An Analysis and Application of the Moral Equality of Soldiers


Lifestyles of the Just Warrior


Chaplain Scott Sterling


“Never carpool in Afghanistan!”

            The email, forwarded to me by a chaplain friend with whom I served several years ago, carried this subject heading.  It seemed innocuous enough, and was typical of the many jokes and stories that make their way along the Internet superhighway to my email inbox, only to end up in my email trash bin.  It had no message, but included a series of stunning photographs.  The photos depicted a Taliban/al-Qaeda armored vehicle being targeted by two U.S. Navy Tomcats in what was described as an effective example of a joint, combined arms operation between U.S. Army Special Forces and the Navy.  Almost simultaneously the vehicle was hit with laser-guided bombs from the two fighter jets.  The photographs clearly show the men in the vehicle flying in the air from the force of the explosion.  Presumably, all were killed.

            That’s war.  It’s hell, and it’s not pretty, but it’s war.  It’s also not funny.  These men were considered to be enemies of the people of the United States based on the actions of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the support of Afghanistan’s Taliban government.  Few would argue that targeting them for destruction was outside the bounds of just warfare according to the Just War Tradition or international law.  Soldiers fighting soldiers is how war is “supposed” to be waged.  My dismay at the photographs was not at the actual depiction of warfare, or even the fact that enemy soldiers lost their lives.  My initial disappointment was at the simple subject heading in the email message:  “Never carpool in Afghanistan!”  Again, war and destruction and death are not funny, and to place a humorous label over such an operation only serves to cheapen the value of human lives being lost in a war.

            This concerns me as an Army chaplain, but this concern should not be confined only to chaplains.  All military professionals need to be asking whether laughter at the destruction of the enemy is an appropriate response.  My ultimate concern is that soldiers maintain a certain perspective regarding the humanity of the enemy against which they fight; inappropriate humor, among other things, may negatively skew that perspective.   This is a lot to ask of the young men and women who serve their country.  They are expected to overcome strong feelings of vengeance, fear, and perhaps hatred; and to channel their intense anger in appropriate ways.  Servicemembers are expected to internally fight against the temptation (assisted, sometimes, by their military or governmental leaders) to dehumanize the enemy, or even to demonize him.  And all this is expected of them while they are still fighting a war, while seeing their battle-buddies fall beside them, while having to take the lives of these very enemy soldiers that they are being asked to humanize.  We are asking them to love their enemies (to use Christian imagery), but to kill them if they must.

            Essentially, I am asking my soldiers to maintain the principles of the Just War Tradition – no matter what – and to reject the principles of Military Realism and Holy War that result in callous attitudes and behavior.  The Just War Tradition demands a certain behavior within war, behavior that stems from attitudes both prior to and during the war.  The Just War Tradition, as originally developed by Augustine of Hippo, from seeds sown by his mentor Bishop Ambrose of Milan in the 4th Century, was based on the recognition that while war was perhaps – and regrettably – inevitable, the Christian faith demanded certain limitations on it.  Specific formulations of right intention were to be maintained in order to ensure that those prosecuting the war would not lose sight of the ultimate goal of all warfare, that is, the resumption of peace.  Augustine was carrying on the tradition of Aristotle, who coined the statement, “We go to war in order to live in peace.”  Within the Just War Tradition there is an understanding, implicit or explicit, of how to consider and treat the enemy soldier, and it is this underlying assumption of the humanity of the enemy soldier that is either grossly underdeveloped or even missing in the categories of Realism or Holy War.  For reasons that will be shown, consideration of the individual soldier is subsumed by the desire to “win” at virtually any cost, or for virtually any reason deemed worthy by national leadership.  As difficult as it may be, soldiers are expected to reject the basic premise of Realism that in talking about war, moral categories of right and wrong may not ultimately matter.  Moreover, soldiers are expected to reject climbing onto the bandwagon of Holy War rhetoric that excuses attitudes and behavior outside the boundaries of the Just War Tradition for the sake of any god, or any principle.

            Buried within the Just War Tradition is a relatively obscure concept, which Michael Walzer calls the “Moral Equality of Soldiers,”[1] and Paul Christopher refers to as “moral equality among soldiers.”[2]  This concept had its origin in the work of Ambrose, was secularized during the Middle Ages in codes of chivalry, and can be shown to have had some humanizing effects on soldiers in warfare throughout the ages.  However, it is a neglected and underdeveloped concept within the greater scheme of the Just War Tradition, even though it is a crucial piece in the process of forming soldiers with appropriate moral considerations towards their enemies.

            The thought of taking the life of another person is abhorrent to virtually every human being, and yet that is precisely our “job” as military professionals when called upon by our government to do so.  As the saying goes, our job is to “kill people and break things.”  How must enemy soldiers be treated, or even considered, in light of our strong ethos that all human beings have an inherent dignity by very virtue of their being human beings?  How can our soldiers be formed so that individual enemy soldiers are not seen merely as enemies in the abstract, but as flesh and blood human beings, never to be treated as means to our ends (winning the war), but as ends in themselves? Of course these questions have become even more complex and difficult to resolve since the terrorist attack of September 11th.  The first victims of this new war had familiar names and faces; the initial battlefields were well-known buildings and our own military headquarters – on our own soil!  Our soldiers were sent to fight an enemy that seeks not just to kill them as soldiers, but also to threaten and destroy more American civilians in American cities – and abroad – in order to impose upon them a foreign ideological and religious worldview.  In addition to the war on terrorism, our service men and women may also be called upon to fight a new war in Southwest Asia, and may encounter the use of weapons of mass destruction, which will further complicate and confuse the issues surrounding the consideration and treatment of individual enemy soldiers.

            This paper points primarily to these issues and poses the question: what does the Just War Tradition in general, and the concept of the Moral Equality of Soldiers in particular, say about the treatment of individual enemy soldiers – even terrorists or those who employ weapons of mass destruction; and how might soldiers be instructed and formed so that their moral lives take into account the moral worth and inherent dignity of the individual enemy soldier?  To put it another way, how can the character of American service men and women be developed so that adhering to the principles of the Just War Tradition is not merely a checklist to be scrutinized, but a lifestyle to be lived out both in peacetime and war?

             Readers of this paper will no doubt be familiar enough with the criteria and principles of the Just War Tradition so that it will not be necessary to detail those criteria here.  However, it is primarily from two of the classic criteria within the Tradition that the concept of Moral Equality of Soldiers is developed, namely, Right Intention (from the criterion of jus ad bellum), and Proportionality of Means (from jus in bello).  Both of these concepts directly inform, and in some ways provide the moral foundation for, the just war lifestyle we hope to inculcate in our servicemembers.


John Howard Yoder has helpfully divided the category of Right Intention in two:[3] intention in the objective sense, and intention in the subjective sense.  Objectively, intention refers to the goal or end of the military enterprise.  Traditionally, the only valid objective intention is the restoration of peace.  Thus, as Thomas Aquinas cited Augustine (who was citing Aristotle),


We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.  Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.[4] 


Wars waged primarily for reasons of national glory or the weakening or destruction of enemy regimes have not traditionally been considered to have valid ends according to the criterion of right intention. 

            Right Intention in the subjective sense precludes certain attitudes, such as: hatred, revenge, cruelty, annihilation, or the desire for power or material gain.  “The real evils in war,“ Augustine wrote in Contra Faustum, XXII 75, “are love of violence, vengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, lust for power, and the like.”  War is not “glorious,” and while a nation can justly celebrate the cessation of hostilities, as well as military victory, this celebration must not include rejoicing over lives lost or the mass destruction of the enemy’s land.  In place of such attitudes, right intentions include the restoration of peace for the nation, dignity for individuals, justice within the system, and a love and care for the victims of aggression. 

            The second category that needs to be considered is that of Proportionality of Means.  This means that, “Causing gratuitous or otherwise unnecessary harm are to be avoided.”[5]  So, damage in war must not exceed the assumed damage prevented or the offense being avoided.  Also, the damage inflicted must not be disproportionate to the guilt of the offender.  Proportionality of means also refers to maintaining the dignity of humankind in the conduct of war.  This includes such examples as:


·        No unnatural cruelty (e.g., mutilation or torture)

·        Keeping faith with the enemy

·        Generally no lying (with exceptions for ambush or subterfuge)

·        No pillage or destruction of property, unless the enemy might use it

·        No poisoning of wells or rivers

·        No profaning of places of worship or cemeteries

·        Giving quarter; that is, no killing, even in combat, any enemy who surrenders.


I do not believe there is a servicemember alive who would not give assent to these propositions, at least not in the abstract or theoretical realm, i.e., in the classroom, or when addressed by the chaplain or CNN.  The challenge is to maintain these principles, both of intention and proportionality, not only while in combat, but also specifically when the enemy has absolutely no intention of following suit!  Moreover, there are additional challenges inherent in contemporary warfare that further complicate how soldiers will respond or behave.  For example, the assumption is that the less face-to-face contact our warriors have with enemy fighters, the easier it might be to dehumanize them.[6] 

But an example of the contrary is demonstrated in a story from the Civil War.  In 1863 a Union Army band marched towards Virginia’s Rappahannock River banks playing a tune close to the hearts of the Confederate soldiers across the river:  Dixie.”  The Confederates cheered and responded by playing “Yankee Doodle.”  Then both sides raised their voices together to sing a rousing rendition of “Home Sweet Home.”[7]  Granted, there was a shared culture and language that facilitated such mutuality, but the fact was, they were still bitter enemies.  The music played and sung in close proximity led to the humanizing of the enemy.  Again, the more our soldiers – or our nation’s civilians – are attacked by non-traditional enemy fighters (terrorists), the harder it will be to humanize the enemy.  Moreover, when the language of “evil” is invoked, our enemy is easily demonized.  The principle of the Moral Equality of Soldiers (and the Just War Tradition in general), therefore, must serve to humanize, or in some cases rehumanize the enemy.


Earlier in this paper I mentioned the email I received depicting pictures of a Taliban/al-Qaeda troop carrier being targeted by American military forces, with the subject heading, “Never carpool in Afghanistan!”  My initial point was a reflection on how such humor may serve to dehumanize our opponents to the extent where an enemy, in Kantian terms, is treated as a means to an end (winning the war), rather than as an end in himself.  This email serves as an illustration of the threat of Military Realism and the need for soldiers to be formed according to just war principles, and more specifically according to the concept of the Moral Equality of Soldiers.  It is not the idea of humor – even in war – that is morally offensive.  Indeed, humor is often effectively used to relieve stress or illustrate some of the grim realities or absurdities of war.  One thinks of “Catch-22” or M*A*S*H as classic examples of effective and appropriate military humor.  Nevertheless, the concern in the moral formation of soldiers is that, depending on the target and tenor of such humor, it can also cause a chipping away of the necessity to view our enemies as human beings with inherent dignity and worth. 

Two philosophical perspectives on war and peace that may serve to erode the moral foundation required in our servicemembers are Realism and Holy War.  Realism, which is the true nemesis of the Just War Tradition, simply affirms that moral categories of right and wrong do not ultimately matter when talking about war.  Jean Bethke Elshtain affirms this jarring statement when she writes,


Realism’s bracing promise is to spring politics free from the constraints of moral judgment and limitation, thereby assuring is autonomy as historic force and discursive subject matter, and to offer a picture of the world of people and states as they really are rather than as we might yearn for them to be.[8]


And again,


There are those who argue that our moral squeamishness must be laid to rest in times of war; the image of the starving child put out of sight and out of mind. This is cruel, yes, they say, but we live in a cruel and dangerous world and we must think in terms of the Big Picture, the system of sovereign states and a balance of forces.[9]


James Turner Johnson clarifies this idea even further when he says, “For realists moral concerns are understood as expressions of idealism that have no place in the nation’s policy or actions unless they have been transmuted into the metal of national interest.”[10]  National interest is the key phrase, in whatever ways the legitimate authorities in a nation may define it.  In other words, what ends up being considered a justification for war is that which is ultimately worth fighting for in the national interest.  As Michael Walzer describes the concept:


War lies beyond (or beneath) moral judgment.  War is a world apart, where life itself is at stake, where human nature is reduced to its elemental forms, where self-interest and necessity prevail.  Here men and women do what they must to save themselves and their communities, and morality and law have no place.  Inter arma silent leges: In time of war the law is silent.[11]


            Realism embraces the phrase “All’s fair in love and war,” which implicitly means, “Anything goes.”  This implies, as Walzer continues, “any kind of deceit in love, any kind of violence in war.  We can neither praise nor blame; there is nothing to say.”[12]  The ramifications of this type of Realism are both descriptive and apologetic.  Military leaders may ultimately deploy any weapon system, and soldiers may ultimately do whatever is necessary to accomplish the mission and defeat the enemy; that’s the reality, that’s war.  Dr. Martin Cook of the U.S. Army War College stated this clearly in an article written in response to the terrorist attack of September 11.  In this article Dr. Cook affirmed that an important “real world consideration” related to ethical issues in counterterrorism warfare is the idea of military necessity.  “Military necessity,” he writes, “permits actions that might otherwise be ethically questionable.  For example, if there simply is no practical alternative means of attacking a legitimate target, weapons and tactics that are less than ideal in terms of their discrimination and proportionality may be acceptable.”[13]

            There are numerous reasons why Realism must be rejected in favor of an understanding of a  “Just War Tradition with teeth”[14], which includes the concept of the Moral Equality of Soldiers.  Realism, as described above, essentially obliterates most if not all of the criteria necessary for a war to be considered just.  In fact, a careful reading of Augustine reveals his own fears of just war principles being tossed out in favor of a Realist perspective.  “If we read Augustine truly,” Jean Elshtain writes, “we come to recognize that the heart of his teaching on war is that war and strife, however just the cause, stir up temptations to ravish and devour, often in order to ensure peace.”  She goes on to explain his teaching that “if we give ourselves over to our fears, we may find ourselves justifying all manner of nastiness in the name of law and order, in the name of peace.”[15]  For the purposes of this paper it is especially important to note its deviance from the concept of the dignity of the individual enemy fighter, found in the criteria of right intention and proportionality of means.  In other words, because moral categories ultimately do not matter in the Realist perspective, the individual enemy fighter becomes somewhat irrelevant.  If war is fought without regard for right or wrong, but only to win, then to consider the enemy soldier as a human being of dignity and worth is senseless.  The enemy soldier is to defeat, not care about; he is not one with whom to hope for ultimate reconciliation.  If he surrenders we may talk about our future together; otherwise he forfeits the opportunity for such hope.  Therefore, the Realist position cannot ultimately be an option for the Just Warrior who is committed to seeing his enemy as an end unto himself, and not merely a means to the end of winning the war.

            The other perspective that leads us to disregard the worth and dignity of the individual human life of the enemy is the Holy War or Crusade.  The Crusade has a religious foundation as it refers initially to the campaigns undertaken by Christians to liberate the Holy Land from “infidels” during the Middle Ages, although other examples abound.  Besides Crusades being wars of religion, however, Holy Wars are also fought to maintain other ideals.  In fact, in Holy War thinking ideals ultimately trump every other consideration, including the consideration and treatment of individual enemy soldiers.  Fighting for “our way of life,” or for “what our nation stands for,” are nebulous ideals that, as far as the criteria of Just Cause or Right Intention are concerned, may not ultimately be justifiable reasons to wage war, unless physical security is threatened as well.  The threat of having our way of life, as the status quo, forcibly removed from our nation, an ally, or a third party may indeed end up being justifiable grounds for war.  But if wars have to be fought at all, then according to the Just War Tradition extreme care must be taken to ensure that the cause is just and the intention is right.  This means, at the very least, that war is a response to aggression or the imminent threat thereof, is undertaken for the defense or protection of our own citizens or the citizens of our allies, or to correct or prevent injustice to a third party.  Like Realism, the Holy War or Crusade threatens to make the individual enemy soldier irrelevant as a human being who was created in the image of God, and who is worthy of our consideration of his inherent dignity and worth. 


            Soldiers have a long history of appreciating the courage and valor of their enemy counterparts.  Sometimes, soldiers merely acknowledge the fact that nobody on either side really wants to be on the battlefield; they’d all rather be home with their families.  There is, Paul Christopher tells us, a “professional military ethic,” or a “Warrior ethos,”[16] that stems from sharing certain values common to the profession of arms.  Soldiers value courage, honor, loyalty and obedience, and when they see these characteristics in enemy soldiers, they are no longer just enemies in the abstract; they are human beings, “poor sods like me.”[17]  Stories are told of soldiers feeling compassion as they listen to the cries of wounded enemy soldiers screaming for their loved ones, or when coming upon the dead bodies of the enemy soldiers they have just killed and finding the soldiers clutching pictures of their wives and children.  The stark realization sets in that these men really are, in many ways, “just like me.  These are not the criminals who started the war; these are the unfortunate souls who have been sent to fight the war just as I have.

            This is the fundamental concept of the Moral Equality of Soldiers.  That is, the soldier is not responsible for the declaration of war (jus ad bellum); but the soldier does have some responsibility for how enemy soldiers (and non-combatants) are considered and treated within war (jus in bello).  Ambrose provides the seeds of this concept of the Moral Equality of Soldiers in his Duties of the Clergy.  In this work, Ambrose lifts up King David as a military leader, who showed virtue in carrying out his duties as king,


When he showed that he loved valor even in an enemy.  He had also thought that justice should be shown to those who had borne arms against himself the same as to his own men.  Again, he admired Abner, the bravest champion of the opposing side, whilst he was their leader and was yet waging war.  Nor did he despise him when suing for peace, but honored him by a banquet.  When killed by treachery, he mourned and wept for him.[18]


In other words, “David accepts Abner as a moral equal because of the way he fights in war – independent of the rightness or wrongness of the war itself.”[19]    Augustine continues in this stream of thought as he asserts that soldiers who kill out of hatred for the enemy or a lust for violence are answerable to God for these “inner dispositions.”[20]

            The warrior ethos or the professional military ethic described above can be powerful.  Soldiers can well be motivated by strong feelings of mutual humanity with their enemy.  Codified international laws and conventions may also be enough to convince soldiers to act appropriately in times of war.  Most soldiers, like most people in general, want to “do the right thing,” and this desire can act as a deterrent against unlawful behavior in most cases.  But it may not ultimately be able to motivate soldiers in their attitudes and behaviors beyond a certain point.  Certain experiences of warfare may be so horrendous as to serve to eliminate any feelings of mutuality among opposing soldiers.  As the enemy disregards law and convention to perpetrate horrible acts upon fellow soldiers or civilians, it is difficult to not slip into the “anything goes” attitude of Realism to defeat him.  When U.S. Army units liberated the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, for example, the revulsion experienced by some U.S. soldiers was so intense that they lined up Nazi guards along the fence and executed them.[21]  The horrors that the Nazis had committed went beyond “normal” or acceptable rules of warfare to such an extreme that they, in effect, forfeited membership in the Brotherhood of Arms.  It is not hard to imagine how American soldiers who (finally) capture Osama bin Laden might react out of a similar sense of outrage, not because the soldiers are immoral, necessarily, but because bin Laden is not part of the “fraternity of soldiers,” and thus deserving of honor; and because of the type of horror the al-Qaeda terrorist network unleashed upon American shores.  Indeed, bin laden may not be considered “human” enough towards which to express any feelings of humanity.  The issues become even more complex when the laws of warfare that actually define “soldiers” are examined.

            Although the earliest theological foundations are to be found in the writings of Ambrose and Augustine, Michael Walzer traces the notion of mutual respect and honor among soldiers – a “warrior ethos” – back to a code of chivalry that developed in the latter Middle Ages and was revived during the Enlightenment.  He explains that a chivalric code was designed for and adhered to by aristocratic warriors.  These aristocrats, unlike soldiers in contemporary warfare, freely chose to fight and were not coerced by the leadership of any nation-state to engage in battle.  The codes of chivalry separated knights from others who bore arms, such as bandits or peasant soldiers.  However, post-Augustine, and prior to the development of this code of chivalry, several factors contributed to the secularization and dilution of just war principles, which in turn impacted the actual manifestations of the principles of the Moral Equality of Soldiers.

            For example, Roland Bainton points out that the chaos of the Middle Ages resulted in both “pacifism in recession” and the just war “violated in practice and strained in theory.”[22]  The principles of just war, while gaining potential within the emerging city-states and nation-states were difficult to implement because of the nascent political units governed by local princes.  Add to this situation the subsequent religious crusades and the increasing power of the secular state, and the voices of Ambrose and Augustine preaching principles of restraint and regard for the enemy become faint against the background noise of the age.

            Ultimately, the secularized principles of chivalry were codified in international law and military codes.  The men and women of the Armed Forces are expected to maintain codes of respect for enemy soldiers, which are spelled out in service manuals that cover rules of warfare.[23]  It is interesting to note that pilots in WW1 considered themselves, and were considered by others to be, “airborne knights.”    Compared to the “serfs” on the ground, these aristocratic warriors fought in accordance with a strict code of conduct.  But even on the ground, in the trenches, there was evidence of the recognition of the humanity of the opponents.  In a poignant scene on Christmas Day 1914, “German and French troops came together, drank and sang together, in the no-man’s land between their lines.”[24]

            What these common bonds and this mutual recognition of certain codes and rules mean is that soldiers are expected to maintain a certain conduct within warfare, no matter how hellacious the war.  “We draw a line,” Walzer explains, “between the war itself, for which soldiers are not responsible, and the conduct of the war, for which they are responsible.”[25]  He further describes the soldier’s feelings about his enemy:


They can try to kill me, and I can try to kill them.  But it is wrong to cut the throats of their wounded or to shoot them down when they are trying to surrender.  These judgments are clear enough…and they suggest that war is still, somehow, a rule-governed activity…a moral world, therefore, in the midst of hell.[26]


Thus, there are stories and anecdotes from the Civil War, the two World Wars, Viet Nam, and the Gulf War that describe how soldiers take care of dead and wounded enemy soldiers, how they are emotionally touched when recognizing the “normalcy” of the lives of their enemies, or how commanders experience camaraderie with enemy officers.

            The concepts of chivalry and codes of honor and respect among soldiers exist in military field manuals and history books, and as noted above in certain actual cases, but too often the reality is quite different from the expectation.  Codes of conduct, whether codified in official publications or merely informal, may not successfully motivate soldiers to behave correctly.  This is especially true in the heat of battle or in the fog of war.  Consumed with fear, and perhaps with anger because of the losses of war, and with one’s life at stake, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect soldiers to conduct themselves appropriately merely based on the existence of abstractions such as codes, or even manuals.  One can recall many instances of brutality and injustice committed by soldiers of virtually every army against soldiers of opposing armies, or worse, against non-combatants.  In the absence of soldiers formed according to the principles regarding the moral equality of enemies, one can see how such atrocities as the My Lai massacre might occur.


It would surely be a radical departure from contemporary Realism if we were to hearken back to Augustine to restore some of the roots of the Just War Tradition (as the word radical implies).  To do so might enable us to proclaim what Yoder calls a just war tradition “with teeth.”  Again, this refers to a lifestyle and character embodying the moral principles of just war, not just defaulting to a checklist to make sure we’re covering all the bases.  For America to maintain the “moral high ground” in the midst of international crises and operations such a lifestyle must be promoted and inculcated in America’s political leaders and servicemembers. 

A key to Augustine’s formulation surely sounds radical and unfamiliar to our 21st Century secular ears, and that is the concept of loving one’s enemies.  In an epistle written in 390, Of True Religion, Augustine pens one powerful, albeit enigmatic, principle of loving one’s enemies: We want our enemies to have the same blessings we desire, and to avoid the same curses we wish to avoid.  He describes this as part of the “rule of love.”  He admonishes his Christian readers to show this benevolence towards everyone, and then clearly defines everyone as including our enemies:  “Let us then love even our enemies as we are commanded, if we wish to be truly unconquered.”[27]  Kant echoes this principle in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he taught that if others are moral equals to us, we must try to further their ends, as well as our own.  In other words, to love our enemies is to try to have them succeed at their goals.

This idea is obviously problematic at several levels.  For example, the soldier has the obligation to stop the enemy from succeeding at their immediate goals, which may indeed be the destruction of the soldier’s own people, not to facilitate their success.  Moreover, the question must be considered as to whether it is even possible for opponents in warfare to both succeed at their respective goals.  This problem can be solved somewhat if we go beyond the immediately declared goals of an army and consider the ultimate goal of any people, viz., peace and security.  Augustine reminds us, in his Letter to Boniface, that although peace is what we want, war is sometimes the necessity for bringing peace.  He admonishes, therefore, that Christians be “Peacemakers, even in war, so that by conquering them [the enemies] you bring the benefit of peace even to those you defeat.”[28]    

One need not subscribe to Augustine’s Christian faith to appreciate and apply the truth that he proclaims.  When our intention in waging war is to reestablish peace, we are declaring that we wish our enemies to ultimately enjoy the blessings of a nation free from war and the devastation war brings.  We are wishing for our enemies that they would enjoy their families, their livelihoods, the expressions of their culture and religion – free from fear, hunger, or privation.  When we love our enemies, we do not wish the total annihilation or humiliation of their nation, but their ability to reestablish and live productive and fruitful lives.  In other words, we wish for them what we wish for ourselves!  Due to the circumstances leading up to war, it may have to be waged in order to ensure these ultimate blessings of peace; but the actual waging of the war does not have to preclude maintaining and even demonstrating such a love for the enemy.

A powerful example of intentionally showing love to one’s enemy comes from the Gulf War, during which approximately 80 soldiers from the 24th Infantry Division found themselves with the task of guarding some 350 enemy detainees after a lethal firefight at the beginning of the ground war.  The U.S. troops had entered the fight with but three days of food and water supplies, and the main supply route had not yet been opened to replenish their supplies.  The Iraqi soldiers were worn, battered, and hungry – with no food supplies whatsoever.  Among the American soldiers was a noncommissioned officer who saw the plight of the hungry Iraqi prisoners as an opportunity to “bless” his enemy.  Going through the camp, he convinced his fellow soldiers to donate some of their own food and water supplies to feed the prisoners.  Some balked at first (after all, these very men were shooting to kill them a few hours ago!), but most complied, and all the soldiers – American and Iraqi alike – shared in whatever meager nourishment was available.  The Iraqi prisoners were grateful, and became very cooperative with their American captors.[29]

From a purely military mindset, there may be a conflict between accomplishing a military mission by defeating an enemy and expressing compassion towards the enemy.  Such compassion might yield a military advantage and put a commander’s own troops at risk.  It may also serve to prolong the war, or even lead to losing it.  A. J. Coates describes General Norman Schwartzkopf’s attitude during the Gulf War:  “While expressing sympathy for the plight of fellow soldiers, [he] saw the welfare of the Iraqi troops as the concern and responsibility of the Iraqi leadership.  It was for Saddam Hussein, not Schwartzkopf himself, to spare their suffering.”[30]  However, Coates goes on to remind us, “What lies behind the criterion of proportionality is a basic respect for life…it demands that they [commanders] should not inflict undue and unnecessary suffering on an adversary.  Compassion is a military as well as a civilian virtue.[31]  Again, an appeal to a respect for the individual soldiers, enemy or friendly, is foundational to virtually all laws of war, with or without theological considerations.  Ambrose declared, “Fidelity, loyalty and respect for the enemy’s rights must be maintained in wartime.”[32]  Similarly, Anthony Hartle stated in an essay in The Parameters of Military Ethics that the laws of war are based on two humanitarian principles:


1.      Individual persons deserve respect as persons, using the term person to refer to self-conscious, autonomous rights-bearing individuals; and


2.      Human suffering ought to be minimized.[33]


This is so clear and obvious, and yet so often ignored.  Therefore, soldiers must be instructed in these basic moral principles, and exposed to actual examples of how these principles can be carried out.  One such example tells the story of Chaplain Leroy Ness, an Army chaplain serving in Viet Nam.  Chaplain Ness described a significant experience regarding the treatment in death of some enemy soldiers:

In my first action there were some Vietnamese enemy killed.  We were back on a firebase with bodies.  I said to the battalion commander, “Before these bodies are hauled out of here, before the slick [helicopter] comes in to take them away for whatever intelligence purpose they have, I would like very much to have a memorial service for these two dead enemy soldiers.”  At first that was very controversial.  But it changed entirely the behavior of the attitude toward enemy dead.  It was very important that respect be shown.  To the division commander I said this about the enemy dead:  “All of you know that someplace there are families and mothers that also grieve.  It’s important to remind soldiers that these soldiers had mothers, wives, and sweethearts who grieve and whose hopes had been dashed.  We pray for the enemy.  All of us must learn to love the enemy.  As a Chaplain or as a pastor in the military or in a civilian context, I cannot abide trying to make myself believe, or the people whom I serve, believe that my enemies are the enemies of God.”  This position got me into a little trouble.  But it set a new tone for how we behave with prisoners and how we treated the dead.”[34]


            A consequence of maintaining respect for the individual as a human being, and not as an evil entity, is the possibility of bringing an enemy to account for his actions.  We show no respect for the human dignity of our enemy if our goal is to kill him like a rabid dog in the street.  We demonstrate love and respect for our enemy when there is accountability for wrongs done, and a desire for restoration.  “We respect an evildoer by calling her evil,” Miroslav Volf wrote, “because we are treating her as a responsible being.”[35] 


            Terrorism obviously continues to be a very real threat, especially to our physical security.  However, and this is not to minimize the physical threat, there is also a spiritual threat that we face when we discuss a response to terrorist activity.  The threat is that we will adopt an attitude of “all’s fair” in the war against terrorism.  “Such an attitude,” warns James Turner Johnson, “is in fact a mirror image of Osama bin Laden’s declaration…that all Americans are equally worthy to be targeted in his putative holy war against the U.S.  A judgment that ‘anything goes’ in dealing with him and other terrorists would equally violate our society’s own normative traditions.”[36]  Johnson continues, “People fighting in war have a more fundamental duty to approach war with a mind-set that keeps them from engaging in cruelty so long as the conflict lasts and helps them to look forward to living peacefully within a peaceful community when the fighting is ended.”[37]  This squares with Augustine, who wrote in his Letter to Boniface, “Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.’”[38]

            Johnson is perhaps correct in describing contemporary reaction to these words of Augustine as an oxymoron: peace can have nothing to do with war.[39]  Augustine, though, reminds us of what is really “evil” about war:

It is not the deaths of some who would soon die anyway.  The desire for harming, the cruelty of avenging, an unruly and implacable animosity, the rage of rebellion, the lust of domination and the like – these are the things that are to be blamed in war.[40]


We are returned, then, to the notion of the right intention of soldiers in war, and not just the violence of war itself, as the determinant of whether a war is evil.  Right intentions include the intentions of “defense, restoring goods and values wrongly taken away, punishing the evildoers, and thus restoring justice, order, and peace to life in society.”[41]

            Working against this spiritual threat is more difficult still for the soldier who is given the responsibility of actually fighting terrorists.  It is relatively easy to speak of maintaining just war principles while in a classroom or a cubicle, or on the op-ed pages of the local paper.  The soldier not only must maintain our society’s traditions of fighting a just war, but also must do so while perhaps literally face-to-face with an enemy, one who has participated in an evil assault against fellow Americans or other civilians or institutions, one who has just killed his brothers-in-arms.  What resources – psychological, spiritual, or otherwise – does the soldier have to combat these natural feelings of hatred and revenge?

We train our American soldiers to follow orders and abide by the rule of law as found in military policies and manuals, as well as international law.  It is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for an American soldier to violate the Geneva Convention in any way.  The United States Army is values-based and rule-based. War is so horrible for soldiers and civilians alike that rules must exist in order to limit the horrors.  The rules serve to restrain war not only strategically, but also personally, as individual soldiers commit themselves to obeying orders and following the law.  Michael Walzer perceptively notes, “The rules of war, alien as they often are to our sense of what is best, are made obligatory by the general consent of mankind.”[42]  Thus, we continue to hold our soldiers to certain standards, even though they fight unwillingly; but when these soldiers find their opponents fighting without standards, when the enemy has been designated as “evil,” it potentially becomes harder to motivate them to maintain the rules.

Evil is a moral label that has been ascribed to the acts and actors of terror.  The acts of the September 11 terrorists have been called evil, and that is no doubt an appropriate designation.  By extension, those who perpetrated the evil act are also considered to be evil.  This designation may become problematic, however, even if intuitively we consider evil acts to be accomplished by evil people.  How else does one describe the explicit desire to murder thousands of civilians as they go about their daily business?  No social, religious, or political explanation can justify the motivation to commit such mayhem.  The acts are evil, and it would appear that the agents of terror, are themselves evil.

However, the designation evil may become problematic for soldiers obligated to maintain the principles of just war when it becomes acceptable to use means to eradicate this evil that are unacceptable under the traditional principles.  This becomes an even more pronounced challenge when the term evil is used in a quasi-religious sense, and a crusade-like call is put forth to eliminate all evil in our world.  Again, crusade or holy war ideology permits normally unacceptable uses of force to eradicate the threat because it is a war “for God,” or for values that have been given quasi-idolatrous standing in our society.  The Just Warrior rejects such idolatry, and continues to wage war honorably.[43]

Living the lifestyle of the just warrior (which includes a consideration of the moral equality of soldiers) goes above and beyond a superficial examination of the criteria of the Just War Tradition to determine whether an action or a war is “just,” or the rules and laws we have just discussed.  One does not merely refer to the tenets of the Tradition in the same way as one abides by the Rules of Engagement in a particular military operation.  Indeed, the soldier on the ground (enlisted, NCO, or officer) is in no position to understand, let alone challenge, the causes and intentions proposed by an administration prior to going to war.  Moreover, most soldiers (enlisted, NCO, and officer) engage in warfare according to Rules of Engagement and tactics determined by others, and thus many issues of proportionality and discrimination are out of their hands.

That being said, however, soldiers are still expected to abide by the principles of the just warrior, regardless of who sent them into battle, why the battle is being waged, or whether the enemy is playing by the same rules.  This, I believe is only possible as soldiers are formed and disciplined to embody the lifestyle of the just warrior.  The lifestyle of the just warrior is a life that demonstrates the virtues of:


·        Humility

·        Integrity

·        Honor

·        Prudence

·        Justice

·        Moral courage


And the values of:


·        Respect for life

·        Acceptance of the inherent dignity of all human beings

·        Humanitarian concern

·        Presumption against violence


An MP at Guantanamo Bay, guarding al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees, recalled to a radio journalist his experience with listening to the inmates talking about their wives, and about going home soon to their families.  This allowed the American soldiers to consciously consider and treat their enemy with respect as human beings possessing inherent dignity and living “normal” life activities outside of the war they are waging.[44]   In another broadcast from Guantanamo, a JAG officer responded to a reporter’s question about his feelings towards the inmates in this way: “Do I think they’re people?  Yes.  I think anybody, any person, whether they’ve done something wrong or not, they’re people.”[45]  The questions before us are concerned with how to form soldiers to embody such principles, and how soldiers may be equipped to maintain the principles in the heat of war; in other words, again, how soldiers live the lifestyle of the just warrior.

Just warriors are formed within military communities committed to the principles of just war, as well as to the values specific to each branch of the service.  These military communities are dedicated to the process of inculcating the character necessary to embody these principles and values.  From day one of basic training, ROTC, OCS, and the Military Academies, and in consistent and redundant training throughout a service person’s career, the virtues and values detailed above will be taught, stressed, modeled, and expected to be embraced – and lived out.  Service members are pointed to those virtues that are most reasonable to practice in order for them to become as effective as they can possibly be, which in turn leads to their “flourishing” in their role as members of the military. The message is consistently proclaimed that the effective, fulfilled and well-functioning soldier, marine, sailor, or airman is the one who naturally reflects the life of the just warrior.  It is good – for our nation, our world, and for the individual soldier – to abide by these principles and live according to these values. 

An example of the positive effects on the treatment of the enemy from institutionally instilling positive principles comes from an Israeli mother of two sons in the Israeli Defense forces.  Pnina Isseroff, a composer, was struck at military ceremonies by the music that was played. 


Almost all the songs played while the soldiers march are songs about peace.  About the end of war.  About how glorious it will be when we can take off our uniforms and live in peace.  About flowers in the barrels of our guns.  About using destroyers to transport oranges.  About the dove with the olive branch.


            She also describes what she sees as some of the consequences of such a philosophy of military music:


We know of the reservist guys who took up a collection from their own pockets and gave a Palestinian family 2000 shekels to repair the hole they had to break in the wall of their house when looking for terrorists.  We know the guys who rolled up the carpets and washed the floor of the house they had to occupy, so they could return it in good condition to its owners.  We know the soldiers who volunteered to give blood to help the Arab civilians that were wounded during a battle…Boys in the army are constantly lectured on “The Purity of Arms,” and how a soldier must be a moral person.  This is a long tradition…This is why the Israeli army is what it is. [46]


Obviously, this process takes time – perhaps after a few generations of training – before the principles are inculcated by just warriors to potential just warriors.[47]  But it is a process well worth undertaking with much calculation and seriousness in order to enable our soldiers to live up to the high moral code we are demanding.  This is the code of the one who understands and embraces the Moral Equality of Soldiers, the one who lives the lifestyle of the just warrior.






[1]Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 34.


[2]Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace,  (Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), 25.


[3] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 152-153.


[4] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II/II, Of War, Q.40, A.1.


[5] James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 28.


[6] Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Dave Grossman addresses these issues in his book On Killing, (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1995).  For example, he quotes Ben Shalit, from The Psychology of Conflict and Combat: “Increasing the distance between the [combatants] – whether by emphasizing their differences or by increasing the chain of responsibility between the aggressor and his victim allows for an increase in the degree of aggression.” (156)


[7] Andrew Curry, “Whistling Dixie.” U.S. News and World Report, July 15, 2002.


[8] Richard B. Miller, ed., War in the 20th Century: Sources in Theological Ethics, (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1992), 396.


[9] Jean Bethke Elshtain, et. al., But Was it Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 45-46.


[10] Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 19.


[11] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 3.


[12]  Ibid., 89.


[13] Martin L. Cook, Ethical Issues in Counterterrorism Warfare, Ethics Updates Website,, September 2001.


[14] John Howard Yoder, “How Many Ways Are There to Think Morally About War?” Journal of Law and Religion 11, no. 1, (1994-95): 83-107.


[15] Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Why Augustine? Why Now?  Theology Today 55 (April 1998): 5-14.


[16] Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace, 118.


[17] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 36.


[18]  Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, Bk. II, VII, 33.


[19] Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace, 25.


[20] Ibid., 41.  Christopher does not cite Augustine’s reference in using this phrase.


[21] Gerald Parshall, “Freeing the Survivors,” U.S. News and World Report, April 2, 1995, 50-65.  Interestingly, other American soldiers found this behavior quite objectionable.  Hank Mills of the 45th Division told a buddy, “We came over here to stop this bullshit, and here we’ve got somebody doing the same thing.”


[22] Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960), 102.


[23] Army Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare, Department of the Army, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956), para. 3, 3; Air Force Publication 110-31, International Law – the Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, United States Air Force (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), chap. 1, p. 6 (1-6).


[24] See Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 36, for these and other examples.


[25]  Ibid., 38.


[26] Ibid., 36.


[27] J.H.S. Burleigh, Augustine: Earlier Writings, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 270.


[28] E.M. Atkins and R.J. Dodaro, Augustine: Political Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 217.


[29] From a conversation with one of the soldiers on the scene, while he was a student at the United States Army Chaplain Center and School, Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.


[30] A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War, (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 221.


[31] Ibid., 227.  Italics mine.


[32] Frederick H. Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 15


[33]  Lloyd Matthews and Dale Brown, eds., The Parameters of Military Ethics, (McLean, VA: Pergamom-Brassey International Defense Publishers, Inc., 1989), 138. 


[34] Gaylord T. Gunhus, in the monthly newsletter from the Office of the  Army Chief of Chaplains, March 2002, (accessed from a website restricted to registered users).


[35] Miroslav Volf, “Evil and Evildoers,” Christian Century, November 14, 2001, 30.


[36] James Turner Johnson, “In Response to Terror,” First Things, February 1999, 11-13.  Hew as writing in reference to the terrorist bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


[37] Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 212.


[38] In Albert Marrin, ed., War and the Christian Conscience: From Augustine to Martin Luther King, Jr., (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1971), 67.


[39] Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 211.


[40] Ibid., quoting Augustine, Contra Faustum, 22.74.


[41] Ibid., 212.


[42] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 47.


[43] But I would also maintain that the designation evil might legitimately be used in describing terrorism and terrorists when the humanity of the terrorist is not rejected or conveniently forgotten.


[44] The World, radio broadcast, PRI, August 16 2002.


[45] The World, radio broadcast, PRI, October 1, 2002


[46] Pnina Isseroff, “Choose Your Music,”, November 2002.


[47] The community at large, including schools, religious institutions, government, media, etc., should also internalize and embody the principles of just war for this to be most effective, but the military can still instill its own values apart from the larger community – as it already does!