Outbreak of World War I

The Fog of War

Why President Bush Was Right in 1992


The Outcome of Violence

“One man’s freedom-fighter is another man’s terrorist.”


Is there a moral difference in Paul Hill, the former Presbyterian minister who shot and killed an abortion doctor and his escort, and John Brown, the nineteenth century abolitionist, whose “body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” John Brown became for many people a hero, his story set to a Methodist hymn that Julia Ward Howe later changed to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

John Brown became a hero to many Union soldiers as they fought against the South.  Because the Union won, John Brown is seen by many as cut from a different bolt of cloth than Paul Hill, but is he? Are there not moral standards that transcend the dictum that history is written by the winners?

I’ve been watching a documentary by former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. In one interview, McNamara quoted Curtis LeMay, the former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and candidate for Vice-President of the United States. They were talking about one of America’s bombing campaigns during World War II, and LeMay told McNamara, “If we lose this war, we’re going to be tried as war criminals.”  McNamara speculates that there must be some moral standard by which to judge the actions of soldiers during war other than “We won.”

Curtis LeMay . . . John Brown . . . Paul Hill . . . Osama bin Laden . . . “One man’s freedom-fighter is another man’s terrorist.”  Of course, John Brown and Paul Hill were both private citizens, and Curtis LeMay was a commissioned officer in the United States Army Air Corp.  But what about Osama bin Laden?  In the minds of a number of Muslims world-wide, Osama bin Laden was not acting as a private citizen any more than Curtis LeMay was in World War II, and his terrorist actions on September 11, 2001, were no more immoral than those of LeMay in fire bombing Tokyo.  Both soldiers simply made use of the materiel available to them as commanders.  That is not my view, but it is a view with which we must reckon for it is not outside the mainstream of Islamic thinking.  After all, Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed had radically different teachings about physical violence.

Then said Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Matthew 26:52-54.)

I am not saying that a person who follows Jesus can never serve in the military of his nation, nor am I saying that all killing in war is murder–though, of course, a lot of killing during war is murder.  But I am saying that we must beware of the normal and natural human tendency to sit in judgment of others while being blind to our own faults. Such blind judgment leads us to dehumanize others as if they were somehow different than we are, making it easy to do violence against them, propelled by a vengeful, self-righteous spirit.

Isn’t that the “spirit” of John Brown and Paul Hill, (Luke 9:55, 56.) not the Holy Spirit, but a self-righteous spirit that condemns others without taking a long, honest look at oneself, a spirit that calls down violent fire that destroys rather than the fire of Pentecost that changes hard hearts and makes them tender, giving them a hunger and thirst for righteousness within.

Actions always have unforeseen, unpredictable consequences.  That is especially true of war.  As a student of history, I think that it is safe to say that almost all wars that have ever been fought were begun by people who believed that their war was necessary and morally justifiable.  Those who started these wars also believed that they could be won, often very quickly and with minimal disruption of civilian life.  I think of the folly of those who fought the “War to End all Wars,” World War I, an utterly unnecessary and evil war that paved the way for dreadful, demonic totalitarian systems:  Stalinist Communism and Nazism.  Would that wiser heads had prevailed.

Bob Vincent