War! Huh! What Is It Good For?

Image result for war what is it good for

War and the teaching of history go together.  It would be difficult to be a pacifist and teach history and impossible to teach the subject without covering the wars.  There are two extremes:  One is a militaristic, nationalism that exults in war and glorifies heroes.  The other is a total opposition to all wars and absolute insistence against any use of military force.

Those are, as I said, the extremes.  Between those two poles are many other points on the line.  Most people have an adversion to war in general, but a sense of support and pride for the wars and history of their own country.  There are a few cases in American history where our country engaged in wars that, in retrospect, seem totally unnecessary.  The War of 1812 is questionable, and were it not for the late battle of New Orleans, it would have to be considered a defeat.  The Mexican-American War was a resounding success, but the causes and conduct and settlement are not at all things to take pride in.  The Spanish-American War was completely unnecessary.  Vietnam was a series of blunders.

Yet it is difficult for Americans to oppose–from a historical perspective–the American War for Independence.  A case can be made, and even at the time, as many as one third of American colonials sided with the Mother Country.  It is pretty much a given that the Civil War/War Between the States was the irrepressible conflict and was necessary.  Some think it was necessary to oppose such things as slavery or secession, while others think it was necessary to support states’ rights.  Most Americans feel pretty comfortable–again in retrospect–over our engagement in World War I and World War II.  The reasons for entering the Great War of 1914-1918 are not so clear, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the later revelations of the extent of Nazi atrocities certain makes a strong case for U. S. entrance into World War II.

Sometimes, World War II, in spite of Ben Franklin’s saying, is called the Good War.  The crushing defeat of Naziism in Germany, the overthrow of Fascism in Italy, and the destruction of Imperial Japan were all positive things.  But the same war that crushed certain totalitarians paved the way for Soviet Communism to survive and spread throughout the world in both Europe and Asia.  Even the good guys, the Allied forces of the United States and the United Kingdom, had their less than stellar moments.  Wholesale bombings of civilians are hard to justify either morally or as a contributing factor to shortening the war.  (I don’t wish to imply that the Hiroshima bombing was unnecessary or impossible to justify, but it is up for debate.)

History teachers must not be like the overly militaristic and nationalistic teacher in All Quiet on the Western Front who is named Kantorek.  He praised the war that the Fatherland (Germany) had entered and encouraged his students to go fight.  History teachers need to raise questions.  Students may and should come away with different views on the justness of particular wars.  Jingoism, not a common word, refers to extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy.  It is unbecoming of a history teacher and theologically wrong for a Christian.

Image result for all quiet on the western front

There are lots of powerful books, songs, and movements that have been anti-war.  As referenced above, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic work, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a powerful novel.  One could wish that it had been able to stem the movement that led to World War II.  It was written by a German, but could have just as easily been written by a Frenchman, an Englishman, or a Russian.  Reading it should have convinced the younger generation and what remained of the World War I generation to never lift up arms in battle again.  But, after a 20 year rest period–enough time to grow another young batch of boys–World War II started.

Image result for young men entering world war II

Efforts to stop, limit, prevent, or soften war have been futile.  The Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war, but failed.  So did the League of Nations and the United Nations.  The case can be made that the greatest preventative measure to war is military preparedness, but that also opens up lots of debate.

As a Christian and a history teacher, I am obligated to confront the topic of wars in history.  I believe that my book Punic Wars and Culture Wars happens to mention a bit about war.  I admit to having a love/hate relationship with war, the military, military history, and conflict in general.  Having just finished Gone With the Wind, I found it much more pleasing than the books of Jane Austen (who is admittedly a better novelist) because of the Civil War and Reconstruction history in the book.

But every war from the past is stands before the judgment seat of history and ultimately before the judgment seat of God.  Every war is a sign of spiritual failure and sinful human nature.  Every war both highlights some incredible human actions (bravery, sacrifice, and even mercy) and some horrible human characteristics.

Image result for a unique time for God

A few weeks ago, I read A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, translated and edited by William Klempa and published by Westminster John Knox Press.  This is an outstanding book on several fronts.  In twentieth century Protestant theology, Karl Barth is one of the most influential and powerful figures.  Two of my theological/apologetic heroes–Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark–wrote serious critiques of Barth, warning Protestants of his theology.  Others took different positions regarding Barth.

At the outset, I am an admirer of and slight reader of Karl Barth.  I could not teach, debate, defend, or attack his theology.  I am wary, but appreciative of the man as a theologian.  This book of sermons is the first complete work of Barth that I have read.

Often, I am irritated, distracted, lost, or bogged down by long introductions in books.  To my mind, an introduction should “introduce,” not present a lengthy thesis.  But the introduction to this book, written by Dr. Klempa, is really informative in explaining Barth, World War I, and the theology of the time.  As a history teacher, I loved it.  As one who dabbles in theology, I profited from it.  As one who struggles to sort out German theological trends, I profited greatly by it.  It makes up about one fourth of the book, but it greatly adds to the book and gives lots of context for the sermons that follow.

From July 26 to November 1, 1914, Karl Barth preached fourteen sermons relating to the outbreak of World War I.  The first sermon shortly preceded the beginning of the war.  While many thought the war would be a short one, Barth’s November sermon was given as the war was settling in for its first of four winters.  Barth was living and preaching in Switzerland at the time.  Switzerland was neutral during the war, but the Swiss were, as usual, prepared for any eventuality.  Neutrality had not saved Belgium from a German invasion, and it was likely that the combination of Swiss preparedness and mountain landscape prevented Switzerland from being caught in the crossfire.

Barth’s congregation would have been very aware, fearful, and even partisan about the war as it began.  Barth saw the events as eine Gotteszeit, wie nur je eine, which means, “a unique time of God.”  He saw the war as a judgment of God, but also believed that grace would trump judgment. He was determined to use the pulpit to deal with the most relevant political issue of the time, but do so from the standpoint of a preacher in the pulpit.

Much of Barth’s motivation and angst came from seeing German theologians (some who had been his teachers) not only accept the war, but they sign petitions supporting the Kaiser (Germany’s ruler) and his war aims.  Mobilization of troops, the invasion of neutral Belgium, and the quest for domination of other European powers were all accepted and cheered on by many German Christians.

Like many sermons, Barth’s preaching varied.  Some of the sermons are great, while others were tiring.  Even some of his congregation complained (!) about his continual preaching on the war.  In some cases, he aptly applied Christian and biblical principles to the context, but at times, he was giving more political than theological commentary.  That faces every preacher when he attempts to bring relevance and current events to theological and pulpit matters.  In his book, Between Two Worlds, John Stott recommended that the preacher have one foot planted in the Word and planted in the world.

This book was instructive to me, as stated above, as a history teacher and as one who preaches.  It reminds me that often I am preaching a true message to willing hearers with no ability to impact the greater culture or change the direction of history. But preachers and history teachers have an obligation to point hearers to the truth.  For the preacher, the pointing is to the Word of God, which we try to faithfully expound and apply.  For the history teacher, the truth is not a particular opinion on World War I or some other topic, but it is a pursuit, a willingness to learn, re-learn and be corrected.  This book is an outstanding contribution to both processes.

Brief Notes on Books regarding War

War, Christianity, and the State and Other Essays Against the Warfare State was written by Laurence M. Vance and is published by Vance Publications.  This is the second and somewhat lengthier edition of this work.  Dr. Vance is a serious student of this and other Biblical topics.  He has very strong objections to America’s use, justification, and abuse of military power.  I think it would be fair to put him in the libertarian anti-war tradition.

I read from this book with a perspective that is almost totally different.  There is certainly a place for the rebuttal, answer, and critique of this book.  For me, that is not my particular interest.  I think that reading in order to simply reinforce your own views is dangerous.  It is also dangerous to read anything different with only an eye toward objecting, fault-finding, and overturning.  Maybe I am too generous and easy going. Or maybe I am trying to overcome years of being far too contentious.

The case can be made against many of America’s military ventures past and present.  That makes this book worthwhile.

Related image


I accidentally stumbled upon the book The Imperial Cruise: A Story of Empire and War by James Bradley.  He is most famous for his books Flyboys and Flags of Our Fathers.  I found this book at Once Upon a Time Books in Tontitown, Arkansas.  It was not in the history section, and that is why I call finding it accidental.

This is a very informative, but disturbing account of American foreign policy toward Asia during the very late 19th and early 20th century.  It is also very critical of American and British attitudes toward other non-Teutonic races.  Many men I admire, such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, don’t come out of this book looking very good.  That kind of pain is, again, necessary for the history teacher.  Great men were great sinners.  Our foreign policy blunders and racial attitudes of the past were terrible.  There is no golden age, apart from what God will usher in.

Image result for The Twentieth Century: A People's History

Now, I can see the friends and followers abandoning me.  I recently picked up a cheap, used copy of The Twentieth Century by Howard Zinn.  It is a excerpt and expansion of his well known, admired and denounced, People’s History of the United States.  I am reading it for the perspective.  As Paul Johnson said (or should I say, “as the great Paul Johnson said”?), Zinn is to be appreciated because he does not hide the fact that he has a viewpoint and writes with a definite opinion and objective in mind.

Don’t give up on me, readers, I will soon be back to reading Victor Davis Hansen, Thomas Fleming, John Keegan, and other less troublesome historians.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s