A Commentary (July 1936)
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380 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 15 (July 1936) 663-68 There would seem to be no subject today on which more words can more easily be expended to less purpose, than that of the ethics of War and Peace. Waves of discussion rise and fall in the correspondence columns. Neither the musterings of Canon Sheppard, nor the downright knotcutting of the Bishop of Durham, nor Mr. Aldous Huxley’s quotations of Lactantius and Tertullian, get us any forwarder.1 With all respect to Bishop Southwell, we cannot feel sure that the XXXVIIth Article of Religion is theperfectsalveforChristianconsciences;nordoestheBishopofDurham’s development of this theme lead us to anything but confusion.2 The latter Bishop points out, what nobody can dispute if the terms here combined have any meaning, that in a just war Christians may engage. Then he adds: “Every man must decide for himself whether a war is, or is not, ‘just,’ and, of course, he must follow his conscience at all hazards.” Unfortunately, very few people are ever in a position to be possessed of adequate knowledge to be able to decide whether a particular war is “just.” A man may even conscientiously decide, as a private individual, that it is his duty at a moment of crisis to participate in an “unjust” war. A war may become unjust after it has started, or it may appear unjust in retrospect in the light of an unjust peace. The Bishop seems to have a pretty good idea, for himself, of what a just war is; for he believes that “in the present state of the world, ‘just’ wars are but too likely to break out.” He apparently regrets “the desertion of the Abyssinians” – regrets, it would seem, that an opportunity for a “just” war has been missed; though in the next breath he has only praise for the policy pursued by the Prime Minister and Mr. Eden.3 He comes, I do not quite see how, to this conclusion: “I hold, therefore, that it is the quite evident duty of English Christians to support the Government in whatever efforts and sacrifices that policy may involve.” What does he mean by “efforts and sacrifices”? If this phrase is a euphemism for “war” (with one country or another), then which comes first: the “quite evident duty” to support the Government, or the duty, previously enjoined by the Bishop, of every man to “follow his conscience at all hazards”? And if the Bishop falls back, as he does, on the Latin text of the XXXVIIth Article, are there not two [ 381 A Commentary (july) interpretations of licet (“it is lawful”) possible?4 Surely it is possible for the Latin or even the English to mean, merely that a thing is permissible, without being (as the Bishop seems to take it) obligatory. The former meaning seems, according to dictionaries, to be more primitive and radical. I have found no guidance in the Bishop of Durham’s letter. Nothing, indeed, seems to me less likely of fulfilment than the Bishop’s prediction of an epidemic of just wars. I cannot agree with those who maintain that no war can be just: for a just war seems to me perfectly conceivable . But in practice, if we refuse to consider the causes, and consider a war only at the moment when it breaks out, there is likely to be a good deal of justice on both sides: and if we do consider its causes, we are likely to find a good deal of injustice on both sides. The believer in just war is in danger of inferring, at the moment when war is seen to be inevitable, that that war is necessarily just; on the other hand the person who sees clearly the injustice behind the war may be equally in error in assuming that because the war is unjust, he is justified in refusing to take part in it. And it is almost impossible to say anything about the subject without being misunderstood by one or both parties of simplifiers. (Yet Aeschylus, at least, understood that it may be a man’s duty to commit a crime, and to accomplish his expiation for it.)5 The whole notion of justice is travestied when we draw too sharp a distinction between war and peace. If we gave enough thought and effort to the institution of justice during the condition of “peace,” we might not need to exercise our consciences so violently in anticipation of...