A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]

Ted Grimsrud—February 11, 2021

Although most people who think about warfare in the modern world accept with little question the assumption that Americans operate within the moral framework of the “just war theory,” relatively little writing has been done that elaborates on the application of that theory to America’s wars. In recent years, I’ve been reading quite a bit about our civil war in the US. Since I have many moral questions about that war, I have been attentive to moral concerns as they arise in my reading—or, as I should say, as they don’t arise. The most notable moral stance by the vast majority of writers has been that, of course, this was a “just war” and that reality ends any additional moral reflection.

However, there is at least one important exception. Harry S. Stout’s Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking Press, 2006) is an important and interesting book, well-written and deeply concerned with its subject matter. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale, tries to take head on the challenge of looking at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought—the American Civil War—from a moral perspective. He argues, and gives plenty of evidence to support his argument, that the moral dimension was missing during the war itself and, by and large, in analyses of the war ever since.

How did its contemporaries view the morality of the Civil War?

Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War, with only a brief introduction and afterword considering the run up to the War and its aftermath. We read how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory (e.g., a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity) to bear on their responses to the war. Instead, Stout reports mostly jingoistic cheerleading, especially from the churches, and pragmatic strategies to win the War at all costs from the political and military leaders.

It is not as if Americans, especially military leaders, were ignorant of the just war theory and other moral considerations in relation to war. Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the “West Point Code” (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Union generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. He also makes it clear that the Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.

Continue reading “A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]”

Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

Cascade Books has just published my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Here is the home page for the book on my website, with links to other sites where it can be previewed and purchased.9781625641021

This book is, in essence, a pacifist’s attempt to answer the question, “what about Hitler?” or “what about World War II?” using the moral reasoning of the just war tradition and common American values.

How the book is unique, as far as I know, is that it not only interrogates the War itself, it also traces the impact of the War on American national security policy in the generations since—as well as looking closely as the story of the war opponents and their legacy. Continue reading “A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy”

One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways.  Continue reading “One problem (among many) with the just war theory”

Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2012

The challenge for Christians (and everyone else, of course) to think morally about warfare and the preparation for warfare remains as important, if not more important, than ever. Fortunately, Christian moral theologians have brought forth a bit of a revival of such moral reflection with a number of recent books after many years of relative quiet in this area.

These are a few of the books that I am aware of: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill? (Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

In general, though, writing about moral reflection on war and peace from Christian perspectives tends to repeat the general typology that was introduced by historian Roland Bainton over half a century ago in his Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton sees three categories: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade.

In a short discussion in a textbook I use in my introductory ethics course, Robert Stivers reiterates Bainton’s typology, though he somewhat confusingly uses the term “Christian realism” for the just war type (Robert Stivers, et al, Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach, 3rd edition [Orbis, 2005]). Like Bainton does, Stivers presents the “crusade” type as essentially being a thing of the past for Christians, meaning that what we have to do with mainly is pacifism and just war.

The more I think about it, though, the more problematic I see this typology to be—at least in the sense that it leaves too much out and over-simplifies what is left. One of the main problems is that only a tiny minority of Christians would hold to either pacifism or the just war (as usually defined). Continue reading “Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology”