War . . . What Is It Good For? (Part 1)

By Karen J. Diefendorf


Maybe you remember the protest song from a generation ago, “War (What Is It Good For?).” The answer, of course, was . . . “absolutely nothin’!” I would debate that, as would many other veterans and citizens.

The song points out many horrors of war, while assuming there are no horrors in “peace at any price.” No one longs for peace and the absence of war more than the men and women serving in the armed forces—the people who fight the wars. In my years in the military, I never knew any military leader who was eager to go to war. What I found were leaders who, if called upon by their civilian government to use military force as a political tool, would obey.

I also learned that when the United States is deciding whether to go to war or to use military force in a police action, many young adults claim pacifism. I can’t blame them. After all, who wants to die for something about which he is unsure?

While citizen support for our troops fighting in Iraq is greater than it was for those who fought in Vietnam, we still wrestle with tough questions. I don’t know of any recent returning service member who has been spit on or called a baby killer. On the other hand, I’m not sure we are helping our citizenry to think through the implications of war. We seem to think supporting the troops means we can’t oppose the war.

In this column and the one that will appear next week, I probably will raise more questions than I will answer. I will introduce some historical understandings by the church regarding war. I will make a case for when it is morally right to go to war and when it might be morally wrong to do so. My goal is to tweak your conscience and ask you to use your Christian voice in this important arena.



Many Christians wonder, “How does one balance the implications of varying texts?” The Ten Commandments admonish, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17; Matthew 5:21; King James Version); while elsewhere the Bible says, “You shall love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, New American Standard Bible); and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NASB). We might ask: What is neighbor love? Who is my neighbor? Should I be willing to go to war to defend or protect my neighbor?

While I will not fully develop here the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (or more literally “murder”), I do know human beings have a great aversion to killing. The military takes normal human beings who do not want to kill and teaches them to do so. Killing an enemy combatant changes service members. For that reason alone, we ought to think carefully about entering into armed conflict.

Our service members depend solely upon civilians to be their voice. Disobeying or dissenting individual military actions is forbidden. (For further treatment of this important social, spiritual, and psychological issue, I recommend On Killing by Lt. Col. [retired] Dave Grossman.) Your voice matters.

The church’s voice matters. The church has, since Augustine, had a voice in matters of war and peace. That voice is called ius ad bellum (“justice of war”) and ius in bello (“justice in war”). Those concepts were clearly informed by how the church understood neighbor love. A modern statement of this understanding is found in Just War and the Gulf War, by James Turner Johnson and George Weigel:


The obligation to protect the neighbor who is being unjustly attacked provides justification for Christians to resort to force; at the same time, love also imposes limits on such force, requiring that no more be done to the unjust assailant than is necessary to prevent the evil he would do, and that no justified use of force ever can itself directly and intentionally target the innocent.




Historically, under ius ad bellum, seven criteria are considered when deciding whether it is permissible to use force

1. Just cause is found when one might need to defend oneself against an attack, when punishing evil actions as understood by Aquinas in his treatment of Romans 13:4, or when taking back what should not have been taken, a principle of Roman law incorporated by St. Augustine.

2. Right authority means that the person who declares war is actually in a position of political authority and has the responsibility for law and order. We often refer to this as having sovereignty.

3. Right intention is described both positively (all of the other criteria are valid) and negatively (no wrong intentions—i.e., loving violence, just for the sake of cruel revenge, absolute hatred, pure lust for power, etc.).

4. The intent of restoring peace implies three values: order, justice, and peace. “The first aim of good politics, is an order that reflects the natural law, that is, one that establishes things the way they ought to be” (Johnson and Weigel, Just War and the Gulf War, p. 25).

5. Overall proportionality of good over evil; in other words, does the evil done by war outweigh the evil done that needs to be righted? Here one must consider the harm to lives and property, as well as how going to war will impact world stability, the ability of others to achieve human rights or self-government, etc.

Second, one must determine the real cost of doing nothing, of allowing the wrong to continue, as well as analyzing the cost benefit of righting the wrongs.

6. A reasonable hope of success means that no right authority would ever choose such serious actions if one did not have data to believe they could achieve their goal. Included in this principle is a plan by which good politics can build on what a just war could make possible (or at the minimum, does not create a situation that might prevent it).

The post-World War II Marshall Plan is a fine example of this kind of statecraft that chose not only “to make peace” but “to keep peace” by providing the German people with a means of rebuilding their country and their lives.

7. Finally, war should be the last resort. Here one seeks to find out whether the wrongs involved can be justly resolved by something other than force. We have watched our nation seek to do this through the United Nations, various sanctions, the pressure of coalitions, etc. However, last resort does not mean one must explore other methods indefinitely.



What happens after a nation determines that going to war, committing its service members to “harm’s way,” is the only choice? The church still has a voice. Ius in bello gives leaders and fighters guidance regarding right conduct in the application of war. The following two principles expand the understandings developed in the decision to go to war.

1. Discrimination means that noncombatants will not be intentionally targeted.

2. The amount of force used is proportional; that is, the kind of force and the amount of force must be appropriate for the task at hand. Obviously, the atomic bomb’s deployment against the Japanese has been greatly debated with regard to these two principles.

We can be proud of the moral and ethical training our service members receive. While the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison left many Americans questioning this, that situation was not the norm for our service members.

During the first Gulf War, I watched video filmed by an Apache helicopter pilot of his initial strike on a dug-in Iraqi tank; the pilot then allowed time for the occupants of the other tanks to disembark and flee. The pilot fired a second missile into the same damaged tank as a final warning. When the enemy quit fleeing, he ordered the other pilots to destroy the now unoccupied tanks. This pilot applied proportionality in his decision not to destroy even enemy combatants, though he could have legally done so.

International law adds one more principle to noncombatant immunity and proportionality: there can be “no Cathaginian peace.” That means one cannot leave the battle area so devastated that it is uninhabitable, the reason being that after the war is over, everyone becomes a noncombatant.

Indeed there are Christians who would argue that Augustine and Aquinas and the traditions of the church no longer apply to modern warfare with its potential for uncontrolled destruction. Many argue that pacifism was the church’s theological position for its first 300 years until Constantine made Christianity legal. I must leave that discussion for a much larger venue.

Christians have a tradition by which we can determine when and how we should enter the political debate regarding war. Remaining silent has deeply moral implications.

I will address those implications in part two.



Karen J. Diefendorf is academic dean at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. She was born and raised in Vallonia, Indiana. She has received degrees from Lincoln Christian College, Lincoln Christian Seminary, Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, and is completing her DMin at Lexington (Kentucky) Theological Seminary.

She served for 13 years in various pastoral ministries, from youth to preaching minister. She also served 20 years on active duty as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

She serves on the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, the North American Christian Convention Continuation Committee, and on the board of directors for LiftOff, a scholarship program in Logan County, Illinois, that identifies seventh-grade students who have academic potential but limited opportunities for higher education.

She has been married to Walter L. Diefendorf for 30 years, and they have three children.

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1 Comment

  1. william balding
    October 21, 2011 at 11:53 am

    intrestingly hawkish from my point of view. I don’t know how you can conclude our 10 year war and the atrocities that are occuring is just.

    1. Discrimination means that noncombatants will not be intentionally targeted. (wow are we off on this one)

    2. The amount of force used is proportional; (not even close)

    Will read part 2

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