Symposium Introduction

“Just War Theory is a dead letter” (129)—this is the claim that Meagher boldly makes and seeks to defend in his book. In short, Killing From the Inside Out is a declaration of war against the doctrine of war in the West. Moving chronologically, from Homer’s Iliad to William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War,” and including the voices of combat veterans and military personnel, Meagher performs a style of argument that is directed at what James called “the sentiment of rationality.” He is aiming at the heart. His pen bears a great pain and burden.

Meagher shows the macabre pastoral dimension to a cold, objective reliance on the Just War Theory as an excuse to look away from the subjective pain that war creates. In his analysis, Meagher refreshingly refuses to consign these harms in toto to psychosis or pathology. The casualties of war, we see, are not only the dead and the physically wounded; they are also those killed from the inside, those who in alarming numbers take their own lives from wounds to the soul, from trauma of the heart; they are a collective, cultural wound we must learn to bear and heal together.

The industrial war complex makes casualties of us all.

Indeed, there is something like a phenomenology of war in this book that awakens us to the pastoral needs of our communities that live in the shadow of Empire, guarded by the implicit philosophical theology of Just War and the explicit nation-state that sponsors, wages, and celebrates it.

In the reviews to follow, I invite the reader to consider the pastoral dimensions of this dark and illuminating discussion, to see the ways that this symposium itself might teach us to learn and unlearn the subjective realities of violence and moral injury.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Meagher does not seem, in the analysis of the astute reviewers, to emerge a total, uncomplicated victor. There are a number of thoughtful counterfactuals and reservations brought to light, many of them rooted in the reviewers’ own personal relationship to war, others rooted in the limits of his argument.

However bellicose this rather academic critical routine may seem, we must not forget that the language of war is but an analogy to its reality on the battlefield and, as Meagher shows, the impossible return to civilian life. We surely cannot lose the realism of war amidst the language of theory and critique, just as that language and theory itself has a constitutive effect on the justification of its reality.

In other words, as much as philosophical questions about double effect and the analysis of intention might seem de rigueur in this discussion, the heart of the matter is itself, perhaps ironically, still thoroughly Augustinian: conversion. Meagher’s book and his critics here seem to all agree that there is a need for a deep and lasting conversion in the United States of America and the West with respect to war. Let us, then, be attentive to their words and willing to be moved to repent and believe in the Gospel.



Logan Isaac

Tobias Winright

Warren Kinghorn

Pamela Lightsey

About the Author

Robert Emmet Meagher, Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts, has directed and participated in many events and programs concerned with understanding and healing the spiritual wounds of war in veterans, their families, and their communities. He served as an invited Commissioner for the National Truth Commission on Conscience in War and facilitates an ongoing MassHumanities/NEH VA Literature and Medicine seminar. His most recent book is Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War.




For What It’s Worth

Recasting Just War Theory as a Pastoral Framework

In Killing from the Inside Out, Robert Meagher gives a rather startling and formidable biography (or rather an extended obituary) of philosophical and textual reflections that have come to be called the “Just War Tradition” (JWT). I had the privilege of previewing the book, and I cannot understate its value in the ongoing debate between realism and pacifism in Christian scholarship. However, I am in the unenviable position of having to qualify how I can speak so enthusiastically about the work while fundamentally disagreeing with its premise, that JWT be “torn up from its roots.” Since having read and endorsed the book, Phillip Wynn released his Augustine on War and Military Service, driving the final nail into the coffin of our attempts to leverage the bishop in service to imperial violence. That Augustine never intended to outline a coherent Christian account of war is clear not only from the lack of any robust treatment in any of his many and diverse systematic works, but in the epistolary form in which he did engage the issue. He writes most directly on the subject of war in his letters to generals Marcellinus and especially Boniface. In fact, Augustine’s dedication of City of God to the former should clue us in to the importance of a martial hermeneutic to inform not just pastoral theology, but systematics as well. I fear the instinct to jettison wholesale the admittedly problematic JWT risks robbing the church of valuable theological reflection.

As a member of the martial fraternity to which Augustine wrote, I am reluctant to endorse Meagher’s claim that the church must unequivocally reject JWT, “to pull up, from its roots, the just war tradition” (xx). Rather I propose that to treat it systematically is to commit a category mistake, to treat it in a way it was never intended. As an alternative, I suggest that Christians take it for what it might be worth, as a pastoral framework for use by clergy engaged in ministry with soldiers and veterans. Instead of trying to make the tradition a system, we need to be attentive to particularities; those in which it arose and those for which it may (or may not) be useful. Rather than remaining at the level of abstractions and universals with systematicians, ministers would do well to more carefully prune the JWT, rather than throwing the seeds out with the grey water. We must keep in mind that the (perhaps sour) fruit might not be the part God has given us for our use, but the branches that can carry the weight of those lives touched by war.

If it is true that more of Augustine’s reflections on war are epistolary rather than systematic, then a more proper way to interpret JWT is as a pastoral response to combat stress.1 William Portier addresses Augustine and the topic of “sorrow of soul” in an unpublished conference paper from 2011.2 Citing book XIX, chapter 7 of The City of God, Portier suggests animi dolore should have a more religious connotation than its somewhat secular rendition, which Henry Bettenson translates as “heartfelt grief.” By the time Augustine has composed the final four books in 427, he has already corresponded with several Christian soldiers and is unequivocal in his diagnosis that war is inherently damaging to the soul. He writes, “A man who experiences such evils, or even thinks about them, without [sorrow of soul], is assuredly in a far more pitiable condition, if he thinks himself happy simply because he has lost all human feeling.”3

Augustine’s correspondence with the African general Boniface is exemplary in this regard, spanning at least two years and predating City of God be nearly a decade. His second letter to the Roman general is notably shorter and more concise then his earliest letter, in which Augustine had written a lengthy and sweeping refutation against Donatism.4 Augustine writes again in 418, telling the general “even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God,”5 revealing the career soldier’s concern that war might not fit with his religion. Based on the high rank he has gained, it is a safe assumption that Boniface has used no shortage of strength against enemies he has learned that Jesus called him to love. Tragically, Augustine’s zeal to oppose Christian heresy has blinded him to the very simple (but likely) central thesis of Boniface’s initial correspondence in 416; “Father Augustine, I know not what I do; help me understand who and what I am as a Christian soldier.”

Although a stretch, it is worth considering the extent to which Boniface was thinking about becoming a repentant pacifist. Many years later, the same in which Augustine is finishing his major work, they resume their epistolary relationship. We learn that, in the eleven intervening years since their last exchange, Boniface had asked about becoming a monk, still a radical movement away from civilization often undertaken by penitents fleeing the vicious excesses of urban life. Augustine disapproves not because Boniface had martial obligations as a high-ranking general, but because he had conjugal duties to his wife.6 A smart man, Augustine learns as he goes, being attentive to circumstances he might not understand, and responding to particularities articulated by a member of his congregation.

Without knowing Greek, he may not have even been aware of pacifism’s vehement Greek apologists, Tertullian and Origen. If he was, he may have sensed that their condemnation of the martial vocation might be too severe for a priest to offer a penitent, especially since the earlier situation, in which Christians were formally prohibited from the military, was no more. After all, it would be nearly seven centuries before Christendom would justify violence wholesale, as Pope Urban II did in triggering the crusades in 1096. There was not as much need for a pastor to prescribe the kinds of liturgical expressions recorded by the penitentials, the equivalent to voluntary temporary excommunication, the likes of which Bernard Verkamp describes in The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times.

Having been provided a Roman education, surely Boniface would have been intimately familiar with Cicero, the pagan jurist. Roland Bainton makes clear in Christian Attitudes to War and Peace that Cicero’s De Officiis borrowed the idea of a just war from Aristotle, “who had said that a just war is one waged to enslave those who by nature are destined to be slaves and who resist their destiny.”7 Ambrose of Milan, Augustine’s mentor, then adapted Cicero’s title for his own treatise directed at pastors, De Officiis Ministorum, so it is not inconceivable that the pair saw their duty to soldiers in particularly pastoral terms. It might very well be that he uses Cicero to establish trust with a wounded warrior in the same way Meagher or I might rely on Karl Marlantes or Jonathan Shay in our own day. Their not being Christian would prevent us from calling it theology per se, but the effect of their writings nonetheless have proven fruitful for many veterans, Christian or not.

War is not primarily a systematic problem for the church, but one having everything to do with pastoral responsibility to individual human lives. As a priest, Augustine responds reassuringly in a way that evokes Tyler Boudreaux’s notion of “dispossession” in Packing Inferno. Though it makes more sense in relation to survivor’s guilt, in which a soldier feels guilt for something over which they had no control, dispossession can also be applicable sacramentally. In Augustine’s letters to Boniface, it is clear they both are grappling with how to make sense of Christian duties in light of our faith: Was the force disproportionately evil? Were noncombatants targeted? Was violence resorted to in haste? If the answer to these are no, then individual soldiers might feel some moral relief. Just as Ambrose and Augustine before us, we can find something of value in a pagan epistemic structure, not theology in the proper sense, but pastoral nonetheless.

But Meagher and other pacifists do not see JWT in this way. Many wish, with him, to “tear it up from its roots,” to throw out the entire tree. But there is constructive value to JWT, and pacifists are mistaken if they think they are somehow signing off on war by leveraging the pastoral value of a martial hermeneutic. Augustine responded to a person in crisis by establishing a starting point that each could identify with, thereby establishing trust, which is precisely why Meagher’s careful attention to the experience of soldiers is important. It is in his ministering with them that he comes face to face with the fact that war is not something veterans can teach to civilians, for to know war one must endure it.

His point is crucial, then, that the fact that Augustine “himself never served in the military nor shed blood is not enough to excuse him from learning something from those who did” (80). Augustine’s failure to pay close attention to the numerous biographical passions and vitas of soldier saints and military martyrs is a gaping hole in the great doctor’s theology. But it is also often a gap in the theology of many prominent theologians as well. Just as Augustine should have taken more cues from the likes of Martin of Tours, Victricius of Rouen, Marcellus of Tangiers, and others, so too should today’s theologians and ministers steep themselves in the literature of war shared by Christian soldiers.

Writing off JWT in the way most pacifists do assumes they can accurately identify the roots of war, but I am not sure they have. Clerics, like Meagher and many other faculty going through seminary during the Vietnam War, were made exempt from conscription. Without condescending their civilian status, it is critical to articulate what is lost by theologians’ epistemic privation from war. The tired old joke is a stinging critique of those who would preach against practices of which they have no fundamental knowledge: How many veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb? You don’t know, you weren’t there!

Pacifist theologians or ministers face an uphill battle in either vilifying or venerating people for engaging in activity of which they have no firsthand knowledge. Soldiers know pacifists cannot know the lessons learned in war, and have no reason to trust (otherwise valid and needed) condemnations by those who have not been. In order for theology to gain any traction against war, or for salvific reintegration to occur thereafter, ministers must establish trust, which is what Augustine does with Boniface over a series of letters spanning several years. From there, the more complicated moral surgery of parsing out the beauty from the tragedy in combat can occur.

To disregard the contribution Augustine and others made to martial theology and personnel does the Church a disservice. More importantly, there is something soldiers, and war more broadly, can teach the Church. Meagher certainly knows this well, working as he has with veterans for many years now. He knows what he does not know and has taken war seriously at least insofar as he has taken veterans seriously, for the terrible wisdom they bring home from war provides a needed and prophetic critique of the tendency of nations to go to war. But without some kind of structure in place to hold the burdens they carry, we invite disaster.

The knowledge I bear as a veteran makes clear that there is far more complexity to war than what initially meets the eye. If that is the case, then before we start tearing up JWT, we actually need to keep digging. Even if it is only so that we can be sure we trace each and every one of its roots so that they too may be thrown into “the unquenchable fire.”8 But until we get to the bottom of this thing we call war, I worry our reckless uprooting will only till the soil, making it fertile ground for ever more evil to emerge from the Church’s disassociation with the knowledge of war carried home by our soldiers and veterans.

Rather than throwing it out with the bathwater of violence, I want to take JWT for what it really is. Evacuating all serious theological engagement from the moral reality of war carries with it the unwanted and unwelcome corollary of evacuating a good bit of Augustine’s very valuable work. Throwing out JWT would make the work of those who have worked to take war seriously, like Hauerwas or Yoder, a fool’s errand. But their point in engaging it is one I share—taking war seriously as a political and moral act requires we do so as theologians and disciples, not merely as pacifists. It requires that we get to the bottom of this thing we call war without bulldozing through the lives by which war gains any coherency, human beings that even Augustine knew harbored inestimable sorrow of soul. In the midst of the epidemic of suicide in the military community, the last thing we need is a bull in a china shop. We need careful ministers, theologians of grace, who can traverse the journey home from war with us. That trek requires a structure that JWT provides in this messy interim while we wait for war to end.

  1. Though popular, the terms “PTSD” and “moral injury” appear transitory and distracting upon critical reflection. I prefer “combat stress” as a way to evoke the many and varied kinds of reactions to battlefield exposure if for no other reason than that it troubles the categories that the DSM sets up.

  2. “Healing Heartfelt Grief through Liturgy: Problems and Possibilities,” presented at After the Yellow Ribbon, conducted at Duke University.

  3. Book XIX, ch.7, p. 862, edited to include Portier’s more literal translation.

  4. Augustine’s long first letter to Boniface is #185, in 416. His second to Boniface is #189, two years later.

  5. Letter 189, paragraph 6. Retrieved from http:/C:/dev/home/

  6. Letter 220, paragraph 12 reads, in part, “I am, however, prevented from exhorting you to that mode of life by your having a wife.”

  7. Bainton, 166.

  8. Matthew 3:12b NRSV.

  • Avatar

    Robert Meagher


    Response to Isaac


    From its beginnings, “just war” was an oxymoron, an ethical black hole, and “moral injury” remains a conundrum so long as killing in war violates neither civil law nor any moral or religious code acknowledged by either side in a conflict. How, we might ask, can there be moral injury in what our military, our government, our churches, and most everyone call a just war? At the root of our incomprehension lies just war theory—developed, expanded, and updated across the centuries to accommodate the evolution of warfare, its weaponry, its scale, and its victims. Any serious critique of war, as well any promising attempt to understand the profound, invisible wounds it inflicts will be undermined from the outset by the unthinking and all-but-universal acceptance of just war doctrine. The aim of Killing from the Inside Out is to unravel, from its roots, the just war tradition, to reveal its deadly legacy, and to point to a future beyond just war.

    I wrote this book for educated, thoughtful, general readers, particularly those deeply concerned about the human cost of war. More pointedly, I hoped to reach those in our country who bear that cost most directly: active duty military, veterans, their families and their caregivers. At the same time I sought to challenge Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church, to reconsider their long, traditional embrace of just war. Lastly, while not primarily aimed at an academic audience, I strove to meet a high standard of erudition and clarity, such that my book would prove illuminating and useful to scholars and their students in the fields of theology, ethics, history, and peace studies.

    I would urge the readers of this volume to read the full text of Killing from the Inside Out and to come to their own opinions and conclusions before turning to the short academic commentaries and responses contained here. I say this in the hope that you the reader and I the author might carry on our own conversation and so develop our own relationship, as it were, before widening and complicating that conversation with critical voices that, however thoughtful and helpful, will inevitably take you beyond the text and prematurely interrupt the process of forming your own mind and finding your own voice first. This is advice I always give to my students and, while you are not my students, it remains, I think, a sound suggestion.

    Response to Isaac

    In responding here to Logan Isaac’s thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary, I must confess from the outset that I am less than confident I have understood his argument, specifically regarding pacifism and Just War Theory (JWT). He is surely correct in concluding that the aim of the historical narrative and theological critique in my book has been to discredit JWT, to declare it a dead letter, and, as I put it, to write its autopsy. Clearly there can be no question of my rehearsing that narrative and critique here. Its span and complexity would defy such an effort. Fortunately, Isaac did not, in his commentary, directly engage either. His core concern, insofar as I understand it, is my rejection of Just War Theory and the troubling vacuum such a rejection appears to leave behind.

    Unless I’m mistaken, Isaac expresses the core of his concern when he asserts that

    throwing out just war traditions (JWT) would make the work of those who have worked to take war seriously, like Hauerwas or Yoder, a fool’s errand. But their point in engaging it is one I share—taking war seriously as a political and moral act requires we do so as theologians and disciples, not merely as pacifists.

    These words also express the core of my confusion over Isaac’s critique. Taking JWT and its tradition seriously can’t either demand its approval or preclude its rejection. On the one hand, in my own defense, I have endeavored to take the Roman Catholic theory and tradition of Just War with ultimate seriousness. Whether that seriousness approaches that of such eminent scholars as Stanley Hauerwas or John Howard Yoder, two of my colleagues many years ago at the University of Notre Dame, is for others to decide. What confuses me is how my rejection of JWT makes their theological effort a fool’s errand. After all, they too reject JWT, as does Isaac. The moral and theological justification of war is not something that any pacifist can accept, as the extensive writings of Hauerwas and Yoder make clear. Isaac, I know, is deeply versed in those same writings, which leaves me at a bit of a loss in grasping his resistance to “throwing out” JWT, at least until I consider that his contradictory attachment to it is deeply personal, rooted in his experience of war as a combat soldier and his compassionate bond with those who engaged in war at his side.

    The positive role that Augustine, which is to say Augustine’s words, particularly in his pastoral letters, have played in Isaac’s existential as well as theological engagement with war is evident. He wants to give Augustine some serious credit, on the one hand for his effort to limit conflict, to render it more humane, and to offer pastoral support to those who wage it. That Augustine was a good and holy man, well-intentioned, and pastorally committed to his flock is something that I am not concerned either to deny or to affirm. That he was a great man, the most brilliant and influential mind of late antiquity and early Western Christianity, is precisely what I argued in a book I wrote years ago entitled Augustine on the Inner Life of the Mind. What concerned me in Killing from the Inside Out and what profoundly disturbs me as I write this are the catastrophic consequences of his theological legitimation of violence, even lethal violence, including torture and killing, whether in the form of judicial/ecclesiastical execution or the waging of war. The purity or perversity of the intentions of Augustine and his successors is between him/them and God. What he and they need to answer for—to the world, to history, to humankind, to warriors, and to civilians—are the consequences of their words, their teachings, their doctrines. The final verdict of history on JWT was in long ago, centuries ago. Its legacy has been and continues to be devastating. Isaac has not denied, much less refuted, that. As a pacifist, how could he?

    What I see and acknowledge is his plea for compassion, understanding, and pastoral care in a dark world, our world, in which an end to war is as yet a dream and in which military service is most often motivated by exceptional idealism, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and courage. Pacifists are adamant in their resolve not to kill; but there are others who are equally resolved not to let others be killed, even if they must protect them—their “neighbors” in the biblical sense—by killing those who threaten them. “No one has greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

    The dilemma here is that protecting the otherwise defenseless, by force of arms, means killing those “others” who threaten them. Augustine argued that we could love our enemies and kill them at the same time, but that requires an inner gift for gymnastics that not everyone, and certainly no pacifist, possesses. What is equally troubling to many is how we can love our families, friends, fellows or allies and stand by while they are killed. What complicates this picture even further is that in the biblical sense everyone involved is our neighbor, whom we are enjoined to love as we love ourselves.

    Rather than resolve this contradiction, some have chosen to embrace it. I have in mind here those “pacifists”—Christian or otherwise—who have embraced lethal violence in defense of others, while at the same time refusing to accept the moral justification of their actions. Killing, in short, is always evil, but sometimes necessary. Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Michael Lapsley, and Ernesto Cardenal come to mind. They embody the contradiction lucidly confronted for two millennia by Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a tradition that has never embraced JWT, affirming that war and killing are always and everywhere evil and sinful, but have recognized too that love of neighbors can lead, perhaps even compel, us to turn plowshares into swords in their defense. Examining the realism and wisdom of the Orthodox tradition falls beyond the borders my book, whose aim Isaac rightly identified as the uprooting of JWT. The Orthodox tradition, after all, falls equally beyond those same borders. JWT, in the fourth century, left Western Christians with only two, mutually exclusive options with regard to killing—either JWT or pacifism, either a lie or an ideal. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, offered a different set of options: either pacifism or the morally wounding and soul-darkening adoption of violence on behalf of, in defense of, others. The Orthodox tradition took on the contradictions of our fallen condition with what some would call a nod to realism and a profound commitment to pastoral care. Isaac seems inclined to attribute both to Augustine. Would that it were true.

    • Avatar

      Logan Isaac


      Going Deeper

      I feel I must apologize, for Meagher’s comments about the confusing nature of my reflections are not new to me. Often I feel confused, for my experience of combat rarely seems to comport with what theologians and theology says about war. Despite my being, in this regard, the epitome of an insider (having served in an infantry platoon in direct and sustained combat), I am left felt like I am on the outside looking in when I read theologies about war.

      I have been trying to make sense of the strange new world of Christian faith I encountered nearly ten years ago. Serving on active duty as an Army artilleryman, I had already had a combat deployment behind me and was facing a second. The experience awoke in me a brand new appreciation for what it might mean to be a Christian soldier. As I sat at Pearl Harbor on guard duty while our vehicles were being loaded on boats headed toward Kuwait, I read Yoder’s What Would You Do. As I started reading more pacifist writings, however, I detected a kind of disdain for the military that seemed to me to be both unfounded and uncompromising. On the other hand, I heard from no shortage of Christians that soldiers were “God’s hand of judgment” in the Middle East and elsewhere. It was startling to be confronted with only two extremes, whatever names they might go by (whether realist/pacifist, conservative/progressive, patriot/anarchist).

      As I kept reading and listening and discerning, the prevailing voices did not make sense to me, and they often still seem confusing when I compare them to my more than six years of military service. If we want to get at the question of killing, it seems to me that we must start with those who kill rather than abstract notions about killing. This is what confuses me about the debate as I have encountered it, but at the same time it is precisely what funds my assertion that we rethink the value of those theologies that have emerged (which go by the rather ambiguous phrase “Just War Tradition,” or JWT for short) rather than throwing them out entirely.

      Meagher is right that I cannot endorse his assertion that JWT be totally discarded, but that does not keep me from seeing the value of his book about that very subject. In fact, I endorsed it because it struck me as profoundly informative and compelling. The trajectory he follows, however, shares the realist assumption that JWT is a coherent rational systematic theology. But that is precisely where I think we make a category mistake.

      Christian realists want us to think the JWT is rational, coherent, and credible; a singular tradition passed down generation to generation. This is a mistake that Wynn’s book illustrates wonderfully; not only was Augustine not the JWT’s founder, it never existed in any consistent form until very recently. I concede that whatever it has been, JWT is not one thing. When theologians refer to “just war,” the point of reference might be referring to anything from Paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s definition of JWT. What I tried to get at in my review was, if we want to think historically about JWT, we need to reconsider whether treatments like this get us closer to the reality of war (which is to say away from war as it is merely imagined).

      Part of the point of my essay was to call foul with how primary texts were being used; if realists want to leverage Augustine and Aquinas, for example, then it would be better to critique them for improper use of sources. My central claim has been that the texts most often rolled out by Christian realists are pastoral, not systematic, and should be used that way. If we insist on using them outside their primary discipline, then the scholars doing that work should be forthright about doing so, but they often are not. Pastoral theology is being disguised as systematics, and I think this is not only suspect theology, but also injurious to those for whom war is inescapably personal. Wounded warriors don’t need any more formulaic pronouncements from atop the ivory tower; they need ministers willing to listen long enough to share the burden of killing. They need the Church to help them make sense of the reality of war in particularly theological terms. I know because that is what I needed, but all too often I felt like I had to find it on my own.

      Being originalists about some of the texts usually in question will force us to read them as occasional theology aimed at answering specific concerns rather than as the seeds for a universal system we can apply to the question of killing. Note, for example, that Aquinas’ Summa was a handbook for theology students becoming priests who would soon be hearing confessions. Jonsen and Toulmin make clear, in their Abuse of Casuistry, the Summa was heir to a genre that began with the early penitentials and confessional literature. Writings usually used to justify war are not a foundation for systematic theology, but at best are good examples of pastoral or practical theology at their best. This consideration should influence how realists treat theological texts as well as how pacifists engage this realist misappropriation of practical theology. The difference is crucial; Aristotle insisted that the distinction between formulaic scientific knowledge of episteme and concrete practical wisdom of phronesis was fundamental.

      If Christian thinking about war rotates around phrases like “proportionality,” “right intent,” and “last resort,” than we have all committed a category mistake. Instead, Christian thinking about war must always begin and end with widows, orphans, and the many other dismembered bodies broken in the wake of war, including our soldiers and veterans. Rather than rejecting JWT as a rational system, we must reassess it, as a pastoral resource helpful for understanding the wounds and complexity of war. The specificity the penitentials utilized were similar to those implied by JWT literature; did you protect noncombatants, were diplomatic means exhausted, were you consumed with passion?

      Leveraged pastorally rather than systematically, JWT can provide a starting point for establishing trust with wounded warriors in a world torn apart by polemics and sloganeering. To the extent that JWT forces us to think in concrete terms rather than in abstract generalizations, it can move Christians past the failed assumption that there are only two stories for Christian soldiers to chose from, of being either a monster or a hero. Done carefully and wisely, JWT gets past this binary. We can appreciate Augustine’s pastoral expertise even if Meagher is right about “his theological legitimation of violence.”

      My point in the essay was to suggest that Augustine was at least attentive to the moral complexity of military service, even if Meagher is right that selections of Augustine’s writings paved a road to hell. Put another way, even if it is true that JWT has been a dead letter from the get-go, that does necessarily discredit the value that Augustine’s words might have for Christian soldiers yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In sum, it is better to think of JWT in terms of pastoral theology rather than to legitimate the assumption that it was ever appropriate to make it a rational system in the first place. The story Meagher gives in Killing from the Inside Out remains an important work that I continue to recommend to Christian soldiers through my work in Centurions Guild. However, I often find myself wanting to stir up even deeper questions than Meagher focuses upon. As I stated before, I worry that tearing up what little historical theology we have about war will only reinforce a dangerous and destructive disassociation between the Church and soldiers caught up in the moral landscape of war. Rather than reject, we must reassess, perhaps even rename. After all, war is like a weed, and I don’t want to tear it up until we know we have successfully identified each and every root. Rather than tear up, we need to keep digging.



Adding Insult to Moral Injury and Just War from the Outside In

As a theological ethicist who for the past year or so has been thinking and writing about just war and the phenomenon of moral injury experienced by military personnel following their deployment in combat zones, I eagerly anticipated the publication of Robert Emmet Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War. Moral injury definitely is a timely and significant issue about which the book makes a helpful contribution in addressing. Moreover, Meagher is a wonderful writer, masterful with a turn of phrase, and accessible while erudite with his command of a literature not often considered in just war circles. From Sophocles to Girard, Homer to Freud, Tertullian to Camus, the pages are rich and provocative with insights gleaned from poets and philosophers, novelists and theologians, sinners and saints. Most importantly, he has tried, as he encourages others to do, to listen to those who have been to war, who have killed others, who have lost fellow warriors and friends, and who have witnessed terrible things. Their experience inspired and to some extent informed Meagher’s book, and rightly so. Indeed, I found it difficult to put Killing from the Inside Out down, and given how much underlining I did, the non-underlined sentences now stand out on each page more.

In the end, however, although I am in agreement with some of Meagher’s project, especially with regard to moral injury, I think his account of the just war tradition—and, in particular, his major criticism of it—is problematic. That is, while Meagher covers a lot of ground historically, his reading of it is deficient with regard to recent just war scholarship. In addition, rather than criticizing the just war tradition and indicting it for the phenomenon of moral injury, I think the just war tradition, rightly understood and practiced, instead might not be part of the problem but possibly part of the solution to it.

Before delving into that, though, I want to highlight again the need for the sort of attention Meagher attempts to offer to the issue of moral injury that returning warriors are experiencing. First and foremost, his book contributes to a discussion about moral injury that Christians should be already having, but aren’t—at least not enough. To date, moral injury has been addressed mostly in psychological and cognitive rather than theological or philosophical terms. It has been treated clinically and therapeutically instead of pastorally and spiritually. Of course, these former perspectives and approaches are necessary, but they are insufficient without the latter. As Meagher notes early on, “The ranks of secular caregivers attending to those suffering from invisible wounds are filled by therapists and counselors with one or other cluster of qualifying letters after their names . . . [and when] veterans, even those not previously or particularly religious, report that their souls are dead or that they have lost their humanity and want it back, many MDs and PhDs on the frontlines of veteran care rightly wonder why they are the ones to be hearing this” (3). This is a crucial point. Unfortunately, although Meagher rightly correlates moral injury with the shame or guilt—or pollution—that warriors feel from combat, I think he could have devoted less of his effort to critiquing the just war tradition and more instead towards addressing this problem.

Fortunately, others are now helpfully developing this point. Indeed, the phenomenon of moral injury has been reductionistically medicalized, as Erica Ann Jeschke’s recently defended dissertation, “The Body Beatific: Total Force Fitness and Social Reintegration/Rehabilitation of America’s Warriors” (PhD diss., Saint Louis University, 2015), persuasively shows. Like Meagher, she listened—though, unlike him, she did so through hours and hours of interviews—to a score of combat veterans share about their difficulties in reintegrating into civilian life. She, too, found that an overemphasis on the cognitive fails to capture what these warriors are experiencing—that, instead, there is something more holistic involved, and she calls for the retrieval of embodied practices to help in the process of reintegration.

Similarly, Duke psychologist and moral theologian Warren Kinghorn notes this reductionism of the medical model and how it does not allow therapists “to speak about these phenomena in anything other than psychological and cognitive terms” (66).1 For them, morality is not something that is deeper than, or that transcends, the psychological, cognitive, or emotional. Like Jeschke, Kinghorn suggests that moral injury refers to “something that modern clinical disciplines structurally cannot provide, something like a moral theology, embodied in specific communities with specific contextually formed practices” (59).

And like Jeschke and Kinghorn, Mark A. Wilson is also critical of “the hegemony of the therapeutic model” which obscures the place of virtues and practices for healing and reintegration (66).2 He calls for the virtue of “moral grief” as an “active response” to address moral injury. According to Wilson, “Where many therapies, especially pharmaceutical ones, seek to neutralize the experience of psycho-emotional suffering, the present account of moral grief contends that it would be the absence, not presence, of lamentation that should be our concern” (66). Here Wilson articulates well my own sense that the phenomenon of moral injury is today’s way of naming what Augustine referred to as the mournfulness that just warriors should experience. Indeed, I am more bothered if returning warriors don’t exhibit such mournfulness—which also brings me to Meagher’s problematic narrative regarding just war. Much has been happening in just war theory in recent decades, including a retrieval of its theological dimensions within the Christian tradition.

Daniel M. Bell Jr., for example, reframes just war as a form of Christian discipleship, and he identifies virtues and practices that are necessary if Christians are truly serious about fighting justly and only in just wars.3 In his narrative of the just war tradition, Bell notes how it became less theological and more secular in recent centuries, focusing less on virtues and practices, more on principles as a sort of cognitive or public policy checklist. The secularization of just war thereby makes it more susceptible to being abused as a cover by governing authorities who “justify” wars of national self-interest, at best, or imperialism, at worst. Just war no longer has “teeth.” Of course, Meagher might counter that it has always been toothless, but I disagree.

Another development in just war thought is recent attention to postwar justice, i.e., jus post bellum. Louis Iasiello, a retired admiral and a US Navy chaplain, stresses the need for social rehabilitation as a component of post bellum ethics. In addition to the need for social rehabilitation and restoration for children, the elderly, the sick, refugees, and others affected by war, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, Iasiello highlights the imperative to reintegrate soldiers back into society after war. He writes:

Combatants are not amoral agents or machines. . . . Warriors are persons—they are body-mind-spirit. They are complex moral agents who must live and fight within the context of military protocol and duty. . . . While warriors submit to the authority of their superiors, they never submit so completely that they surrender or forfeit their moral personhood. . . . Warriors are soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen who must kill when legally ordered to do so, but must live with those decisions the rest of their lives. (45)4

Iasiello’s point about the personhood and moral agency of warriors echoes the above authors, and it resonates with Wilson’s observation that “the veteran’s moral injury is not different in kind (though often in degree) from the experience that all moral agents have” (58). For example, divorce may be morally justified, but there is still pain involved, maybe even moral injury, including if one is not at fault, and it is rightly mourned. That was my experience during and following an annulment. Likewise, although I was never in the military (I was in Army ROTC in college, but I didn’t go through with it, because I worried about the possibility of being deployed in an unjust war), I worked for several years in law enforcement, as a corrections officer and a reserve police officer, and I felt mournful even when I performed my duties, including when using force, justly. Thus, after a police officer kills a suspect, that cop normally spends time not on patrol but in another assignment, and he or she usually has access to counseling and a chaplain. This is one of the reasons I initially thought of something similar for just warriors and moral injury.

The returning soldier feels guilt or remorse, even though he may believe that he did the right thing. Or perhaps more so if he has doubts, as may be the case for some soldiers involved in recent wars that lacked moral clarity, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. Just as many draft dodgers in the 1960s were not pacifists, but instinctually felt that that particular war was unjust, so too perhaps many who are experiencing moral injury are doing so due to an unarticulated but reflexive sense of just war. Their “gut” sense that something is wrong, even if they cannot articulate it with just war language, should be respectfully heard. As Admiral Iasiello puts it, warriors “sometimes return from combat with mixed emotions, and oftentimes with a spirit of regret and sadness. . . . Few feel they may now return to life as usual” (41). In his, and my, view the jus ad bellum criterion of right intent entails a post bellum duty to try to promote a just and lasting peace for all involved in and affected by war, including not only the defeated but also the returning victorious soldiers. Iasiello suggests that “humility, regret, and perhaps contrition acknowledge this ambivalence and may actually ease a warrior’s transition to peacetime existence” (ibid.). Such language of virtues and practices brings to mind the church’s ancient practice of requiring penance and other rituals for returning soldiers.

Accordingly, in After the Smoke Clears, my coauthor Mark Allman and I called for social rehabilitation as a component of the restoration phase of jus post bellum, and we highlighted the importance of this for returning warriors.5 Nations should assume the responsibility to assist warriors in their transition back to civilian life once the fighting has ended. And if churches are going to continue to recognize just war as a valid enterprise for their members, they too should provide moral and spiritual assistance for Christian military personnel. In this connection, we suggested the appropriateness of a medieval practice that encouraged soldiers coming home from war to make a retreat in order to repent for the sins of war and to heal from the psychological and spiritual damage inherent in combat. Even a just warrior who fights in a just war experiences, witnesses, or participates in many evils. In the Christian tradition, not all sin is voluntary.6

Indeed, according to Bernard J. Verkamp, in his book The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times, to which Meagher refers on occasion, the “Christian community of the first millennium generally assumed that warriors returning from battle would or should be feeling guilty and ashamed for all the wartime killing they had done” (11).7 In response, rituals were put into practice to provide healing and reconciliation for these soldiers. Depending on the bishop or the penitential, variation existed as to the penances that were imposed, with some stricter than others; nevertheless, all are evidence of an effort to address a perceived need on the part of these soldiers. In general, the appropriate penance corresponded with “the kind of war they had been engaged in, the number of their killings, and the intention with which they had been carried out” (ibid.). For example, in the fourth century, Saint Basil of Caesarea held that although “homicide in war is not reckoned by our Fathers as homicide,” warriors returning from battle should still be made to “abstain from communion for three years.” Centuries later, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Synod of Norman bishops imposed a set of penances on all soldiers who fought under William the Conqueror: anyone who knowingly killed a man during the battle had to do penance for one year for each person he killed; anyone who wounded a man and did not know whether he died later had to do penance for forty days for each man he struck; anyone who did not know the number of either of these had to do penance for one day each week for the rest of his life; and archers who killed and wounded but, due to distance, did not know how many, had to do penance for three Lents (17, 21–22). For a variety of possible reasons, which Verkamp carefully considers, by the late medieval and Renaissance periods this practice waned, though a few echoes of it lingered as far as the sixteenth century. An important factor he highlights is secularization, and as I noted above, this also occurred in connection with developments in just war theory at that time, when it came to have less to do with moral character and the virtues. Hence, writing two decades ago with Vietnam veterans in mind, Verkamp laments how the “therapeutic” society of the West, with its reductionist concentration on psychological treatment, has lost the “moral sensibility” that is “derived from a uniquely religious teleology” (11–12).

Kinghorn too calls upon Christian communities to revive practices, virtues, rituals that aim at healing and restoration, including for just warriors: “What is notable about them is that they provided a formal, liturgical space and time for veterans to reflect upon, lament, and possibly even to mourn their war-making practices without repudiating their necessity or the necessity of the campaigns of which they were a part” (69). Kinghorn also observes that “moral injury provides an important reminder that attention to the traumatic effects of war on soldiers . . . cannot be separated from more theoretical considerations of war’s moral justifiability” (i.e., jus ad bellum) and how it is fought in bello (63–64).

This is where I think Meagher’s book is flawed. Sure, he refers to Basil and the later penitentials in connection with war (84–85, 104–5). However, instead of calling for a retrieval of such practices in connection with a more theological account of just war, Meagher levels a scathing attack on the just war tradition: “The deceptive and destructive core of the Christian just war doctrine can be stated very simply. It is the claim that wars, or at least some wars, and all the killing and destruction they entail, are—in addition to being necessary—good and right, even virtuous and meritorious, pleasing in the sight of God” (xiv). “War and killing,” Meagher adds, “now blessed, soon became not the lesser of two evils but a positive good” (xv). And, if just war means that it is good, the “haunting question raised and pursued relentlessly in this book is ‘how can there be moral injury in a just war?’ The traditional and mostly unquestioned answer is that there can’t be. The idea that dutiful service to one’s country in a just war can be simply ‘wrong,’ putting at risk one’s humanity and very soul, is blasphemous and unthinkable to nearly everyone except those who have experienced it to be the case” (xvii).

But he seems to be confusing correlation and causation. Plus, instead of trashing just war in its entirety, I place the blame more on a secularized version of just war that is more permissive and less honest in its invocation of the criteria of the tradition. Still, while just war language and principles, admittedly, have more often than not been honored in word more than deed and misused to rationalize war, as the ancients put it, abusus non tollit usum (“because something can be abused does not mean cannot be intelligently used”).8 Moreover, not all just war theory, past or present, regards just war as good. To be sure, there is a debate on this right now in the literature. Some see just war this way, such as Darrell Cole9 and Alexander Webster,10 but most just war ethicists do not and, indeed, they worry about that perspective.11 Like Meagher, they view it as dangerously on the cusp of holy war or crusades, in which there are no rules that constrain the violence against the enemy who is regarded as irredeemably evil. Unlike Meagher (83, 100–101) and perhaps Christians during the Crusades, these just war ethicists do not conflate just war and holy war. These just war ethicists—not only Augustine and Aquinas as Meagher asserts (91, 99, 108)—hold a presumption against war; it is something that requires moral justification for embarking upon it and moral constraints during its execution. He is simply incorrect when he writes, “Regrettably, such a presumption was not their legacy” (108). The US Catholic Bishops are representative of this approach in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, and other denominations, including the United Methodist Bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, similarly articulated just war theory. Some even continue to say that just war is a “lesser evil” rather than, as the aforementioned Webster attempts to argue, a “lesser good.” In addition, Meagher is outright wrong when he writes “that to this day the Roman Catholic Church, as well as almost every mainline Christian denomination and sect, fails to outspokenly endorse and publically defend selective conscientious objection to war, much less pacifism” (97).

So, with regard to Marine captain Timothy Kudo, Meagher writes, “The fact is that when Kudo enlisted the morality of killing was not on his mind. It was a question he hadn’t yet asked” (xvii). Well, he should have—but I don’t necessarily blame him, for the church should have facilitated his asking such a question, as The Challenge of Peace and In Defense of Creation and other denominational documents meant for Christians to become better informed about just war principles. Still, sadly, most are not. And, as Bell suggests, more is needed than a checklist of principles. Formation is as necessary as information. The same is true, I have argued, in connection with jus post bellum. When Noah Pierce’s mother describes how the military trained and turned her son into a killer, she is right when she says that afterwards he needed to be “un-trained” (5). Still, I would beg to differ from Meagher when he writes that “a great many combat veterans,” including Pierce, “followed all the rules” and, therefore, are not war “criminals” (xviii, 2, 4–5, 141–42). Even if we grant that they may not be criminals legally, the “bad things” that Meagher describes they’ve done, including shooting at point-blank an unarmed man, can indeed be labeled as immoral violations of just war criteria. Even if the nation that sent them to war, the commanding officers who issue their orders, and the citizens who “support” them with applause and accolades do not name such actions as morally wrong, the just war tradition, rightly understood and when instilled and taught in this way by communities such as the church, does regard the intentional and direct targeting of noncombatants as morally unjustified.

In the end, war, including just war, is toxic, and the evils that it entails do something to all involved. No war, like no person (and, if we are honest, probably no marriage), is perfectly just.12 Meagher’s otherwise excellent chapter on “Killing: Moral Agency and Pollution” fails to consider theological literature on nonvoluntary sin. There is more to it than intent and consequences. He rightly refers to “the confusing complexity of human agency and accountability” (41). He is right, I think, when he writes, “Killing may be unwitting, accidental, sanctioned, or forbidden. Either way, there is pollution,” and this requires “purification” through ritual (42). I am not sure about his distinction between “guilt” and “shame,” but he is probably right that these “may well overlap and become entangled” and that “the shame experienced by many veterans today might well be given the diagnosis of ‘pollution’ as the ancients understood it” (45). In my view, it is a just war perspective that, rather than causes this problem, helps to recognize all of this and, hopefully, to mourn and lament it properly.

  1. Warren Kinghorn, “Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation: A Theological Account of Moral Injury,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012) 57–74.

  2. Mark A. Wilson, “Moral Grief and Reflective Virtue,” in Virtue and the Moral Life: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives, eds. William Werpehowski and Kathryn Getek Soltis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), 57–73.

  3. Daniel M. Bell Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009).

  4. Louis V. Iasiello, “Jus Post Bellum: The Moral Responsibilities of Victors in War,” Naval War College Review 57, nos. 3/4 (Summer/Autumn 2004) 33–52.

  5. Mark J. Allman and Tobias L. Winright, After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010), 163–65.

  6. See Aristotle Papanikolaou, “The Ascetics of War: The Undoing and Redoing of Virtue,” in Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War, eds. Perry T. Hamalis and Valerie A. Karras (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming); and Jean Porter, “Sin, Sickness, and Transgression: Medieval Perspectives on Sin and Their Significance Today,” in Virtue and the Moral Life: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives, eds. William Werpehowski and Kathryn Getek Soltis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).

  7. Bernard J. Verkamp, The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993).

  8. Daniel C. Maguire, The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 21, 62–63.

  9. Darrell Cole, “Good Wars,” First Things 116 (Oct 2001), http:/C:/dev/home/

  10. Andrew F. C. Webster, “Justifiable War as a ‘Lesser Good’ in Eastern Orthodox Moral Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2003) 3–57.

  11. Tobias Winright, “The Liturgy as a Basis for Catholic Identity, Just War Theory, and the Presumption against War,” in Catholic Identity and the Laity, College Theology Society Annual 54, ed. Tim Muldoon (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009), 134–51; and “Hawks and Doves: Rival Versions of Just War Theory,” Christian Century 123, no. 25 (December 12, 2006) 32–35.

  12. Mark J. Allman and Tobias L. Winright, “Growing Edges of Just War Theory: Jus ante bellum, jus post bellum, and Imperfect Justice,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012) 173–91.

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    Robert Meagher


    Response to Winright

    Tobias Winright introduces himself as “a theological ethicist who for the past year or so has been thinking and writing about just war and the phenomenon of moral injury.” My engagement with war and its aftermath is less easily summed up. As a young child in the years immediately following World War II (the “Good War,” the enduring litmus test of “just war theory”), I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago whose concentration of holocaust survivors was second only in number to Jerusalem. And then there were the veterans, whose memorabilia I collected and whose stories I listened to. I recall especially one former Army Ranger in his twenties who broke down in front of me (age six) and my friends as he described to us how night after night he had killed mere boys in uniform with his bare hands, one hand over the mouth and the other thrusting a knife into the back, twisting it until the shuddering stopped. Sobbing, he charged us to hate war and to never, ever, fight in one. I recall too another friend’s father who every Sunday, in full dress uniform, would stomp down the side aisle of St. Jerome Church during Mass, come to an abrupt halt before the towering statue of Mary, salute the Mother of God, stamp his foot, spin round, and march back down the aisle and out onto the sidewalk. For the duration of this brief weekly ritual, his son, my friend, would bury his head in his hands and never look up.

    A handful of years passed and another close friend lost his older brother in Korea. Then, after years that passed quickly, my older brother found himself on a chartered PanAm flight to Saigon, to serve his country as an infantry soldier with the 1st Cavalry in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. As was the case with so many of his fellow veterans, his eventual homecoming required more courage, faith, and perseverance than anything he had faced in war. For my part, for years, I poured through post-war Congressional Records, veterans’ testimonies and memoirs, and eventually Michael Herr’s 1977 Dispatches, not as a theological ethicist but as a brother and citizen. Like any civilian innocent of war, I was informed that “if you didn’t go, you don’t know”—something I already knew without being told. I imagined and hoped, however, that if I were to listen long enough and hard enough, I might understand something and be able to offer some support. While still in the seminary and the religious community to which I belonged and which I left after nine years, I had briefly considered becoming a military chaplain, until I came to know one and saw what his service had done to him.

    My engagement with veterans intensified in 2004 when the first combat veterans from the Iraq War began to return home, and it was clear that the country was not remotely prepared to address their needs—physical, psychological, or spiritual. Admittedly, their welcome was not hostile or condemning as it had been for many Vietnam Veterans. In truth, their re-entry was mostly a nonevent, except for the veterans themselves, their families, and their federal caregiver—an understaffed, underfunded, antiquated VA that hadn’t confronted waves of fresh combat veterans for forty years.

    For over ten years now, in parallel with my teaching and writing, I have been deeply involved with a number of active duty military, veterans, veterans organizations, the VA, and a range of national and international institutions concerned with addressing war, trauma, moral injury, reconciliation, and healing. In this context, I must note here my consternation when I read Winright’s witlessly cutting remark that a recent doctoral student of his “listened—though, unlike him [Meagher], she did so through hours and hours of interviews—to a score of combat veterans share about their difficulties in reintegrating into civilian life.” I can only assume that Winright’s admirable protégé (whose work I would look forward to reading) knows better than he the difference in scale between “hours and hours” and “years and years.”

    I have presented the above narrative to make clear that my engagement with war and moral injury, across over sixty years, neither began nor advanced as a primarily academic enterprise. At the same time, that engagement has been informed for decades by my work as a scholar.

    Turning now to Winright’s commentary on my scholarship and the exchange between us that he might have provoked, I regret to say that I see it as a sadly missed opportunity. Let me explain what I have in mind in saying this. Winright sums up his own position on just war in these words: “I think the just war tradition, rightly understood and practiced . . . might not be part of the problem but possibly part of the solution to it.” I, on the other hand, have summed up my position as follows: “Just war theory is a dead letter. . . . It was never more than a theory, and at its worst it was a lie, a deadly lie. It promised at least the possibility of war without sin, war without criminality, war without guilt or shame, war in which men would risk their lives but not their souls. . . . It is time to declare its death and to write an autopsy.” Anyone reading these starkly divergent assertions would expect them to provoke a scintillating debate, a fruitful exchange of ideas and convictions. If only that had ensued.

    To my disappointment, Winright, instead of engaging the core argument and evidence of my book, simply dismissed it out of hand, declaring it to “problematic” and “flawed.” My work’s fundamental problem or flaw, in Winright’s assessment, if I read him correctly, comes down to my having paid too much attention to the history of just war theory and tradition and not enough to contemporary considerations of just war and moral injury. In other words, I wrote the wrong book; or, from another point of view, he read the wrong book. Admittedly, my book and its argument are essentially historical, necessarily so. In writing it I didn’t focus, as I have elsewhere, on the healing of moral injury, although that is a challenge that deeply concerns me and in which I remain extensively engaged on both a theoretical and a practical level. If the reader would be interested in pursuing my work in that area, I would invite you to peruse the array of essays, blogs, interviews, reviews, and articles available at

    Apart from his general dismissal of the historical case made by my book, Winright proffers a number of random critical comments on my text, more like a TA with a red pencil than a colleague with an open mind and an enquiring spirit. Needless to say I believe him to be the one mistaken in these instances; but we will never find that out, because he neither considers the evidence I present nor offers counter-evidence of his own. Instead, apparently having lost interest in the book he was invited to engage, he gave over half of his commentary to discussions of subjects and material that, while peripheral to the focus of my book, more directly represent his concerns and his own work. This would have been excusable, perhaps, had these excursions clarified his conviction, stated above, that “the just war tradition, rightly understood and practiced . . . might not be part of the problem but possibly part of the solution to it.” But they didn’t, at least to my mind.

    Unfortunately, I have been unable to distill much from my reading of Winright’s commentary except disappointment. Now, in the very limited space remaining to me here I feel compelled to speak to a couple of his remarks that I cannot let stand without comment.

    I refer first to this brief passage:

    So, with regard to Marine captain Timothy Kudo, Meagher writes, “The fact is that when Kudo enlisted the morality of killing was not on his mind. It was a question he hadn’t yet asked” (xvii). Well, he should have . . .

    I had to read these words several times to believe my eyes. Medieval scholastic philosophers, as Winright surely knows well, distinguished between “vincible” and “invincible” ignorance. I find Winright’s ignorance here to be vincible, i.e., he should know better, as a human being much less as an ethicist concerned with moral injury. No one knows better than does Timothy Kudo—a man of deep courage and integrity—what he should have considered before going to war. He doesn’t need Tobias Winright to instruct him. Kudo’s writings in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere are among the most acutely intelligent, penetrating, honest, and wise words written by any veteran of our recent wars. Instead of listening to and learning from Kudo’s words, even those few excerpted in my book, Winright chose to “zing” him and move on. I find this shocking and shameful.

    Lastly I need to answer Winright’s view that I was “outright wrong” when I wrote “that to this day the Roman Catholic Church, as well as almost every mainline Christian denomination and sect, fails to outspokenly endorse and publically defend selective conscientious objection to war, much less pacifism.” I stand by what I wrote but at the same time realize that I should clarify, even if in a most cursory fashion, why I wrote it. I am familiar with the pastoral letter to which Winright refers, but I feel it falls short of what is needed. In the first place, since our nation’s adoption of an all-voluntary military force over forty years ago, effectively in the aftermath of Vietnam, selective conscientious objection, in practice, comes down primarily to a soldier’s right to refuse deployment in a war that he or she finds immoral and, within a war zone, to refuse orders that violate his or her conscience. As a participating Commissioner in the first National Truth Commission on Conscience in War, convened at New York’s Riverside Church in 2005, and as one who has concerned himself with this matter since the sixties, I am not aware that the Catholic Church has significantly “weighed in” on this debate. I should clarify that by “weighing in” or “outspokenly endorsing and publically defending” I don’t mean issuing a pastoral letter, which amounts to whispering in a corner. Think birth control, abortion, divorce, female clergy, married priests. The Church doesn’t whisper its views on these issues, and consequently every Catholic, as well as countless others, know perfectly well where the Church stands. Not so with war.

    My hope is that Pope Francis—not a man who whispers his convictions—will renounce the Catholic Church’s long embrace of just war theory. Already he has declared unequivocally that “war is madness.” A half century ago, Pope John XXIII challenged the world to peace in his monumental work Pacem in Terris, a vision of world order that chastened and inspired both John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. No time would be soon enough for Francis to follow his kindred predecessor as well as his sainted namesake and to declare, urbi et orbi, to the city of Rome and the world, that there never was nor ever will be such a thing as just, much less holy, war.

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      Tobias Winright


      Winright’s Response to Meagher’s Response

      In his Prologue to his Response to Logan Isaac, Robert Meagher writes to readers of this Symposium:


      I would urge the readers of this volume to read the full text of Killing from the Inside Out and to come to their own opinions and conclusions before turning to the short academic commentaries and responses contained here. I say this in the hope that you the reader and I the author might carry on our own conversation and so develop our own relationship, as it were, before widening and complicating that conversation with critical voices that, however thoughtful and helpful, will inevitably take you beyond the text and prematurely interrupt the process of forming your own mind and finding your own voice first. This is advice I always give to my students and, while you are not my students, it remains, I think, a sound suggestion.


      I, too, encourage readers to read the full text of Meagher’s book, but also the full text of the other books that I cited pertaining to this topic, which are, like his, written for (and have been read by) wider audiences and not only for other scholars. For example, Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s book, Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Brazos Press, 2009), is dedicated to the bishops of the United Methodist Church and “written for nonspecialists, for ordinary folks as an introduction to the just war tradition,” including “laity, educators, pastors, seminarians, soldiers, and so on—who want help in thinking about justice in warfare as Christians, who want to know how just war relates to the Christian life and Christian discipleship” (14-15). It, too, takes seriously the experience and challenges of members of the military. Indeed, US Army Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain Scott A. Sterling, who wrote the Foreword to this book, comments, “There were moments while reading Bell’s book that I felt like he had been with me ‘downrange,’ listening to the moral challenges my soldiers expressed and hearing their gut-wrenching and heartfelt questions…. I was amazed as I read this book that Bell, who has not served in the military, was able to anticipate and respond to these types of questions as if he were a seasoned soldier” (8). So, I hope that readers apply Meagher’s advice across the board to other books that deal with the just war tradition that are available at this time. Daniel Maguire’s book, The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy (Fortress Press, 2007), upon which I also relied, is another example—and it, like Meagher’s, is highly critical of the just war tradition, although Maguire stops short of calling for its jettisoning altogether. Actually, I would extend the logic of Meagher’s advice and suggest to readers that they go back and read the primary sources that he and these other authors cite, such as relevant excerpts from Augustine.

      In addition, like Meagher, I am a teacher—of both undergraduates and graduate students, as well as for church groups (I have also spoken to military groups, taught at police academies, and taught staff and correctional officers in a prison where executions are conducted in rural Missouri). With several teaching awards, I try to equip students both to inform their minds and form their consciences about moral issues. In my “War and Peace in the Christian Tradition” course, I have my students read a number of books, including those that disagree with each other. Indeed, I try not to reveal where I stand so that students can engage these materials with as little bias (or as little Tobias) as possible. This semester, for instance, the required reading list includes: John Howard Yoder’s Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution (Brazos, 2009); Michael G. Long’s (edited) Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History (Orbis, 2011); Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer’s (edited) A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Cascade, 2012); and Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Brazos, 2009). I was invited to read all four of these manuscripts before their publication and was asked to provide endorsements on the back cover for two of them. Just over the last few weeks, my students and I read and discussed from the Long volume excerpts from Justin Martyr, Athenagorus, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, the Acts of Maximilian and Marcellus, and more. Not only were the students who lean toward just war squirming in their seats, so too were the pacifism-leaning students given how serious and theological these early Christians were about nonviolence. Also, if anything, students (and church groups where I speak) tend to believe that I am a Christian pacifist because of how fairly and persuasively I share that tradition with them, and they are surprised to find out that I am not (yet) a pacifist.

      Moreover, since Meagher appears to exhibit a negative view of “theological ethicists,” I want to note for the record that in recent years, including within Roman Catholicism, we are less likely to be celibate priests or ivory tower scholars. Unlike what he writes on p. 131 about how the “church’s longstanding obsession with sexuality and complacency with war—still in evidence today—have all but disqualified the clergy and its hierarchy as the church’s conscience in matters of making love and making war,” we are  “now” (since he inserted “still in evidence today”) mostly laypersons (many of us are women), many of us married with positive views about sex; moreover, many of us have valuable previous experience in the so-called “real world” in business, the military, law enforcement, medicine, science, and so on. Plus many of us are also activists, and we seek to be of service to both church and society. In his plenary address at the Catholic Theological Society of America in 2009 (, as well as in some of his recent moral notes in Theological Studies, senior moral theologian James Keenan S.J. has applauded how, unlike some of our predecessors, we write not only for academic audiences, but also in popular periodicals, newspapers, and blogs—such as Syndicate, for instance. So, dear reader, please do as Meagher suggests, but don’t assume that the rest of us in this conversation differ from him and are only academics writing only for each other.

      Turning now to Meagher’s response to my response to his book, he begins by noting that I introduced myself as “a theological ethicist who for the past year or so has been thinking and writing about just war and the phenomenon of moral injury,” and he adds that, in contrast, his own “engagement with war and its aftermath is less easily summed up.” Before going further, please observe that I never claimed to be summing up my “engagement with war and its aftermath,” and that the specific topic of “just war and the phenomenon of moral injury” is not necessarily synonymous with “war and its aftermath,” although the former is encompassed in the latter. Meagher then shares about how his sixty years of “engagement with war and moral injury… neither began nor advanced as a primarily academic enterprise,” though “informed for decades” by his “work as a scholar.”

      Since Meagher highlights elements of his background and its relevance, I’ll do the same, given that my work on the subject likewise neither originated nor progressed “as a primarily academic enterprise.” I, too, have been wrestling with war and its aftermath for longer than “the past year or so.” Admittedly, I am younger than Meagher (I’m a half century old), but I too grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest (on a farm in rural, small-town America). Early on, war enthralled me. Like many other boys back then, I played with my GI Joes and little plastic toy soldiers. I watched every war movie possible and read as many books as I could about a warrior (George Custer, Crazy Horse, John F. Kennedy and PT 109—I also put together a plastic model of that boat), and a number of neighbor boys, my brothers, and I frequently played “war” with our toy guns in the yard, the cornfield, and the barn. I also remember looking forward to asking a great uncle about his experience in Pearl Harbor and World War II (by the way, I do not now regard, unlike others, World War II as “the ‘Good War,’ the enduring litmus test of ‘just war theory’”).

      Yet, I was an altar boy and prayed for peace at Mass. And I vividly recall when Grandma Hug told me one day, as I was playing with the toy soldiers on the kitchen floor, that “war is bad.”  Then, when I was only 13 years old, I somehow persuaded my grandparents to take me to see The Deer Hunter, which was the first war movie I saw that attempted to portray the reality of the Vietnam (it was a lot different from one of my earlier favorite movies, The Green Berets, starring John Wayne). I remember the Vietnam veterans I met at, for example, the county fair, and I wondered if their experience was like what I had seen in that movie. Skipping ahead to some years later, one of my roommates, an ex-Marine, confided with me how the suicide bombing of the barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, which killed 220 of his fellow Marines, plus 18 sailors and 3 soldiers, deeply affected him. In addition, I have a brother who was in the Navy in the late 1980s/early 1990s; he later had cancer, has had heart surgeries, is still in poor health, and nearly every week I hear about his experiences dealing with the VA. And when I taught at Simpson College in rural Iowa, where many students are first-generation college students, I listened to my friend and political philosopher, Terry Hoy, who was one of Merrill’s Marauders in the South-East Asian theatre during World War II. We got together almost every afternoon over wine (well, he drank red wine, and I usually had beer) to discuss, among other topics, this one, and we especially debated the necessity of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he believed, until he died a few years ago, was justified to win the war and to save his and his fellow soldiers’ lives. So my thinking about war has never been primarily an academic enterprise.

      And since Meagher zooms in on killing, I should say a tad more about my several years of experience in law enforcement, as both a corrections officer and as a reserve police officer in two metropolitan areas. I first swore to “serve and protect” and I was first trained to shoot (qualifying as a police shotgun sharpshooter) when I was nineteen years old. I was so blue collar that I had to work full time for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department, where my mom was also a deputy (and later a homicide detective) for four years while I earned my AA at Saint Petersburg Junior College and my BA in political science and history at the University of South Florida. Believe me, I have seen what violence can do to others; I have endured violence; and I have used force. Thank God I never killed anyone, but it was always a possibility. Nevertheless, decades later I still bear not only some physical scars from that time, but also seemingly indelible marks that are deeper, which sometimes surface, especially in my sleep. There are great differences between law enforcement and the military (well, there should be, but the militarization of the police has been a real problem in recent decades, not only here in Ferguson and Saint Louis, Missouri), but there are some similarities, and my fellow officers who were former military would point that out now and then. Also, because at the time I was hoping to go on to law school, I was in Army ROTC for a little over a year. A possible military career interested me, and I thought it might also pay for law school. I even jumped out of the towers for parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia and did other military practices there as a part of all that.

      Still, the whole time I wrestled with the use of force, lethal or not, as a Christian, whether in law enforcement or in the military. Thank God my major advisor back then in political science mostly taught political theory and international relations, and he had us read unusual things like Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which has several paragraphs on war and peace, as well as on how Catholics ought not compartmentalize their life but must live it faithfully and with integrity in all that they do. My first exposure to the just war tradition was here, as well as in other materials we read. And to the chagrin of the Major in charge of ROTC—since I had the top grades and evaluations in my cohort at the time—I left ROTC because I worried about the possibility of being deployed in an unjust war.

      So, I never said I am only a theological ethicist. Rather, I was attempting to note that I have “been thinking and writing about” the specific connections between moral injury and just war theory fairly recently. I have thought, written, and taught about war, including its aftermath, for three decades (if you count my years doing so as a graduate student, but nearly two decades as a theological ethicist). Indeed, I have criticized just war theory for neglecting the aftermath of war, and the vast majority of my work uses just war reasoning and criteria to try to hold nations and churches that invoke that tradition accountable to it. But my thinking on just war and what has come to be named moral injury goes back more than a year and a half ago, even if I did not write explicitly about it until recently. I first began calling for reconnecting the practice of penance with just war in 1995 or 1996 while studying for my doctoral exams at the University of Notre Dame, given that I had a question on the presumption against war in the just war tradition and a question on the Celtic medieval penitentials and what might be retrieved from them. Three years ago, moreover, I organized a session on moral injury for the War and Peace Interest Group, which I convened at the time with Dan Bell at the Society of Christian Ethics Annual Meeting. Logan Isaac was there, if memory serves me correctly.

      The sentence from my review that provoked Meagher to write about his years of teaching, writing, and involvement with “a number of active duty military, veterans, veterans organizations, the VA, and a range of national and international institutions concerned with addressing war, trauma, moral injury, reconciliation, and healing” is where I refer to E. Ann Jeschke’s doctoral dissertation and how “she listened—though, unlike him, she did so through hours and hours of interviews—to a score of combat veterans share about their difficulties in reintegrating into civilian life.” I did not at all mean for this to be a disparaging or “cutting remark”; I was actually trying to highlight—positively—how Meagher’s criticism of the medical or therapeutic model of addressing moral injury has corroboration in recent literature. Indeed, most of my review of his book was very positive, and I attempted to be constructive by pointing out research that reinforces this significant point. And I agreed with Meagher’s emphasis on the importance of listening.

      Yet, Meagher launches a barb: “I can only assume that Winright’s admirable protégé (whose work I would look forward to reading) knows better than he the difference in scale between ‘hours and hours’ and ‘years and years.’” First, I neither indicated that Jeschke is one of my doctoral students nor my protégé. She already had her topic, her dissertation supervisor, and her committee before I met her a year-and-a-half ago at the Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University. Although I had been in the Department of Theological Studies here for almost a decade, I had been given a new joint appointment in the Center for Health Care Ethics, where she was studying. She had previously studied at Georgetown University and Harvard Divinity School, and she writes also in the dissertation about her childhood in a military family and about her work experience with the Department of Defense. When she read my work on just war, along with plenty of texts by others on the topic, she asked to have me added as another reader for her dissertation.

      Returning to the importance of listening, though, in his book Meagher did not go into such detail. He refers to his “years of reading and years of listening—nearly fifty years, in fact, of research, teaching, activism, and advocacy” (xiii), but on the next page he writes, “The actual birth of my project occurred during a particular conversation several years ago with a close friend” (xiv). I’m sorry if I misinterpreted this, but his listening experience seemed mostly anecdotal, which is why I wrote that allegedly “cutting remark.” My point is that Jeschke’s dissertation is an empirical study employing a hermeneutic phenomenological investigation of warriors’ personal accounts of reintegration challenges (“The Body Beatific,” 4). She interviewed men who “deployed or operated with combat arms’ units” from the Army, Air Force, and Marines in the Global War on Terror (171). All were enlisted; three were officers. A total of 48 interviews were collected, with average interviews lasting 150 minutes. Subsequent interviews were conducted, also. These were open-ended interviews, consisting of probing questions to draw out details and clarification: “…staying close to the warrior’s language, asking about contrasting situations, paraphrasing a story to gain further detail, asking for more description of a particular event, and actively listening for unexpected or new insights to emerge from the interview session” (172). So, back to Meagher, of course there is a difference of scale between years and hours; however, we also need to listen and learn through careful quantitative as well as qualitative analysis—and quality of research is to be preferred over quantity. I would like to know whether Meagher listened in the way Jeschke did, or whether instead his previously established negative view of just war colored what or how he heard veterans and perhaps even influenced the direction his conversation partners went with what they said to him.

      Furthermore, appeals to the moral authority of experience can cut both ways, including on the particular subject of returning warriors, just war, and moral injury. For every anecdote there is about a veteran’s rejection of just war theory, there are anecdotes from other combat veterans who find it helpful to name and reflect on their experience. In the last few weeks I have listened to a combat veteran who has read Jeschke’s and my work on this subject (“Combat and Confession: Just War and Moral Injury,” which we presented a year ago at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics at Cambridge University and which is chapter 12 in my forthcoming edited volume, Can War Be Just in the 21st Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition [Orbis Books]), and he says it resonates very much with his experience.

      Next, Meagher correctly highlights a quote from me and one from him as evidence for how differently we view the just war tradition. Actually, I was probably too generous when I referred to his focus on history. I totally disagree with his assertion that just war “was never more than a theory, and at its worst it was a lie, a deadly lie. It promised at least the possibility of war without sin….” No. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others never made such a “promise” with regard to just war. I acknowledge that just war has not always been adhered to, but I do not agree with Meagher’s excoriation of it or his call for its abandonment. I am sorry, but I am not going to rewrite here what I have written elsewhere on the history of the just war tradition. Like Meagher, I would invite readers “to peruse the array of” my writings on the subject where “counter-evidence of [my] own” is presented. I especially recommend reading the relevant chapters on the history of just war provided by Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder in his aforementioned Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, which is an exemplary exercise “on reading history fairly and taking the just war tradition seriously” (Christian Attitudes, 75). Plus, if Meagher seeks to call for the jettisoning of the just war tradition, why do his references to just war theologians end with the early twentieth century (Killing from the Inside Out, 128)? As I noted, a lot has happened in this discipline since then. If he is going to call for abandoning just war, then he needs to deal with the scope of the tradition, which includes the sort of serious or honest just war scholarship from the last few decades, more carefully. Its history did not stop. There have been important developments. Taking that into account would help make Meagher’s narrative of just war less of a caricature.

      So, I think that Meagher has indeed written the wrong book, or written the book wrongly. As a book review editor for the international journal, Political Theology, I have edited hundreds of reviews, and I have also authored in academic journals and popular periodicals approximately fifty book reviews—most of them on books on war and peace—and even though one should avoid criticizing a book because it is not what one would have written, sometimes, rarely perhaps, one has to call a spade a spade. I have also been invited to review scores of manuscripts for proposed books on war and peace for popular and academic publishing companies (from Fortress Press and Orbis Books to Oxford University Press and Stanford University Press), and as coeditor of the flagship Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, I have pored over scores of articles on the subject. Had I seen Meagher’s manuscript before publication, I would have recommended extensive revisions before resubmission. I realize that Cascade Books does not employ such a process, given that its books are for a wider audience. But I also have published books and articles for similar non-peer reviewed publishers (Orbis Books, Sojourners magazine, etc.), and there is even more of a responsibility, I think, expected on the part of the author to write fairly, accurately and charitably for a readership that places its trust in us.

      In addition, Meagher writes that I give “a number of random critical comments on [his] text, more like a TA with a red pencil than a colleague with an open mind and enquiring spirit.” If my comments seemed random, I apologize, but I think in part that may be because Meagher’s book seemed to make random points and jump back and forth. For instance, on p. 79, where he deals with Ambrose, I wrote in the margin, “What about Ambrose’s excommunication of Theodosius?” which would have been relevant, because in his transition from Ambrose to Augustine, Meagher refers to “a sharp line between self-defense and defense of the state, and to condemn the one while condoning the other…”—which seems to me a biased and selective reading of both Ambrose and Augustine. Then on p. 83 Meagher mentions “when Ambrose the Bishop intervened to restrain the Emperor Theodosius” and again on p. 87 to how Ambrose “presumed to confront face to face the last ruler of an undivided Roman Empire, Theodosius….” Right here is an example of when just war was employed by a theologian/bishop to criticize an emperor, who ended up doing penance. Yoder emphasizes this as an example of where just war reasoning had some teeth (Christian Attitudes, 108). This is very important, but it could have been better incorporated into Meagher’s narrative of just war. Also, on p. 82, Meagher writes, “The barbarians, as Ambrose later confirmed, were the empire’s and the church’s natural enemies, and defense of the empire amounted to defense of the faith.” Yes, just war historians and theologians acknowledge this part of just cause back then, but we don’t load it by inserting “natural” there. If Ambrose used that wording, we need a citation. Plus, while I’m at it, Meagher often uses fallaciously loaded words throughout the book.

      Of course, as Yoder has written, “Let us admit the general problem of bias in the study of history,” but he adds, “The concern for objectivity makes history a discipline… [with which to] develop ways of testing our sources to know whether they are credible, and ways of testing how we read the sources to know whether we have taken them seriously as the product of their own context rather than ours” (Christian Attitudes, 21). Although he (and I) admits that total objectivity is impossible, he (and I) expects us to do the best we can. Unlike Meagher, Yoder attempted to take just war seriously, even “to the point of giving it a better hearing than it has asked for,” out of respect for the integrity and dignity of his interlocutors (Christian Attitudes, 78; it breaks my heart, though, that he did not similarly nonviolently respect the dignity of many women, including students). In his When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (rev. ed., Orbis Books, 1996), Yoder wrote that he engages just war theorists in order to “confirm the integrity of my interlocutors” (5). He also believed “it is still the case that every time just-war proponents exercise effective discipline and limit the harm they do, fewer lives and other values will be destroyed than if they had not applied that restraint” (ibid.).

      Moreover, I think I had “an open mind and enquiring spirit” when I went to Notre Dame to study with Yoder many years ago and, prior to that, at Duke to study with Stanley Hauerwas. That is, given my experience in law enforcement, I wanted to be pushed as much as possible on my views about the moral justifiability of lethal force by working with two of the most prominent Christian pacifist theologians of this past century. To paraphrase Agrippa’s remark to Saint Paul, Almost they persuadest me to be a pacifist. Been there, done that, not that I’m necessarily done altogether. I’m still learning. If an astute reader compares what I wrote on this subject twenty years ago with my more recent writings, she would discern how I have even changed my mind at times. Also, I was Yoder’s TA for two years (I was his next to last TA), and he supported my research on just war. My first three peer-reviewed publications during graduate school benefited from his constructive, supportive feedback. Of course, I am fallible and often make mistakes. But, overall, I’ve established a good track record. In his Foreword to my aforementioned forthcoming edited collection, Hauerwas writes this about me and my work, “I have always admired his intellectual and moral integrity…” (xi) and he adds, “In truth it is the kind of work that those committed to nonviolence should be engaged. So it is with real enthusiasm I commend this book. May it be the beginning of the kind of work that just warriors and pacifists can share and in the process may we discover that we are friends” (xii). This is the spirit of dialogue I seek and expect.

      Next, Meagher says that what I wrote about Marine captain Timothy Kudo is “shocking and shameful,” and he wittily suggests that I have vincible ignorance about it. Yes, I teach about invincible and vincible ignorance every semester, but I do not believe I have it here. In fact, Meagher conveniently fails to quote the whole line that I wrote on Kudo: “but I don’t necessarily blame him, for the church should have facilitated his asking such a question, as The Challenge of Peace and In Defense of Creation and other denominational documents meant for Christians to become better informed about just war principles. Still, sadly, most are not. And, as Bell suggests, more is needed than a checklist of principles. Formation is as necessary as information. The same is true, I have argued, in connection with jus post bellum.” I placed the blame on the rest of us, not on Kudo. Yet, I know of other soldiers who had the morality of killing on their mind, even if they are fewer than those like Kudo. Indeed, that’s one of the main reasons why I did not follow through with ROTC. Thank God I had a church community and a professor who provided me with the framework for having the morality of killing on my mind. My use of the word “should” in the quote above with regard to the church is prescriptive rather than descriptive. Descriptively speaking, I know that the church fails to do as much moral formation on this issue compared to other issues, but I prescriptively said it should. And there are places where it is. Believe it or not, I’ve even taught about pacifism and just war to middle school and high school youth groups in Catholic parishes. I agree with Logan Isaac that the just war tradition should primarily be a pastoral framework. Pacifist theologian Michael Baxter, as well as Daniel Bell whom I cited in my original reflection, have argued that the church needs to reclaim the just war tradition which has been coopted, attenuated and abused by others. Logan helpfully provided the citations for the Augustinian mournfulness that I alluded to, and he rightly suggests, drawing on William Portier’s work, that this would be “a more proper way to interpret JWT…as a pastoral response to combat stress.” That really is consonant with what I was calling for.

      Kinghorn, in my view, rightly worries about how Meagher’s calling for the uprooting of the just war tradition “leaves no room for honest moral reflection about war.” After all, if all war and all actions within war are equally evil, then what’s to stop a Christian in a missile silo from pushing the button to send a nuke to its target, a city with millions of noncombatants? Without the language of just war, such as discrimination and proportionality, how can we criticize nations, politicians, and members of the military for violations of these principles? What can we invoke in order to say “no” to embarking upon war or “no” to an unlawful order given during combat?

      Meagher calls for a “lesser evil” or Bonhoefferian approach (Killing from the Inside Out, xx). What Meagher is recommending might allow another Hiroshima/Nagasaki, as long as whoever does it throws himself on the mercy of God. One of the criticisms Dan Bell made towards “lesser evil” versions of just war theory, particularly those that are along the same lines as Reinhold Niebuhr’s “realism,” is “that the same way the lesser evil logic dismisses Jesus as an impossible ideal in this life, the just war criterion that prohibits directly killing civilians could be dismissed as an ideal that one has to violate as a lesser evil in order to ward off the greater evil of, say, a tyrant’s victory” (Just War as Christian Discipleship, 34). I realize that Meagher does not claim to follow Niebuhr here, and he suggests that the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition exemplifies what he is advocating. However, in my initial response to him, I included references to recent scholarship by Orthodox theologians and historians on war and peace in their tradition. While in general the Orthodox do not use the terms “just war” or “pacifism,” there is not as much consensus among the Orthodox as Meagher assumes. A few years ago I participated in a symposium at Loyola Marymount University, which included several Roman Catholic and several Orthodox scholars on just war. The latter have contributed to a forthcoming volume on the subject, for which I served as an external reviewer for the publisher, and which I cited in my initial response to Meagher’s book. There are Orthodox Christians who are pacifists, such as Jim Forest and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. There are also some Orthodox Christians, whom I mentioned in my initial response, who view just war as a “lesser good” and even as a positive duty. I suspect that such a more “holy war” approach cropped up in the Kosovo conflict among Orthodox Serbs, and not only among Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosnians. And then there are also a number of Orthodox Christians who use just war reasoning (just cause, last resort, etc.) even if they do not refer to it as “just war” theory. I know that during our conversations at this conference, the Orthodox scholars worried not only about how calling war “just” might make it seem too good, but also about how to say “no” to another Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

      Related to this might be Yoder’s concern about how the word “necessity” has come to be used today. Originally, war was just when “necessary and proportionate,” which he interprets as meaning that necessity was “a supplemental criterion operative within the limits set by the other rules” of just war (When War is Unjust, 53, emphasis his). He goes on, “Yet increasingly the ordinary use of necessity in the popular mind has become the opposite. It has come to mean a claimed justification for breaking one or another of the rules if one ‘really has to’” (53). He concludes, “The practical effect of this shift is to reduce necessity to utility, providing carte blanche for any destruction…” (54). I fear that Meagher’s “pacifist” allowance for killing as “sometimes—in dark times—necessary, as the lesser of two evils” (Killing from the Inside Out, xx) actually may open the door wider than just war theory when it comes to how “pinholes easily become loopholes, and exceptions can replace rules” (Killing from the Inside Out, 94). Allowing for what is “necessary, as the lesser of two evils,” is a meager way to limit the horrors of war compared to a serious just war approach that should draw lines where “no” is said, where even if the objective is to win, we will only win rightly, not wrongly. What will warriors feel moral injury for if killing is only about necessity? As I wrote before, I would be more worried if warriors don’t feel moral injury. I am very concerned about them and their reintegration into our communities, but I also have in mind the many children who are casualties of war, including those who have been injured or killed from munitions such as cluster bombs, which are very indiscriminately used. Without just war criteria, we would not now have an international Convention on Cluster Munitions now prohibiting their stockpiling and use. Even though the United States has not signed or ratified it, our military has not used cluster bombs in several years due to the stigma attached to them now. Without just war criteria and reasoning, would steps in the right direction such as this be possible?

      In conclusion, Meagher and I agree on a number of points. First, moral injury needs to be addressed, and it needs to be dealt with by more than only a therapeutic or medical model. Second, “holy” or “good” war is a bad thing. Third, the church and society should do better for warriors experiencing moral injury and for rethinking just war theory. However, instead of setting aside just war theory, as Meagher has called for, I hope the church (and society) will become more serious and committed to just war and what it entails. It should be taught better and more, and it should not be invoked in word only as a cover for unjust war. Finally, I guess Meagher and I disagree on how we are to engage each other as scholars. I stand with Yoder who believed that Christian pacifists and just-war proponents should waste less time attacking each other and instead “spend more energy…[on] their responsibility to challenge the realists, crusaders, and rambos on their ‘right’ who in fact are shooting up the world” (“How Many Ways Are There to Think Morally about War?” The Journal of Law and Religion XI/1 (1994-1995): 107; see also Christian Attitudes, 127). I took so long to write this lengthy response to his response, because, I must confess, I was tempted to reply in kind, especially given that I am still recovering from a serious traumatic brain injury that causes me to get angry easily. That’s another way that I really feel some empathy for those warriors coming home with head injuries. But I hope that what I have written here has respected my interlocutor’s dignity.



Guiltless or Inescapably Criminal?

Why “Moral Injury” Should Not Be Used as a Rhetorical Instrument

On Veterans Day 2013, American televangelist and prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland appeared alongside evangelical activist David Barton on Copeland’s Believer’s Voice of Victory television broadcast to offer American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan a biblical elixir for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “If you will do this thing,” Copeland said, loosely quoting Numbers 32:20–22, “if you will go armed before the Lord to war . . . and the land shall be subdued before the Lord, then afterward, you shall return—you’re coming back—and be guiltless before the Lord and before the nation.” Turning to the camera, Copeland stated, with finger pointed for emphasis, “Now, any of you suffering from PTSD, listen to me, you get rid of that right now, you don’t take drugs to get rid of it, it doesn’t take psychology, that promise right there will get rid of it.” Picking up where Copeland left off, Barton added, “Guys who have been through battle, they need to understand . . . you come back guiltless before God and the nation.” Pointing out that many of the figures in the “faith hall of fame” of Hebrews 11:4–38 were warriors, Barton finished with emphasis:

You’re on an elevated platform up here, you’re a hero, you’re put in the faith hall of fame, if you take this thing and move the way . . . I mean, how many people did David slay? But that’s a difference, and we used to in the pulpit understand the difference between a just war and an unjust war, and when you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.1

Copeland and Barton, to be sure, are caricatured figures, hardly representative of American Christianity as a whole, and their comments on PTSD were criticized even by those on the religious right.2 But like all caricatures, they display in unvarnished form a set of social beliefs that lurk just beneath the surface in American Christian engagement with veterans: that fighting in a just war renders soldiers “guiltless before God and the nation,” and that therefore any guilt and shame experienced by modern veterans as a result of their participation in war—at least war that adheres to established rules of engagement—is a socially generated theological mistake.

This is the presumption that Robert Meagher attacks with vitriol in Killing from the Inside Out. Meagher provides a schematic but cogent history of just war theory as it evolved from ancient Greece and Rome, through Christian writers like Ambrose, Augustine, Gratian, and Francisco de Vitoria, through transitional figures like Grotius, and finally to the modern canons of international law exemplified in the Geneva Conventions. Writing as a Christ-haunted humanist, Meagher writes of the Greeks with an admiring approbation: they may have been brutal and bloodthirsty warriors, but in their poetry and drama they captured the horror and lure of combat, the deep interpenetration of war and sex, and the considerable psychological and moral toll that combat takes on even the most decorated heroes. Not so, he argues, with Christian architects of just war theory, who were caught between the pacifism of Jesus and the early church on one hand, and the pragmatic post-Constantinian need to maintain an empire on the other. Meagher argues that Ambrose, Augustine, and their successors conveniently abstracted themselves, as bishops, from military service and war (and marriage and sex), while propagating an abstract theory of just war in light of which war could be conducted without sin, and even could be an act of love—an act of love not only of those for whom one is fighting but for one’s enemy, that he might be prevented from further evil. Ambrose and Augustine were less clear, however, about how exactly war could be fought without sinful passion, and about the role of conscience in determining what commands in war should be followed. These elisions, Meagher argues, have dogged the just war tradition to the present day, even in its present secular form as displayed in international law: politicians, commanders, and other leaders embrace a theory that just war can be fought without malice and without sin, while failing to engage the psychological and moral context in which killing in war—not to mention other forms of violence that often accompany war—actually occurs. The rotten fruit of this is that servicemembers and veterans often struggle deeply with what they have done, or what they have participated in, while at war, but encounter social expectations and theological narratives that shoehorn them into the role of righteous “just warrior” if they have acted within the limits of the Geneva Conventions and military Rules of Engagement, or “war criminal” if they have violated them. This struggle can result in the same emotions and outward behaviors as PTSD—avoidance of war-related memories, nightmares, emotional numbing, social isolation, staying constantly on edge. Indeed, it may be a form of PTSD, though more recent psychological work has preferred the term “moral injury”: “the violation, by oneself or another, of a personally embedded moral code or value resulting in deep injury to the psyche or soul” (xvii). Moral injury, Meagher argues both in the abstract and by relating the narratives of modern veterans, shows just war theory to be a “dead letter”—“never more than a theory, and at its worst . . . a lie, a deadly lie” (129).

As a theologian and psychiatrist who works with combat veterans, I am haunted by Meagher’s work, convinced with him that just war theory has served in the past, and in some ways still serves, as a justificatory abstraction that legitimates decisions to wage war without accounting for war’s terrible psychological cost on those who fight it, not to mention those who witness and bear it. His description of moral injury is accurate and cogent, and his engagement with classical texts adds to and complements similar work that has been done by writers like Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam, Odysseus in America) and Nancy Sherman (Afterwar). His account of the erotic aspects of war’s violence in classical literature is sobering and enlightening. To anyone—and that includes most of us who are civilians—who has become complacent with war because we assume that wars fought on our behalf are just, Meagher’s book provides a much-needed affront.

There are three aspects of Meagher’s argument, however, that trouble me. The first is a persistent concern that Meagher’s dismissal of just war theory and its Christian proponents comes at the cost of charitable engagement with them. Meagher does not struggle, as Augustine and Aquinas both did, over why the New Testament lacks any clear prohibition against military service, if Jesus and the early church indeed were so clear that the faithful could not serve in the military—even though the gospel accounts of John and the soldiers (Luke 3:14), Jesus and the centurion (Luke 7:1–10) and Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10–11) would seem to offer perfect opportunity for such a prohibition. Meagher does not highlight the way that Augustine, far from romanticizing war, acknowledged the misery of it (“Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling,” De Civ. Dei 19.7). And perhaps most troublingly, Meagher downplays any effect of just war theory in limiting wartime violence, by pointing out that nearly every modern war has witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions and that the US military rules of engagement are at times broken. Sometimes, however, exceptions prove rules: are we really to believe that the Geneva Conventions and military rules of engagement, both products of the just war tradition of jus ad bellum, play no role in the conduct of modern warfare?

Second, Meagher’s argument comes dangerously close to reconstructing the very problem that it is ostensibly intended to rectify, namely, the way that social attitudes often leave no room for soldiers to reflect honestly about their experiences of war. Moral injury, in Meagher’s narration, emerges when veterans struggling with their wartime actions are forced into the role of just-warrior heroes, and find no space in just war for their own stories to be heard: “so long as we cling to the moral justification of our wars we remain blind to the moral injury they inflict” (xvi). His solution is to “uproot” the just war tradition. But his uprooting is so pervasive that his solution leaves no room for honest moral reflection about war. If just war theory is in fact a “deadly lie” (129) and if what is left is the “essential and thus inescapable criminality and atrocity of all war” (133), then what is there to say to the servicemember who is fully aware of war’s brutality but who at the same time longs for peace, who believes with Augustine that the purpose of war is to restore peace and to restrain evil, who laments the necessity of killing in war and seeks to avoid dehumanization of the enemy, and who rigorously observes jus ad bellum principles such as noncombatant immunity? That he or she should be feeling moral injury, even if he or she is not? That any moral justification for war is a lie? That he or she is not “guiltless before God and the nation,” but quite its opposite, with no middle ground? I should be clear that I do not know whether a just war position like this is ultimately tenable, given the methods of modern military training and the conditions of modern warfare. But I would not want to close off this possibility without listening carefully to the stories of servicemembers and veterans who believe that it is. “Moral injury,” as a concept, should foster open and expectant engagement with veterans’ experiences, whatever they are. It should not be a rhetorical tool by which to prove, on historical grounds, the “inescapable criminality and atrocity of all war.”

Finally, as a Christian theologian I am unclear about the nature of the polis, the political community, for whom Meagher is writing. Who is the “we” of Killing from the Inside Out? Over the historical trajectory of the book, the polis shifts from “we” the ancient Greek observers and chroniclers of war, to “we” early pacifist Christians, to “we” imperial Christian Romans who see in just war theory a way to preserve Roman boundaries, to “we” the medieval warrior-monks dedicated to the preservation of Christendom, to “we” early modern Christians for whom just war served as a theological front for colonialism, to “we” inhabitants of modern nation-states who rely on a secularized model of just war to legitimize military force to pursue our own interests. Meagher’s constructive proposals—an end to an all-volunteer army, universal conscription, and civilian public service—all speak to the US population as a whole. Notably missing in this very theological book, however, is the presence of any “we” capable of calling the polis of the modern nation-state into question. There is no role for the church in Meagher’s account, other than a historically complicit and destructive one. But this is surely a missed opportunity. Meagher cannot without irony decry the role of Constantinianism in the fourth century and, at the same time, dismiss the role of Christian communities as loci of moral formation, discourse, and healing in the twenty-first century. Veterans with moral injury do not need simply better governmental policies; they rather need a community capable of bearing their griefs, calling out their strengths, welcoming them unconditionally, and traveling with them on the long road of reconciliation and healing. Some modern commentators like Nancy Sherman, and perhaps Meagher himself, long for the American polis as a whole to be just such a community. But this may be asking too much. Better, rather, for churches and Christian communities to take on this role for those who will receive it, and to walk alongside veterans, listening and learning and sharing life together, without being subsumed by the immediate needs of the nation-state. It may be only then that Christians will discover what it means to seek just war, and what it means to work for peace.

  1. Kenneth Copeland and David Barton, Believers Voice of Victory, November 11, 2013, available at https:/C:/dev/home/

  2. See, for example, “Barton and Copeland: The Bible Says Soldiers Should Not Suffer from PTSD,” The Gospel Coalition, November 14, 2013, http:/C:/dev/home/

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    Robert Meagher


    Response to Kinghorn

    Before addressing those aspects of my work that trouble Dr. Kinghorn, I want to express my appreciation of his skillful framing and lucid distillation of the core argument of my book. Beginning as he did with the fervently clueless homiletics of David Barton and Kenneth Copeland, Kinghorn effectively laid bare the roots of precisely that confusion which dogs our nation’s response to returning veterans, especially to those haunted by what they have witnessed, done, or failed to do while serving their country. Not only pulpit patriots, but most ordinary civilians as well, are inclined to acknowledge the military service of our nation’s sons and daughters and many do so with brief expressions of personal gratitude. The routine good will of uncomprehending civilians, however, does little to companion and support the war-torn as they struggle daily to find their way home, re-enter their lives, recover themselves, and confront the future. “Guiltless before God and the nation” are indeed empty words, as meaningless as confetti showered on veterans who are firstly concerned with facing themselves, their loved ones, and their God. Idle words of blanket absolution are as cheap as they are irrelevant. Far better to listen to veterans, their stories and their silences. In this and much more, Kinghorn and I are in close accord.

    As it happens, the origins of my book and its uncompromising critique of Catholic just war theory and doctrine lie not in theological or historical scholarship but in listening to, advocating for, and working with veterans, their families, and their caregivers across many years in a range of organizational, community, and personal contexts, both here and abroad. It was these years of listening that led me to the conviction that the deepest inner wounds of veterans—wounds to soul and spirit—would never be understood or addressed until the sacred canopy of just war is torn down and trampled underfoot. At the same time I became convinced that the moral cost of war, particularly modern (much less “postmodern”) warfare, is unsustainable, and that there can be no end to our wars so long as we continue to justify and even herald them in moral or religious terms. This too I learned from veterans, who had come to hate war with a passion perhaps only warriors and the countless innocent victims of war can summon.

    Turning now to the several issues raised by Dr. Kinghorn, I will consider first his concern that my “dismissal of just war theory and its Christian proponents comes at the cost of charitable engagement with them.” The operative term here, I assume, is “charitable,” since my book is nothing if not an engagement with just war theory and its proponents. And here he undeniably has a point. I have been fierce and thus less than kind in my critique because the legacy of just war theory has been and remains so profoundly lethal. While I explicitly acknowledged that the intentions of Augustine, Ambrose, and their fellow just war advocates might be as pure as snow, I was and am more concerned with the consequences of their claims and contentions. As I argued in the text, “intentions . . . are for God’s eyes only. Everyone else is left to stare at and live with consequences.” Indeed, the elevation of “intention” in Christian philosophy and theology to its magisterial position in defining the character of an act is, in my view, deeply misguided. The darkest atrocities, after all, can be and often are accompanied by a clear conscience, which is a consolation only to the perpetrator.

    Next, I can’t say that I have any full or adequate response to Kinghorn’s citing of a few isolated biblical episodes when John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Peter each passed up an opportunity to condemn military service, except to say that the focus and context in each instance was pastoral, concerned with personal rather than institutional matters, with praxis rather than doctrine. Saying that, however, solves nothing. These and other biblical anomalies admittedly raise legitimate, troubling questions and inject additional perplexity into the discussion of early Christian pacifism. On balance, however, both the explicit testimony of Jesus, in word and deed, as well as the nonviolent consensus of the early Christian church, East and West, go a long way towards silencing such questions and the doubts. One point that I would raise and highlight in this context is the Christian church’s determined presumption—from the outset of the Common Era down to the present moment—in favor of the legitimacy of sovereign authority, as evidenced in the traditional refusal of just war doctrine to endorse any form of insurrection or revolution, as well as in the Catholic Church’s consistent condemnation of liberation theology, a condemnation that Pope Francis appears inclined to lift.

    Where Kinghorn and I might seem to be at clear cross-purposes is what I take to be his suggestion that the unequivocal rejection of just war theory leaves no middle ground between innocence and criminality, removes any incentive or argument for rules of war, and consigns Christians and perhaps anyone of conscience to pacifism in a world bristling with dark and deadly threats. I suspect, however, that our apparent differences are more a matter of misunderstanding than substantial dispute. To remedy this I want to reiterate and make clear that, whatever my private convictions may be, my book makes no argument for pacifism. Rather, it tries to make a compelling case against the moral justification of war, i.e., against the false promise that war can be waged without sin or, as we prefer to say, without moral injury. Uprooting just war theory and doctrine is not to be equated with uprooting moral considerations or rules of engagement from the conduct of war, however futile they might prove to be. On the contrary, it makes such considerations and rules all the more necessary and urgent. What I endeavored to suggest, if not demonstrate, in my biography of just war is that just war theory has served, across seventeen centuries, as an enabler of unlimited war, issuing waivers rather than rules, side-stepping, not setting, limits. Put simply, I see no enduring evidence that just war doctrine has stood in the way of bloodshed. More to the point, it has all too often blessed it. But all that is largely beside the point, because no modern war has come close to meeting the specifications of traditional just war doctrine, and no future war ever will. We are well beyond “just war,” and those who blindly invoke and endorse it today have not done their homework.

    The only “justification” for war today, if there is one, is its necessity. For all but committed pacifists, it seems too much to expect that violence should not be resisted. And as Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer reluctantly admitted in the face of Nazi aggression and atrocity, the spirit alone will not prevail against the sword. In a shadowed, perilous world, as ours is, utter vulnerability will likely remain at best a counsel of perfection rather than a common expectation. There are no wars between angels and demons, except in myth. War is about killing, and killing darkens the soul. It kills the killer and the killed alike. The one goes dark in life as the other goes dark in death. This is what our veterans are telling us—not all, but too many to tolerate or ignore. They tell us that killing is sometimes necessary, because the alternative is not to be contemplated or borne. It’s a fallible calculation, a matter of how much innocent suffering and senseless destruction, how much savagery and mayhem, we can endure without trying to stop it. This realization has for two millennia informed and guided the understanding and approach to war within Eastern Orthodox Christianity, whose theological wisdom and pastoral compassion in confronting war and comforting warriors offer appreciable illumination to those who would, in the darkest of times, refuse to justify war even as they engage in it.

    I leave for last the most intriguing and welcome challenge posed by Kinghorn’s exceptionally thoughtful response to my book. I have in mind this final query of his: “Who is the ‘we’ of Killing from the Inside Out?” His question, as he explains, is about “the nature of the polis, the political community” for whom I have written. This calls for a conversation, a long one, which I would relish having with him. In lieu of that, I must offer a one-way response here with regretful brevity. He has perhaps already anticipated what I will say in describing me earlier as a “Christ-haunted humanist,” a label I do not dispute. Kinghorn’s use of the word “polis” points the way here, at least as that word and the concept it names were understood in classical Greece by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, and Euripides, whom I have relied on as close and treasured mentors throughout my life. For them the bond of the polis, the political bond (politeia) was and is friendship (philia), and friends have all things in common (koinonia). Euripides took this a step further, understanding friendship as the natural, communal bond of human beings, the shared fabric that unites us at our best and that, violated and severed, divides us at our worst. In his transcendent masterpiece, Herakles Gone Mad, the last words uttered by its broken, eponymous hero are these: “Any man who would prefer great wealth or power to love, the love of friends, is sick to the core of his soul.” War is one form of that sickness.

    Put simply, every “we” that Kinghorn notes and queries in my book represents, as I see it, but one face, one incarnation of the human “we”; and the ideal community they comprise is nothing less or more than the consortium of we mortals, doomed to death and suffering and blessed with a life all the more sweet and precious for that fact. This “we” indeed calls not only the modern nation-state but, I believe, every discreet “religion” into question, so long as they divide us. The incomparable Indian epic of war and redemption, the Mahabharata, teaches us that when we care more about the death of our children than we do about the death of others’ children, war is near.

    As a Christian theologian, Kinghorn wonders, do I see “no role for the church . . . other than a historically complicit one”? To that I say: not until the church fully embraces humanity, as did the incarnate Christ, and until Christians accept without equivocation that the “neighbor” they must love second only to God is not merely the Christian neighbor but indeed the human neighbor, the human other, the human “we.” In my life, I came to this awareness more under the influence of such profound humanists as Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and the ancients they revered than under the tutelage of Christian thinkers. Haunted by Christ, however, as Kinghorn has noticed, I eventually came to realize that this too is what Jesus taught, in his life as in his words and which the church may have preached and embodied until it lost its way. As a Catholic and a humanist I take heart and draw hope from the words and actions of Pope Francis, who I believe considers it his calling to be one of us, all of us, a friend and companion, the bearer of a truth and a love that promises to unite and heal, not divide and judge.



Is Necessary Violence a Just Violence?

0730 hrs 20 Feb 2003

“Mom . . . I’m sure you have heard a lot of speculation on whether or not the U.S. is going to war. Well, this is what I know . . . Our sister unit (6/6 Cav) is here now with our parent hq’s [sic] 11th Aviation Regiment. In about two or three more week [sic] I believe we will be moving north to cross over into Iraq. I ask for your prayers for myself and every soldier here on this camp so we can do what we came here to do and then go home.” (Letter from Dweylon Fifer to Pamela R. Lightsey)

Like Robert Meagher, war has personally impacted my life. My own son, Dweylon was deployed and arrived in Iraq during the early days of the invasion. The excerpt above is from the last letter he sent from his assignment in Kuwait. Some days after writing that letter he and his unit, following a Patriot Missile, unit crossed the border into Iraq. These days, he speaks very little of his experience other than to voice his disapproval of the war, a “war based on lies that cost many people, Americans and Iraqis their lives.”

As I read Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War I could help but remember the words of my son’s letter. His letter and several other memories of the invasion were for me as watermarks offering thematic highlights couched on the margins of Meagher’s printed text.

Beginning with the title, which is drawn from the tragic story of Iraqi war veteran Noah Pierce, who committed suicide, Meagher makes it quite clear that “going home” as my son put it, is a difficult if not near impossible journey for many veterans who struggle with internal responses to having committed actions that were so counter to their moral upbringing. It is in this way that moral injury differs from PTSD that is a victim’s response to a traumatic event. Moral injury, as Rita Nakashima Brock puts it, “is a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities. It is reflected in the destruction of a moral identity and loss of meaning. Its symptoms include shame, survivor guilt, depression, despair, addiction, distrust, anger, a need to make amends and the loss of a desire to live.”1

Though not explicitly pronouncing him as suffering from moral injury, Noah’s mother, according to Meagher, described war and its impact on military personnel as “killing from the inside out” (xiii). Taking on this imagery, Meagher throughout this writing does not spare the reader the gory details of war and the wounds, often invisible, that war veterans bear. Rather than a simplistic red, white and blue naivety or steep American exceptionalism, Meagher—through Noah’s story—confronts the American public with the ghastly images of combat: crushing an Iraqi child under the tracks of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFVs are large weighty tanks averaging multiple tons) and shooting civilians at close range (4). He reminds us that “all killing kills something in the killer” and that “there is no such thing as killing without dying”( xviii). In Noah’s case, according to his mother, “He couldn’t forgive himself for some of the things he did” (5).

What Meagher does in beginning his treatise on the history and various versions of just war theory with the lived stories of combat veterans like Noah is a brilliant contextualization of the why of the just war tradition. That is to say that Augustine, Aquinas, and other early Christian theologians were not grappling with the ethical dynamics of war as though some objective erudite commentary. Rather, they were concerned about the impact of soldiering and warring upon the material lives and spiritual well-being of Christian believers. Meagher is right that “both Augustine and Aquinas shared a moral presumption against war and killing and saw these as a last and unfortunate resort” (108). Their chief reflections centered on the intention of the Christian warrior and the sin of doing war. How might we dare consider participating in the Emperor’s military or war making in light of our witness as followers of the one who has been proclaimed the Prince of Peace? Can war be a means to bring about justice?

It is a myth that war may be just. There is no cleanliness or virtue to war and yet each contemporary advance to war has with it an attempt by the power elite to pretty it up with unachievable promises and rhetoric about the valor of our military troops. With this in mind it is rather appropriate that Meagher turns to Greek literature, its mythical gods and in particular the epic poetry of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in order to describe the brutality of war. As a classical scholar, Meagher understands the power of a good story to make a point. He draws upon these great works to bring us into the mindset of the imaginary warriors in the Trojan War, their thoughts during the heat of the battle, their victories, strategizing, failures and regrets. Meagher threads the reader through the imagined killing fields and the character—wise and crazed—of the protagonists. At the same time, he skillfully recounts the stories of contemporary warriors like West Point graduate and soldier Craig Mullaney and his struggle to reconcile his moral upbringing with how he was being trained to kill. For him and other warriors, the matter of war is often tied to the matter of belief: “Do you believe in a just war?” (12).

Yet no conscience can be assuage having experienced the slaughter of war where mangled and torched bodies, combatant and noncombatant, lay wasting. So it was in Iraq. On Friday, March 21, 2003, the United States and its allies launched a crippling aerial attack against Baghdad, Mosul, and other central Iraq cities. This was no mythic struggle. It was my mental watermark that lay on the pages as Meagher traces the history of just war theory—through classical literature and church history—to make his most provocative argument: that just war theory only serves to legitimize war and fails to address the moral wounding of both warrior and us all. War is sin. It is our human failure to find a way to respect our differences and to resolve our disagreements. The red plumes of fire, grey clouds of ashes, and hearing the explosions of the cruise missiles on that dreadful night now known as “Shock and Awe” made that quite clear to me as I watched the CNN telecast with fear gripping my heart knowing that a real person, my son, was somewhere in the area of that danger. Just war theory be damned.

In the wake of evidence that the primary rationale for our invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, was grossly inaccurate and as we see the increasing challenges of drone warfare, Meagher’s argument that just war theory only serves to legitimize war is worth noting. Neither new interpretations of just war theory, such as the inclusion of “preemptive strike” nor the imagined cleanliness and precision available through modern technologies are capable of justifying the moral injury of warriors and the impact of war upon their families. No “just cause” allows the warrior to walk away from the injustice and murder they will invariably experience in war. Meagher is spot on in presenting this truth.

That said, as an African American the one watermark that caused me to fold my arms while reading Meagher’s text comes from the history of black people struggling for liberation from slavery. War and slave rebellion, mutatis mutandis, both involve violence and killing. To the extent that Meagher’s work suggests a moral imperative against all war is worth pondering. The Augustinian argument against killing in self-defense has never rested well with me as an African American. I cannot imagine where my people would be today had not thousands of slaves given their lives fighting, warring against their slave masters. No theory on the justice of war was necessary because having exhausted all attempts to convince their Christian captors of the sin of slavery, violence was understood as a necessary means to liberation, whether physically or spiritually.

I wonder: How might Meagher have described the Haitian Revolution that ended slavery and French occupation of that colony? What can we say of war and violent rebellion against the injustice of slavery and colonial occupation?

The progeny of slaves might read the pages of his seductive reflections on love and war in Greek literature, his attempt to use these works to help us understand the warrior in battle, with a healthy suspicion. Meagher’s argument about wars waged for the conquest of women and the resulting pillage and plunder of cities, and especially the rape of women by the victors reminded me of the justification white slave owners gave to torture and maintain control over black bodies. The exploitation of black men and women’s sexuality began on the auction block. The fear of black men as hypersexual beasts who were prone to attack innocent white women was the reason many were murdered. I find it difficult, even as a queer lesbian to consider a possible “sexual heat” of these revolutions or to bring to bear on these rebellions a “sexuality of war and conquest” as Meagher purports: “While our focus here is on Homer and the Iliad, it is important to note that the fusion of war and sex, the erotic character of violent conflict and conquest, is not confined to Bronze Age epics” (21). As I imagine the heat of mad hatred after years of oppression on the minds of the male and female warriors of the uprisings both in America and Haiti there is no room for notions of sexual passion or revengeful rape. Indeed there is no evidence to remotely suggest slaves attempted to rape white women during these rebellions. No chronicles left, to my knowledge, which trace an erotic sense of war among the slaves. To imply a fusion of war and sex would be a disservice to these sacred battles. The quest for human rights unfettered by a “fusion of war and sex” has been on the minds of African Americans in battle since their captivity on African shores.

Therefore to say, “Just war theory is a dead letter,” is an invitation to investigate how long it has been dead and if in fact it were ever alive in every context of Christian thought. Though our lives have been impacted by just war theory, black veterans’ rationale to enter war has often had little to do with theory and more to do with our existential existence. For instance, when W. E. B. DuBois called upon blacks to “Close Ranks” in support of WWI, he did so with the belief that supporting the war would advance the cause of civil rights. Blacks, ineligible for the Vietnam draft because of low qualifying scores were subsequently recruited from the ghettos after such standards were lowered.

What is therefore missing in Meagher’s project is an acknowledgment of the profound sense of participation in war in order to procure one’s human rights and to be accepted as a human beings of many black veterans as well as the trickery of the US government in their conscription. Meagher does begin to get at this in the conclusion as he discusses the notion that we have an “all-volunteer army” which is as much a fallacy as just war theory. Prior to the invasion of Iraq one African American politician, Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), introduced a bill in Congress to reinstate the draft. “I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, the sacrifice that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility,” Rangel said.2 Universal conscription may not prevent the grandeur of war, especially given our modern technologies, but it would have a helpful impact on our readiness to do war.

It is after all our propensity to do war that motivated the early theologians to put pen to paper detailing their thoughts about war and the Christian. Though we have not come to the place of cleansing ourselves from the temptation and subsequent yielding to participate in oppression and war, we ought at the very least stop deluding ourselves with the rhetoric of the righteousness of behavior. No one but a morally bankrupt being walks away from killing unscathed. Perhaps, unwittingly, this is the greatest caution Meagher has offered: that those who decide our participation in war have less compunction than those who fight.

  1. Rita Nakashima Brock, “Moral Injury: The Crucial Missing Piece in Understanding Soldier Suicides,” Huffington Post online, July 23, 2012.

  2. Accessed at Politics, “Rangel Introduces Bill to Reinstate Draft.” January 8, 2003.

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    Robert Meagher


    Response to Lightsey

    Pamela Lightsey, as an engaged theologian and the mother of a veteran who experienced the ravages of modern warfare, in her précis of my book reached essentially the same conclusion as I did: “Just war be damned.” Despite this critical consensus, however, Lightsey has expressed several pointed concerns that call for clarification and response. Her concerns, as I understand them, fall into two general categories: things I said and things I didn’t say; so this is how I will address them. Actually, it’s not quite that simple since the two are sometimes entangled and require to be discussed together.

    I will consider first Lightsey’s misgivings regarding chapter 2 on love and war in ancient Greece. Here she refers to my “argument” and says that it reminds her of “the justification white slave owners gave to torture and maintain control over black bodies.” If she had said simply that the bestialization and commodification of women in ancient Greece reminded her of the atrocities against black women in the slave trade, I would affirm her assessment, and I share it. What is unsettling and unfair is her suggestion that my historical account somehow constitutes an argument that I make to justify the atrocious treatment of women in ancient Greece and, by extension, amounts to my justification of the enslavement and violent abuse of black women. Understandably, I find this reading to be not only groundless but also outrageous. The entanglement of eroticism and violence, warmaking and lovemaking, in ancient Greek literature is something I and many others have noted and written about extensively; but to examine something is not to endorse it. Consider these words from my discussion of sex and violence in ancient Greece:

    Tellingly, the Greek word for wife—damar—comes from the verb damao or damadzo, which means to yoke, tame, conquer, rape, or kill. It is a violent word, describing a violent task. Women were seen as wild and “other”; they needed to be broken like horses rather than simply picked like flowers or harvested like grain. Wives, like slaves, though tamed, had to be watched. Once wild, always wild.

    How could or would anyone in good faith, I wonder, imagine that what I have written above constitutes an argument justifying the “taming” of women. In its entirety, my book entitled Helen: Myth, Legend, and the Culture of Misogyny (Continuum, 1995), and everything I have written and taught on the subject before and since then, comprises an argument against misogyny in all its least as well as its most egregious and violent manifestations.

    Related to the above discussion, I honestly don’t know how to respond to these rather barbed words in Lightsey’s reading of my work:

    As I imagine the heat of mad hatred after years of oppression on the minds of the male and female warriors of the uprisings both in America and Haiti there is no room for notions of sexual passion or revengeful rape. Indeed there is no evidence to remotely suggest slaves attempted to rape white women during these rebellions. No chronicles left, to my knowledge, which trace an erotic sense of war among the slaves. To imply a fusion of war and sex would be a disservice to these sacred battles. The quest for human rights unfettered by a “fusion of war and sex” has been on the minds of African Americans in battle since their captivity on African shores.

    Again, I have nothing but respect and appreciation for Lightsey’s historical references to and accounts of the atrocities of slavery in Haiti and America—atrocities that are mirrored today, with undiminished barbarity, in the ISIS sex-slave markets in the occupied city of Mosul. What puzzles me in the above statement are the words that I have highlighted for emphasis. Again, I agree with her, while the suggestion appears to be that I would imply or have implied such a fusion. Admittedly, I may be mistaken here. If so, a question remains why one would leap over two millennia from wars of aggression in ancient Greece to wars of liberation in modern Haiti and America. And if I’m not mistaken, I wonder what grounds anyone could have for attributing such an implication to me. It seems simply gratuitous.

    Another moment of expressed dissention where I see agreement, is when Lightsey describes how something I wrote made her fold her arms.

    To the extent that Meagher’s work suggests a moral imperative against all war is worth pondering. The Augustinian argument against killing in self-defense has never rested well with me as an African American. I cannot imagine where my people would be today had not thousands of slaves given their lives fighting, warring against their slave masters.

    Here I am again confused. Lightsey, on the same page as this, has already asserted that “all war is sin.” That is indeed a central strain in this book, one that I agree is worth pondering; and I too have always had difficulty with Augustine and Ambrose’s arguments against self-defense, arguments that were rejected by Aquinas and his successors. What clearly unsettles both Lightsey and myself, however, is the challenge of absolute pacifism, the disavowal of violence not only in self-defense but in the defense of others. We are not alone in this. I have, in Killing from the Inside Out, described how avowed pacifists like Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while maintaining that war and killing are always without moral justification, always sinful, embraced violence in the name of liberation. Rev. Michael Lapsley in South Africa and Rev. Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua took the same step from pacifist to freedom fighter.

    Lightsey wonders how I might have described the Haitian Revolution. The truth is I would not presume to do so because I know very little about it; and it would be still more presumptuous of me to attempt to do so when in conversation with a distinguished scholar of that history, like herself. My corresponding wonder concerns her wondering about me. She goes on to explain that her wondering about me is rooted in a “healthy suspicion” aroused by my “seductive reflections on love and war in Greek literature.” With due respect, others have found my reflections scholarly not seductive.

    The deeper confusion here and perhaps accounting for her animus in responding to me and my book is that Lightsey may have come to the conclusion that I, by what I say and by what I don’t say, disallow or fail to honor violence in the name of liberation and justice. One suggestion of this comes when she says:

    What is therefore missing in Meagher’s project is an acknowledgment of the profound sense of participation in war in order to procure one’s human rights and to be accepted as a human beings of many black veterans as well as the trickery of the US government in their conscription. Meagher does begin to get at this in the conclusion as he discusses the notion that we have an “all-volunteer army” which is as much a fallacy as just war theory.

    What is “missing” was simply not the core subject of my book. What I have pointed out is that in the Just War Tradition revolutions and wars of liberation were never seen as just, due to the inherent bias of the tradition towards sitting sovereigns and their established regimes, however despotic and oppressive. In rooting up from its roots Just War Theory and Tradition in the West it was clearly my aim to uproot, at the same time, its foundational bias. In the course of the endeavor I addressed the medieval church’s blank check on slaughtering Muslims and other infidels as well as its blessing on the conquest of the Americas and its indigenous peoples. Admittedly I have not addressed in my book the history of the black slave trade, its overthrow, nor the deep residue of prejudice, injustice, and racial violence that endures in America today, and more specifically in our “all-volunteer” professional military. I have many deep personal concerns and commitments that I am not professionally qualified to write about and this is one of them. At the same time, I am grateful for Lightsey’s recognition of my argument for the replacement of the AVF (all-volunteer military force) with a universal public service requirement, including military service. A close reading of my final chapter “Beyond Just War” indeed reveals that Rep. Charles Rangel and I are in accord on this point.

    In conclusion, I want to thank Rev. Dr. Lightsey for her serious and spirited response to me book, even in the face of several areas of contention and confusion that it has brought to light. I endeavored to respond fairly and clearly in the same spirit in which she wrote. I hope and trust that our exchange will be thought-provoking and illuminating to our mutual readers.

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      Pamela Lightsey


      Response to Meagher

      An author’s intention and the meaning that is derived from their words set onto a page are matters philosophers have addressed for centuries. More than ever before in this era of email and social media writings we have seen, the challenge of writing and interpretation. The challenge is, quite frankly more than what one says or does not say, the challenge is also a matter of context and experience—of both author and reader. I received Robert Meagher’s reply to my post of his work with this in mind. Quite frankly, I had these matters in mind as I read and responded to his book.

      When I declare, “all war is sin,” I do so from the experience of being nurtured to believe all killing even in self-defense is sin. It is the precarious position of desiring peace and justice in the face of life-threatening evil that is an ongoing dilemma of just war conversations. Just war theory in all its iterations recognizes the ultimate goal of peace but has little to say about the just behavior of a nation towards those military personnel who are at the “tip of the sword,” and who will return to our communities struggling with the impact of what they were required to do, over and against how they—from their infancy—were nurtured to behave.

      That said, Meagher is right that we reach nearly the same conclusion: “Just war be damned.” Why I reached this conclusion is a wholly different matter and larger to do with context. I view war from my context as the progeny of Black people who were used as canon fodder in far too many wars across our world only to be discriminated against by the very countries that benefited from their service. It is because of racism and brutal behavior of racists against Black people that the idea of Black people rising up—as they sometimes have—in revolutions/wars of self-defense that I take issue with Augustine. Meagher and I agree on this point. The lived conditions of Black people has rarely been taken with deep concern by the politicians who look to us as potential members of the American military machine even as they declare the justice of their war politics. Why should we believe this talk of “just war” when disruption of perceived peace must be our tool for justice in our communities? What of the historical account of war for the many Black military personnel (such as the Senegalese who fought for France) who have helped shape the wellbeing of nations across the world?

      Yes, I am aware that the conditions and historical account of Black revolutions/war is not the central focus of Meagher’s book. It is, nonetheless, the context that is ever on my mind as I read the vast numbers of historical accounts and ethical discussion regarding just war theory. As reader, he incorrectly interprets what I thought of his motivations for chapter 2 and his analysis of Greek literature with special emphasis on violence and eroticism. Though his writing did bring to my mind the horrors of slavery—its violence being the chief reason for slave revolts – it was certainly not my intention to insinuate any justification on his part for how women were treated in ancient Greece or later eras. That is a level of callous disregard that I have yet to reach. I am, however, thankful that he took note of the imagery his “historical account” conjured.

      Finally, it seems to me that Meagher and I may find opportunity to write at some future time about our agreement on Rep. Rangel’s National Universal Service Act. Only when our nation must decide whether to enter war with the possibility that the commitment to military service will impact men and women of all socio-economic levels with no exclusions for college will we really get at the ultimate premise of Meagher’s book.

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      Robert Meagher


      The Cost of War

      I deeply appreciate Dr. Lightsey’s acute and gracious response to our earlier exchange. I find myself in full accord with what she has written here. We as a nation have barely begun to consider, much less address, the price that our men and women in military service pay for their advancement of our wars. Heralding America’s wars as inevitably just, revering every casualty as a sacrifice on the altar of freedom, calling every veteran a hero, pinning posthumous medals on the dead, shaking hands and thanking the survivors for their service­—all so much denial and avoidance. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the first in U.S. history to be fought on the sidelines of national consciousness or concern, fought by “others” who we like to imagine chose to enlist, much the same as their peers chose to enroll in a college. Democracy at its best! Our multi-layered blindness to the staggering human cost of war and to those who pay it is without excuse. Dr. Lightsey, as the mother of a veteran, knows better. We as a nation need to know better. We can start by listening to our veterans and their families until we understand, and by not counting the cost in caring for them. Looking to the future, I welcome Dr. Lightsey’s urging that we and others support the introduction of universal national service.

      Robert Meagher