In Plato’s Republic, soldiers are called “watchdogs.” The military guardians are necessary either to protect one’s city from greedy neighbors or, if the city is itself undisciplined, to assist in conquering the land or goods that are wanted or needed. The watchdog is seen to be someone who attacks an enemy but who is friendly with the locals. But who is to decide who our enemy or our friend is? This task is assigned to the intellectual guardians. Often, to tell the difference between friend and foe is not easy. It remains the principal problem of our time.
Behind the war question, sane people recognized that “peaceful means” do not always guarantee justice or even existence. “Peace at any cost” has long been understood to be the virtue of cowards. Scripture is not only full of wars, but unsettlingly reminds us that in all human history will be found wars and rumors of war. This view is stated as a matter of fact. We should not be shocked when it happens in our era or place. It assumes a familiarity with human nature, with the Fall in all its consequences. As a grudging practical principle that never fails to upset the idealists, realistically armed societies are usually those that enjoy the most peace. Those who merely “long” for peace seldom experience it. They may enjoy it, but it is not the result of their own efforts.
Perhaps no word is more frequently found among the officially pious than “peace.” It was also a favorite word of Augustine who, of all theologians, understood war best. It is no accident that great generals have been the first to long for peace; they know the alternative firsthand. Peace is a more curious word than we are wont to acknowledge. Obviously, if peace just means “absence of hostilities,” then police states or totalitarian states are models of peace. The longing for peace with no further qualification is a most dangerous desire.
The “study” of war is a respected discipline. All great military philosophers see the vocation of the military as that of service of others, of those who cannot protect themselves. The military prevents something worse from happening. They are not surprised that, at the end of hostilities, things are still messy. Many a war, having been won on the battlefield, has been lost by the intellectual guardians of the victors.
Peace is not an object of war. Peace is always a result of something else, primarily justice. But not everyone is inspired by justice. The question of war is thus never far from the question of what goes on in our souls. Wars seldom initially arise with armies. When unjust, they arise in the souls of the intellectual guardians or in those of the citizens, usually as a result of personal disorder. The necessity to protect oneself and others is, then, something that arises from a realistic look at the human condition.
Modern philosophy often proposed itself as a method to create among us “universal peace.” What this philosophy claimed was a superior understanding of human nature. Modern thought strove to replace the Christian realism that expects wars and rumors of war. With modern science, this thought will finally bring about “peace” in this world. Indeed, a principal argument against Christianity was that it was too slovenly about wars. It did not “work” to eradicate them. It read Scripture about their abidingness, so it did not act.
These remarks on war occur because I read Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. (Much of what is in Spe Salvi was already in this book, published in 1977 and rendered into English by the Catholic University of America Press in 1988.) Often, when I am informed about yet another academic “program” of “peace studies,” I remark — to be provocative — that the only “peace academies” in this country are located at Colorado Springs, Annapolis, and West Point.
Now, of course, Christianity has never thought that something could not be done about the prevalence of war. Its frequency and heinousness could, with some wisdom, be limited. The notion of “limited” as opposed to “universal peace” strikes me as by far the more feasible and indeed less dangerous goal. “Universal peace” by human means has the overtones of totalitarianism in modern times.
In his discussion of the Resurrection, Ratzinger brought up the question of whether within the world we could expect that man would solve his problems by his own efforts, the essentially modern project. In the New Testament, one of the “signs” of the end of history is precisely wars among men. Wars in almost every century of Christian history are used to speak of the approaching end. Thus, one cannot easily conclude that wars will or will not be an immediate sign of the end.
These remarkable words of Ratzinger are worth memorizing:
Even a cursory glance at the actual reality of every century suggests that such “signs” [wars] indicate a permanent condition of this world. The world has always been torn apart by wars and catastrophes, and nothing allows one to hope that, for example, “peace research” will manage to ease this watermark of all humanity.
In other words, we do what we can. But when we promise that we can eliminate war by studying peace, we show that we do not understand either Scripture or the human condition.
In the recent past, we have had earthquakes, floods, wars, and sundry other disasters. We can only be “surprised” at such things if we really think that we can totally eliminate them — if, in other words, we lapse into ideology from practical realism. It is in this latter world where we are to accomplish our salvation, which is not ultimately in this world.