The Christian Soldier

This article is reprinted, with permission, from the December 1982 issue of  Sea Power, the official publication of the Navy League of the United States.

Throughout human history, churches of all denominations have taught that war, and participation in war, can be justified under certain circumstances. In the presence of such circumstance’s — and defense against external aggression is certainly high on the list — a nation may legitimately engage in what philosophers and theologians have come to refer to as a “just war.”

It also has been accepted that, faced with an obvious and overt threat of military aggression, a nation has the right — and its leaders have the concomitant moral obligation — to maintain its own military strength at the level necessary to deter war. In such circumstances, the possession of military strength per se, provided always that that strength is not itself used for aggressive purposes, is not inherently evil but is, rather, a positive good.

I do not think it necessary to elaborate further on the “just war” philosophy itself, but I do think it might be useful, at a time when the moral aspects of war, preparedness, and deterrence are prominent on the national agenda, to share with my fellow citizens some of what a Christian military leader considers as he approaches God and obligations to his country — and, as a moral man, tries to apply in his everyday life the doctrine of what is just and proper.

Those who read these words well know that, as difficult as the study of ethics may be, it is far easier to study ethics than to apply them. So, too, it is easier to read about a microchip than to manufacture one. It is easier to read about aviation than it is to fly a plane. And, on the most human level, it is easier to dream of a loving relationship than it is to make a marriage work. All of these varying human endeavors have, if nothing else, at least two elements in common: All require that we have a useful and practical set of principles to guide us and that we apply those principles to the particular case at hand.

But it is precisely that component of the overall equation, the application of principles, that so often makes decisions difficult.

Let me begin with a fundamental statement which, I hope and sincerely believe, applies to me as Chief of Naval Operations and to all of my colleagues and associates, in uniform and out, entrusted with the day-to-day management of our nation’s naval and military forces: I am a moral man. I am constantly making choices, every day of my life — choices between good and evil. Sometimes I must, in the constant battery of choices facing me, choose between one “good” and another “good,” or between a “greater good” and a “lesser good,” or even, perhaps, between two apparent evils.

But that is, of course, a part of life. We all do that every day; everyone endowed by the Creator with a soul and a conscience, and that means all of us, is obliged to make such choices.

What separates the moral person from the rest is that the moral person makes those decisions based on his or her conscience.

Let’s consider that statement in a bit more detail. To understand morality we must acknowledge the existence in the world of both good and evil. Often, however, it is difficult to recognize and differentiate the one from the other. To take but one example: I myself happen to see the Navy’s new Trident ballistic missile submarine, USS Ohio, as a relative “good” in the difficult context of today’s superpower world because it deters ideological adventurism and helps guarantee the religious and other freedoms we and our allies now enjoy. USS Ohio’s captain and crew are dedicated, loyal, peace-loving men, all of whom know their true mission is not waging war, but deterring war. They know also that their mission is accomplished if they never have to take their ship into battle and if, as a result of their efforts and the collective efforts of our nation’s other fine young men and women in uniform, future generations of Americans never know, through first-hand experience, the terrors and horrors of war.

There are others, I regret to say, who sincerely and honestly see USS Ohio as an “evil.” They see it as an instrument of destruction quite apart from its deterrent role in our national strategy.

What we have here, of course, is a contemporary and agonizing example of David Berlo’s classic statement that “Meanings are in people.” The stimulus for both points of view is the same. So who is right?

Fundamentally, at the personal level, both points of view are “right,” in the sense of being morally acceptable. This is so because at the personal level meanings are subjective — as individuals we “own” the meanings and, rightly or wrongly, endow them with our own individual values, useful or dysfunctional, for better or for worse.

Fortunately, there is help when we begin, on a less subjective level, to move outside ourselves into a social context. Because we know that people do not always agree on what is good and what is evil, we make laws to govern our individual and collective behavior.

Those laws, however, and the legal ethics on which they are based, are also, unfortunately, less than perfect in their formulation and subject to a virtual infinity of interpretations. A person may be legally guilty, for example, of “breaking the law,” but morally may be, at the same time, either “guilty” or “innocent.” Driving a car at 65 or 70 mph is a clear violation of the law mandating a 55 mph speed limit nationwide. I am morally wrong if I am driving at that speed simply for the thrill of it, or if I have a heavy foot on the pedal because I am intoxicated. But I may be morally innocent if I am driving at that speed — as carefully as possible, and without endangering others — to the closest hospital because a member of my family, in the seat next to me, has just had an apparent heart attack.

Legal ethics and moral ethics, it is clear, are not necessarily always the same. They are often, in fact, very different, depending on the particular circumstances of specific cases. So, while we are all called upon to obey the law, I as a moral person must, in order to do so, be well grounded fundamentally in the ethics of morality.

As Chief of Naval Operations, as a human being, but most of all as a moral man, I put myself humbly before God. Then, having done so, I simply do the best I can with the choices at hand.

But, one might reasonably object, there is no code for morality which is as clear in its meaning and application as the very detailed body of civil and criminal laws which govern our society. So, the question arises, where do we turn for answers? My answer is that we make choices with the best guidance at hand, the guidance of our faith and our religious beliefs. I as a moral man must constantly ask myself: What do I believe about the meaning of life? What values do I hold? What in life is most important to me? What have I been taught in school, at home and in church, and by my peers?

Ultimately, however, I fully realize, the choices I make are mine alone, and I must arrive alone at whatever decisions I make. I must, in short, live with the consequences of my choices and not be afraid of them.

It is at that point that I, as Chief of Naval Operations, as a human being, but most of all as a moral man, put myself humbly before God. Then, having done so, I simply do the best I can with the choices at hand.

So far we have looked more or less abstractly at the everyday example of a moral person operating as best he can in a world containing both good and evil. Let’s now look somewhat more closely at today’s world environment which encompasses those choices of good and evil.

It is in that environment that I live, work, and deal with the reality of a threat which would deprive either us or others of peace and freedom. That goes with the territory. Pope John XXIII wrote of that same world environment: “We must remember that, of its very nature, civil authority exists … to protect, above all else, the common good of that particular civil society, which certainly cannot be divorced from the common good of the entire human family.”

It would be unrealistic for me to believe that all people believe as I do, value the same things I do, or share my faith. I happen to be a Roman Catholic Christian but am under no illusion that my beliefs, values, and faith are universally shared. There are other ways of looking at the world, other realities, other competing ways of life. I would like to believe that all of us — individually as human beings and collectively as nations — want to coexist in peaceful cooperation, but my wanting to believe this does not and will not make it so. To act in accordance with my personal desires would be, in this case, extremely unrealistic and, I sincerely believe, immoral. If I am to be a guardian of the common good, a position which imposes on me some very serious moral obligations, I must deal with reality as I know it.

What does the moral person do when confronted with a threat to the common good, especially when he or she is in a position of trust and has the responsibility to preserve that common good? The answer is that those choices must be made which, in his or her view, are in the best interest of the common good. For our nation, we have, in accordance with that belief, chosen deterrence over war. We have chosen military strength over military weakness. We have made that latter choice not for the sake of military strength per se — which may be either good or evil, depending on the uses to which it is put — but for the sake of deterring war, a goal which I hope and believe all moral people would agree is a positive good.

The church I grew up in and whose tenets I believe in does not require pacifism. Like other moral persons of many other faiths, religions, and personal credos — but all sharing and subscribing to the same moral philosophy, the same code of ethics, the same ideas of what is “good” and what is “evil” — I hope, pray, and work for a peaceful world.

But — it is worth repeating — that world is not the world we live in today. It is for that reason that we cannot, as moral human beings, ask the lamb to lie down with the lion. And we cannot beat our swords into plowshares when others are doing precisely the opposite.

To act otherwise would not serve the common good. It would be a rejection of wisdom and, in my own case, an abdication of my responsibilities as a civil leader. Pope Paul VI, speaking to the United Nations in 1965, acknowledged: “As long as man remains that weak, changeable, and even wicked being he often shows himself to be, defensive armaments will, alas, be necessary.”

It still must be conceded that, when considering the threat and the common good, and the relation of each to the other, decisions do not come easily. There are so many questions to consider, and so many sides of those questions. It is too simple to say “either this or that.” Few if any of the answers are that clear. The questions arise, usually, from that vast gray area somewhere in the middle. Consequently, the answers are usually found there also.

I wish the making of these decisions were easier and the answers were more clear. But it isn’t, and they aren’t. For that reason, I have gathered around me the best minds available. We get, or try to get, the best research, the best intelligence, the best possible planning.

We also get some prayer.

It may surprise some people to learn that there is a senior officer prayer group in the Pentagon. It did not surprise me when I first learned of it, however, because I have for many years worked with the people who belong to it. These people also have to wrestle with the threat facing our country and must recommend proper responses to meet that threat. Our fellow Americans in all walks of life should know that we take our responsibilities in this area very seriously.

The Vatican II Council observed: “All those who enter the military service in loyalty to their country should look upon themselves as custodians of the security and freedom of their fellow countrymen. . . . When they carry out their duty properly, they are contributing to the maintenance of peace.”

That Vatican II statement leads me to my final point. The responsibility of the Chief of Naval Operations is awesome. Few have greater or more difficult responsibility. As a God-fearing man, I find that responsibility very humbling indeed. And I think about it every day.

I think also about the half-million fine young active-duty men and women who wear the Navy uniform in the service of our country. I think about their families and loved ones and the many other people who are touched by their lives. I think about our Reservists, the people who, for the common good, selflessly give so much of themselves and their personal time. I think about the safety of our ships and aircraft — for their safety is tied directly to that of our sailors and airmen. I think about our arsenal of weapons. And I think about what the world would be like if we did not have those weapons — to deter war and to preserve the peace and freedom we now enjoy.

Those weapons, terrible and terrifying as they might be if used for the wrong purposes, do exist — just as, and because, the threat exists. That is the reality with which I must deal. It is my responsibility to deal with it, in a world in which good and evil also both exist — a world where my options are anything but clear. I may not always be happy about or comfortable with the usually limited options available to me. But I do have the responsibility for choosing between those options, and I must make those choices as a moral man.

All of us as human beings face similar decisions in our personal lives. That is part of living. God has given each of us intelligence and has entrusted a particular part of His world to our care. The questions facing all of us are much the same: Where will we go for answers to the ethical problems we face? Just as important, what kind of example will we set when others around us look for special guidance in sorting out their own ethical problems?

I submit that we already have the answers within ourselves. They are rooted in our religious beliefs and in our consciences. They have been annealed and burnished through the many personal and national crises we have faced, as individuals and as a nation. It is there, within ourselves, that we must look for the answers.

And we must pray.

I do pray, every day — for our nation, for world peace, for the men and women who serve under me — and always for the understanding, courage, and wisdom to do in my job what I must do as a moral man.


  • Admiral James D. Watkins

    James David Watkins (1927 – 2012) was a United States Navy admiral and former Chief of Naval Operations who served as the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the George H. W. Bush administration, also chairing U.S. government commissions on HIV/AIDS and ocean policy.

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