Sense and Nonsense: On Murder and War

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Originally, Veterans’ Day commemorated the end of the Great War, the bloodiest of all wars. On its eve, I was invited to supper at the Army and Navy Club off McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. Walking from the bus stop, I approached a corner of the square where an earnest young man stood with a large sign that read: “If Murder Is a Crime, What Is War?” “If this logic is correct,” I thought, “Schall should definitely not be dining at the Army and Navy Club on Armistice Day!”

This street-corner question cannot be fairly answered. Distinctions must be made; definitions set down. We can agree that war is murder if, but only if, it is unjust. Though each may still be wrong, neither war nor murder by itself is a crime. Technically, a crime is a legally defined aberration. It presupposes an objective wrongness to which it gives the sanction of law.

But if war is just, it is neither murder nor a crime. It is quite possible that not to fight against injustice is itself both a crime and cooperation in murder. Those who participate in a just war, however, exercise the virtue of courage. They protect innocent lives and worthy institutions from precisely what is unjust.

What seems like logic would have us identify one thing with another—”war” with “murder”—when they cannot be so identified. Such confusions make me wonder whether more damage is not caused in the world by faulty thinking than by war itself. No one who thinks and, subsequently, practices the dubious doctrine that war is ipso facto murder can ever be relied on to repulse an enemy or to protect anyone from any criminal state or movement.


The tyrant’s greatest friend is the one who refuses to protect the innocent. Even worse are those unable to define what innocence is. Such a doctrine that war is murder, by its nature, turns the world over to the vicious, to those who understand that no just force stands in their way. Naïveté and innocence are not ready helpers of peace. Peace, when it means “no effort to defend ourselves no matter what the issue,” is frighteningly easy to attain in this world.

What about the principle that “all war is evil”? It sounds edifying. But again, one has to distinguish: Are all wars on both sides evil? Are there no cases in history in which refusal to fight has made things worse? Is not the main hope of tyrants to teach their enemies doctrines of pacifism—that nothing is worth dying for? Are people who refuse or are unable to make distinctions so innocent after all?

If the alternative to war is not justice, is war still murder? Can institutions of peace, dialogue, discussion, and diplomacy exist without the reasonable use of force behind them? Only if such things as disorder in human nature did not exist would this dream be possible. Such dire things might be minimized or controlled, but not without some rational presence of force. If all power corrupts, so does all lack of power.

Is this view not pessimistic? Where is the hope for a better world? In a trenchant phrase, St. Paul told the Ro-mans that the emperor bears the sword for the correction of our wrongdoing. Was this just pious talk designed to cover what he really meant, namely, that no arms are necessary? Hardly. It was a clear and practical estimate of what occurs in human nature. Is the emperor—that is, the civil power— always benign? Again, hardly.

Why are soldiers honored? Why do we have Armistice Day? Is it because “war is murder”? Are soldiers, because they are soldiers, criminals? These arguments only make sense if we refuse to acknowledge that enemies exist and that our freedom and way of life are at stake—if we deny that such things as truth and justice exist. War is not the problem. Dubious ideas are, when willed.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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