War’s Moral Dilemma

"Why do you kill me?" asks an unarmed civilian being attacked by a soldier. "What!" cries the man with a weapon, "Do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just.”

This satiric view of war, penned by Blaise Pascal in 1660 [Pensées], boldly expresses the absurdity of killing a fellow human being over a political division. Pascal adds, with heavy cynicism, "On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it."

The moral incongruity imbedded in warfare has haunted the thoughtful, over the centuries, raising questions that defy good answers. How, for example, can a soldier shoot and wound a foe in close combat, without a single thought, then render first aid to him when the fighting stops? How could a fighter pilot shoot down an enemy plane without remorse, then fraternize with his former enemy aviators as soon as the war ends?

I too was ready to "kill the enemy," during the Korean War. The Army had turned me into a virtual fighting machine. It did not matter who those of us sent to war were or came from as civilians. We were all trained to be, as Pascal would insist, "assassins." A tenderhearted friend on Hill 867 wrote, "…the mortar is a deadly weapon and no doubt I have been the cause of many of them [the enemy] meeting their ancestors before they expected to. Blood thirsty, aren’t I?" A fighter who spent time in a hospital in Japan recovering from a grenade wound told me that there was an enemy prisoner there astounded that he was getting the same medical attention as his former enemies!

Is there no way out of the dilemma of war? Even scripture implies it – "wars and rumors of wars" [Matthew 24:6] – as though somehow there is a curse on humanity. World War I, recall, was the "War to End All Wars." Then came World War II, followed by the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War . . . the deadly track of bloodshed, death, and destruction persists to this day, in spite of all protests and efforts of religious leaders and peace organizations. The failed League of Nations and the ineffective United Nations are proof of the inability of the "international community" to stop wars.

In light of my own involvement in war as a soldier, I should explain why I was not a "conscientious objector" – an option open to draftees. I was guided at the time by my love for a country that had been exceedingly good to me, my family, my friends. That I owed it unquestioned loyalty was a given. The thought that my government might send me and millions of fellow citizens to a killing field without damn good reason had no place in my head. I must underline, here, that the final accounting for how fighters are used rests with the top brass, who in turn answer to those who run the country.

It should be obvious to everyone with a mind that is connected to the heart that the legitimate reason for war is the defense of one’s family and homeland against attack from enemies. This must remain the definition of defensive war. Taking up arms to protect one’s country from invaders is, however, a far cry from being the invaders of another country. Rationales for waging war that gather around political, economic, or cultural objectives yield motives for offensive, not defensive warfare. Squaring that with justice in warfare amounts to an endorsement that "might makes right."

Ultimately, moral justice regarding war demands a life-affirming posture. "Love your enemies" [Matthew 5:44]. It is not attained by pursuing a way of death, strongly hinted in the remark made by J. Robert Oppenheimer when the first atomic bomb successfully detonated: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Anthony J. DeBlasi is a war veteran and culture warrior. His articles have appeared in American Thinker.