I have had to face the issue of war and warfare at various times in my life, particularly during my youth. My experience with the military spanned a period of over ten years, on and off, and included an initial stint as a combatant followed by a slow and arduous journey to finally reaching the point where I became a conscientious objector.

It began when I was just seventeen, fresh out of high school, and was forced to join the South African Infantry as a conscript. This was not an extraordinary event in itself since all white South African males were drafted during those apartheid days. My timing was however somewhat unfortunate since it happened to be the year in which South Africa invaded Angola in a covert operation called Operation Savanna.

The reason why I mention this is because I learnt a number of important lessons during this experience, one of which makes a significant point that I would like to raise. Similar in a way to Wilfred Owen’s realization, expressed so poignantly in his poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, that the idea of it being “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country was a lie, I came to realize that it was a lie to believe in the concept of honorable warfare.

The idea of fighting with honor is the belief that it is possible to engage in battle while still acting in a dignified way. This is a lie, or at best, a naivety.  I think it is often used by governments and generals to rally support when trying to convince its people, or in my case its soldiers, that a proposed war is somehow honorable because the objective is good. At other times it is naivety. When the United States entered the Second World War in Europe it had a strict policy of only bombing military installations or key industrial sites, but this didn’t last. When it finally got to the point where Germany needed to be forced to surrender the indiscriminate bombing of whole cities was undertaken.

I’m not even sure that a similar policy existed for the United States’ Pacific front against the Japanese, but certainly it ended with the most extreme case of indiscriminate bombing when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed. Part of the trouble, and the reality, is that once you are faced with a determined and aggressive foe you very quickly deteriorate into fighting with an intensity that is greater than what you are confronting. After all, this is a battle to be won, and you win by overpowering the opponent.

Ultimately, the end justifies the means, and sadly, no matter who you are or what your good intentions might have been, things like the Geneva Convention are soon forgotten or blatantly ignored when you are in battle. From the national perspective generals are driven by the single desire to win. From a combatant’s perspective it is often simply about survival. Once you are in combat you are running on adrenalin and you are being driven by the instinct to protect yourself. This desire to survive will cause you to do almost anything, and at times actually anything, to not be killed yourself. The only other alternatives, and some do choose them, are to hide or else to die.

We often refer to our surviving World War II veterans as heroes, and rightly so, but if you look deep within their eyes, or if you are able to convince them to talk about their war experiences, you will see or hear a story of brutality and mayhem, especially from those who saw active duty. Most combatants would agree that the only good that comes from war is the decision never to have another one.

The point is that fighting in a battle dehumanizes you. There is no way that most people, under normal circumstances, would take up a weapon and feel ‘okay’ about using it to kill another person. I remember the first time I was given a rifle in the army and realizing that I had now been given a license to kill people. It was a very strange feeling. The whole concept felt so foreign to me at the time, but sadly enough having a rifle constantly on hand became a positive and reassuring feeling when I was in Angola. By the time I finished my initial year of military service I was not someone that I am now proud of. Warfare is never a dignified experience – it is an obscene one, and the consequences of forcing people to be combatants in it should not be taken lightly.

Far more serious than this, however, is the obvious loss of life that occurs during warfare. Battle is like a huge game in which a multitude of people on either side are killed in the process of determining an ultimate winner; some these victims of war are killed accidently or as a side-effect whilst the majority of them are killed with intent.

Terminating a human life is not a trivial affair. Whether you have a faith based view of life or a secular one, the right to life is a fundamental concept understood by most people, and while one can argue about self-defense when engaged in actual battle, one has to consider the fact that there will be lives lost if a war in undertaken. When you are on the battlefield it is somewhat too late to be thinking about the sacredness or value of life; it’s then often a matter of kill or else be killed. That is why the time to reflect on this is before war is declared or before one chooses to participate in one. The taking of a human life deprives the world of that person’s unique contribution. It also leads to immense emotional pain and scaring for the people who were associated with that person.

Of course, as bad as warfare is for all concerned, the question still remains as to whether war is sometimes necessary, especially in the case of the defense of innocent people against an aggressor. Fortunately thousands of years of brutal human conflicts have led us to a reasonably universal set of principles that can be used to determine if a war can be deemed just, and how to participate within a such a war. This set of principles is known as the Just War Theory and is a central part of the Charter of the United Nations and the Geneva Convention as well as numerous other judicial systems and conventions that have been set up to deal with international conflicts.

My South African military ‘obligations’ as a draftee extended for a period of 13 years in all, one year initially followed by 12 more months spread over the next 12 years. However as I grew and developed in my understanding of life, and especially in my faith, I came to realize that my resistance to these annual military call-ups was not just a reaction to my disturbing experiences in Angola, but that there was something fundamentally unjust about the apartheid system. Perhaps that seems obvious now but as a white South African citizen of that era I had been conditioned into believing that South Africa was engaged in a morally correct battle against the evil Communists who wanted to take over our land. It was only when I arrived at the point where I could evaluate the situation from a just war perspective that I could face up to the reality that apartheid was simply a system set up to protect white privilege, and therefore refuse to serve any more in its military.

In essence a just war can only be fought in self-defense or as an intervention to defend another country or group of people who are under attack. In either case the aggressor being confronted must themselves have no just cause for their actions. Basically you need a clear definition of who is right and who is wrong. There are times when it is perhaps possible to make such a clear distinction, but unfortunately life is not always so simple. For instance there are still numerous disputed territories and borders that are an ongoing problem for some neighboring nations. Also there are various ethnic groups that feel trapped within the borders of a country to which they have no affinity. These are not easy problems to solve when trying to determine whose view is correct, and, for example, regarding borders and territories, how far back in history can one validly go to justify a claim by a country or an ethnic group?

A just war should also have a high probability of success or else the resultant destruction and carnage would go on indefinitely. This happened in Angola where Jonas Savimbi simply refused to give up or negotiate a compromise. As a result almost the whole country was driven into a state of ruin with thousands upon thousands of people left dead or severely crippled, and much of the land and roads riddled with anti-personal mines.

In South Africa we were very fortunate that the Afrikaner Government under F. W. de Klerk, who ultimately shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, finally faced reality and created a situation in which a peaceful resolution could be achieved - full scale civil war was narrowly avoided. However, unless leaders are prepared to compromise, to make a deal and then to live with it, and at the same time inspire their people to do the same, then war can go on for a long, long time. I remember seeing some graffiti in Israel that said something similar to the following – Fighting for peace is like ‘having sexual intercourse’ for virginity. You have probably grasped the original text as well as, more importantly, the underlying message.

As good a guide as the Just War Theory is, trying to analyze a war to determine if it is just or not is made complicated by the complex web of influence and interaction that goes on within modern commerce and politics. For instance multinational companies with business operations across the globe often have vested interest in countries where the government is, or has now become, an aggressive one. Due to their powerful positions and their lobbying powers they can often apply political pressure and sway decisions relating to war. The same can be said of large companies involved in the manufacture of weapons. For them war is undeniably good business, and like most companies, their aim is to drum up business. Worse still, many powerful politicians have direct connections with these types of companies.

It is also true that international politics is made extremely complex by the many other factors that play an intrinsic part of the modern world. International trade, historic conflicts, the drive for economic growth, raw nationalism, aggressive religion, and global interdependence all mean that relationships between countries cannot always be well-defined. Consequently, when a conflict arises, trying to determine who is innocent and who is guilty is not an easy matter.    

The resultant conclusion is that it is actually very difficult to clearly classify a war as being just. Even in the case of aggression by a despot ruler where an unjust antagonist is somewhat obvious, the Just War Theory dictates that every non-violent means possible has to first be exhausted. How can the average citizen of a country about to enter a war really know for certain that this has been done especially since there is no prescript set of steps that are recognized as the list of ‘every non-violent means possible’?  And when are the atrocities being committed so rampant and vicious that the ‘all other means’ process can be short-circuited? These are hard decisions with no easy solutions.

To make matters worse, a just war can only be undertaken or sanctioned by a legitimate authority. Even though we do have the United Nations to fulfill this role, rivalry between nations can often compromise or even corrupt the U.N. Council’s decision making process.

There is only one answer to the problem of war - and that is to attempt to prevent wars from occurring in the first place. While this may appear overly simplistic and perhaps impossible to achieve it is the only really worthy and morally sound approach to take on this matter.

To attempt to achieve this goal one needs to look at the cause of war as well as the elements that assist the implementation of war, and then try to address these. In essence there are two main categories with respect to the cause of war - either there is an injustice occurring, or else some aggressive leadership desires conflict for reasons of their own. Sometimes it is a muddled combination of the two.

No matter the cause, I can think of no better approach to solving many of the world’s conflicts than Pope Paul VI words in his 1972 Day of Peace celebration message – ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’ Not only are people who are suffering injustice more likely to rise up in frustration and instigate violence, they are also the most likely people to become caught up in an armed conflict as soldiers. It’s hard to convince a person living a secure and confortable life to take up arms and fight if they know that this will result in them having to risk everything they have including their life. However it is very easy to motivate a person for whom life is desolate and meaningless already, and where death and misery are part of their everyday existence. Much of the violence in Third World countries in particular is fueled by people exactly like this.

The extensive poverty that exists in the world is the source of much of the world’s cannon fodder and war criminals, and if we are serious about preventing wars then we need to work at addressing the basic needs of the world’s poor. Certainly not an easy task, but nonetheless one that is required for peace.

While not all injustice is poverty based; some of it is just plain oppression where one group of people oppresses or controls the freedoms of another, but the solution is the same. The high-level equations are fairly simple – less injustice will lead to more reluctant soldiers, and fewer potential soldiers will lead to a reduction in war. Justice is the foundation of peace.

Finally one has to deal with the concept of the fanatically aggressive leader who, by nature of their position of power or their ability to motivate people, is able to use violence to further their aims. Besides the option already mentioned about depriving people like this of their soldiers through working at resolving injustices, there are other peaceful options that can be deployed such as sanctions, the promotion of democracy, the promotion of human rights (by example), economic pressure, and other international techniques that engage the rouge regime in an attempt to convince it to calm down and compromise.

Ultimately it would appear there will always be the fanatic, who is often not altogether sane, who will want to wage war. Such is the nature of humans. However there are definitely still situations that can be spared warfare. It is really all about how much we care about trying to resolve these situations and how much effort we are prepared to make.

War is no solution – the supposed ‘war to end all wars’ (World War I) never did end all wars. With the growing threat of climate change we are about to enter a new phase of limited resources like basic food and water, or at least a disrupted supply of them. If we are not prepared to get anti-war measures and understandings in place now, then God help us in the days to come.

Peter Queenan