Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds more wounded on Monday in rocket strikes by Russian forces on residential apartment buildings in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. This wasn’t new, of course—since the beginning of the invasion, Russian soldiers have been targeting innocent men, women, and children. Seeing the images of Kharkiv on fire reminded me of the day I walked along the streets of Hiroshima, Japan, and tried to imagine that city on fire.
Fifty-six years earlier the atomic bomb “Little Boy” set the area aflame, killing nearly a third of the population within 24 hours. According to the local prefectural health department estimates, of the people who perished on the day of the explosion, 60 percent died from flash or flame burns. Most of the dead were “noncombatants”—innocent men, women, and children.
Like many Americans, I had always believed that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was a necessary evil, the only way to end the bloody, protracted war. But looking into the faces of smiling children strolling down the bustling sidewalks, I wasn’t so sure. Civilians just like the ones I was watching—mothers fussing over infants, grandmothers holding the hands of little girls—had been targeted by my country to bend the will of Japan’s political and military leaders.
Being an American, I’d heard all the arguments for why sacrificing these noncombatants was the only way to spare the lives of thousands that would be killed in the inevitable invasion. Being a Christian, though, I struggled with a more essential question: How is it ever justifiable to target innocent men, women, and children?
I was preoccupied by that question during the 30-mile trip back to the Marine air station at Iwakuni. And then, once I stepped back onto the base, I put it out of mind.
That was in August 2001.
Being a Christian, I struggled with a more essential question: How is it ever justifiable to target innocent men, women, and children?
Two weeks later, in the predawn hours, I stood with my squadron in a hanger bay waiting to hear news from the east coast of the United States. Despite living in an age of fiber optics and satellite communications, the information couldn’t reach us on the other side of the world quickly enough. We were desperate to know what was happening back home. A few Marines knew people who were scheduled to fly out of Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C. Many knew someone who lived or worked in downtown Manhattan. Almost everyone knew someone in the Pentagon.
We felt helpless. While we were in a foreign land “defending our country,” thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead or dying in America. Almost all were “noncombatants.”
Thinking about the deaths of civilians on my own soil caused me to reconsider the deaths of civilians in WWII-era Japan. It wasn’t an issue of moral equivalency. The Axis powers were evil, and the Allies were justified in using necessary force to protect our people. But after much prayer, reflection, and study, I came to some radically unpopular conclusions about the means the Allies used. I realized, for instance, that no matter how much my country might have benefited from the decision, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the indiscriminate fire-bombing of 67 other Japanese cities could not be squared with my understanding of biblical morality.
In retrospect, it seems like a legitimate position for a Christian to consider, even if it’s not the only position a Christian can hold. Yet despite having been a Marine for 13 years, I’d never heard anyone other than pacifists claim that view was acceptable. There were few resources available to help me think through my moral obligations as a Christian who served in the vocation of a warrior.
Who Would Samson Nuke?
Two decades later, I now have a vocation as a pastor and serve in a church that is six minutes away from the Pentagon. For years, I’ve shared my views on how to think about the killing of innocent civilians in wartime. Shouldn’t such teaching be universal within the Christian church? After all, if I were a chaplain in Putin’s army, wouldn’t I want the teaching to be the same?
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. For example, about a decade ago, the Air Force suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers because it used Bible passages and religious imagery to teach them about the ethics of war. The real problem with the religious section of the ethics training—dubbed by the attendees as the “Jesus loves nukes speech”—is that it appeared to present a truncated and distorted view of Christian-infused just war thinking, particularly as it applies to the use of nuclear weapons.
The PowerPoint presentation briefly listed “Augustine’s Qualifications for Just War” as “Just Cause” and “Just Intent.” Although these are qualifications for jus ad bellum (“right to wage war”), there was no mention of jus in bello (“justice in war”). Instead, the presentation merely listed a few Old Testament figures who engaged in war (Abraham, Samson, David) and a handful of verses from the New Testament that presented a positive impression of soldiers.
From there it shifted to the section on Hiroshima. The presentation mentioned that 80,000 were killed instantly and that 200,000 died by 1950 before adding a “However” that points out “Tokyo firebombed 80,000 to 100,000 in one night!” and “If the Japanese or Germans had made the atomic bomb first, they have testified that they would have used it.” Arguing that the people behind the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking would have done it too if they had the opportunity is not exactly a compelling ethical justification. Sadly, this appears to be the primary mode of reasoning used in the presentation.
Judging the training based solely on the supporting materials is admittedly unfair. Perhaps the complete presentation was more nuanced and rooted in Christian moral reasoning. That is certainly my hope, though it appears the training had less to do with teaching Christian ethics than with salving the qualms of religious airmen who may have to “turn the key” and launch nuclear weapons against civilian populations.
Therein lies the true problem with this sort of teaching on Christian ethics in warfare. Too often, the role of the pastor in moral training of warriors is reduced to nothing more than providing Bible verses to support whatever choices are made in warfare. Would we want that same training given to the key-turners in the nuclear missile silos in Russia? Would we want them to leave with the impression that unleashing nukes on Los Angeles is something Samson would do?
Teach Just-War, not Consequentialism
The men and women of the military—whether the military of the United States or Russian Federation—don’t need pastors who will tell them that sometimes you have to destroy a village to save it. They need religious leaders who will inform them about what the Bible teaches and about the rich tradition of just warfare thinking that has been handed down by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Vitoria, Grotius, and others.
In the Christian tradition the criteria for justly engaging in warfare has been known as jus in bello (justice in war) and includes the primary criteria of discrimination. The principle of discrimination concerns who are legitimate targets in war.
The first rule of justice in warfare is that we do not target the innocent. In this context, the term innocence refers to whether individuals are able to cause direct harm—whether willingly or reluctantly—either to us or to our military forces that are engaged in just warfare. Such people are considered “noncombatants” and are immune from attack because they meet the qualification of innocence. (The problem I have with the bombing of Nagaskaki and Hiroshima is not that they used nuclear weapons but that they targeted the innocent. Under justice in war, I believe it is even possible to use nuclear weapons as long as noncombatants aren’t targeted.)
As the late Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain explained, “Discrimination refers to the need to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants. Noncombatants historically have been women, children, the aged and infirm, all unarmed persons going about their daily lives, and prisoners of war who have been disarmed by definition.” Lubomir Martin Ondrasek adds that it is important to note that Elshtain’s understanding of this criterion underscores that civilians can never be intentionally targeted by countries in war.
Saying that innocents should never be targeted in war is not a claim that innocents must never be killed. That is why the second component of discrimination is “deliberate attack.” While the innocent may be harmed because of our engaging in warfare, it must not be our intention. In their book The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare, Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan outline three key provisos to meet this standard:
(1) The death of innocents must genuinely not be part of the real purpose of the combat operation, or positively necessary to fulfill the legitimate military objective. It must, in other words, be an unwelcome side effect rather than an intentional targeting.
(2) We must do all that we reasonably can, consistent with not gravely endangering the legitimate military purpose, to minimize the risks of noncombatants to a minimum.
(3) The likely harm to noncombatants must not be out of proportion to the expected military benefit.
While not a perfect set of criteria, the just war tradition puts a check on the “all is permissible” view that has dominated warfare throughout history. Christians in the military need to be enculturated in this biblical tradition so they do not put the interest of the nation-state ahead of the kingdom of God. When we do that we create a climate of consequentialism, where the morality of an action is judged based on whether it leads to a favorable outcome.
This not only leads to unethical post hoc rationalizations for previous actions, it provides cover for future violations. If Christian civilians are willing to overlook and justify outrages in war when they align with the nation’s strategic interests, we should not be surprised when outrages in warfare become more frequent—and when Christian civilians, like those in Ukraine, become the targets.
Too often, the role of the pastor in moral training of warriors is reduced to nothing more than providing Bible verses to support whatever choices are made in warfare.
Christians were at the forefront of providing a moral context for warfare. But we’re always in danger of losing the ethical ground we’ve won. “The distinction between combatants and the civilian population has been characterized not only as one of the fundamental principles of international law, but as its greatest triumph,” Lester Nurick wrote in the American Journal of International Law, two months after the bombing of Hiroshima. Yet he also noted that even then, “The trend in war is to treat combatant and noncombatant alike, if to do so will realize any substantial military gain.” This trend started not with the military but with a civilian population that is willing to subscribe to a “do what needs to be done” attitude to waging war.
Although none of us is likely to have to enter the codes to launch a nuclear missile, all thinking Christians are obligated to reason through the underlying moral issues. If we’re willing and able to set aside our ethical obligations when they conflict with the strategic needs of our nation, we shouldn’t feign moral outrage when we see Russians targeting innocent civilians in Ukraine. We also cannot undermine our credibility on related issues. If moral obligations can be set aside for the collective needs of the nation, why not for the personal needs of the individual? If we can target children in war, then why can children not be targeted in the womb?
The Machiavellian pragmatism that justifies the slaughter of innocents in a foreign city eventually leads to the devaluation of innocent life everywhere in the world. We can’t leave consequentialism on the battlefield, for it always follows us back home. Once we untether justice from warfare, there’s no firebreak that can hold back the inferno of relativism from scorching our own land.