Sense and Nonsense: ‘Cause Wars Make History

Wars and rumors of war are familiar themes in Scripture and familiar themes in the daily press. Indeed, the very expression of “wars and rumors of war” is from Matthew 24:6. We stumbled into a small war about a year after the largest threat of the modern era seemed to collapse by not fighting, though it continues to war on the little people within its empire.

The day after the war began, I remarked on the accuracy of weaponry and its relation to the legitimacy of war to a wise elderly priest who had seen much of the fighting in World War II. “We hit military targets we want to hit,” I affirmed, obviously impressed. He thought for a moment and replied, “Yes, but do you consider that Saddam thinks this is a weakness?” I confessed that I did. Whether just war is a weakness is a question already found in some form in the First Book of Plato’s Republic. We are still asking it.

The past several years have seen the religious press filled with discussions of war and its legitimacy. The result has been anything but clarification. Two things can be remarked on this controversy in retrospect. The first seems to be that had we followed the advice of the dominant religious thinkers and bishops in this country on the nature of war and weaponry, the collapse of the Soviet front would not have happened. It was precisely the political use of weapons, their construction and sophistication, that made the difference. Fortunately, the French bishops had it right.

The second thing is that nothing in this religious turmoil over war prepared us for this particular war, which seems paradoxically to be thus far fought without episcopal help according to the strictest principles of limited, just war. All proper authority was consulted, every opportunity to avoid the war was provided, the weapons used were directed at military targets, a just cause existed.

What is lacking in policy is some sense of Christian interest in this war. The lot, legal and cultural, of Christians in Arab lands is a subject that no one dares much to talk about. The Holy See is much concerned that Christians in this area are leaving for the West whenever they can, as there is no future for them there in their eyes.

The president has fought this war on very narrow grounds—no change of Iraqi borders, no effort to challenge the religious liberty policies of Saudi Arabia or Iraq, no effort to bring up the question of democracy in Kuwait or Iraq, keep the war limited, keep Israel out of the battle, if possible. The sole and stated objective is simply: we cannot allow one country to invade and take over another. Oil is important. Private property has implications for the common good. This concerted effort seems almost the first and only time that the United Nations has worked as it was established to do.

Yet, wars are chancy. They do not turn out as we might hope. This country has lost many a war at the peace table. Mr. Hussein seems to be banking on this record.

This war is also billed as the initial phase of a new moment in history, when we will be willing collectively to forbid not merely nuclear great power wars, but small ones caused by local tyrannies. I think this notion is ambitious, even if this situation had to be met.

But can we ever expect a world without war? “I cannot see how we can end War,” Chesterton wrote in the Illustrated London News in 1915, “unless we can end Will.” If the location of wars is in will—and this is precisely where this current war seems to be clearly located—it is foolish to address war without addressing will. And we do not understand will if we do not realize what might motivate us, if we do not know “what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” as Mad magazine used to say.

Wars are not only caused by bad men seeking good things in a wrongful way, but by good men seeking a right way to prevent bad things. “What is the charge brought against war? Is it that some men, who will in any case die sooner or later, are killed so as to establish order for a people who will live in peace?” St. Augustine asked in his Contra Faustum.

To make such a charge is the part not of religious minds, but of timorous minds. The real evils in war are the love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way.

“Good men can undertake wars. . . .” The rhetoric of modernity often causes us to forget our history and our experience.

The story is told of a teacher who was trying to impress her class on the advantages of peace and disarmament. “How many of you boys object to war?” she asked. Up went several hands.

“Johnny, will you please tell the class why you object to war?”

” ‘Cause wars make history,” replied Johnny soberly. And Johnny definitely didn’t want to study history.

In The Prince Machiavelli wrote, “Because there cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms there needs must be good laws, I shall omit the reasoning on laws and speak of arms.” It is probably true that there is a relation between good laws and good arms. It is certainly false that good arms mean good laws. So we cannot omit reasoning on laws when we speak of arms.

The last words in Clausewitz’s famous book On War are these: “War is an instrument of policy; it must necessarily bear its character; it must measure with its scale: the conduct of War, in its great features, is therefore policy itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen, but does not on that account cease to think according to its own laws.”

Wars make history.

Eric Voegelin, speaking of Plato, wrote, “The idyll of unproblematic happiness is unworthy of man.” Wars and rumors of war and the worthiness of men—can we have a world without war if it is not a “peaceable” tyranny?

Does the fact that men are at war mean that the ultimate things are not taking place? Are we closer to God in war or in peace?

At a time of particular distress, a friend once wrote to me, “Keep in mind the opening words of today’s Mass: ‘The Lord says: my plans for you are peace and not disaster.’ ” God’s plans for us are peace, not disaster. Our plans for ourselves may quite well spell disaster, but our disasters are included in God’s plans.

“What evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

“What is the charge brought against war?”

“The idyll of unproblematic happiness is unworthy of man.”

“There cannot be good laws where there are not good arms.”

“War is an instrument of policy.”

“I cannot see how we can end War unless we can end Will.”

“Good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act.”

  • 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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