Book Review: The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West
Alexander F. C. Webster and Darrell Cole
Regina Orthodox Press, $19.95, 252 pages
Despite this book's provocative title, "war" does not qualify as a "virtue." War is an action, a passion, a relation. The virtue associated with war is courage. But the Rev. Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole understand the relation between war and courage, something that goes back to the beginnings of our literature. The war state, Sparta, lacked a proper end, but Socrates himself, the philosopher, was a courageous soldier.
This book represents the tradition of war in the West. It is unique because of its extensive treatment of the church fathers, the military saints, canon law, and experiences of Oriental Christendom.
Indeed, "The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West" is occasioned by the recent wars with Muslim opponents. Ironically, much of the history of the Near East has been the failure of Byzantine armies finally to defend their own territory. Islam's major expansion has been into historic Christian territories through successful military conquest and subsequent, almost total cultural control that saw the elimination or subordination of remaining Christian presence.
The book is divided into considerations of war through Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant analyses. The authors see a problem in the continuity of, in particular, Catholic thought on war in recent years. They present a persuasive historical and theological argument for the just need of a country to carry out military actions in its own defense or the defense of others.
Father Webster and Mr. Cole argue within the traditions of Scripture, of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, with similar arguments in the Protestant and Orthodox sources. They reject any "just war" theory that would not follow the classic arguments about the justice of war and the warrior's efforts. They do not think that war can be justified on the principle of a "lesser evil," or on a consequentialist premise that would allow the doing of evil to obtain good.
Modern thinking on war, as opposed to the classic writers, has not clearly seen that there are obligations to fight wars and to establish justice. This is a theory of "justifiable" war. The authors do not hold that it is necessary always to apologize or be ashamed because war is undertaken for a just cause. Quite the opposite, they consider it wrong not to enter and fight a just war with all the proper criteria in place, criteria still best defined, in their view, by Aquinas.
"Warfare need not be a lesser evil," they write. "Once the jus ad bellum criteria [for a proper cause] have been met, once Christians have decided that they ought to make a proposed war their war, warfare is a positive good to be pursued."
How rarely do we hear this approach, though it is the classic one. One extreme of modernity is that war has no limits, the other that it has nothing to be said for it.
The writers spell out their principle. If in fact a war is just and needs to be entered into, it is positively wrong not to face the issue that it proposes to be defeated. "As a positive good to be pursued to be virtuous, just warfare must be enjoined if we are going to be a virtuous people."
Many will be startled to hear such war words. They need to be heard. For Father Webster and Mr. Cole, the issue is not the horror of war, but the horrors that only war can stop. They deny that any means can be used against an evil or disordered enemy. They do understand that there are enemies to whom we do not dare to lose. If we do lose, however, they think that we should act honorably, as the last Byzantine emperor did before the Turks in 1453, by a noble death.
The authors think also that war can be fought with honor -- "with justice, brains, and strength," as Jacques Maritain put it. The innocent cannot be deliberately killed. Enemies remain human. Certain evils have to be recognized and stopped. Legitimate authority and objective grounds are necessary. Those who declare and fight in wars can be honorable and just, though, like all of us, they need not be.
Father Webster and Mr. Cole argue that the defense of a land can be and not infrequently is just. This does not make it a happy affair, but it does make it something more that an "avoidance-at-all-costs" theory.
The occasion of this book is, no doubt, the aftermath of September 11 and the need to see the proportions of a new kind of war in our time, a new kind that is a very old kind. With the paradox that "war is a virtue" or a "positive good," the authors force us to look again at actions designed to face evils that few are willing to meet because they cannot understand how doing anything effective can be just. This book is another way of looking at the problem, an ancient way, as it turns out.
James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor in the government department at Georgetown University. His latest book is "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy" (Lexington).
Read the review on the Washington Times website.