History’s Lessons for Just War and National Security

Russia’s War on Ukraine

St. Augustine painting
St. Augustine painting

Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General William T. Sherman had quite different philosophies of the conduct of war, but they had one opinion in common: war is terrible.  But to say that war is terrible is not to say that all war is unjust or immoral. Whether a war is just and moral depends upon both its purposes and its conduct.  When a nation’s sovereignty, peace, and vital economic interests are threatened by armed aggression or invasion, it must destroy the aggressor’s will to persist or see its cherished heritage and the rights and welfare of its people crushed or subdued. It is the solemn duty of a nation’s leaders to assure the survival and prosperity of all that its people rightly hold dear. Peaceful intentions and talk are not enough to deter aggressors driven by imperialistic leaders or ideologies. History teaches us that peaceful nations must be prepared to defend themselves or be swallowed up by tyranny. 

The concept of just conduct and means in war recognizes primarily that a distinction must be made between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants should never be deliberate or primary targets of military action. Senseless terrorism,  cruelty, and wanton destruction are prohibited. Besides the lives and health of civilians, the destruction of civilian properties that provide food, shelter, and medical attention should especially be avoided. Just conduct in war demands that prisoners of war must be treated humanely and respectfully. Torture of prisoners of war or non-combatants is prohibited. Additionally, the use of force must not be disproportionate to objectives, threats, or harm done. As much as prudence and realism will allow, the enemy must be treated in good faith to keep open the possibility of reconciliation. 

The Western concept of Just War and Conduct was primarily derived from Biblical roots but has also been influenced by Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic experience, cultures, and codes of honor. Augustine (354-430 AD) is generally recognized as the first writer to present a systematic treatment of Christian doctrine as it applies to a nation, its citizens, and its soldiers in a time of war. Augustine recognized that war is sometimes necessary to defend a nation and its citizens from aggressive enemies and that Christians may justly bear arms in that defense. Although there are several pacifist traditions in Christianity, categorical pacifism cannot be justified biblically. It is also unrealistic and in many circumstances can even be seen as self-centered and unloving.  Augustine reminds future generations that the proper end of a just war is a just peace.

Inadvertent civilian casualties are one of the great and common tragedies of war, and the tragedy of war always generates many ethical loose ends. Yet we cannot abandon the cause of freedom because war often begets such tragedies. We must seek to minimize these inhumanities without giving up on the cause of humanity. The United States has not always followed Augustine’s rules of war.

While civilian casualties in Ukraine are tragic and disgraceful and deserve condemnation, we should remember that our response and use of force should not be disproportionate or dishonorable. Politicians and media should resist virtue-signaling temptations that might have unfortunate and even catastrophic consequences not just for thousands but for millions around the world.  

It is often said that truth is the first casualty or war, and this is truer than ever with a media that has become largely politicized,  propagandistic, and more often engaged in suppressing truth and dissent than finding and publishing truth.

For most nations, the defense of liberty must often depend upon greater alliances ready to defend their membership against powerful aggressors. Indeed, the world has often seen that not even the largest nations are safe from the power of aggressive oppressors and totalitarian ideologies. Survival and liberty often depend upon magnifying their strength through armed alliances with the common objective of deterring or defeating violent expansion by aggressor nations. Isolationism and pacifism have proved unrealistic strategies for peace in the real world. They only allow aggressors to gobble up the friends of freedom one by one until either surrender or a desperate struggle for survival against the odds are the only remaining alternatives.

In a November 16, 1934 broadcast from London, Winston Churchill, speaking of the rising threat of totalitarian militarism in Europe, warned the British people of the foolishness of pacifism and isolationism:

Many people think that the best way to escape war is to dwell upon its horrors, and to imprint them vividly upon the minds of the younger generation. They flaunt the grisly photographs before their eyes. They fill their ears with tales of carnage. They dilate upon the ineptitude of generals and admirals. They renounce the crime and insensate folly of human strife.  

All this teaching ought to be very useful in preventing us from attacking or invading another country if anyone outside of a madhouse wished to do so. But how would it help us if we were attacked or invaded ourselves? This is the question we have to ask…”

Beginning in 1932 and especially after Adolf Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Churchill began to warn the British people and the free world of the dangers of Germany’s expanding territorial ambitions. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. The German threat to Czechoslovakia became more evident in August. On September 21, he warned:

“The idea that safety can be purchased by throwing a small State to the wolves is a fatal delusion…If peace is to be preserved on a lasting basis, it can only be by a combination of all the Powers whose vital interests are opposed to Nazi domination.

In an October 16, 1938 broadcast to America, Churchill appealed to the United States to recognize the common danger of Nazi aggression:

“The preponderant world forces are on our side; they have but to be combined to be obeyed.  Britain must arm. America must arm.”

Britain would not have survived the National Socialist onslaught in World War II had not the United States and other allies in the New World-honored their commitments to defend and support each other. All of Western Europe would have been permanently lost to totalitarian regimes. How long would Western Europe have survived against Communism had it not been for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which the United States has played a substantial leadership role?  Military alliances should not be entered into lightly, but they have been necessary for the survival of freedom. It is usually incumbent on the larger nations in an alliance to provide the leadership and much of the economic and logistical support for an alliance to successfully deter or defeat aggressor nations. It is also of utmost importance that the political leadership of the leading nations be firmly committed to the objectives of the alliance.

American opposition to Communist expansion in Southeast Asia was not dissimilar to the moral and political character of British, American, and Allied opposition to Nazi Germany during World War II.  We were true to our commitment to the 1954 Southeast Asia Treaty Organization signed by the US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines,

and Pakistan (an ally in 1954) to protect South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from Communist aggression. The Soviet Union  had orchestrated and approved North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam and Laos step by step starting in 1959, which was accelerated under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s Doctrine of Wars of Liberation in January 1961, specifically naming South Vietnam as the first target. We committed ourselves to the defense of South Vietnam not only to preserve the freedom of a besieged allied nation, not only to halt the bloody expansion of Communism’s oppressive and ruthless totalitarian ideology, but also, as President Kennedy said in in his 1961 inauguration speech, “to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

In all things, however—military, political, economic, and social—we must carefully consider the limits of our abilities, and in our actions the crucial questions of military and political effectiveness weighed against human and material costs and risks.  

At the end of President Trump’s four-year term in January 2017, we were undoubtedly the most powerful military power in the world.  But the Russian Federation and Communist China

were racing to catch up. We were also energy-independent. Our previous advantages have deteriorated under the Biden Administration. Moreover, the Biden Administration has delt the U.S. Armed Forces a severe and divisive blow by imposing Critical Race Theory, false gender theories, and distorted and unjust social justice theories on armed forces personnel. Common sense and history shout that morale, personnel retention, and technical skills are bound to decline under these Social Marxist pressures, and that decline could quickly become a serious national security disadvantage.

The United States is facing a serious national security dilemma. It is becoming obvious to Americans, our allies, and to those who have declared us their enemies that the Biden Administration is not a competent deterrence to war.  Not having the right leadership and the best qualified, trained, and motivated military and support personnel limit our military effectiveness and increase the probable costs and risks of U.S. combat operations. This is not a time for foolish and untimely American escalation. But we must make sure the Russians know that we will not tolerate their escalation of the means and weapons of war in Ukraine.

We need to continue supplying Ukraine with high quality weapons, munitions, supplies, and humanitarian aid. It is working, and delivery should be expedited. With continued economic sanctions on the Russian Federation, the Russians cannot afford to keep a large force in Ukraine for long. 

However, we must be realistic about negotiations. Putin is never going to give up Crimea, which has never been majority Ukrainian, without  some version of World War III.  The Donbas republics are more than 70 percent Russian and negotiating the issues will be tough.  I believe the authentic will of the people of Donbas should be the deciding factor. The principal goal of negotiation should be a just peace. We do not want to reward Putin for invading Ukraine, but we do not want to set up  a peace that will assure an even bigger and wider war in a few years.  

From the mouths of Ukrainian children: We want Russians and Ukrainians to be friends, but Putin should go away.