Wormwood on War

As C.S. Lewis discovered 60 years ago, devils write letters advising each other on strategies of damnation. Those Lewis discovered were published as The Screw­tape Letters. I've come upon a more recent trove, a set of letters from a certain Wormwood to a younger demon, Grease­beek. I hope in time to see the set published as The Wormwood E-Mail. Here are two letters that touch on the matter of war.

--- Jim Forest

My dearest Greasebeek,

I am amazed you are so ecstatic about the outbreak of war, as if this were a guarantee that here at last is a whirlpool that can unfailingly drag your client forever out of the Opponent's reach. If only it was that simple.

You write that your client is thinking seriously of joining the army and that you are doing all you can to "cheer him along" so that the idea becomes a firm resolve. I am not saying it would be a disaster if he joined the army but cautioning you that you mustn't assume that once he is in a military uniform things will inevitably go our way.

Granted, war tilts many things in our favor. The general who said "War is Hell" wasn't a bad theologian. There is no human endeavor so merciless as war. Of its nature war makes killers of harmless people who formerly took care to stop at red lights. War also has the attraction of destroying many people long after the cease fire is signed --- consider the high suicide rate among veterans.

Not that suicide is the only measure of success. I enjoy most not those who can never forgive themselves for what they did in war but rather those who have lost all awareness that there is anything that needs to be forgiven. "I was only following orders," Eichmann explained at his trial in Jerusalem. Did you know he had nothing personally against Jews? Some of his best friends, etcetera. It was simply his duty to arrange the deaths of certain people, and what you do you must do with devotion. I can tell you first hand that he lost not a night's sleep over his wartime activities. In such cases suicide is anticlimactic --- a needless, untidy drama. He was simply a loyal citizen whose services the state could rely upon in time of war. "How is it possible that anyone would wish to punish a man for being obedient? After all, it was war..." There is magic in the word "war." It creates a quality of obedience that is rare in periods between wars. (I cannot say peacetime, which, like ourselves, human beings cannot imagine.)

There are other advantages. In wartime very few will seek to practice the Opponent's bizarre teaching to "love your enemies and pray for them." Even if they dare think of what such a teaching implies, to practice it during war would create far too many problems. There is the occasional Francis of Assisi, but they are rare and are regarded as insane and unpatriotic. Admiration comes only after such people die and the wars they had refused to join in are seen in the cold light of day. While war is being fought, good deeds done to an enemy are likely to be seen as criminal, even traitorous acts.

War has the great advantage of distorting the way human beings see each other. War generates a kind of mass fever that makes it all but impossible for those afflicted to see anything good in whomever is designated as the enemy --- in reality a people no less cared for by our Enemy than themselves. Often they are a people who used to be regarded in friendly terms and who, in the not distant future, may well become the best of allies. But for now they are perceived, to put it simply, as something like us, which hardly does justice to them or us.

But it must be noted that today one rarely encounters the pure, high quality hatred that one could count on in former times. In this regard your client is typical. You describe his outrage while seeing a television report about the enemy's treatment of dissidents and prisoners and his imagining what he would do "to those bastards" if he could "only get them in his gunsight." His response sounds promising, but the thoughts stirred up by propaganda may well prove a short-lived fantasy. If you look closely at your client's attitude toward his nation's current enemy, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Today's hatred is more like a tincture of enmity compared to what one would have found as recently as the First World War. In those days you could rely on people to swallow propaganda whole. Today they remain responsive to propaganda but at the same time are vaguely aware that to some extent --- possibly a large extent --- they are being lied to.

Even in better times, when people were more trusting about government and the press, murderous hatred could in a matter of minutes give way to outbreaks of friendship even on the most blood-soaked battlefield. During the First World War, there was an appalling collapse of animosity one Christmas when soldiers on both sides sang carols together and had snowball fights! War hatreds in fact are not very personal and cannot be relied on once the soldier glimpses the face of his enemy and discovers someone very much like himself.

If your man were to join up, bear in mind that it is not at all a sure thing he will get anywhere near the battlefield, and even if he does, he is more likely to be in some support role than actual combat. But should it happen that he is personally involved in killing anyone, you may find him further from our grasp than he is while watching the war on a TV screen in his living room. If he kills anyone it is less likely to be an act of hatred than a desperate effort to defend the lives of his friends or save himself. He may well feel miserable about the irreversible damage he has done others and be begging his Creator for forgiveness --- which, bear in mind, is a request our Opponent tends to respond to positively. (Your role in such cases is to convince your client that forgiveness is impossible in certain matters and therefore should not be sought.)

In behavior war brings nearly everyone, soldier and civilian alike, into extraordinary, almost hellish conformity. The average person, whichever side he may be on and whatever private misgivings he may have, is carried along by the powerful tides of his society and is likely to do whatever he is ordered to do, however appalling, as faultlessly as Eichmann. Yet even here one cannot be complacent. All too often one finds some corner of the client's heart which tends to be ashamed of what he is doing, a sense of horror at the events he is assisting.

You mentioned, as if it were a positive factor, the fact that war hugely increases the death rate wherever it occurs. Yes, of course, but never let it slip your mind that for us death as such is not the decisive issue, only the state of the dying person. In general it is best that they imagine death as something distant rather than close. It is when human beings are nose to nose with death that it dawns on them how trivial their lives have been, how their primary activities were a waste of time, the extent to which fear governed their lives, how unfree they were --- and the shock may move them quite suddenly in another direction. In the blink of an eye you find a man who year after year was the most determined atheist, a missionary of disbelief, having second thoughts. He used to regard those who prayed as sentimental fools and now, facing death, he discovers it was he who was the fool. All too often we lose people we had complacently counted own owning forever, and all because of the discovery of their own graves. It is the Ebenezer Scrooge Syndrome. War has a tendency to make them increasingly aware of our Opponent's existence. Where actual dying is going on, there tends to be more prayer, not less.

I recall the case of a Russian writer, a man named Dostoevsky, who as a naive young man with a head full of idealist slogans got involved in a revolutionary society, was arrested and sentenced to death. He was within minutes of being shot by firing squad when a horseman delivered a pardon from the czar. Conversion didn't happen on the spot, but little by little that close encounter with death made him into an unshakeable Christian. The novels he wrote following his conversion continue to do great harm to our cause. All this might have been otherwise if he had not looked down the barrel of a rifle when he was 28.

One more factor to bear in mind: War has the side effect of making people think of those around them with more urgency and care, even to the extent of being quite ready to die for others. It maybe that the circle of care remains restricted --- "the enemy" is excluded --- but nonetheless the diameter expands to include far more people than it did in peacetime. War on the whole makes those taking part less selfish.

A final suggestion to mull over: You may find it advantageous for your client to become a conscientious objector, so long as it was not undertaken with a motivation pleasing to the Enemy. Causes of any kind, even the cause of peace, tend to distance those taking part from actual people. There is nothing like manifestos and movements to get people arguing. Today he may be daydreaming about joining the army, but there will be moments in the days and weeks ahead when, far from wanting to join the army, he will be horrified at the thought that he might be one of those maimed or killed and then think desperately about how to avoid the risks of combat. At that moment, with a slight nudge from you, it may cross his mind that war is after all not something altogether good and that one way out is to take the moral high road. With good guidance, you may soon have him despising everyone in uniform and anyone waving a flag --- a good, solid contempt toward each and every person who isn't doing what he's doing. You would be amazed how someone who talks constantly of peace can be more a captive of hatred than any soldier on the front lines of war.

yours warmly,


My dearest Greasebeek,

I am sorry to hear that your client is reading the Bible in his effort to decide about how to respond to the current war. This suggests one more lapse on your part, but with the right guidance this need not be disastrous and might even prove helpful. There are so many books in the Bible, so many stories, such an avalanche of sayings, so many things which a modern reader can hardly under­stand or even imagine.

First and foremost, you must do your best to keep him out of the New Testa­ment, because here the ground for confusion is much smaller. Luckily the New Testament is at the back of the Bible. Assist him in thinking he must start at the beginning. In most cases that means he will read less than a hundred pages and decide that's more than enough and put the wretched book down with a thud.

The problem with the New Testament, as presumably you learned in school, is that it provides not the slightest encouragement for killing anyone, or any sanc­tion to despise even one's worst enemy. Can you imagine? But in what they call the Old Testament, there are entire wars that are said to have had heaven's blessing. Also you will find numerous actions, many of them still common in today's world, that are to be punished by death. Best to try to get him to focus on that kind of material because he will see it not only as sanctioning war but also blessing hatred.

However take care. Even in the Old Testament you must watch a client's thoughts very carefully. Don't let your attention wander for even the blink of a human being's eye. Should he happen to notice them, there are many passages and sections every bit as bad as the New Testament: no poisoning of an enemy's wells or destruction of his orchards, walking undisturbed through the valley of death, not fearing evil, letting mercy and justice embrace, choosing life, fleeing from all evil doers, and on and on. There is even a commandment not to kill, full stop. The further one reads in the Old Testament, the more one gets into a swamp of mercy. Steer him away from the books of the so-called Prophets.

Should he persist in reading the Bible despite your best efforts and at last make his way to the New Testament, hope is not lost. We have enjoyed great triumphs even with those who have memorized every verse in the New Testament. You would be amazed to discover how even major themes of the New Testament --- love of enemies, mercy, forgiveness, overcoming evil with good, hospitality to strangers, etc. --- have been explained away by Christian bishops and respected theologians, not to mention pastors eager to please their congregations. Keep in mind that positions of church leadership do not make a person immune to war fever and local ideologies. Without great effort one can find Christian pastors blessing every sort of weapon, preaching the holiness of war, and calling down heavenly flames on the current enemy.

If you can turn your client's ear toward such voices, then he may come to under­stand the teaching he encounters in the New Testament as "ideals one must aim for but not necessarily put into practice here and now." Let him draw a border between ideals and actual life, with ideals floating above the earth like clouds rather than demands that might put him at odds with what society expects.

If needs be you can also remind him that many people regarded as saints were soldiers. No doubt he will have seen images of some of them in church windows where they are shown wearing armor and bearing a sword --- people like Saint Geor­ge fighting the dragon. Encourage him to think of George as a man for whom being both a soldier and a Christian was not at all problematic. Let him imagine George was canonized because he was second to none in killing people rather than because he was an imprudent young man executed for proclaiming his faith rather than obeying his superiors.

Take care, however, about the "dra­gon." That of course is a symbol for us, but with careful guidance your client will see it as evidence that Christians long ago were a simple-minded people who believed in monsters.

yours warmly,


Jim Forest's most recent books are Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis) and The Resurrection of the Church in Albania (World Council of Churches).