Moral Formation And Warfare

Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Giulio Romano, 1520-24

I’ve begun reading Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State, and am impressed by his rigor and insight into this deeply controversial subject. Here Bell writes on the agreement between pacifists and realists on Sherman’s famous phrase, and what is misleading about it:

Although these critics of just war might inhabit different ends of the political spectrum, their criticisms reflect a common ground. Both sets of critics, for different reasons and to different ends, repeat in so many words the saying made famous by William Tecumseh Sherman regarding the US Civil War, “War is hell.” For these folks, war is akin to a natural disaster. It is something that happens to humanity, and try as we might, we cannot alter or change the nature of war. This is not to excuse humans from the role they play and the culpability they share in making war what it is. Rather, it is to acknowledge that humanity is not capable of waging war successfully in a manner that could he called just. Either a war is successful and therefore not just or war is restrained by the just war criteria and much less likely to be successful.

Obviously advocates of just war disagree with these critics, and this chapter offers a defense of just war as a genuine possibility. This defense proceeds by means of a continuation of the overview begun in the preceding chapter. Considering the historical record-and setting aside the imaginary and fantastic portraits of war painted by Hollywood-suggests that war has not always been, and therefore need not be now, “hell.” Instead, the history of war reveals war to be a quintessentially human activity that is subject, like all other human activities, to moral guidelines and limitations. Indeed, as any military historian or informed soldier will tell us, warfare is not a chaotic, “anything goes” encounter analogous to a spontaneous, drunken barroom brawl. On the contrary, although there are certainly moments and even periods of chaos in the midst of war-what is commonly referred to as the “fog of war”-warfare is a rule-governed practice that is deeply shaped by the politics and cultures and institutions that form the people involved. Indeed, even the periods of chaos in war are not as chaotic as they appear, insofar as the actions of well-formed and well-trained soldiers in the midst of a chaotic situation will accord almost as a second nature with their formation and training.’

Therefore, when Sherman declared that war was hell, whatever he may have thought he was doing, he was not in fact making an accurate observation about the eternal and unchanging nature of war. He was not simply describing the way war must be, the way it always has been and always will be. Rather, he was, perhaps unwittingly, revealing much about his own moral, cultural, political, and military formation in a novel kind of warfare that was less restrained, more total, and less honorable than what preceded it.’ In other words, it is not that Sherman and others like him discovered that war was hell; rather, they made it so. As Paul Ramsey puts it, “War first became total in the minds of men.”; War is a human practice that is as amenable to moral deformation and corruption as it is to moral guidance and limitation. (pg. 39-40)