I went to seminary during the War in Vietnam. There, along with a small group of students, I publicly resisted that war. Part of my resistance included refusing to carry my draft card, which was against the law at that time. Instead, I surrendered my card to a committee in the Reformed Church in America and notified my draft board that I was in non-compliance, letting them know where I was living. In a sense, I dared them to come after me. Indeed, one of our small circle of resisters, Glenn Pontier, spent two years in prison for his anti-war activism.
In the classroom, there was a theological debate about war, featuring St. Augustine’s “just war” theory on the one hand and the pacifist argument offered by Quakers and other Christians on the other. The debate included the notion, quite common at the time, that there were “good wars,” necessary to fight against unmitigated evil and “bad wars,” prompted by economic greed or geopolitical power grabs. For some of us in seminary who sought to apply moral and ethical principles to our contemporary world, Vietnam was a “bad war.” On the other hand, World War II was always held up as a “good war,” necessary to stanch the Nazi onslaught against innocent civilians and the holocaust against the Jews.
Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we are living—as countless videos have shown us in a daily stream of horror and grief—through a reenactment of a “good war.” Scenes of indiscriminate bombing, floods of refugees, heroic resistance by outnumbered Ukrainians fill our television screens. Putin shows no signs of limiting his aggression in a scorched earth policy devastating the country he once claimed to want to liberate from its supposed neo-Nazi regime. Like Hitler, Putin must be stopped.
To Putin’s dismay, things did not go as planned. The courage, resilience and self-sacrifice of Ukrainians have been an inspiration to the world. The West—NATO, the European Union and others—some of whom had heretofore been neutral or unwilling to challenge Putin have joined in public condemnation of Putin’s atrocities. Individual Russians have spoken out; more than 15,000 have been arrested for protesting the war.
In these posts, I have been circumspect in my challenge to President Biden and other Western leaders to do more. The reason: the threat of nuclear war makes the stakes too high and direct confrontation with Putin makes the risks too great. But a new question has emerged for me, a question brought on with increased urgency because of the intensifying slaughter of Ukrainians. Putin shows no signs of slowing the onslaught and so I now ask: is the threat of nuclear war any less if we are aggressive in ending this slaughter? What if he uses chemical weapons? Or strikes defense forces massing in Poland? How many lives must be sacrificed before it is too many?
We must shift our defensive focus to offense. Defense alone will not win and we must win this war. I cannot get the haunting image of Poland in 1939 out of my head. American lore is replete with heroic stories of sacrifices made during World War II—we even call them “the greatest generation.” Those memories and iconic images do not include the hesitant, or those responsible for delaying American intervention for more than two years after Germany invaded Poland.
The second issue is this, touched on brilliantly by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his masterful presentation to the US Congress: we must be in this war with Putin to win it. Putin cannot be the one to call the shots. Putin cannot be allowed to claim victory in this war. The consequences for the global order are far too dire if Putin can somehow be perceived as the victor. If he wins, how does democracy ever triumph? How can compassion ever again be a guiding principle in relations between nations? How can national borders ever be secure again?
We must wage this war—yes, let’s use that phrase, “wage this war” with integrity, imagination, in solidarity with our allies and in deference to what President Zelenskyy requests. Back in seminary, we were just one generation removed from World War II. My father served in that war (today would have been his 100th birthday) and there were those whose memories were still fresh. Many lamented that we as a nation did not heed the signs around us. We delayed for too long, and too much unnecessary suffering ensued.
Who among us ever thought that the European continent, long considered the world’s most stable region, could produce the horrific scenes now unfolding in Ukraine? Like it or not, we are engaged in real time in a just war. We must respond with all the resources we can muster. Running from the threats of the schoolyard bully rampaging across the global schoolyard is a sure recipe for failure.