Morality and the Military

Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, Jan./Feb. 2013.

Every Christian should give thoughtful consideration to the tragedy of war and to what it means for individuals and a nation to go to war. In a widely-reported story in August 2012, ten Nobel Peace Laureates, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote and signed a letter to NBC protesting a new reality television program, “Stars Earn Stripes.” The reality program, hosted by retired four-star general Wesley Clark, paired minor celebrities with former U.S. military personnel and put the teams through various training and simulated military exercises including live fire experiences. The Nobel Laureates protested the program, which was widely advertised during the 2012 London Olympics, arguing in part:

Preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining.

Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining. Communities and societies are ripped apart in armed conflict and the aftermath can be as deadly as the war itself as simmering animosities are unleashed in horrific spirals of violence. War, whether relatively short-lived or going on for decades as in too many parts of the world, leaves deep scars that can take generations to overcome, if ever.

Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.1

The letter drew quite a bit of attention across the political and religious spectrums. Some saw it as an indictment of the U.S. military while others saw it as an indictment of the entertainment industry or contemporary U.S culture and society as a whole. Unfortunately, most Americans and television viewers probably did not think anything about it at all.

The Nobel Laureates’ letter and the reality television program illustrate the necessity of properly understanding the function of the military with respect to the state and the role of the individual service member (Christian or non-Christian) in the military and, more broadly, the role of the individual (Christian or non-Christian) with respect to the state. The letter and the program are clear reminders that the seriousness of war must never be underestimated or forgotten, and they should prompt us to consideration of the larger ethical and moral issues of war, peace, and the nature of citizenship.

From a biblical perspective, war came about as a result of the fallen nature of humanity. War is a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is the death of Abel multiplied by millions. In part, it was this realization that caused former Russian Red Army artillery captain Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature) to declare: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart -and through all human hearts .2 War is a fact of human existence, and although the weapons of war become more sophisticated, they do not change the fundamental nature of war for its participants. Regardless of the newest technologies or weapons systems, we must always be aware of the distinction between the changing characteristics of warfare and the enduring nature of war.

Those who uphold the just war tradition, long a part of Christian thought in the West, believe that at times it is both necessary and justifiable to go to war. International law and prohibitions are not enough to cause wars to cease. Thus it was that Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who was wounded as an infantry officer during World War I, wrote: “We have discovered that the scheme of ‘outlawing war’ has made war more like an outlaw without making it less frequent and that to banish the knight does not alleviate the suffering of the peasant.”3

The consequences of experiencing the traumas of war are deep and long-lasting. They have been long-recognized but little understood. Whether one calls it shell shock, battle fatigue, the two-thousand-yard stare, or PTSD, wartime trauma lasts far beyond the warrior’s days, months, or years of combat experience. And the experience of war affects many more people than the combatants.

Because issues of war and peace are literally issues of life and death, the tragedy of war must neither be forgotten nor minimized. Surely conventional wisdom is not far from the mark in reminding us that the horrors of war are the closest approximation there is to hell on earth. War changes lives forever in ways that are otherwise unthinkable; hereon both secular and religious viewpoints are in agreement. As seen from a wider religious and Judeo-Christian perspective, war entails the death and killing of people who are fashioned in the likeness of their creator and who therefore possess inherent dignity and incalculable worth. Yet, the very same worldview affirms that war is sometimes necessary. Few (if any) world-and-life views eschew war in all circumstances, and no faith tradition is monolithic in its dogma and practice regarding war and peace. Christianity is not alone in presenting a spectrum of thought on war and peace, and it is important for Christians to understand what they believe about war and peace—and why they believe it. For those who believe the Bible to be a source of revelation that directly or indirectly speaks to every area of life there needs to be thought and study about war and peace that goes beyond bumper-sticker ideology or theology.

Throughout its history, Christianity has justified, rationalized, restrained, and informed views about war and the conduct of warfare. It has, in various times and by various means, both upheld and departed from biblical standards, and both ecclesiastical and secular leaders have appealed to its teachings for personal and national guidance and support. Contrary to what many think, the dominant perspective of Christianity with respect to war has not been pacifism, but, rather, the just war tradition.4

There are many questions worth asking with respect to Christianity and the military. These questions include:

  • May a Christian legitimately serve in the military?
  • What did the early church teach about military service?
  • What is the role of the individual conscience with respect to issues of war and peace?
  • What is the relationship between peace and justice?
  • What about forgiving our enemies?
  • How are we to understand specific biblical passages with respect to war and peace?
  • Does not the participation of Christians in war mean that Christians will likely kill other Christians?
  • What about killing and guilt?

These are just a few of the many questions that legitimately arise when one considers individual and collective actions and responsibilities in matters of war and peace.

Military service is not a sport or a game or a “wanna be” activity for actors. While the entertainment industry or others might understandably wish to draw on the excitement found in human excellence displayed in military precision, fitness, and coordination, there are also deeper psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects to warfare that are not readily remembered or contemplated. They are part of what World War II veteran J. Glenn Gray termed “the enduring appeals of battle.”5 Gray writes: “The emotional environment of warfare has always been compelling… War as a spectacle, as something to see, ought never to be underestimated.”6 He then identifies this with the biblical phrase from 1 John 2:16, “the lust of the eyes,” that is, he writes, “a phrase at once precise and of the widest connotation.”7 Sometimes pacifists and others across the religious and political spectrums attempt to deny the intensity of adrenalin, sensory experience, and heightened emotion that combatants often report undergoing in battle. It is another very real dimension of the human experience that is not pretty but upon which there needs to be serious thought. From a Christian perspective, such musings would be intertwined inextricably with theological and biblical topics such as evil, sin, the Fall, human nature, and redemption. The costs of war are always high!

There have been extensive debates and lawsuits over the use of and nonuse of television cameras in courtrooms (true reality television). In part these have been to preserve the legal rights of all concerned (plaintiffs, defendants, jurors, media, public). They also have been attempts to protect the dignity and institution of the judicial system. It may well be that similar sentiments should be present when dealing with issues of war, peace, and the military. There have long been questions of journalistic boundaries with respect to military operations—and rightly so, for the sake of all concerned. Like courtroom trials, there are some things in society that should be long studied and debated before making them part of the entertainment options of a society—regardless of how much the society may want them. Not everything is appropriate to reality television. Viewers, participants (and advertisers) should consider the possibility that even well-intentioned actions might trivialize the subject matter and the profession from which the material is drawn—especially when the programs pertain to matters of life and death and regardless of whether they are imitating a battlefield, a courtroom, a sanctuary, or an emergency room.

Most Christians believe that the service of the individual military member is a good and honorable activity when properly performed in accordance with the just war tradition, legal orders, and law. Only when we have an accurate understanding of the nature of war, justice, the state, and the individual, based upon biblical standards and the development of these ideas through the centuries, will we be able to avoid the error of viewing military members (or veterans) as pawns of Hollywood or robots of the state. Christians believe the balance and answer is, in part, found in the Bible.

There was a time when the reality entertainment of the day was truly about life and death and warfare. It was in the arenas of Rome with gladiators, lions, and Christians. Some things are worth thinking about long and hard. Values have consequences.

The views represented in this article are solely the author’s and do not represent those of the Naval War College, Department of Defense, or any other government or federal agency.


1 “An Open Letter to Mr. Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of NBC Entertainment, General Wesley Clark (ret.), Producer Mark Burnett and others involved in ‘Stars Earn Stripes,’” August 13, 2012,… (accessed 27 August 2012).

2 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. Vol. 2. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 615.

3 C. S. Lewis, “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.” Vol. 3, The Oxford History of the English Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 153 ( For more on Lewis and war, see Timothy J. Demy, “ ‘A Dreadful Thing’: C. S. Lewis and the Experience of War,” Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal 5/6 (2011-2012), 103-25.

4 For more on this tradition, see J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

5 J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 25-58. See also, Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010), 7-8.

6 Gray, 28, 29.

7 Gray, 29.

Timothy J. Demy is Professor of Military Ethics at US Naval War College, Newport RI. A retired IFCA Navy chaplain with more than 27 years of service, he held assignments afloat and ashore with the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. He earned the ThM and ThD in historical theology (Dallas Theological Seminary) and PhD in humanities (Salve Regina University). With co-author J. Daryl Charles, he is author of War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (Crossway, 2010).

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Aaron Blumer's picture


For the curious, if Wikipedia's entry can be believed, the Stars for Stripes show did air a few episodes but has been withdrawn from NBC's list of shows w/o any cancellation announcement.

Thomas Sowell has a very interesting analysis of Left and Right intellectual tradition on war in A Conflict of Visions.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Susan R's picture


Considering how many people and topics are now the stars of 'reality television', I wouldn't give much consideration to their treatment of the military or warfare. We are supposedly given the inside scoop on the lives of 'real people' with shows dedicated to the Kardashians, Bobby Brown, Cyndi Lauper, Bristol Palin, Tori Spelling, Bret Michaels, and saints preserve us- Celebrity Rehab, 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, Amish in the City, Hoarders, Cold Turkey, Toddlers in Tiaras, Duck Dynasty and Buck Wild...

I think the problem is that no topic is too private, too important, too perverted, or too precious for reality TV to exploit. They are going to keep throwing shows up against the Hollywood sign to see what sticks what sticks with the public. 

IMO, these are three different topics- a healthy, Christian view of the military, the grossness of reality tv, and the voyeuristic behaviors accepted by society.

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