On War

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“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee, December 13, 1862

On YouTube recently, I watched the kilt-clad, armed Black Watch, which is the Third Brigade of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Midst bagpipes and drums, they marched down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The 20-minute parade was riveting. Spectators lined the street taking cell phone photos.

Next, I watched French troops on Bastille Day assemble before the President of France. The German Military March was followed by the impressive Hell March of the Indian Army. I also watched the Pakistan military parade, then the massive female cadres of the Chinese Army. (I thought they had killed most of their women in the womb!)

On display in every country were rifles, military aircraft, tanks, naval contingents, even a dog brigade, missiles, swords, and – before the Queen of England – marched in formation the stately cavalry units.

In the 15th Chapter of Exodus, we read: “The Lord is a warrior; Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea.” The best contemporary armaments were not sufficient before the Lord of Israel.

In the “Prayers and Intercessions” after the Magnificat, on the Feast of Christ the King, First Vespers, English Ordo, we are to pray: “Jesus, prince of peace, destroy the weapons of war.”

Now, I am not about to pray that we destroy all the “weapons of war.” This sentiment is utopian and should be recognized as such. To wish that all the weapons of war be destroyed (except in everlastingness) is scriptural “lamb and lion” lying down together. It is not going to happen in this world, nor should we expect it to.

If one side abandons the weapons of war, no assurance follows that the other side (or sides) will do the same. No guarantee assures us that a weapon-less world would long endure. This weaponless sentiment is a piety most likely to leave us vulnerable to the unprincipled and the stronger.


Totalitarian governments begin by confiscating all the weapons that a populace can use to defend itself. We seem unable to get it through our heads that the most dangerous modern threat to the human race is a completely unarmed world in which a central world government has eliminated all possible means of resistance, including the moral and intellectual ones.

Is this a “pessimistic” view? I think not. It is a realist view. It knows what happens when a responsible, honorable, and powerful military is neglected – or undermined by the imposition of unwise social policy. The existence of military force does not guarantee that it will be used wisely. It just recognizes that, without such force, few issues of prudence will come up in the first place.

Recently, I was rereading the debates in Vatican II about nuclear weapons. They sound so out-of-date. Deterrence, so excoriated then, in fact worked. The non-use of nuclear weapons would either have left Japan in power or have led to a massive invasion of the South Pacific islands. Several millions would have died. Japan itself gutted.

Scholars would later accuse of genocide those who prevented the war from ending earlier by their “moral” opposition. No painless choices, only lesser evils, were available. Many more innocents would have been killed with the invasion option, which was then ready to go. Germany or Japan might well have developed these weapons first. No clear “non-use” alternative that would not have resulted in greater destruction was available.

Today, nuclear and other weapons – witness the drones – are very accurate and limited to specific targets. Countries like Israel have to worry about nuclear weapons of neighbors. But that worry has nothing to do with the weapons themselves. It is solely a question of who might will to use them and why. They cannot be “thought” out of existence.

It would surprise me, if ISIS had nuclear delivery capacity, that it would not use it on some world city. ISIS is probably immune from any deterrence argument. The net effect of deterrence has resulted in a new kind of war. Managed by shrewd minds, with simple and primitive weapons, massive destruction can be delivered with deadly purpose in anybody’s neighborhood.

Wars are not caused by weapons. To believe that, implicitly or explicitly, becomes itself a principal cause of war. It takes attention away from the ideas and designs in the human soul that do cause them.

Ironically, the conquest of the world can probably be achieved without many sophisticated weapons. A weapon is useless minus the political will to use it. Many Muslim leaders, under the cover provided by “hate-speech” legislation, understand this. Most “Western” leaders do not.

Lee’s famous remark about how terrible war is did not know a faith willing to die in an unjust cause, seen to be the will of Allah. Nor did it contemplate a world in which all means to resist government were systematically eliminated.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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