Reflecting on a Military Defeat

Stuart Murray Williams

The withdrawal of British (and other Western) troops from Afghanistan during 2021, the subsequent advances by the Taliban, and the likelihood that the country will descend into further turmoil offers an opportunity to reflect on how the end of military interventions should be marked when they have failed to achieve their intended aims.

There is understandable reluctance to acknowledge such outcomes as ‘defeats’, not least because of the cost in human lives – both deaths and injuries – and the economic costs and political embarrassment. But if the intended outcomes are not achieved, it might be important to use this term and reflect on the implications. Those who advocated for and authorised this military intervention should be held to account and invited to reflect on the decisions they made and the outcomes of these decisions. The public who funded this conflict through taxation should be allowed to ask questions about what was and was not achieved. This defeat offers an opportunity to conversations about future priorities and strategies. Perhaps internal reviews are underway, and perhaps a commission of enquiry will be established, although the withdrawal of troops has happened quietly with little public acknowledgement – so different from the end of a conflict perceived as victorious – so maybe those in authority will prefer to avoid proper scrutiny.

What role have the churches in this? The churches had no say in the decision to deploy troops or the identification of the aims of the intervention, but the state church tends to be involved in marking the end of conflicts if the conclusion seems satisfactory. In the past, this often resulted in some kind of victory celebration, albeit usually combined with some measure of concern for the defeated enemy and some expressions of a desire for peace. After the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, however, in which British forces achieved the intended outcome, contrary to the wishes of some leading politicians, the service marking the end of the conflict was not designated as a victory celebration but as an opportunity for more thoughtful reflection (for a detailed examination of and helpful reflections on this service, see But marking a ‘defeat’ is quite another matter.

There is, of course, a prior question about whether this kind of linkage between church and war is appropriate in light of the teaching of Jesus. The visibility in many church buildings of military insignia, inscriptions and paraphernalia, the participation of church leaders in acts of remembrance, including annual Remembrance Day services, and many other connections are deeply rooted and remain as legacies of the Christendom era, in which the church ‘made peace with war.’

But if the churches are to be involved in post-conflict events, how might they respond to ‘defeats’? There may, of course, be little appetite among politicians or the public to mark these occasions, preferring to allow them to quietly fade into history. But this provides no opportunity for reflection on what happened, why it was unsuccessful, what might have been done differently, and what can be learned for the future. Nor does it provide closure for those personally impacted by the conflict. Might the churches have a more proactive role in such situations? If so, what might they offer? Might they perhaps offer to host conversations in which serious reflection can take place?

Are there any relevant biblical resources? The people of Israel certainly suffered defeats on various occasions, some of them quite unexpected. The shock and disorientation they experienced is evident in some passages. Two poignant examples are:

Joshua 7:4-9: So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water. Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”

1 Samuel 4:10-22: So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.  The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died. That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry. Eli heard the outcry and asked, “What is the meaning of this uproar?” The man hurried over to Eli, who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes had failed so that he could not see. He told Eli, “I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.” Eli asked, “What happened, my son?” The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labour and gave birth, but was overcome by her labour pains. As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention. She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

The most serious defeat, with the most far-reaching consequences, was the invasion of Israel by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians, resulting in the capture of Jerusalem and the deportation of many Israelites into exile for several decades. The Old Testament contains many expressions of lament, heart-searching, acknowledgement of failure and concern about the future. There are rich resources here for reflection on military defeats in any context, including:

  • The Book of Lamentations
  • Nehemiah chapter 1
  • Daniel chapter 9
  • Psalm 137
  • Habakkuk chapter 1

While there is no exact parallel between these ancient examples, steeped in theological language and understandings, and secular warfare today, and no nation today can claim God’s favour in the way that ancient Israel could, some powerful themes can be detected – grief over lives that have been lost, antipathy towards a victorious enemy, questions about why defeat had occurred, acknowledgement of faults, concern about reputation and fear of the consequences of defeat.

A traditional theological resource for evaluating the legitimacy of a conflict is the ‘Just War’ criteria – a demanding set of conditions designed to determine in advance of any purported conflict whether this intervention is justified. There are several versions of these criteria, but a standard summary is:

  • War must be for a just CAUSE: in self-defence, in defence of others, in response to a deliberate act of unprovoked aggression.
  • War must be waged with a good INTENTION: to rectify evil and establish good, to bring about a more just order, to restore peace as soon as possible, not for vengeance or to establish supremacy over others.
  • There must be a reasonable EXPECTATION of success: that more good than evil will result.
  • War must be waged by proper MEANS: proportionate rather than excessive, so that the results of victory outweigh the suffering caused to achieve this. Civilians must not be harmed, no intrinsically wrong means used, and terms of surrender equitable and merciful.
  • War must be the ONLY possible way of removing evil: the last resort after trying all other ways of responding through negotiating or sanctions.
  • War must be declared and fought by a legitimate AUTHORITY: normally this is the state, though in situations of civil war this is less clear.

These criteria, derived from classical sources, adapted for use by church and state in the early Christendom era and periodically refined and updated, have been very influential in most church traditions for centuries. There is growing disquiet about their applicability in relation to the nature of modern warfare, and some traditions have historically rejected this approach and instead advocated pacifism, but they remain influential. And, despite their limitations, the lack of biblical support for this approach and their abject failure to prevent many unjustifiable conflicts throughout the centuries, these criteria – if properly applied – are powerful and very restrictive.

The language of ‘just war’ continues to be used by politicians to explain their decisions, albeit shorn of any theological language and almost always without any reference to the specific criteria. And some aspects of these criteria are embodied in various international statements about the appropriate conduct of conflicts. Might these criteria, then, be used in the aftermath of a conflict, rather than in advance, to assess to what extent the conflict can in retrospect be regarded as justifiable? Can the churches play a role in, or perhaps initiate, such a discussion?

One of the ‘Just War’ criteria is a realistic expectation of success in achieving the aims of any military intervention. Where there has been a defeat or the anticipated outcome has not been achieved, there seems to be a case for re-examining the expectation and asking whether this was, in fact, realistic. The other criteria provide further resources for those who are willing to reflect honestly and seriously on the conflict and what led up to this, how the conflict was conducted, what mistakes were made, what could have been done differently, and so on. Drawing on the criteria in this way might encourage their proper use ahead of any future conflict situations.

Beyond a robust appraisal of the decision to go to war, the conduct of the war and the disappointing outcome, attention needs to be given to the experiences and needs of those who fought, those who were injured and those who were bereaved. This is so after all conflicts, but when the outcome has been unsatisfactory there may be greater reluctance to address these issues and yet even more need to do so. The suffering of those who have been injured or bereaved may be exacerbated by questions about whether the sacrifice achieved anything or was worthwhile. Honesty about the failures needs to be tempered by compassion and ways found to honour those whose lives were so deeply affected by the conflict. The tendency in both church and society to celebrate success but to try to sweep failure under the carpet needs to be resisted – for the sake of integrity, in order to learn lessons and to address the questions and needs of those who feel failures or are uncertain how feel now.

A further dimension to this period of reflection might be an opportunity for some creative thinking about alternative approaches and strategies. What other possibilities could have been explored? If going to war is a last resort (as the criteria insist), were there other less costly and more hopeful ways of proceeding that were either not considered or were not pursued sufficiently? How might these inform future situations?

The use of the ‘Just War’ criteria to review and assess what happened may not appeal to churches committed to pacifism or non-violence. But these churches, while sceptical about the (mis)use of the criteria in advance of potential conflicts, might recognise that the criteria are actually very demanding, if properly applied, precluding war in almost all contexts. Consulting the criteria retrospectively at a time when military action is not being advocated might allow for their proper use and might encourage their proper use in the future. Although these criteria are based on different assumptions than pacifism, if they are used properly, the gap between these positions is not that great. Churches that are committed to non-violence might support this process, encourage rigorous application of the criteria and also participate in the search for alternative peaceful approaches.

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