In my previous post I argued that violence holds contextual, or amoral value. At the end of the article, I noted that if this is true, then the godly warrior must be occupied in making himself a moral soldier. By this I mean that the godly warrior must be able to determine if he is using violence well, or if he is using it poorly. The question is a very hard one to answer, for a multitude of reasons. Fortunately, I’m not the first to ask; Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica on this exact topic. He writes,


In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior… according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”…

…Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says… “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says … “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good…The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance … the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

[All emphases mine]


So the ancients understood war to be nuanced, and in fact, amoral in nature. There are qualifiers which determine whether or not a war is just or not – in modern English, we could say, whether or not a war is moral. And the three main qualifiers are that the war be declared by a legitimate authority, for a righteous cause, and that the combatants involved do so for the right reasons.

All of these are extremely difficult to address.

The first point, the legitimacy of the authority, is comparatively simple, if you are willing to accept social contract theory without argument. Systems of government determine legitimacy of authority. In America, we vote for electors who vote for our leaders. In doing so, the American authority – the people themselves – declare wars by proxy. Sabastian Junger noted this in his recent article in the Washington Post. He writes,


Soldiers face myriad challenges when they return home, but one of the most destructive is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that it — and not just the soldiers — went to war. The country approved, financed and justified war — and sent the soldiers to fight it. This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation. If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.


So legitimacy in our system comes from us. Other, more archaic systems could be reduced to a single man or an oligarchy, but the principle remains the same. The right and responsibility to prosecute a thing as destructive as war is reserved for those who have been placed in leadership positions – not to be taken lightly, not to be misused. And yet we know that such power has been misused.

This brings us to the second qualifier, which is that there must be a just cause, such as self-defense or to stop genocide. But this is where things get complicated. The Crusades were nearly all viewed as defensive and moral wars at the time they were waged, but are decried now. The First World War was also seen as a moral war, and yet many scholars think of the convoluted series of alliances and grudges that set the world ablaze in 1914 as the epitome of frivolous war.

The problem in determining a just cause really comes down to this: humans are sinful and perspectival creatures. We are bound by our location in time and space, our culture, and our convictions. This makes previous and future generations judge our wars by standards we would not have considered, and vice versa. In some cases, it is indisputable – Saddam’s land grab in Kuwait, and the ensuing cruelty, are obviously immoral. But in the majority of cases, war is set in motion by such a multitude of unknowns that the common soldier, seeking to wage his war morally, can never hope to answer.

I think this is why the third qualifier is so important. Aquinas argues that in order for war to be moral, the individual soldiers must conduct war morally. By that standard, each and every war that has ever been fought has been immoral, because no soldier has ever perfectly prosecuted war – without a hint of anger, without a touch of malice, or in short, without sin. So we have to consider, then, if mankind is incapable of waging war entirely morally, ought we to do it at all, even though we have established that it can be an instrument to mitigate the more heinous effects of the Fall?

If a potentially good thing can be rendered completely null by the existence of sin, there is no goodness at all in the world. In my marriage I have come to see my own evil inclinations in some very stark ways – and yet I do not believe that my marriage is fundamentally evil. Similarly, I have seen police officers successfully talk someone with suicidal intent from the ledge of a bridge – should we not bother to do such things, because our hearts are evil? I tend to think that the morally admirable pieces of any human project are found in spite of our evil inclinations. So the argument that all war is evil because individual soldiers are humans (and therefore inclined to evil) doesn’t seem to hold water.

So what, then, is the answer to the third qualifier? It is the same as any other part of life – we endeavor to live our lives well, we endeavor to have good marriages, and when we fail, we try again. For a soldier to morally conduct their war, they must first try to do so. The attempt in itself holds positive moral value because it is an attempt to soften the brutality of war where it can be softened – to ease the suffering that war creates – in short, it is an attempt to mitigate the Fall, and cause the net moral value of the war lean further towards the “moral” side of the spectrum. It cannot be wholly good, since war cannot exist in Paradise, but it can be prevented, by the intention of the individual, from being wholly – or even mostly – evil.

In the end, for the common soldier, this is the only thing they can know. Soldiers must deal with uncertainty. We cannot know all the facts of our mission, or even if the war is truly being prosecuted for moral reasons. Others may question the authority of our leaders, and others will question the morality of our cause. It is possible, then, for two soldiers to fight each other, and one to the kill the other – and neither have acted immorally. In fact, C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the First World War, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.


So for the warrior, who is willing and prepared to kill, but who seeks – despite her fallen nature – to only kill out of necessity and towards a moral end, the problem of morality in war is surprisingly simple. She is accountable to God, and she must examine herself and her motives daily. For the common soldier, this is the only aspect of war we can control. It is, therefore, paramount.