C. S. Lewis once remarked that when Christianity instructs us to feed the hungry it does not provide us with lessons in cooking. Prior to considering the moral purposes to which the culinary art may be put, one must master cooking as a separate art with rules of its own. Christianity, Lewis continued, “was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs.”
Lewis’s point is that every well-defined endeavor or profession is characterized by a particular end to which it is directed. The skills and instruments by which one practices the profession are the means of achieving this aim and not another. Each profession, then, has a certain kind of distinctness or autonomy. What Lewis said about cooking applies as well to business, medicine, the fine arts — and soldiering. In this spirit we do well to respect the autonomy appropriate to the military vocation before inquiring what Christianity can bring to it.
A Christian soldier must first be a soldier; i.e., he must acquire the knowledge proper to the military art. His skills and knowledge are what they are because the military profession aims at victory in war (to use the old language) — or, what has become paramount in our own time, seeks to deter war in the first place. Facility in the use of weapons; the capacity to endure regimentation and extreme physical hardship; fortitude in the face of mortal danger; strict obedience to superiors: all are required for soldiers to do their job, and do it well.
Above all, the military vocation requires a special character trait, a certain hardness or sternness — what the ancient Greeks called thymos, or “spiritedness.” Without this quality, there would be no soldiers. Spiritedness is perhaps the preeminent quality of the soldier, and those who have it in abundance will naturally seek a vocation in which it is appreciated.
This is one side of the coin. The other side comes up when we force ourselves to recognize that soldiering unavoidably involves the prospect of killing as well as being killed. This makes all the more grave and vexing the central question we must face, viz., is the military vocation open to the working of charity and justice? Unfettered, spiritedness can wreak awful destruction. The question is not whether it can be eliminated, but whether it can be tempered.
From a Christian perspective, the military art may be used rightly only if victory is not allowed to pose as the highest good. The Christian soldier knows that even in a just war the temporal goods he rightly defends cannot command his unqualified allegiance. He is thus prepared to accept the Christian teaching that there are things he is forbidden to do — even if not doing them should spell defeat for the things he legitimately cherishes. Losing temporal goods does not deprive Christians of all that gives existence meaning. Citizens of the City of God, they know their fidelity to hearth and home, precious though these might be, cannot be absolute.
Soldiers who are also Christian may well be called upon to do terrible things. Sometimes terrible things must be done for the sake of the good. A soldier will know, if it comes to it, how to do the terrible things. A Christian soldier realizes, however, that though he may have to do terrible things, he must never do base or evil things. Christianity, gives the military space within which to operate, without permitting it unlimited scope for action. Thus may martial spiritedness be moderated and tamed by Christian charity.
This is a hard teaching. But to the degree that it takes hold, the Christian soldier is inoculated against a messianic idealism that would give him the warrant to defend the good and right wrongs at any cost.
The foregoing should make clear why it is desirable for Christians to serve in the military. Yet Christianity needs the soldier as well, and not only to give it space within which to work. Christianity itself has need of spiritedness, of stern bearing and steely intransigence, if it is not to degenerate into a timid, milk-sop faith. One cannot read the New Testament, the lives of the saints, or the rules of the various religious orders (see especially the Rule of St. Benedict) without being struck by the frequency and centrality of the military metaphor — which suggests that some degree of military bearing is vital to the faith.
As with the poor, soldiers are likely to prove a permanent feature of the human condition. Men and women who are tough, competent soldiers and who can witness to the love and mercy of Christ to their colleagues and the world constitute a powerful leavening agent in the modern military. They deserve our honor and our gratitude — and our prayers.