Study War No More? No, More.

Posted on September 19, 2013 by


Washington, DC, aside from its various political denizens, is always full of opportunities to hear interesting lectures, speeches and debates on myriads of topics.  Last night my daughter and I attended a debate at the Library of Congress entitled “Freedom, Security and America’s Role in the World.”  It was sponsored by the Koch Institute and National Review and included an introductory address by Senator Rand Paul, and the debate itself, moderated by National Review editor Rich Lowry.  Participants were Jonathan Tipperman with Foreign Affairs, Chris Coyne from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, Peter van Buren, author and former State Department official, and K. T. McFarland, Fox News National Security analyst.  The debate, as expected, revolved around the Syria question, but also beyond to America’s role in the world.  

While the debate itself was well worth attending (and we had a full house), what I noticed was that each and every participant approached the issue from a more or less utilitarian or pragmatist perspective.  K. T. McFarland saw the criterion almost exclusively as based on energy, which of course was indirectly tied to national security.  Chris Coyne is an admitted libertarian and for him the criterion for intervention was, as expected, utilitarianism, but in the sense that war always leads to bigger government and loss of liberty.  Jonathan Tipperman and Peter van Buren were more conventional but nevertheless still utilitarian.

All had very interesting and useful perspectives.  I certainly enjoyed the give and take and I was reminded once again of how complex the decision to go to war really is.  But I had the sense that something was lacking.  After thinking about it as the debate continued, I realized that as a Christian I missed an important ethical or moral perspective.  The traditional Just War theory was completely missing, except for a tangential reference to humanitarianism from one of the participants.  Please don’t misunderstand.  Politics is often a matter of prudence, what is possible.  Moreover, I am aware that Just War theory requires much difficult definitional work as well as applications to specific differing situations.  But war is of a different magnitude than other types of decisions on the part of government.  The potential costs are very large, even as the potential benefits are also large–for the good of some at least.  But more than that, war has had a tradition of moral discourse for 1500 years, at least since Augustine (and even before in less systematic writings).  Christianity has exercised a voice in the issue of war, even though its voice was often ignored.  I was disappointed that the moral perspective was neglected and I wanted to ask the participants whether this moral dimension, in their opinion, is even considered today among decision-makers.  I didn’t have a chance to ask my question, but afterward, I suspected I might have been thought a bit naive anyway.  But naive or not, as a Christian, the moral perspective seems imperative or else war becomes solely a pragmatic decision.  That day may have already come, but that does not mean Christians should not exercise their voice.  So next time, I hope to get my hand up faster.