Sense and Nonsense: Common Sense About War and Peace

War, as they say, clears the air, and sometimes the mind. It isn’t true that all wars are just. But it’s even less true that all wars are unjust. The “legal” and absolute elimination of war is, in practice, more likely to lead to injustice than to justice. We sometimes hear it said that the world has now “advanced” to such a point that we can “eliminate” war. We may, however, have “advanced” to a point where we can no longer fight for our freedom—or perhaps, will not. This is not progress. A war college is more likely to be an instrument of real peace than “peace studies.” After all, a mere absence of fighting or violence is not peace.

Augustine, of course, never said that war could be wholly eliminated. He said the opposite: that we would never arrive at such a point. The reason had to do with our wills, not our politics. And if Augustine is right, it means that the “elimination” of war or its possibility may not at all mean universal justice but universal tyranny, in which a physically or morally disarmed populace could not defend itself against the powers or ideology of unlimited state control. Political boundaries are not arbitrary. They define what goes on inside of them. Virtue too needs protection.

Had certain wars not been fought and, more importantly, won, much of the world would already be subject to greater tyranny than it is. Indeed, much of the disorder in the world today is the direct result of (sometimes ancient) wars lost. The people most likely to believe that war is no longer necessary are those most likely to be subject to the next power that detects the intrinsic weakness in a country with this mentality.

The position that “peaceful means” can always be found in any situation sometimes has the uncomfortable result of extending present tyrannies. Not fighting often kills more than fighting. The conflict between the diplomat and the politician frequently has to do with the question of when action must replace persuasion, not because there is anything wrong with persuasion, but because there are some people who simply won’t be persuaded.

We underestimate the tenacity of pride and greed. Some people who “won’t be persuaded,” however, will be more willing to change their minds if power is assembled against them. Still others won’t be persuaded until power is used successfully against them. Victory as such does not prove the cause is just, nor does it prove that it is unjust. But it does make a difference both for justice and for injustice.

Police and armies are potential enemies of freedom. They’re also actual enemies of tyranny. The question is, who uses them? For what? The reason why we have police and armies is not because someone imposes them on us. It’s because we understand that without them our own internal and external order will not hold. Force is a last resort, but it is a resort—an alternative—without which we’re changed against our will.

We live, it sometimes seems, in a kind of utopianism that maintains that a “new man” has already been formed. This new man is not subject to sin or greed or ambition. He can set up a world in which no one will seek anything unjust or uncontrolled. Therefore, he’s setting this world up. Therefore, it exists. Therefore, those who worry about the quality of the world the utopians propose are “irrational.” Courts are being established to try those who oppose it. Ironically, the prospect for a worldly peace is proposed in the name of “rights,” “dignity,” and “values.” These are very modern words, very fuzzy.

“Rights” have come to mean the individual’s demand to do whatever is necessary for him to achieve his end, which he defines himself. A “value” has no content. It’s a blindly chosen end for the attainment of which “rights” are ordered. “Dignity” has come to mean that which I give myself, that which you must respect. I cannot be subject to anything outside of myself. I choose my values and demand that my “rights” be respected, whatever they are.

If these words come to be the program of “social justice,” then the force of the state backs them up as the promotion of “dignity.” Every word in our social vocabulary is transvalued, and common sense is not particularly common. Indeed, if what I’ve been saying is correct, it doesn’t even appear as good sense. Our tradition says that we’ll always have “wars and rumors of wars.” We can deny this tradition or accept its truth and prepare for its possibility. We’re not forbidden to lessen its possibility by acting. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty.

  • 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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