Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

The moral price of war isn’t fully paid cause the war is just

Photo is from shutterstock
photo is from shutterstock

Philosophers have long sought to distinguish two different aspects of the human mind: reason and passion. Reason is calm, emotion is tumultuous. Reason is steady, emotion is explosive. Reason results in progress. Emotion could bring about ecstasy or destruction, but when enveloped by it, we never know which. Going to and fighting a war is an ethical and emotional battle between reason and passions.

War from start to finish seems to be the ultimate expression of emotionality. Nationalistic fervor leads to a willingness to kill or to die, options that in day-to-day life seem highly irrational. We distract from the loss by using patriotic euphemisms like “the price of freedom” or “the ultimate sacrifice.” Yet, with every death or defeat at the hands of the enemy, we burn ever hotter with the urge for vengeance, and no suffering by those on the other side is enough to quench it. Whatever damage we inflict, no matter how extreme, feels righteous, just. That retributive sensibility bulldozes any empathy we might have had when, not long ago, we saw the people on the other side as people.

It is thus an odd fit when philosophers think about the morality of war. It seems incongruous to apply a calm reason to that which is its antithesis. Yet, it is these times that most require it. The result of this cognitive mismatch is Just War Theory.

For Christian civilizations, Just War theory is developed in the writings of the 4th century C.E. African Christian philosopher, Augustine; just wars are fought for peace. Close to a thousand years later, Italian Dominican Priest and Friar Thomas Aquinas, unfolded Augustin’s Just War theory into something else. Aquinas taught a rightful ruler or government must initiate Just war. The motive for war must be just; one must have suffered an uncorrectable harm; fighters must fight with the intent of peace. Avoid evil at all costs.

If Aquinas’ conditions (or some updated versions of them) are met, then the war is deemed just. To participate in such an undertaking, especially one that requires bravery and commitment, is to be righteous.

Aristotle, Aquinas’ philosophical model, held a view of morality that is based on the notion of moral character. Your character gives you the propensity to act in certain ways. If you act in accord with ethical goodness, it shapes your soul in such a way that you are more likely to continue to do good. Similarly, if you make wrong choices and act immorally, your character will be corrupted and you will tend to do wrong out of habit, without thinking.

So, if Aquinas and Aristotle are both correct, then those who fight in a just war are noble and brave. This should improve their soul. It should make them morally improved beings.

Twentieth century American philosopher and Christian realist, Reinhold Niebuhr taught: “The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.” Living through the era of Hitler and Stalin, he knew that fanaticism of any stripe could give rise to war. Indeed, in an immoral world, Niebuhr argued, war would be unavoidable. The good would have to fight to stem the rising tide of evil. The possibility thereby exists that one could be morally required to fight in war, there can be just wars.

But Niebuhr sees this not as a confirmation of Aquinas and Aristotle, but as a falsifying instance. Fighting in a just war does not improve your character. It does not make you a better person. War always comes with a moral cost that must be paid by the society and the soldier. The cause of the war may be just, but the evil of war corrupts all, even those with the purest motives.

Leonard Gallant was a member of the 82nd airborne during World War II, a paratrooper and demolition expert. He jumped behind German lines before D-Day with explosives in his backpack and fuses taped to his ankle to blow bridges and other infrastructure to allow Allied troops advantages in fighting Hitler. As an American Jew, one of the half-million who served, he saw the war as exactly the sort described by Niebuhr. It was a moral imperative to do whatever needed to be done, to sacrifice what he had to in order to stop Hitler. It was what a good person, especially a good Jew had to do.

He served with valor. He was a hero for doing what he did. But while he fought bravely in a just war, it had a psychological and moral cost. He died 25 years ago while Steve, his grandson, was undertaking his doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins, a mere four miles away. As Leonard lay dying of cancer, Steve was able to join the rest of his family, sitting with his beloved Pop Pop. Everyone knew for a month that his end was near.

Leonard was a kibitzer, and despite the pain continued to make jokes and tell stories. Then came his last week. The change was as sudden as it was startling. He was surrounded by his family, but he was gone. He was still conscious, but he was no longer in Baltimore. He was back in Europe, back in the war. There was terror on his face as he relived something he could not tell. They didn’t have Pop Pop for his last week on Earth, despite the fact that they sat right next to him. The war took him back to pay off some moral debt he owed. He survived Hitler in the 40s, but that son of a bitch came back and took him that last week, fifty years later.

Where was Aristotle’s moral boost for having fought justly in a just war? Aristotle and Aquinas were gone. Only Niebuhr remained shaking his head, mourning with the family.

Philosophers can work on the front end to say when war and how much violence is justifiable, but as Niebuhr argues, justifying the act of going to war is not the end of the moral discussion. Sometimes there is a cost to doing the permissible thing. That seems contrary to common sense, but that is what philosophy at its best does—show us how in uncommon cases that common-sense cannot hold. The insight in Niebuhr is that (a) there are just wars, collective acts of violence that are morally permissible or sometimes morally necessary, but (b) that contrary to the naïve Aristotelian line, sometimes doing the right thing comes with a moral cost, it does not improve your moral character, but harm it, even though the act was justifiable.

As we seek to justify war, remember that the moral price is not fully paid just because the war is just. It’s not a 90 minute movie or mini-series that happily ever after. The costs remain long after. We use the euphemism “collateral damage” to hide the loss of innocent lives during war, but some of that damage lives on in the damaged souls of those who did what needed to be done.

Today, asymmetric warfare has given rise to terrorism that used the weapons and technology of nation states while being outside the nation state. The question is no longer who is in power, but who controls violence. Passions versus reason. It’s a dialectic movement that can be beautiful, ugly, and evil. And all three linger long after the guns have gone silent.

Co-authored with Philosophy Professor Steve Gimbel of Gettysburg College. Gimbel’s book Einstein’s Jewish Science was a one time finalist for the national Jewish book award. 

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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