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Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic - A Christian Military Ethic
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Article Index
Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic
Self-formation and the Ethical Military Professional
Moving Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality
The Soul as Ethical Substance
A Christian Military Ethic
The Cost of Serving
Conclusion: Honoring God by Living Up to His Standards
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A Christian military ethic

Augustine corresponded on a number of occasions with Boniface, a Roman military commander in North Africa who rebelled against the authorities, to whom Augustine offered advice and pastoral council. He wrote: ‘I am filled with praise, congratulations and admiration, my dearest son Boniface, that in the middle of the cares of warfare and weaponry, your desire to know the things of God is so powerful.’  For Augustine the waging of war – in pursuit of peace – did not excuse the soldier from the task of seeking after the things of God. The pursuit of the spiritual in the midst of the carnage of war was seen not only as desirable but essential. Instructions regarding good military conduct were of secondary importance to the more general requirement to live a good life in the sight of God:

…if you find in either this letter or in sacred scripture anything you still lack for a life of goodness, then make urgent efforts in prayer and in action to acquire it. Give thanks also for what you do possess to God, as the source of the goodness you have, and in every good deed that you do, give him the glory and yourself the humility. As it is written: ‘every excellent gift and every perfect present comes down from above from the Father of lights [James 1:17]’.30

The source of the Christian’s earthly capacity for ethical conduct, in war as elsewhere, is God himself. For the Christian this will probably seem like an obvious thing to say. In contrast, a humanist view might suggest that humans have evolved to a state where ethical conduct has emerged as part of an essential characteristic of communal behaviour that has stopped individuals from killing one another off over millennia. The key difference between these two positions – both of which would see ethical conduct as good and desirable in a functioning society – is that the telos, or ultimate destination, of the Christian is heavenly and eternal, while for the humanist it is earthbound and restricted to the here and now.

Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’.31 Augustine took that injunction and applied it to the domain of war: ‘Be a peacemaker, therefore, even in war, so that by conquering them you bring the benefit of peace even to those you defeat’.32 Such a view of war and peace cannot be limited to Christians; people of many faiths and none would be happy to promote the pursuit of peace in times of war. Christians, however, are encouraged to set their sights on eternal rather than temporal ends: ‘If, indeed, human peace is so delightful because of the temporary security that belongs to mortals, how much more delightful is divine peace’33 – a divine peace that is accessed through faith on the part of the Christian.

The Christian is encouraged to acknowledge God, even in war, and, consequently, in their conduct to keep faith with both friends and enemies alike:

‘When you are arming yourself for battle, then, consider this first of all, that your courage, even your physical courage, is a gift from God. Then you won’t think of using a gift from God to act against God. When one makes a promise, one must keep faith, even with an enemy against whom one is waging a war. How much more so with a friend for whose sake one is fighting.’34

To examine the significance of keeping faith with both friends and enemies let us take the example of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and the (at this time alleged) killings in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province on March 11, 2012. A previously decorated, brave soldier used what was once a gift and a blessing – his courage and dedication – and turned it into what Augustine would call a sin and a curse, killing sixteen innocent people in the process. Amongst the many violations of trust that occurred that night was a breaking of the Oath of Enlistment he made when he joined the US Army, which says:

‘I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.’35

Bales stands accused of violating not only the lives and community of people for whom the US Army was attempting to bring about peace and social and political reconstruction, but the very standards of freedom, respect for life, the pursuit of justice encapsulated in the Constitution that he swore to defend. He also violated various rules of engagement, regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That such an atrocity could happen when such stringent, codified rules and moral frameworks were in place highlights, again, the limits of codified morality in the shaping of human conduct.

Augustine demanded that faith even be kept against enemies. Notably, however, he advocated that even greater faith must be kept with the friend for whose sake the soldier is fighting. In Afghanistan, that ‘friend’ takes three forms: first, for the US soldier, are the people of the United States who look to their armed forces to protect them from attack; second, are the Afghans who no more want a life lived under Taliban domination than would most Americans, Britons or other Westerners; third, soldiers fight for their colleagues in the company in which they serve. So what are the consequences of Bales’s actions for these ‘friends’?

As a result of the killing of 16 Afghans the lives of Americans in their homeland, as well as those in the homelands of and their NATO and ISAF allies, are put under greater threat because of the promise of reprisals from Taliban, Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist sympathisers. In addition, the so-called ‘hearts-and-minds’ aspect of the campaign is severely damaged as the trust of ordinary Afghans in US and ISAF forces is eroded: a problem exacerbated by President Karzai’s questioning of whether the killings were the work of one individual.36 The Taliban promised revenge attacks against what they called ‘sick-minded American savages’ for the ‘blood-soaked and inhumane crime’.37 Thus the lives of Robert Bales’s military colleagues have been put a greater risk: patrols will be deadlier; rocket, grenade, roadside bomb and other attacks have been promised. All because one individual failed to keep faith with both his enemy and the friends for whom he fought.

The earthly and eternal consequences of such actions have been spelt out clearly, reflecting not only individual responsibilities within a military hierarchy but, in turn, responses to the command of God:

…when the soldier, obedient to the power under which he has been lawfully placed, slays a man, he is not guilty of murder according to the laws of his city. On the contrary, if he does not do so, he is guilty of desertion and contempt of authority. If he had done this of his own will and authority, however, he would have fallen into the crime of shedding human blood. Thus, the deed which is punished if he does it when not commanded is the same as that for which he will be punished if he does not do it when commanded. And if this is true when the command is given by a general, how much more true is it when the command is given by the Creator.38

The hierarchy of authority set out by Augustine with regard to war takes the following form: soldier, general, legitimate [political] authority, the Creator. Nobody in a military/political hierarchy is exempt from the basic Christian responsibility of seeking after God and obeying God’s commands, an active seeking through contemplation, self-awareness and a desire for things eternal: ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.39

Augustine left open the possibility that the soldier could still emerge as ethical in pursuing honor on the battlefield, even while obeying a sacrilegious ruler in executing an unjust war:

Therefore, a just man, if he should happen to serve as a soldier under a human king who is sacrilegious, could rightly wage war at the king’s command, maintaining the order of civic peace, for what he is commanded to do is not contrary to the sure precepts of God ... perhaps the iniquity of giving the orders will make the king guilty while the rank of servant in the civil order will show the soldier to be innocent.40

The king is described as guilty, not necessarily a result of his actions in relation to war but because he is sacrilegious and contravenes God’s guidance. The soldier who waged the king’s unjust war, on the other hand, could still be seen as ethical despite involvement in actions that opposed God’s command. This is because the soldier, through his obedience, is helping to maintain civic peace, which is part of God’s intended order for people to live by. The separation of the moral responsibilities of the king and the soldier reflects Augustine’s Christian views about salvation as individualised rather than a shared communal responsibility. One person’s actions could not get another person into heaven, just as one individual’s behaviour could not stop someone else from gaining divine approval. So the one who ordered war and the one who executed war could only be held accountable for actions in their own sphere of influence.41

Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 13:17