From Midwest Chesterton News, 3 (May, 1991).



When the war in the Middle East began, Saddam Hussein called it, in the Muslim tradition, a Holy War, though he seems to have been his own Allah. President Bush likewise prayed, but talked to his bishop who was, typically these days, against the war. The cynics will say, "What's the use? God cannot be on both sides." Their conclusion logically follows: "Therefore do not pray in war."


On October 23, 1915, during the Great War, Chesterton wrote:

The cheapest and most childish of all the taunts of the Pacifists is, I think, the sneer at belligerents for appealing to the God of Battles. It is ludicrously illogical, for we obviously have no right to kill for victory save when we have a right to pray for it. If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy one -- a massacre" (CW, XXX, p. 307).

Such common sense is in short supply. If the war is not a holy one, it is surely an unholy one., The dogmatic secularists say the cause of war is the fanaticism of the believers. The believers know that religions differ, that unholy wars also end in massacres.


As I have looked at the so-called "opposition" to war in recent years, I have been puzzled by the implications. Scripture seems to suggest we will have wars and rumors of war until the very end -- some in fact think this era, this very time, may be the "very end" with apocalyptic struggles in Babylon, Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Tyre.


If this is so, that only wars worth praying for are worth dying for, we must be ready to think about war, know what it is about. On the other hand, many good (and not so good) people actually seem to think that war is some sort of project to be eliminated by good will or by, of all things, more discussion, by treaties and radical economic or political or social reforms of the whole world. When their "beliefs" do not produce results, they are shattered, devastated, because what "ought" not to happen, did happen. They believed their own theories and found them wanting.


In 1916, Chesterton wrote two columns on war. President Wilson thought that war was to make the world safe for democracy. And others, as Chesterton noted, thought that World War I would be "the war that will end all wars." Chesterton, however, immediately recognized that the ending of wars logically implied something more sinister, something more fundamentally dangerous than war itself.

I cannot see how we can literally end War unless we can end Will. I cannot think that war will ever be utterly impossible; and I say so not because I am what these people call a militarist, but rather because I am a revolutionist. Absolutely to forbid fighting is to forbid what our fathers called "the sacred right of insurrection." Against some decisions no self-respecting men can be prevented from appealing to fortune and to death (CW, XXX, 531).

We cannot end war until we can end will. This is a remarkable sentence because, as he often does, Chesterton here points to what is behind wars. Wars are not "things," but choices, wills in conflict, with their varying motivations for glory, for power, for money, for whatever.


To the degree that we have given up understanding that old asceticism (and praying about what is in our own hearts), to that degree we have allowed ourselves to think that the prevention of war is an easy thing and requires no arms. If men were "different," to be sure, there would be no wars. But would they still be men? Chesterton did not think so. Wars and liberty were correlatives in some fundamental way.


Chesterton understood the real danger of pacifism, the danger of being unable effectively to stand for the right. "It is sometimes necessary to have a civil war, if it be the civil war of civilization. What is lawless can really become law" (p. 532). We would be naive to think that our laws contain no "lawlessness," against which lawlessness we must be free enough, brave enough, to employ our revolutionist and insurrectionist instincts.


On November 11th of the same year, Chesterton wrote of reading an essay in The Nation entitled "On Chivalry in War." The idea that there are rules or manners or traditions in war might at first sight seem outlandish, though it was the whole effort of the Middle Ages to bring such practices about.


The essay in The Nation began by affirming that today all people think that war is "fundamentally criminal." This sort of thinking seemed to Chesterton to be very sloppy. Anyone who believes this proposition about the essential criminality of war -- pacifists must believe this -- is someone who simply "refuses to think." Rather, "war, like weather, cannot in itself be either criminal or saintly; and war as an action undertaken by certain persons may be either one or the other. Only in a state of fallen intelligence akin to fetish-worship could (we) ever have dropped into the habit of talking about the wickedness of war" (pp. 538-39). War is one of those things that has within its very structure "two quite opposite purposes."


Thus, "that all war is physically frightful is obvious; but if that were a moral verdict, there would be no difference between a torturer and a surgeon." There are certain intellectuals who are too bright "to be content with merely praising peace" but who are "infuriated by anybody praising war" (p. 549). If no war is possible, all criminality has its chance.


Indeed, Chesterton wrote:

Some of the most beautiful instances of modern military courtesy occurred in a war in which both sides were citizens of the same great democracy. They occurred in the American Civil War; several of them redeemed the rather cynical politics of Grant and gave a glamour like that of Galahad to the greatness of Robert E. Lee (p. 542).

The Civil War in terms of weaponry and strategy was the first modern war, but it was the last medieval war, wherein the end was to restore the union and not to eradicate the enemy. Perhaps this had something to do with the faith of Lincoln and Lee and Stonewall Jackson.


When I thought of the carefulness with which modern weapons could be used, precision bombing, attention to strictly war capacities, to enemy troops and material, I thought that Chesterton had already anticipated the better direction of modern war and sane thinking about it. This was a thinking that knows about will and bravery and service, but one that realizes that rules exist and can be followed even in war.


"Those who, like myself, doubt whether war can ever be impossible unless liberty is impossible, will not easily accept the prospect of battle becoming more bestial every time it is renewed. They will think this view as dangerous as it is false; and count it a curious instance of how all intellectual perception, including that of peace, work out in practice to the wickedness of modern tasks."


Wars in the Twentieth Century have not often been fought with this spirit, yet, it is the spirit that we see, perhaps, coming back into focus.


We do not need to deny that, at times, we must fight. But neither need we accept the notion that the "prospect of battle" will become "more bestial every time it is renewed."


Chesterton, unfortunately, has been an unknown voice in the war debates of recent years. He would not, in the end, "sneer" at the belligerents "for appealing go the Gods of Battle."


"If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy one."

"I cannot see how we can end War unless we end Will."

"What is lawless can become law."

"War, in itself, cannot be either criminal or saintly."

"War can never be impossible unless liberty is impossible."


Thus far, Chesterton on war.