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Why Do I Fight?

Why do I fight?

Every soldier agonizes over this question at least once before they enlist or deploy; at least, I hope they do. I certainly did.

I heard the drums and marched off to war. I led soldiers in a war zone. I told them to kill and I risked my own men’s lives.

Still, I struggled with violence and still struggle to understand why I fought. To fully understand violence I must fully understand myself. After having posted for a few weeks, I feel the need to put my blog, On Violence, in context.

So, why do I fight?

I joined ROTC for many reasons, none substantial, without confronting the issue of violence. Then, during my MSIII year, I first learned about Just War theory. Put too simply, Just War theorists says some wars are just and others are not. It is an ethical framework that allows nations to defend themselves. Wars should be wars of self defense, only as violent as they need to be—options of last resort. Created by Christian theologians, Just War theory bridged the gap between the peaceful nature of the Bible and the cruel reality of life. As I sat in class learning this theory, I realized that, despite our leadership’s assertion to the contrary, Just War theory didn’t mesh with U.S. foreign policy.

Any logical, unbiased follower of Just War theory would not have allowed the Iraq War. We acted preemptively, incorrectly and without adequate authority. As my class discussed the theory, I stood intellectually alone on this issue. Everyone in the classroom agreed that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a just cause.

Yet, here I sit, having deployed to Afghanistan and prepared to go again; or to Iraq, if needed there. So, why do I fight for a cause that I don’t believe in? When I accepted my commission to become an officer in the US military, I prepared for the fact that I could deploy to Iraq. Though the war was unjust in our initiation, the war would continue whether or not I deployed. Just War theory has a second critical dimension that I could defend: waging a war in accordance with Jus in Bello.

“Jus in Bello” means that during a conflict an army must discriminate among legitimate targets—civilians and combatants—and limit the violence where ever possible. I interpret it like this: a military at war — and ours is no exception — has the potential to do many horrible things. The line between horrible and honorable is leadership: Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers.

An officer leads, develops and exemplifies the moral character of his unit more than any other soldier. The top brass, at any level, can either lead his unit ethically or he can let it slip into moral decay. As an officer, I look back proudly and say that I tried to save more lives than I took. That is why I fought and fight.

thirteen comments

Great post.

Ok- a couple things…peaceful nature of the Bible? More than a few of my favorite Bible stories from childhood would fit in with the most violent movies. But your talking about those books with Jesus in them…minus Revelation. But the important thing- in class I may have agreed with the war, I don’t recall- what is important is that I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. The war will be there, so I will go- we can make a huge difference in our small realms. You were always the brains though…

@Jon- Yes, the bible as a whole has extremely violent parts. The nature of early Christianity and thought was one of extreme pacifism and martyrdom. They were the antithesis of using force.
As for your last point, I think you just phrase it a little differently than I. While I don’t think war is quite so unavoidable, doing what you can at your level to make war more tolerable is what leaders can do.

Buono sera, signores!
You dad just clued me in to your post. I think your commander in chief has a very similar attitude to yours, which of course is much more practical and less idealogical.
Hope all is going well with both of you over there. All news here is about troop withdrawal from the Iraqi cities. Keep your fingers crossed.
Signore Conlon

The problem with Just War Theory is the question of who justifies. The justification WMD for entering Iraq was perhaps weak or the connection to terrorist sects. But what if those justifications led to toppling a dictatorship that was murdering its own people? Perhaps the war led to a new era of freedom in the region. That may make it just. But that depends on who’s making the justifications.

It’s strange that I read this today, because I watched Band of Brothers today. Specifically, the episode “Why We Fight.” Tragic…

@ Mr. Conlon- Thanks for the visit and the comment.

@Matty P- Just War theory is, like you pointed out, inherently variable. It is only as good as the people who execute it. But, as an ethical framework it makes terrific sense and most of our views of right and wrong link up directly with it. As you pointed out though, it can be abused as any system can.

Here’s the next question: do you believe all combatants fight because they believe their cause is just? And if so, how can two opposing forcces be fighting a just war?

Hey Micheal and Eric, great post. We may have had this very conversation in the kitchen before.

I’m not sure if a “just war” necessarily means that one side is wrong and one side is right…maybe there is a case where, in some kind of metaphysical sense, a just war just has to be fought. Not sure any side thinks they are wrong going in, that usually takes hindsight.

Wish more people in the service thought about this as much as you…

MattyP and Zane Hall- I feel you both touched on the same topic. In war, both sides fight for causes they believe are just. The problem, as you both say, is figuring out when the causes are just and when they are unjust disguised in rhetoric and propaganda.

Now could a war be fought where each side is just? Both sides usually have legitimate grievances, but it takes quite a bit to make a war just. If the bar is set low, then just wars would be frequent, and I don’t think they are. The most important point is that war should be avoided, and the best technique is diplomacy. Diplomacy ensures that minor grievances don’t become just causes.

“Diplomacy ensures that minor grievances don’t become just causes.”

Well said.

I joined the Infantry many years ago to be tough. To do hard and difficult things. To challenge myself. To live an adventure. In other words, to be a man.

I imagine I’d do much the same no matter if I were born in South Africa or the Soviet Union. If I were born a Hutu, an Aborigine or a Pashtun. It was never about some vague moral cause or crusade, rather, it was highly personal.

As well, I can say with great assurance that the guys I carried a ruck alongside for so many endless miles felt much the same. To each his own though. If you feel the need to justify your actions, so be it. I never did.


Thank you for sharing your perspective. It is a bold thing to take aim and fire on the question of “why?” If I understand correctly, the reason you fight is because you consider moral character to be a top priority, and you would rather develop your men in this way as an example, than witness a moral deterioration on the battle field which will claim more lives than is necessary. My question is not directed at the question of why, rather “who?”

Who leads YOU into morality, that you might reflect him or her to your men? Assuming these character traits are learned and not created on the spot, are there any moral leaders who have made an impact on your life? Would you be willing to share?