War is an awful affair. Regardless of where or when it is fought, war not only results in the death or harm of young men and women in uniform, but it almost always results in the death or harm of innocent people who have the misfortune to be caught up in a conflict zone. Even those who are not physically harmed suffer separation from loved ones, atrocious living conditions and painful memories.
So what can those of us who are miles away from dangerous battles do for those who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way on our nation’s behalf? What can American citizens do for those who fight with the Stars and Stripes on their shoulder? Gift packages and letters certainly lift spirits, but is there something bigger that we can do to ease the pain of war that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines feel during — and after — their service?
We can ensure their cause is just. We can ensure that the lives they take, the friends they lose and the wounds they suffer are the minimum necessary to bring safety, peace and freedom to others. We can ensure that those service members who didn’t return to their loved ones forfeited their freedom and lives only to protect the innocent and to preserve justice.
Hopefully we in the United States, and our allies, are now past engaging in conflicts fought simply to expand empires or control resources. Hopefully we would recoil at the thought of using our vast military resources to hinder or eliminate certain faiths, ethnicities or passive political ideologies. We can and should hold our forces in reserve for higher and nobler causes.
Fighting for such causes won’t make killing easier or death less painful, nor should we allow ourselves to become desensitized to violence. But perhaps after losing a loved one or a brother in arms, perhaps after taking a life while in the line of duty, those impacted by the violence will be able to process what they’ve experienced in a way that is strengthening and empowering. Even if they experienced something horrific, they may be able to find some comfort in knowing that what happened spared other lives from suffering.
Ensuring a just cause means striving to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts around the world. There have certainly been times in our history when there were few options outside of violence — the Civil War and World War II come to mind. But we should be grateful for moments in our history when leaders anticipated and resolved conflict without firing a single shot. The Marshall Plan after World War II is an apt example. Part of ensuring that a cause is just is first exhausting the peaceful means of finding a solution.
This ethic does not mean we seek out all examples of injustice and launch an invasion. We must also be cautious not to justify selfish wars by claiming they are founded on virtue. In practice, it’s often impossible to sort out whether certain wars were fought for selfish or noble reasons — there typically is evidence of both motivations at play.
The future is complicated. Americans will be faced with tough decisions. In preparation for that day, let us resolve for the sake of our service members that we will ask them to sacrifice only when we are confident their cause is just.
Zachary Schofield is a policy analyst at Sutherland Institute and a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. Lincoln Op’t Hof is a Marine Corps infantry veteran of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is also a previous Sutherland Institute intern.