What do you think about when you hear the word war?
You probably think of armed conflict, bloodshed, and death—and lots of it. That is the nature of warfare. It’s also why war presents one of the most challenging issues to address from an ethical standpoint. Given this difficulty, most Christians have adopted just war theory, which requires engaging only in just wars and fighting those wars in a truly just manner. But such an ethical ideal takes great wisdom, courage, and dedicated moral discipline. Here are several brief thoughts to consider when someone asks what you think of war.
“If You Want Peace, Prepare For War”
One of the hard lessons of the last century or so is that freedom requires the will to fight. In other words, to have a free society (democracy), that freedom will likely, if not inevitably, be challenged by totalitarian forces and will have to be defended. Thus the common Latin expression with its roots in antiquity: Si vis pacem, para bellum—translated: “If You Want Peace, Prepare For War.”
A thinker I reference often in this field is the classics and military scholar Victor Davis Hanson. I have read a number of Hanson’s books including The Second World Wars (2002),which is one of the best contemporary books on World War II. I highly recommend Hanson who also writes and speaks on historical, cultural, and political issues.
What follows are three of Hanson’s engaging quotes on democracy and war that help us to think through what a free people must consider when it comes to warfare. I then help clarify his statements. I’ve used these stimulating quotes to spark reflection in my college classes on the ethics of war.
1. Democracy and Warfare
“Democratic citizenship requires knowledge of war—and now, in the age of weapons of mass annihilation, more than ever.”1
It is extremely uncomfortable to reflectively consider the possible results of war, especially in the nuclear age. And democracies so enjoy freedom, pleasure, and peace that they conveniently forget that freedom must be defended. Yet, as Hanson notes, prudent free citizens seek to learn and remember the enduring lessons of war.
2. A Democracy’s Moral Need to Fight
“But wars—or the threat of war—at least put an end to American chattel slavery, Nazism, Fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Communism. It is hard to think of any democracy—Afghan, American, Athenian, contemporary German, Iraqi, Italian, Japanese, ancient Theban—that was not an outcome of armed struggle and war.”2
War is sometimes evil and always tragic but there are times when it is morally necessary. Fighting evil and injustice and protecting the innocent are grounds that justify war. Citizens of democracy must be ever vigilant because history reveals that freedom isn’t free and it never will be in an imperfect world of sinful people.
3. The Ever-Present Danger of Inaction
“If Westerners deem themselves too smart, too moral, or too soft to stop aggressors in this complex nuclear age, then—as Socrates and Aristotle alike remind us—they can indeed become real accomplices to evil through inaction.”3
When it comes to military aggression, history painfully reveals that inaction can have serious consequences. From ancient to modern times people have refused to confront evil for various reasons. But while no rational person wants war, sometimes moral inaction can facilitate the terribly evil actions of others.
War is a difficult moral topic and maybe especially for Christians who prize peace and value human life. But Hanson challenges us as free people to think diligently about this immensely important ethical issue.
Reflections: Your Turn
Does possessing freedom (democracy) require the will to wage war?
- For my philosophical reflections on war, see “War, What Is It Good For? Sometimes It’s Absolutely Necessary!”
- Victor Davis Hanson, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), 4.
- Hanson,The Father of Us All, 16.
- Hanson, 45.