Oh what a lovely war?

Oh what a lovely war?

This year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The general perception of this war in our culture, a perception shaped by the depiction of it in shows such as Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth and the poetry of men like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is that it was totally pointless war in which millions of men led by callous and incompetent officers died for no good cause.

A lot of the myths underlying this popular perception of the war have been exposed by military historians who have argued that in fact the vast majority of people who served were not killed or wounded, that they did not spend most of their time in the trenches and that the officers who led them do not seem, for the most part, to have been either noticeably incompetent or uncaring. The general picture that the historians are now giving us is that the generals on both sides were trying to get to grips with a new form of mass industrialised warfare that no one had experienced before and that necessarily involved large numbers of casualties and that, on the British side at least, they eventually learned how to wage this new kind of warfare effectively, which was why the German army was decisively defeated in the field in the great battles that took place in the autumn of 1918.

However, even if the myths are set aside, the fact remains that a huge number of people were either killed or suffered temporary or permanent physical or mental injury and the question that needs to be asked as a result is whether the war should have been fought at all.

From a Christian perspective the ultimate answer was that no wars (World War 1 included) should ever have been fought. This is because all wars are a fruit of sin. If Man had not fallen there would have been no wars in the history of Mankind and when God’s kingdom is fully revealed at the end of time all wars will cease. In the words of Isaiah 2:4, the nations shall ‘beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

However, Man has fallen and God’s kingdom has not yet been fully revealed and wars are a still part of human existence, and the issue that Christian theologians have had to wrestle with is whether from a Christian perspective any of these wars can be seen to be in accordance with God’s will and therefore something in which Christians can participate.

The view which most have them have come to is that some wars can be seen to be in accordance with God’s will and therefore something in which Christians can legitimately take part. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the question ‘Whether it is always sinful to wage war?’ in Summa Theologiae and the conclusion that he comes to is that the answer is ‘no.’ There are, he says, certain circumstances in which it is permissible to wage war. A similar view has traditionally been taken by the Church of England. Article XXXVII of the Thirty Nine Articles declares that ‘it is lawful for Christian men, at the command of the magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’

The theological thinking behind this statement in Article XXXVII is based on the teaching of St Paul in Romans 12:9-13:6. In this section of Romans the Apostle teaches that as far as private individuals are concerned the teaching of Deuteronomy 32:35 that vengeance belongs only to God means that they are not allowed to judge, punish, or kill, but instead must practice an ethic of love and non-retaliation towards those who do them harm (Romans 12:9-25). Those who exercise public authority on behalf of God, however, are allowed to judge and punish, and even inflict the punishment of death, precisely because they are acting not on their own behalf, but are acting as agents of the judgement of God (Romans 13:1-6).Seen in this context it is legitimate (though not mandatory) for a Christian state to inflict the death penalty and for Christians to take part in war under the authority of their rulers, because in both cases the power of the sword given to rulers by God is being duly exercised. That is to say, just as governing authorities normally take action by means of the policing and judicial systems of their countries to enact the justice of God in response to various forms of injustice, so also, on occasion, they have to resort to war for the same reason. In this view war is permissible as a means of seeking to achieve justice in response to some form of injustice that would otherwise continue.

When the Latin version of the article talks about Christians taking part in a just war, a ‘iusta bella’ it is this sort of permissible warfare that is meant. This means, of course, that not all war is legitimate. If Christians may take up arms in a just war, equally they should not take up arms in a war that is unjust, a war that has as its object for example, not the pursuit of justice, but the pursuit of military glory or territorial aggrandisement for their own sake.

Seen in this light were the British soldiers who took part in World War 1 taking part in a ‘just war’?

Firstly, it is clear that they were, in the language of Article XXXVII, acting at the command of magistrate. The British Government acting on behalf of the Crown had declared war as part of the exercise of its God given governmental authority.

Secondly, the war which the British Government declared had a legitimate purpose. It was an attempt to achieve justice in response to a form of injustice that would otherwise have continued. The cause of the First World War was the determination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to destroy Serbia (for which the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a pretext) and they were encouraged in this by a militaristic leadership in Germany that wanted a pre-emptive war against Russia and France in order to protect its own political dominance in Europe. The German Empire also deliberately violated the neutrality of Belgium against international law in order to facilitate an attack on France. In addition Germany, Austria-Hungary and their Turkish ally waged war in a brutal fashion that involved widespread atrocities against civilians.

In taking a stand against the decision by Germany and Austria-Hungary to attack their neighbours, against the violation of Belgian neutrality, and against the atrocities which they and their Turkish ally committed, the British Government was undoubtedly seeking to achieve justice and was therefore waging war for a legitimate purpose. If the British Government had decided to stand aside and do nothing the result would have been that the injustice of the Central Powers in waging war against their neighbours and conducting that war in a brutal fashion would have gone unchecked and unpunished.

Furthermore, what we know of the character of the German regime and of the German war aims indicates that if Germany had emerged victorious from the war through British inactivity the result would have been, in the words of Max Hastings, that ‘European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.’ This too would have been an injustice which British participation in the war helped to prevent.

The First World War was, as we now know, not the ‘war to end all wars’. No war ever will be. The Bible is clear that ‘wars and rumours of wars’ (Matthew 24:6) will be a permanent feature of human existence until, as we have said, God acts at the end of time to makes ‘wars cease to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 46:9). However, some of these wars are just and some are not. The British war which began in 1914 was, in spite of its dreadful cost, one of the just ones. It was not a ‘lovely war.’ No wars are lovely. It was however, a war fought with legitimate authority, for legitimate ends and one which it was right for the Church to support and for Christians to take part in.

One thought on “Oh what a lovely war?

  1. This is a pretty shoddy argument. If even with the aid of hindsight you can’t see that WWI was not actually a justified war, I can scarcely trust your theological instincts on Iraq and Isis. Perhaps, you should return to reading Augustine who recognizes that even Brigands seek out a certain type of peace and justice. It is is hard to imagine that the fate of the bloodlands would have been any worse if this injustice had been left unchecked and it is hard to imagine Hitler with out WWI. I once had you as a tutor and thought you to be quite wise..

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