In his novel, The Things They Carried, novelist Tim O’brien, writing about the Vietnam War, says: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” Paul Tibbetts, commander of the Enola Gay, which dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was asked repeatedly if he regretted the bombing. He claimed that he never lost a night’s sleep, that there was no reason to, as the bombing was part of war, and war is neither moral nor immoral—it is amoral, that is, morality does not exist in wartime.
If war is amoral, then anything goes. Immorality in war at least implies there is an opposite condition, morality, that countering evil is good. Amorality means simply that there are no rules, no standards, no leniency, no forgiveness—just outright brutal, instinctual conflict. Perhaps Tibbetts believed that it is absurd even to contemplate morality or immorality, because during the face of battle the soldiers themselves are so overwhelmed, so scared, so brutalized, that an amoral response is the only option.
The polar opposite of Tibbett’s point of view is the doctrine of Just War, which brings morality to bear on war, and is considered and practiced by the religions of the Judeo-Christian heritage, including Islam. The Jews, as their ideas are presented in the Old Testament, believed that war is just, that is holy, since it is sanctioned by God, or Yahweh. Indeed to fulfill His divine will, Yahweh called upon and directed the Hebrews in a a series of wars to conquer the land of Canaan and defend their conquest. When the Hebrews came to the city of Jericho, led by their commander, Moses’s successor Joshua, Yahweh helped them to destroy the walls of the city; He commanded them to destroy all life in the city, humans as well as livestock. The book of Deuteronomy counseled the Hebrews that when they made war against the Hittites, Amorites, and Canaanites that “of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, though shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” (Deuteronomy, 20: 16)
In contrast, Islamic Jihad, holy war, differs according to which branch of Islam, Sunni or Shi’ite, is interpreting the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam. For Sunni’s, Allah approves holy war only for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes: to defend a religious shrine, religious freedom, and mosques. War cannot be initiated; it is only a response to aggression. Noncombatants cannot be killed, and prisoners must be treated fairly. Admittedly, there are some passages in the Qur’an that imply offensive jihad, and some Sunni’s countenance the practice; but by and large it is against Sunni teachings. The Shi’ites, on the other hand, believe that jihad is a pillar of Islam that every male must practice. As the Qu’ran says, Sura 9:5: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” Holy war is the means of building the world order of peace and justice as required by Allah. Jihad can be aggressive, not just for defensive purposes. But the jihadist cannot impose his beliefs on his enemy.
Notwithstanding the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity has also developed a concept of just war. For Christians, war is just only when it is unavoidable, and war is the only way to achieve justice. The nine tenets of just war, as outlined by Roman Catholicism, are:
- Just war is based on just cause, for defense, to protect against invasion.
- Just war must be waged by competent authority such as authorized government.
- Just war must be comparatively more just than the alternative, the enemy’s ways and point of view.
- Just war must be made through right intention.
- Just war must be the last resort.
- Just war must be waged only if there is a probability of success.
- Just war must be proportional: more good must arise from it than evil.
- Just war must be fought with more morality than immorality.
- Just war must be discriminating: some places and peoples should not be attacked.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew, 5: 38-9) Such were the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But could he have seriously meant this? How can his teaching of nonresistance to evil and turning the other cheek be reconciled with the concept of just war? Jesus was talking of personal sin in this sermon. He was counseling against sin. If a person strikes another, which is a sin, to strike back, even in self-defense, is a sin as well. Do not allow the sinner to cause you to sin as well. So turn the other cheek, and avoid sin. But can a nation do this? When the British tried to take the ammunition that the Americans were hiding at Concord, Massachusetts, in April, 1775, would it have been better for the Americans to have allowed them into the town, to turn the other cheek, hence to avoid war? When South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter in April, 1861, would it have been better for Lincoln to have denounced the act, but not to have called up 70,000 northern militia to respond in war? When the Germans provoked the United States in 1917 by barbarous acts at sea and by the Zimmerman Telegram, would it have been better for Wilson to have denounced the former and ignored the latter, not to have been drawn into a barbaric and evil war? When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, was there any way the Americans could have turned the other cheek? When Iraq refused to allow United Nations weapons inspectors into its country, and seemed to be building WMD’s, in 2002 and 2003, would it have been better to react patiently, rather than invade the country, a decision that was later regretted? When should a country turn the other cheek and not seek vengeance? Is it even possible for a country, much less a person, to turn the other cheek and not to return violence with violence? As Jesus knew, as long as the response is violence, in anger and vengeance, rather than passivity, turning the other cheek, refusing to sin, war will continue to haunt humankind, forever.