Preventive War

(December 23, 2002)


On Dec. 20, 2002 there appeared on Bill Moyer's PBS program "NOW", an interview of Robert Kaplan author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House, 2001). In it, Kaplan argued that no matter how reluctant we may be to engage in "pre-emptive war" against Iraq, we must do this in order to prevent even greater catastrophe for the human race. Over Moyer's Christian objections, Kaplan, a self-avowed atheist, insisted that the traditional "just war" reasoning as to whether or not a war could be considered permissible or not, are simply irrelevant -- that in a world full of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, such ethical or moral reasoning simply no longer applies.

       If this be true, I wondered, where does this put anyone who seriously claims to follow Christ? Most Christians, to begin with, felt morally obliged to avoid any involvement with the military might of pagan Rome. Many refused, sometimes even to the point of sacrificing their own life (e.g. the story of St. Sebastian), to take up arms. Those who converted to Christianity while in service often resigned -- giving up the generous pensions afforded to army veterans as well.

       All this changed when Constantine became emperor in 312 AD. While not yet officially proclaimed "Christian", the empire itself became the great defender of Christianity's right to exist, and Christians in turn, felt obliged to defend the empire. Within the century, St. Augustine formulated his famous principles governing what he considered to be just causes for declaring a war (the most well known of these being that it must be purely defensive in nature) and that even if such a war cannot be avoided, that harm to civilians must be, as much as possible, ruled out.

       Of course, everyone knows that these principles have rarely been followed perfectly. Invasions of other lands were even blessed to promote the spread of the Christian faith. Innocents starved to death in the siege of towns occupied by armies, and finally, (in World War II) whole cities were attacked (even entirely incinerated -- in the case of Dresden and Tokyo) even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- both cities without any significant military installations yet picked out to be "examples" of what could be done to the rest of Japan.

       So is Kaplan correct? Has everything changed with the advent of modern weapons of mass destruction, or is it that we have finally realized that neat distinctions in St. Augustine's theory really never were worth much? And in either case, what must a Christian decide to do?

       Do we naively go back to the early Christian practice of avoiding all violence, even when it is merely self-defensive and might mean our own death and the death of those whom we love? Or do we drop all pretense of Christian rules of war and simply return to a carefully calculated policy (very carefully, lest it end in our own self-destruction) of "might makes right"? And if this latter is the only practical choice left us, on what basis can we claim that our civilization is morally superior to that of anyone else?