Posted by: Dan | April 26, 2005

Contra Lewis

In his address entitled “Learning in War Time” C.S. Lewis says this about WWII:

I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous, and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war. And every duty is a religious duty, and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.

Lewis then goes on to liken the duty to go to war to the duty to rescue drowning people if we live on a dangerous coast. In fact, in such a situation, it may even be our duty to lose our own lives in order to save another. Thus, such duties are duties that are worth dying for — but not worth living for. As Lewis says,

A man may have to die for our country but no man must, in the exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claim of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

While I agree with many of Lewis' points about the role of learning in war time, and the things that war reveals to us about day to day life, I most emphatically disagree with Lewis' conclusion that participating in war (any war after Jesus) is a righteous activity.

Lewis' analogy about saving drowning men* is fundamentally flawed because Lewis does not consider seriously enough that war not only calls us to save lives but also calls us to take lives. The duty of a soldier is to kill. Yet such a duty moves from laying down one's life for another and instead lays down another's life for oneself (and one's loved ones). By choosing to kill others I have decided to live for my country instead of die for my country and this is exactly what Lewis speaks against. War is the choice to lay down the lives of other's instead of our own lives — and this is a choice that Christians can never make.

_________

* Yes, Lewis wrote before the application of gender neutral language. Indeed, Lewis was a vocal supporter of male dominance over women. However (to be fair), he did love and treat the women that he knew personally with the utmost dignity, humility, and respect.

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Responses

  1. “Lewis’ analogy about saving drowning men* is fundamentally flawed because Lewis does not consider seriously enough that war not only calls us to save lives but also calls us to take lives. The duty of a soldier is to kill. Yet such a duty moves from laying down one’s life for another and instead lays down another’s life for oneself (and one’s loved ones). By choosing to kill others I have decided to live for my country instead of die for my country and this is exactly what Lewis speaks against. War is the choice to lay down the lives of other’s instead of our own lives — and this is a choice that Christians can never make.”

    This is exactly what I was going to say (pretty close to, at least) when I was reading Lewis’ comments above, but then I didn’t have to, because you did.

    There’s a professor at my alma matter who is a very staunch “Just War Theory” guy, who even goes so far as to stretch the theory to meet such atrocities like the latest Gulf War. One of the many things that irks me about him is that he’s always invoking “the saints”, which includes Lewis, as people who thought war could be just. But the thing is, all too often, as you’ve just pointed out, their reasonings are self-defeating and ultimately, unChristian.

  2. The shadows of soldiers lay near by
    the dead ones finally reach a compromise.
    — Rancid

    Eric,

    As always thanks for the comment. It seems that your support has brought some new faces around here… thanks for the plug. Nothing like invoking the Saints to justify unSaintly behaviour!

  3. Have you read Lewis’ essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist?” He thinks that we can have a duty to protect the innocent from aggression. Are we permitted to lay down the innocent person’s life by not coming to their defense? It’s not clear to me anyway that the teachings of Christ always demand that.

    -Lee
    http://www.verbumipsum.blogspot.com

  4. An excellent rebuttal of Lewis’ arguments can be found in Not Even C. S. Lewis Can Refute Christian Pacifism
    by Maximilian Longley.

    The argument that we either have to fight violently to protect innocents or doing nothing and watch them get killed is the logical fallacy of the false dilema. Pacifists, and Christian ones specifically, do not advocate innaction. Rather, they seek means of protecting the lives of innocents that do not take the lives of aggressors. They seek nonviolent resistance, not passive nonresistance.

    Plus, the WWII example is disingenuous anyways. Was Hitler a monster? Yes, though a monster who was nice to kids and animals. But WWII itself doesn’t qualify under the criteria of Just War, and furthermore, if we examine the Allies, we find ourselves drawn into a moral clusterfuck. The Allies included the British Empire, Stalinist Russia, and the colonially-expanding United States. At the same time WWII was going on, the British were still oppressing India and the United States was hard at work decimating the Hawaiian culture. When all was said and done, Stalin murdered more people than Hitler did. And during it, the Allies did little to stop the Holocaust, which Jewish groups today even call them to account for. Basically, the “noble cause” was simply to protect the interests of certain empires from the interests of other ones.

  5. Thanks for the link; I’ll check it out.

    However, I must point out that not all anti-pacifists are guilty of the false dilemma you mention. All that the anti-pacifist is committed to is that there are at least some cases where the only way to stop an act of aggression is by deploying lethal force. Obviously anyone with sense would prefer non-lethal methods of stopping aggression if they were available.

    And I’m not sure that the things you mention show that resisting Hitlerian aggression was unjustified. Does one have to be morally blameless before one can act to resist aggression? By that standard no one could ever act!

    I do hold, though, that a) the Allies’ policy of unconditional surrender and b) certain policies such as the carpet bombing of Dresden and the nuking of Hiroshima & Nagasaki were violations of the strictures of just war.

    -Lee
    http://www.verbumipsum.blogspot.com

  6. However, the False Dilema is frequent and was one that you yourself offered, which I responded to. I sometimes question exactly how dedicated some who allow for violence are to the first choice of non-violent conflict resolution. Not all, but certainly some.

    In terms of moral blamelessness, it is not so much that as honesty. Let’s be honest about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. WWII was not a Just War to svae Jews or any such nonsense. WWII was the clash of empire against empire, concerned only with the political and territorial ambitions of each. The aggression of Hitler that sparked the war was not against humanity, but against the European power status quo.

    So first, I simply want that admitted. And in any case of war or violence, I want the ruthless rooting out of our politically correct self-delusions about what we’re doing. Let’s admit that WWII was simply about power and territory, lets admit that the job of a solider is to take another person’s life rather than sacrifice his or her own… Lets do away with, as Coleridge calls them, all our “dainty terms for fratricide”.

    Back when US aggression under Bush II was starting in Iraq, there was much discussion in various circles about the unprecedented media coverage and how much we should allow to be seen and have children see. The only sensible answer I heard was that we should allow everything to be seen, so that we and our children can see exactly what sort of people we are, what war is really about, and what the security and privilege of our society is based on.

    This sort of fearless honesty is, of course, a spiritual process. It is by fearless honesty with oneself, getting rid of our comfortable excuses and illusions, that we are receptive to development. The same will hold true of a society. I don’t think we can change until we have seen the face of “collateral damage” and understood the costs of our “courage” and “sacrifice”.

  7. That article of mine which you cite reflects views which I have since rejected. I have come to realize that pacifism is wrong, and that the Just War doctrine best states the Christian position on the subject. Therefore, I’ve updated my article by inserting some “rebuttals of myself.”

    Maximilian Longley


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