Fighting a just war is an act of love, as the Church has long taught.
Today we pause from our work week for a terrible, solemn reason: To honor the sacrifices of the men and women who died in our country’s wars, and to pray for their eternal souls. Dying in battle, in the chaos and terror and slaughter of a trench in the First World War, or along some desolate roadside in Afghanistan, is not the way that any of us would choose to leave this world. Each of us hopes that he will pass peacefully in bed, surrounded by loved ones, right after confessing his sins to a trusted priest. But hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens since 1776 have given up that privilege, and bled to death alone on foreign soil—for us. So that we could overcook steaks today in our peaceful, free backyards. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.
We have written before about what is wrong with militarism, a callous but deeply tempting answer to life in a dangerous world. Few wars that Christians have fought over the past two thousand years have really qualified as “just,” or been waged with the proper concern for preserving civilian lives. It’s important to remember, the next time we are urged to send our soldiers to some foreign shore to “advance democracy” or overthrow a tyrant, that most of the unjust wars fought through Christian history were fought by people who’d convinced themselves otherwise—who had listened to their leaders and bought into their propaganda. Both sides in World War I marched into the trenches with the blessings of their bishops, and millions of German soldiers in 1939 marched off on Hitler’s war of genocidal aggression sincerely believing in their army slogan, “Gott mit Uns” (“God is with us”).
The obvious reaction to ugly facts like that is to embrace radical pacifism. It has the same clean, simple logic, and it offers a subtler opening for asserting the will to power—via the service entrance. If you are not the kind of person who can pat himself on the back for asserting, “Kill them all, let God sort them out,” pacifism offers a more exotic pleasure: the privilege of looking down with furrowed brow on the actions of every man and woman throughout the whole of human history and on the instincts of every human being who has ever lived. Because there is no drive more rootedly human than the will to preserve yourself and to protect your loved ones—an instinct pacifism condemns, either openly or secretly. Any position that asks that you passively watch your spouse or children be raped, enslaved, or killed is intrinsically antihuman. (Inconsistent pacifists, who would protect themselves and their families, but won’t take part in protecting their neighbors and fellow citizens, are simply and radically selfish.) Pacifism is also subhumanist, since it devalues the lives and liberty of every human being, which are simply not worth fighting for. The wholesome and healthy impulse of self-preservation can be perverted, of course. If it is not tempered by altruism and limited by a keen sense of the intrinsic moral worth of strangers, it can grow into a tumor—as in the collective narcissism that is nationalism or racialism.
But anyone who condemns the self-protective drive in itself is saying that human nature is intrinsically perverse, fundamentally evil—the product of a depraved or incompetent god (as the ancient Gnostics taught), or the ugly outcome of unfortunate evolution. We inherited too many genes from those killer chimps. He is also, whether or not he knows it, feeding into the worst and most warlike impulses in the tangled-up human heart.
How so? The obvious part of the answer is that when the leadership classes in free countries like England declare—as the Oxford Union did in 1933—that they “will not fight for king and country,” they are sending a clear message to the leaders of other countries, such as the Germany that had just welcomed Hitler as its chancellor. Their message of war-weariness, cynicism, and self-congratulation was not lost on those millions of Germans who were outraged by the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles, whose takeaway from the First World War was not “never again,” but “next time we won’t be such sentimental milksops.”