.

Of course the idea that war is by its nature evil seems to make perfect sense.  The idea that “war is hell” resonates with anyone, and given that war means the deaths of so many, it seems hard to argue the point.  But, appealing as this position seems at first glance, it puts the Christian in a difficult spot.  At times God  orders wars to take place.  Can we say that God ordered an evil thing, and that He can therefore do evil?  Secondly, the idea of war= evil has not been the view of the Church historically.

I did not read his book, but very much enjoyed Ken Myers’ interview with Daniel Bell, author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Re-centering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State.  The book has received favorable reviews from pacifists and military chaplains alike, which must mean something good.  Bell believes in “Just War Theory” but argues that over time it has lost its true value, because it has been used outside its true purpose.  Politicians use the ideas as a mere checklist, that once fulfilled, grants one a blank check to fight.  Bell argues instead that “just war” didn’t stop when conditions for fighting resolved, but continued into the fighting itself.  To fight to relieve the oppression of others could be a positive, but fighting the oppressors was also, in St. Augustine’s view, good for the oppressors as well.  Stopping their ability to oppress spared them piling up judgment upon themselves, or might help them see the evil of their ways.  For Augustine, if one could not fight an enemy out of love for that enemy, and even potentially kill that enemy out of love for that person, one could not claim to be fighting a “just war.”  War could be a means of sanctification just as any other legitimate activity in life.  Neither the Old or New Testaments speak against being a soldier.

If abused, this idea could to disaster.  Aim high, and you have far to fall if you miss the mark.  One could imagine a deluded commander  perverting this high calling into something monstrous, like the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

But Wings of Judgment shows in some ways that far worse things can happen on a regular basis if governments and armies reject this view.  If war is evil, then once fighting begins nothing can be redeemed.  If one is already a lawbreaker, the checks on behavior disappear.  Though certain aspects of bombing got hotly debated, almost all agreed that since war was evil, we needed to end it as soon as possible.  Debates centered more on the tactics and efficacy of bombing than its strategic or moral value.  We dropped thousands of tons of bombs, with hundreds of thousands killed, in the name of war as a necessary evil.

Bell argues that if we are serious about just war, we need to accept the following:

  • When we fight, we cannot place the highest priority on sparing our own lives or the lives of our soldiers.  Love gives, love thinks of others, but to think of ourselves first denies the Golden Rule.
  • We cannot place the highest priority on speed.  Just war means taking time and great care to avoid any unnecessary loss of life, and we must regard the taking of innocent civilian life not as “collateral damage” but at best manslaughter, especially when done out of moral laziness or impatience.
  • Strange as it may seem, victory cannot be our supreme hope in “just wars.”  Our main goal should the increase of holiness, greater progress in sanctification.  Victory may come with such an approach, but we should fight because it’s the “right thing to do” in the “right way,” to increase in our capacity for love and holiness.

For many Christians these ideas will seem absurd, and for this, Bell indicts the Church.  We have forgotten our past and abdicated much of how we live and think to the state over the past few centuries.  Our current “War on Terror” will test us severely.  Predator drones, for example spare many American lives and allow us to go places people cannot.  But several such attacks have resulted in many civilian deaths.  The destruction is not wholesale, but still part of the same thinking that led to the destruction of Caen, Dresden, and Tokyo. If mistakes like this are in some ways inevitable, should we use them at all?   Torture may get us valuable information, but such terrible acts degrade nations who practice them.  Will we forego the information to save our souls?  Will we forego the information if not getting it puts our friends, neighbors, and children, at greater risk?

I agree with Bell, and if he’s right we must ask ourselves if we really want to fight a just war.


Thus ends the original post.  I had a conversation with a Marine friend of mine and he agreed with Bell in part.  He commented that one might love a society and be at war with a society  at the same time.  One could theoretically, “punish” a disobedient society, and just like a parent who never disciplined children, failure to “punish” would be a form of moral laziness.

But he disagreed that one could kill a particular person and still love them.  It may be permissible, but one cannot love another and kill him at the same time.  The soldier at that point is irrevocably intertwined with the “City of Man.”  I suggested that if he was right, Bell’s thesis breaks down entirely, but he thought it could partially survive.

Food for thought. . .