When Is It Right to Fight?

By Stephen Hays
August 26, 2005

We are at time of war. The “war on terror” is the overarching term, but the primary foci for that war have been Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq war in particular has been highly controversial — although controversy has a way of feeding on itself.

It’s not my intention to take sides in this debate. Rather, I intend to discuss a few criteria for judging a military commitment.

I. Protection

What is the justification for war, for national defense? National defense is, or ought to be, an extension of self-defense. I have a right to defend myself. I also have a right to defend my family (cf. Exod. 22:2).

By logical extension, there are times when we pool our collective resources. I’m prepared to die for your family if you’re prepared to die for my family. As a tribal society, ancient Israel was one big extended family, with a clannish code of honor (e.g., Judges 20).

In the Iraq war, our soldiers are dying for Iraqis. Iraqis are not dying for our soldiers, or our families.

Is that a legitimate extension? Well, it depends. The official rationale is that by securing a democratic beachhead in the Mideast, we will make the world safer, and Americans will be safer as well — over the long haul.

In my opinion, that is, in principle, a legitimate extension of national defense, but its legitimacy is not unconditional, for it can easily be overextended.

1. Do we have a reasonable prospect of success? That may be a hard question to answer. And we may have to revisit the question in the course of the war.

2. The war is a means to an end, not an end it itself. It is an indirect way of combating terrorism. That’s valid up to a point, but there is also a limit to how much blood and treasure we should invest in a hypothesis. Iraq is not America. This is not a war of national survival. The theory is that we fight over there so that we don’t fight over here.

Assuming that’s true — which is, of itself, a very large assumption — it is at one or more removes from a direct defensive war. A preemptive war can be a defensive war — the Book of Esther is a case in point — but it’s a war against a potential threat, not an actual attack. If the war is costing you more than any appreciable return on your investment, then you need to reconsider the outlay. Otherwise, the original warrant becomes attenuated beyond all recognition.

II. Prudence

One argument for the Catholic rule of faith is that the Bible is insufficient to give us guidance on many topical decisions. The Protestant reply is that responsibility is commensurate with revelation. We are only responsible to God’s revealed will. His revealed will is a dead certainty. All else is probable at best.

This means that we don’t always know the right course of action. By “right,” I don’t mean morally right, but prudent. We don’t always know the most prudent course of action.

In such cases, which are commonplace, there may be more than one morally acceptable course of action open to us. In that situation, what matters is not that we were right, but that we were smart. For example, a preemptive war may be morally acceptable, but imprudent (e.g., 2 Chron. 35:20–24).

Given that we had to act on the basis of insufficient information, did we make a reasonable choice based on the best information we had at the time? As such, many pragmatic decisions should be provisional and subject to revision in light of the latest data.

III. Inside Information

It is hard to get solid information on our military progress. The liberal media is automatically against the war. And the government is automatically for the war. Other outlets reflect their partisan or ideological commitments — liberals, libertarians, neocons, paleocons, realpolitikos, &c.

I’d suggest that the most reliable sources of information are the mil blogs. These are biased as well, but at least the bias is more likely to be driven by the facts on the ground.

Another indication is when the Secretary of Defense loses faith in the effort, as Bill Kristol infers:

That is, of course, hard to confirm — but damning if true.

I’d add that I don’t measure the progress of the war by the number of roads and schools we’re building. The progress of a war, or lack thereof, must be measured in military terms.

Topics: Government, Justice, Theology

Stephen Hays

Stephen Hays doubled-majored in history and classics at Seattle Pacific University and is currently both a student and teacher's assistant at Reformed Theological Seminary. He resides in Charleston, SC.

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