War: What Is It Good For? image

War: What Is It Good For?

While those of us who live in the West almost certainly experience greater peace, prosperity and security than has been the case at any other time or place in human history, we are still profoundly shaped by war. The huge interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and the price paid in blood and treasure by British and American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are evidence of this. So it would seem incumbent on those of us who claim citizenship of the kingdom of heaven to have a thought-through stance on the subject of war.

A few months back I reviewed Preston Sprinkle’s Fight. Despite my feeling there are significant flaws in this book, Sprinkle makes a powerful argument for Christian non-violence and I have been recommending Fight far and wide; indeed, I’ve even managed to persuade my 17 year-old daughter to read it: a rare moment of parenting success!

At around the same time that Fight was published an important book arguing a very different perspective was released, and is one I would like to recommend equally as widely: Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War. Biggar argues for the legitimacy of just war, and chooses three hard cases to make his point: The First World War, the NATO action in Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq. These are brave examples to tackle as the current zeitgeist is to dismiss as lunacy any notion that either WWI or the war in Iraq were anything other than lunatic; while Kosovo is an interesting case inasmuch that it lacked the legality of backing by the United Nations Security Counsel. Biggar’s willingness to defend these hard cases means he says some very hard things, for instance:

It is not clear…that the Somme was not worth 622,000 Allied casualties. Indeed – though I tremble to say it – it is not clear that it would not have been worth many more.

Statements like that, pulled out of context like that, might be enough to dissuade you from picking up a copy of In Defence of War, but that would be a mistake. Biggar is an Oxford professor, and has written a book for a more scholarly readership than did Sprinkle. He is dealing with the most profound of subject matters and some of the content is demanding. (An easier way into his argument might be by listening to this Premier Radio debate between him and Stanley Hauerwas.) But if nothing else, it is worth reading the intro: ‘Against the virus of wishful thinking’, which offers a summary of the guts of the book, and the first chapter: ‘Against Christian pacifism’, which refutes the kinds of arguments Sprinkle offers.

This first chapter interacts with the pacifist trinity of Hauerwas, Yoder and Hays. Of the three, Hauerwas has probably enjoyed the widest influence, but is the one Biggar finds least convincing: “In the whole body of his work, there is no rigorous attempt to justify his position biblically.” Yoder is worthy of greater respect, his “articulation of Christian pacifism is more fully developed that Hauerwas’s, and his biblical grounding of it far more thorough.” However, Biggar differs from Yoder in his understanding of what it means for human beings to take responsibility for the world, under God. For Biggar, war may be just if we are pursuing war in order to “defend and promote what is good.”

Having considered the pacifism of Hauerwas and Yoder, Biggar turns his attention to the “more thorough, systematic, and sophisticated” Richard Hays: specifically his treatment of pacifism in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. An important piece of biblical evidence is the fact that the scripture is silent about any demands being made of those soldiers who responded to the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus to renounce their soldiering. Whereas Hays regards this as ‘negligible’ support for a non-pacifist position, Biggar accords it greater weight. Biggar also rejects Hays’ Anabaptist reading of Romans 13, claiming, “under the current spiritually and morally ambiguous conditions of this secular age, the ‘peaceable kingdom’ cannot be alternative; it can only be parasitic.” Biggar’s reading of these texts is summarised thus:

Were the pacifist reading of the New Testament correct, there is strong reason to expect that soldiers whose faith was approved by Jesus or his disciples would be shown to distance themselves from their fundamentally incompatible profession. But they are not so shown. The New Testament’s silence on this matter is, therefore, loud with significance. And when set within hearing of St Paul’s affirmation of the public use of force in Romans 13, it becomes even louder.

For those who have found the pacifism of Hauerwas, Yoder and Hays (and Sprinkle) convincing this opening chapter of In Defence of War should be essential reading. It certainly caused me to push back against the pacifist position I have increasingly leaned into. The following three chapters on love in war, the principle of double effect and proportionality are also worthy of study – not least because they deal not only with philosophical and theological niceties, but demonstrate considerable engagement with the actual experiences of soldiers.

The fifth chapter deals with the “outstandingly lucid, logically careful, analytically searching, and argumentatively circumspect critique” of David Rodin. But unless one is well schooled in “contemporary liberal, analytical philosophy” this chapter is hard schlepping! The final two chapters get practical again, examining the legality and morality of the NATO intervention in Kosovo and constructing a judgement about the invasion of Iraq: a judgement that Biggar concludes, “All things considered…I judge the invasion of Iraq as justified.”

As I suggested in my opening paragraph of this review, questions of war are not merely academic for us. Last week I was teaching a class on ethics and in the room was a serving naval officer, with experience of managing weapons systems in Afghanistan, and a former infantryman with face to face combat experience in Afghanistan. For those in such positions, some familiarity with the arguments of both Christian pacifism and just war theory are helpful – and for those of us who have never served in the military but who in someway, as citizens of our western democracies, bear a responsibility for those who do.



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