Balance with war is not easy

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2003

The issue of war, as a matter of principle and conscience, has been a long, difficult struggle for me. This is my thought. In the messy business of even necessary war, we need to ensure ethical and moral sensitivity is balanced with social and political responsibility. When we take up arms, we must ensure the cost of war is measured against what is actually accomplished.

All war is an evil of varying degrees. Yet, occasionally a war becomes necessary, and this may give it a mandate. The suggestion of a "just war" or even a "justified war" is an illusion precisely because war is an evil. A "just war" is too easy and encourages thinking and acting as if a warrant has now been granted that clears it of all moral content and accountability for consequences. The best that can be done is to plead for a "necessary war" and confess it as an evil, although a lesser evil than the alternative. (The alternative is never peace because if peace is actually possible, war isn't necessary and, therefore, not itself an alternative.)

Even necessary evil must be proportionate to the greater good. Not only is evil the consequence of human sin, but involvement in even "necessary evil" consequently leads to yet more sinning. It is virtually impossible to follow the resolve to "Do no harm," because harm is precisely what is indicated. The most we can do is do no more harm than necessary, the harm being proportionate to the good achieved. Harm should be an inescapable consequence, while good must be the intended purpose.

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Not all killing rises to the level of murder. The commandment is not meant to be taken as: You shall never kill anything for any reason, or it would include self-defense and even flies. It clearly has the sense: You shall not murder. There is such a thing as killing in love rather than for love. That is to say, it is the difference between immediate necessary killing within the larger context of love and the valuing of broad love, on the one side, and the love of killing for its own sake.

Force does not equate to violence. Force is never a value, but sometimes necessary to prevent violence. The use of force is morally dangerous, because it is almost inevitable for it to degenerate into violence. Violence is always wrong, but force is sometimes necessary. The terrible missions we assign to our armed forces are not materially different from those we assign to our police forces, fire fighters, prison guards, industrial security personnel, and many other community forces created to protect us against and deliver us from evil forces created by human sin.

Armed force is the responsibility of elected civilian government. The armed forces we need is one that is professionally and technically trained for success in combat and eager to apply its training--but kept on a strong and "short leash" by civilian control. The mission of the armed forces is success in combat; military restraint and the negotiation of peace is a diplomatic responsibility.

Soldiers must be wholesome persons. The most qualifying single trait of a professional military person is that he or she is a wholesome person in personal life and domestic relationships. We cannot afford Rambos, but look for and enhance individuals who are peaceful at heart but willing to take up arms in loving defense of hearth and home.

The peace that is immediately our responsibility is the inner peace we bring to those we can touch with our peace. However impossible it might be for humans to establish world peace or even national peace, it is still possible to establish peace in our time and in our place.

My conceptual and emotional struggle continues relative to the prospect of war with Iraq. Finding balance never comes easily, but the struggle is worth finding the balance between ethical and moral sensitivity and social and political responsibility in regard to Iraq.

Dr. Wallace Alcorn’s commentaries appear in the Herald on Mondays.