The Ethics of Desert Storm

What Christianity Today said during the U.S.'s first war with Iraq

This editorial originally appeared in the April 8, 1991, issue of Christianity Today.

While our nation's chief warriors studied the writings of Erwin Rommel, the notorious "Desert Fox," to learn how to conduct a war in the sand, our President and his policy advisers were paying attention to another aspect of military history—the Christian church's teaching on the "just war," the limits and conditions established by Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and other important theologians.

The President has used just-war language in addresses (such as his January speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention). And, according to news reports, he carefully examined the just-war criteria with close friends and advisers in discussing plans for responding to the invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Bush has taken a gradualist approach to the ethical question of war ("There are steps or gradations in ethical responses between the clearly right and the obviously wrong."). Others take an absolutist approach ("Never, ever wage war.") Both ways of trying to do what is right have been used by Christians; both have strengths and weaknesses.

Ethical absolutism challenges the believer to develop moral stamina to stand against the crowd. It tends to breed people with stiff backbones, a much-needed characteristic, especially when it focuses on areas in which the Bible has spoken unequivocally. Unfortunately, absolutism does not give people practice in making moral distinctions. Thus, one unintended side effect of absolutist ethics (although certainly not a tragic flaw) is that young people who grow up with strict prohibitions seem to have a difficult time learning how to make their own ethical distinctions. (How many people do you know who were raised ...

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