For God, King and Country

For God, King and Country

Mini Teaser: Over the centuries, the causes and justifications for war have evolved. But we remain caught in a Westphalian mindset, even though the nature of today’s substate threats demands an altogether-different mentality and a new breed of soldier—or at le

by Author(s): Michael Howard

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Battling Bill (who slew him) thought it right.

-Hilaire Belloc


HILAIRE BELLOC penned this sardonic couplet in those halcyon days before 1914 when, in Europe and North America, "the Peace Movement" was reaching its height. The rest of the twentieth century, with its unprecedented bloodshed and catastrophic results, might seem to justify the views of Ebenezer. Is the world any better, we may ask, as a result of all those wars? Should people not have listened to him rather than to Battling Bill and, like him, refused to fight? Today Ebenezer's successors continue gallantly to urge their cause; and even if they have failed to persuade us that to fight is "wrong," at least we now expect our governments to think a great deal harder before they put their soldiers (as the rather-charming American euphemism has it) "in harm's way": that is, order them to kill people and run a distinct risk of getting killed themselves.

In considering the reasons that people give, and have given in the past, for killing one another, I have in mind something rather different from the justification, the jus ad bellum, that governments give when they go to war. Rather, it is the justification invoked by the people who do the actual killing; that exemption from the normal laws of humanity which licenses, indeed orders, them to do things that would otherwise be considered abominable. If we look for the answer in the history of the Western world, we find it conveniently summarized in the motto under which the British army went to war in 1914: For God, King and Country. But nowadays the first of those authorities, if He is invoked at all, is likely to provoke contention rather than unity. The second has little significance even where such a person still exists. Finally, in a global and interdependent world order, even the demand "to die for one's country" has lost much of its appeal; more so perhaps in a Europe battered after two bruising world wars than in a victorious and still-intact United States.

Further, although it is conceivable that wars may still have to be fought for territorial defense, in practice those in which the United States and her allies have engaged for the past half century have consisted of the projection of armed force to distant parts of the world to engage in conflicts that, although fought in "the national interest," often bear a very remote connection to the actual defense of one's native land. Sometimes the connecting thread seems very tenuous indeed. Under such circumstances a new and stronger argument may be needed to provide a convincing license to kill.


THE TRIAD of "God, King and Country" offers a useful summary of the reasons that people in the Western world have given for killing one another over the past thousand years. Like most historians, I assume a central "Westphalian" period in European history, dating from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and lasting into the twentieth, if not the twenty-first, century, that began when Europe sorted itself out into the system of sovereign states which has been the template for international relations until our own time. Before that we find a "feudal" era, when relations between political powers were vertical rather than horizontal. Then, all political authority was seen as being ultimately derived from God, from whom it devolved through a pyramid of authorities, all of whom claimed by derivation to act as His agents; a claim ratified by the sanction of a universal Church. When these authorities fought between themselves-as they did almost continuously-they did so to uphold, or restore, a divinely ordained order, and could thus invoke divine sanction to justify their claims. In practice, their conflicts were usually struggles over possession or inheritance of landed property. For them war was a form of litigation, an appeal to God's judgment, and fighting was the means of ensuring that His will should be done. The people who did the fighting usually did so to fulfill their obligations to an overlord who rewarded them with land and the political power that went with it; but in any case they were born to warfare, thoroughly enjoyed it and had little else to do with their time.

When they were not fighting among themselves, Christians engaged in a more existential conflict against what they saw as incarnate powers of evil, the Muslims; adversaries whose encroachments threatened the entire structure of Western Christendom for the best part of a thousand years, from the eighth well into the eighteenth century. It was a conflict that saw Muslim armies penetrate deep into France and Christian crusaders establish themselves in Palestine, and that persisted in southeast Europe well into the nineteenth century. For Christians the justification for killing, and if necessary dying, in combat with such an adversary seemed self-evident. Their adversaries fought with similar enthusiasm for their own conception of God. All too many of them still do.

For Western Europe, however, the menace of the Muslims eventually waned, leaving behind a large class of désoeuvré warriors who knew no other way of earning their living. These fighters formed themselves into mercenary bands and placed their swords at the disposal of anyone who would pay for them. For them war was no longer a means of serving God, but a straightforward trade. They were professionals. Their loyalty was to their own group leader. They served whomever employed them so long as they were paid. If they were not paid they did not fight. But so long as they were paid, they were content to kill or be killed. Their motivation was pure professional pride.


THESE PROFESSIONALS eventually found steady employment in serving the dynasties who achieved dominance over Europe in the later Middle Ages and were anointed by a complaisant Church, on the Judaic model, as "Kings": a status that was seen to place them in a direct relationship with God. The feudal pyramid gradually disappeared, and these monarchs assumed the sole right to "make war" and demand the obedience of their subjects in so doing; thus providing that all-important element in the Christian jus ad bellum: "right authority." This royal authority was still allegedly derived from a divine source-in serving one's King one was serving God-but the Westphalian era had now begun. The feudal hierarchy based on obedience to a pyramid of overlords evolved into a "system of states" in which monarchs were the sole judges of the legitimacy of their cause and from whom there was no appeal, either upward to God or downward to "the people." Kings required no justification for their wars beyond the need to protect or extend their own power, or occasionally to preserve "the balance of power"; an objective explicitly invoked to justify the upkeep of the British army until the middle of the nineteenth century.

But although they might claim their ultimate authority from God as "anointed Kings," the power of these monarchs still depended on military force. This required that they should successfully convert the existing mercenary bands into disciplined and loyal armed forces; which they could do only if they found the money to pay them. It was largely to ensure a regular source of income to do this that European monarchs created the mechanism of taxation and representation that became known as "the State." The English political thinker Thomas Hobbes was to call the State a "Leviathan" describing it as "that Mortall God," "our peace and defense"-a secular authority that replaced the rather-less effective Immortal God in providing security for its members. With the resources of such States at their disposal, monarchs were now able, from the mid-seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth, to wage wars much as they willed, with professional armed forces who killed one another and got themselves killed in the name of the King to whom they swore allegiance and who paid them; not caring very much whether or not he derived his authority from God.

Then peoples began to discover that, so long as the mechanism of the State functioned effectively, Kings themselves were expendable. A new concept of loyalty gradually took shape; one to a community with which people could more directly identify themselves. In this development the British led the way. There an unpopular King, James II, was expelled in 1689, and little reverence was felt for his foreign successors. The British army formally swore allegiance to the monarch, but in practice developed that fanatical loyalty to specific regiments which survives to this day, while the sailors who won command of the seas in the great wars against France fought not so much for their King as for their "country"; a concept that would be inherited by their cousins in North America a few years later when they discarded the royal connection altogether.

The territorial concept of "country" is interestingly distinct both from the term "nation" in whose name the French were to dispose of their own King, and even more from that which was to so profoundly stir their German neighbors, "Volk": a quasi-metaphysical concept associated with Blut rather than Boden, blood rather than soil, and one of which the English word "People" can give only a misleading and inadequate impression. To these terms were to be added the classical and familial Patrie, Patria and "Fatherland." These differences in terminology provide an interesting insight into the cultural distinctions that were beginning to reveal themselves as the peoples of Europe gradually developed self-awareness; to analyze them adequately would demand a very large book; but what they all shared was universality and immense emotional force.

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