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Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 26, 2005

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Many want a world without war. Others want a world without injustice. Some think we can only have limited justice with wars, others only without them.

Still others, like myself, think that some wars need to be fought, others not. To insist on a perfect world, especially to insist that we can achieve it by our own powers with a few political moves or institutional changes is probably a more dangerous position than any other. Naivete also causes bloodshed. It fails to understand the human condition as it exists among us. A world-wide tyranny, a real possibility, would in fact be a world without war. So would a war in which Al Qaeda conquered. It would have effectively eliminated any internal possibility of protest or action against it. This possibility is why some of us pay particular attention to the intellectual forces that motivate the United Nations.

To have a war in which no violence, no wounding, no killing occurs is not possible. Other ways of settling things by persuasion can and ought to exist. Often they help and should be attempted. But we must cause the very possibility of discussion to exist. Wars, in the best sense, are fought precisely to enable persuasive institutions to exist and to function. This position, I believe, was the central thesis of the Declaration of Independence.

Soldiers exist to fight wars, not for wars’ own sake, but to protect one’s society in existence and freedom. Soldiers act in the name of a greater good. Theirs, in the best sense, is a service to others, even a sacrificial service, to enable others to lead normal lives against those who would deny such reasonable normalcy to a populace. We often underestimate the relation we have to the willingness of soldiers to do their often unheralded duties.

It is possible, even laudatory, not to resist in person some attack against oneself. But it is not praiseworthy always to refuse to defend others, especially the innocent, especially if we can do something about it – especially if it our natural or established duty to protect them. Still, it is not possible to make any attack against ourselves not to be an "attack," not to be violent. We live in a world in which unjust things happen every day, even on a massive scale. We read military history in part to remind ourselves of this fact. Not to know this fact or not to acknowledge its abiding pertinence is to abdicate the basic responsibility of knowing or comprehending what actually happens among men. Not a few people either do not or will not understand this recurrent danger of unjust war in human society and the corresponding need of just defense against it.

Nor is it possible not to defend oneself against an attacker always in a non-violent way. Not every war in history has been a "just" war, but certainly many have been, at least on one side. A just war will still be a war, probably still very bloody, however much we strive to limit its horrors. Even if our cause, intention, and mode of fighting are just, bad things can still happen on the side of the just. Individuals on unjust sides can do good things; individuals on just sides can do evil things. This is what free will means, even in war.

Never to fight a war means never to take the trouble to stop unjust aggression when it happens. This is not a virtue. The history of our kind, to be sure, is filled with wars that should not have been fought. It is also – and this we forget – filled with wars that should have been fought and were not. Much evil has followed from unjust wars. Much evil has also flowed from wars that should have been fought and were not, or were, as in the case of World War II, not fought soon enough.

Never to defend one’s nation or culture against any attack from whatever source implicitly is to admit that what one stands for is not worthy of any sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of death in defending it. Socrates, who fought in the Athenian army, was also the one who first said that "it is never right to do wrong." Given a choice between performing an unjust deed, even when it is requested or required by the state, or death, death is preferable. It at least upholds what is right. To change our principles on any challenge or threat of death against us, logically, is not to have any principles. If our enemy knows that a threat of death will induce us to change our principles, he will certainly threaten war, knowing that we will not fight to uphold what is right.

A war is a drawing of a line beyond which, in refusing to defend ourselves, we cannot be anything but cowardly or capitulating before evils that are known, dangerous, and politically organized. It is a noble thing to resist tyrants and terrorists, in whatever form, even when they appear in the democratic or non-governmental forms, in which we sometimes see them today. It is more noble still to be able to define precisely what tyranny is.

It is all right to praise "peace" over war, provided that we remember that peace is the end of war, not its mode of operation. Even devils, Scripture tells us, do not war against themselves. If we mean by "peace," however, simply the lack of fighting, then concentration camps, gulags, and tyrannies of iron control are "peaceful" cities. When we praise "peace" for its own sake, we have to take care not to be praising injustice at the same time. This latter is a temptation, especially among the pious.

The "evolution" of just war theory is not towards "no wars," but towards lessening injustice. To achieve the latter, wars are often the last but necessary instrument. A world of no actual wars is by no means in principle a world of no injustice. Moreover, justice is a very difficult and harsh virtue. Not a little utopianism is found in maintaining that a world completely without injustice, and therefore completely without wars, is possible to us. Scripture warned us that there would always be wars and rumors of wars. Perhaps this warning was a reminder of the dangers of our claims that we could simply, on our own, eliminate all injustices.

All war begins in the minds of those who pursue it. So does all defense policy against those who begin wars. Today we persist in calling war, "terrorism." We are reluctant to examine the ideas that justify terrorist wars. That is why we do not understand those who would inaugurate them. The first battles are always intellectual ones. The last battles are military ones and result in peace either with or without freedom for those who survive.

The most dangerous part of the terrorist wars of today is not a military failure, but an intellectual failure to name things as they are. This is why our wars are no longer fought on battlefields but on streets and subways.

Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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