In Book 19 of City of God, the great theologian Augustine (354-430 A.D.) argues that all human beings desire peace. Even war is fought to achieve peace. Augustine writes:

For even they who make war desire nothing but victory—desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are raged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command in battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. For every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace.

Augustine goes on to refer to the monstrous character, Cacus (from kakos, meaning “bad”), created by the poet Virgil in The Aeneid. Augustine notes that Cacus’ den “was always reeking with recent slaughter, there was nothing else than peace sought, a peace in which no one should molest him, or disquiet him with any assault or alarm.” Even this crude and evil cave-dweller ultimately wants peace.

Augustine and Virgil were right. Everyone seeks peace in some way. But we need to ask, what is the “peace” that we’re seeking, and how are we seeking it? As Christians who are American citizens, what should we hope for our nation? For what type of peace should our nation’s political and military leaders strive?

With regard to the ethics of warfare, each of the three rival traditions—pacifism, crusade, and just war—seeks peace. And yet, they disagree on how to define the peace for which we aim and how to achieve the peace we envision.

For the pacifist, the peace envisioned is one in which deadly force is not used, in which warfare has ceased. Denying that there can ever be moral justification for using deadly force, it argues that we must address a given threat in a non-violent manner. For the crusader, the peace envisioned is one in which the world submits to an ideal form of rule and authority. Its visionaries assume the power and authority to impose their vision on a recalcitrant world by force. It wages war for religious or ideological reasons, seeking a final peace by waging war on any state or non-state actors they deem “evil.” Although these two traditions find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their modus operandi, they are of one piece in terms of their end goal: to achieve the ideal peace in the here and now. In other words, both traditions view their own ideology as the only means for establishing the end of war.

Situated between these extremes is the just war tradition. Unlike pacifists, they are willing to wage war, but unlike crusaders, they will do so only for limited purposes and under specific terms. Moreover, unlike pacifists and crusaders, they are under no illusion that humanity will ever achieve the ideal peace in the here and now. Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles summarize well:

Embodying a moral realism that is ideologically distinct from both militarism/holy war on the one hand and pacifism on the other, the just war tradition represents a ‘discipline of deliberation’ that provides us with moral principles, moral wisdom, and categories of moral measurement that are indispensable in making sense of the ethics of war and peace and coercive intervention.

Thus, the just war tradition is characterized by a moral realism that is consonant with the Bible’s teaching about the world. At the heart of Christianity, and of moral realism in general, is the understanding that we cannot hope for any global political “home runs” or definitive peace; not, at least, until the return of Christ and subsequent negation of original sin. Instead, we must deal with people as they are, holding that there will always be sin which leads to violent conflict, and no one, including ourselves, are immune. The just war tradition calls us to setup realistic checks and balances on how we respond to violence, knowing that we ourselves could just as easily cross moral thresholds of which our enemies are guilty.

This sort of realism is offensive to any number of political and military leaders who think that the United States can and should “eradicate evil.” It is repugnant to people who think that if we can just get rid of strong forms of religion and strong forms of the nation-state—achieving a borderless and religionless world—we can achieve an ideal state in which war and attendant evils can be eradicated.

Evil cannot be eradicated because it is woven deep into the human heart. Human nature is not plastic. It cannot evolve. Humanity cannot take a “great leap forward.” Evil will remain until Christ returns to set the world to rights. For that reason, the best ethical framework for making decisions about war is the realist framework set forth in the just war tradition.

Other articles in the “Ethics of Warfare” Series:

1. To Fight or Not to Fight? That is the Question.

2. What Kind of Peace Should America Seek in our War-Torn Era?

3. Why I am Peaceful but Not a Pacifist

4. Why I am Not a Jihadi

5. Why I am a Proponent of the Just War Tradition

6. The “Founding Fathers” of the Just War Tradition

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