Is War Ever Good?

War is never good, usually bad, but sometimes necessary.

I have always been puzzled by the title of Studs Terkel's 1985 oral history of World War II, "The Good War." Good for whom? The 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust? The 20 million military and civilian casualties of the Soviet Union? The terrorized population of Britain's large cities whom the Luftwaffe bombed mercilessly? Or even the criminal German population who followed Adolph Hitler into the abyss of barbarism, only to witness the near complete destruction of their country as a result.

The simple truth is that war is never good. Indeed, I believe that one of the principal uses of the Bible is to serve as a powerful counterweight to the ancient Homeric legends of Odysseus and Achilles which glorifies war and lionizes generals. while many patriarchs of nations - from Romulus all the way to George Washington - were generals who defeated their enemies on the field of battle, the three patriarchs of the Jewish nation were humble shepherds, with Abraham even defending the immoral inhabitants of Sodom, his nemesis.

The prophet Moses defeats the tyranny of Egypt through the power of the spoken word rather than pike-wielding legions or invading Mongol hordes. Indeed, one may search the length and breadth of Israel and still not find a single triumphal military arch remaining from ancient times. Unlike Rome which built the Arch of Titus and Trajan's Column, the Jews never treated war as anything but necessary.


Indeed, in the same ancient world where Alexander of Macedon and Caesar of Rome sought greatness and immortality on the battlefield, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah was proclaiming that real bravery involved the attempt to live side by side with our fellow man in harmony. He famously predicted a time when the classical heroism of brutal combat would be replaced by a Biblical heroism of valiant men who beat swords into ploughshares and never teach their sons the art of war.

Everything which arises in life may be easily classified into the three neat categories of the good, the bad, and the necessary. War is never good, it is usually bad, but it is sometimes necessary.

A woman friend of mine who was in a loveless marriage for fifteen years threw a party for her friends when she finally got divorced. Insulted that I did not attend, she called me up and asked me if I would have preferred that she remain in a miserable union. "Of course not," I said. "Tragic as it always is, divorce is sometimes necessary. But no divorce is ever the cause of celebration." The same is true of war.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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