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Begina Sławińska

Begina Sławińska

Magister filozofii, etyk. Specjalizacja: etyka wojny i interwencji wojskowych. Zainteresowania: filozofia społeczna i polityczna, bioetyka, neuroetyka. Obecnie pracuję dla Blackwell UK Ltd., gdzie prowadzę Blackwell's Philosophy Group. Odbywam także kurs Applied Ethics na Oxford University.

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Saturday, 04 September 2010 12:12

Hellish Nature of War

“It is also reasonable to show some sort of imprisonment by another, how to show something that actually does not exist by something else that exists.” – Daniel Defoe.

Even if the hell described in the sacred literature does not exist, it unveils itself during the war. When we are dealing with the war it seems that no matter what the goal is,what is its reason (ius ad bellum), no matter what measures are used for its conduct (ius in bello), once the war is initiated, the war resembles hell. But what allows us to make such a comparison? Is there anything that lets us call war “hell on earth”?

At the outset of the essay I present theological concepts of Hell and dwell upon the hellish nature of war; subsequently I attempt to draw parallels between the two. [1] Next, I focus on war crimes carried out by soldiers who pushed into “hell”, catch “the bug” of evil-doing, and by doing so they increase the evil of war, turning the victim into an executioner. Moreover, I consider who carries the blame for the crimes committed, and therefore, who is morally responsible for this "hell"- soldiers or their commanders. After discussing it, I concentrate on the infernal logic of war, which is a “constant urge to moral extremes”. At the end of the essay I ask whether "hell" of war can be avoided. I would like to point out that my analysis is only a brief discussion of the above-mentioned issues, as a more thorough study would require significantly more space than the essay provides.

 In my analysis I rely primarily on the book, Just and Unjust Wars, written by the theorist of Traditional Just War Theory, Michael Walzer. I also draw upon the Millennium Bible passages and the edition of “the British and Foreign Bible Society”; fragments of Diaries of St. Faustina Kowalska and the Book of predictions written by Sister Lucy of Fatima are among the theological sources I consider.I refer to articles in the national press, Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita also to the article of Jeff McMahan entitled “The Ethics of Killing in War”, as well to the work of Carl von Clausewitz, On War.

I.                    Theological concepts of Hell and the “hell” of war

In the first part of the book of Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, called “The Moral Reality of War”, author is tryingtomakea comparisonbetween Hell and war, and examining the validityof it. Despitemany examples of comparisons ofthe war with Hell (examples will begivenlater inmyessay) hedenies the fact that "hell" of war can be literally compared to thetheological concept of Hell (he speaks of Hell as described in the Christian faith). Evenstronglydeniesthesimilarity: “In reality a war is the pure opposite to the Hell and war is hell only if it is strictly opposite.” That findingis basedon the argumentthat “in a Hell, as you might think, are only people who deservetosuffer(…) committedthe acts forwhichGodpunishesthem.However,the vast majority of those who suffer in war, has not made that kind of choice.” [M. Walzer, “Just and Unjust Wars”. PWN Warsaw 2010, p. 74-75].

I agreewith Walzer’s opinion that in case of both hells we are dealing with another kind of "conditions of participation in a hellish life" and that the mere existence of theological concept of Hell is based on the fact that Hell is a place for the damned those who were there for punishment [2]. But I am not sure that Michael Walzer was right speaking about the lack of similarity between two hells. I think they can becompared to one another and similarity can be found. That resemblance does become visible when we look at the paintings of Hell in Christianity and the images painted by war veterans, including participants the war in Vietnam, and veterans of the World War II or Iraq.


Theological concepts of Hell

The earliestdescription of Hell can be found in the OldTestament, in Isaiah 66.24: "When they come out, they will see the corpses of people who withdrew from me, because their worm shall not dies, and their fire does not extinguish, and they will be an abomination to all flesh.” The very word ‘Hell’ does not fall in this verse, but after reading it, in mind we have an association that we are talkingabout Hellin it; the place of despair and suffering. The New Testament with the exact naming of the place described by Isaiah, gives a much clearer description of it, shows a more pronounced picture of Hell and its inhabitants. 

I.a. in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus compares the Hell to the “furnace of fire”. It is a place where you hear "weeping and gnashing of teeth" [Mt 13, 42],all sidesoffering"the everlasting fire” [Mt 25; 41]. St. Mark's tells of Christ's words about "the unquenchable fire" [Mk 9, 43], and St. Luke confirms the associations formed after reading the verse from Isaiah, as he writes openly about the suffering of torture [Luke, 16, 24]. From the descriptions of hell in the New Testament, you can learn that God has prepared Hell for the sinner, that is, those who have a life focused only on material aspects rather than spiritual; who does not fulfil God's commandments, and do not give due honour to God. The souls of the damned get there after the death, sentenced on "pure wine from cup of the wrath of God of his anger and torment in the fire and brimstone”, [Rev., 14, 10], which are raised by the Devil ("host" of Hell) and his angels.

Theological concept of Hell and visions of Hell are also described by the saints and blessed of the Roman Catholic Church.St. Faustina Kowalska in TheDiaries, that are based on the vision of the sacred, says that this is a place of "great execution", lifelong remorse and despair; constant darkness, and the terrible smell, where souls are tormented in a horrible and indescribable way.

"Today I was in the depths of Hell. (...) types of tortures, which I saw: (...) Continuous darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and though the darkness, devils see one another and condemned souls, and they see all the evil of others (...) is a horrifying despair (...).These tortures are suffered together by all damned, but this is not the end of tortures. Some of them are tortures of the senses: every soul (...) is tormented in a terrible and indescribable way. (...)".

[Faustina Kowalska, TheDiaries. Divine Mercy in My Soul, ch. 2, p. 231 quoted for: Bogna Skrzypczak-Walkowiak, “Infernal themes in different texts of culture.” [in:] SchoolBooks No. 3 (9) / 2003, p. 29].

The certificateof Sister LuciafromFatimarefers tohalf of incinerated bodies writhing in pain, smoke and the airfilled withsparksandstench.

“The seaappeared to us. This was not an ordinary, blue sea, it was a living flame. All undulating like an ocean storm, we saw the demons and spirits. In appearance they give the impression of being humans. Only that their bodies were brown or black, and sometimes even transparent, playing with the terrible wound in tongues of fire. Smoke rose, the air was filled with stench and sparks. (...) demons and souls were incandescent red or partially incinerated, but never completely. Screaming and wailing desperately, they definitely suffered cruel tortures. (...)."

[Fatima-vision of Hell, [in:] The Book ofprophecy, p. 33 quoted by: Bogna Skrzypczak-Walkowiak, “Infernal themes in different texts of culture.” [in:] School Books No. 3 (9) / 2003, p. 29]

Thesethree descriptions presented above (the Bible, St. Faustina and Sister Lucia) is made up at a fairly accurate description of Hell, showing it as a place of unspeakable suffering, physical and spiritual, where the convicts wail and scream. These descriptions will fit perfectly into the “hell” of war.


            The “hell” of war

Sincethe World War II the convulsive nerve toxic agents are substances that are recognized as useful for military purposes. Currently, they have a status of the most important combat poisons, which cause death. The name comes from the external signs of their effects on the human body. They cause characteristic convulsions and the paralysis of muscles later.

The most populargas, which was used in many wars, including both World Wars, was the yperite ("mustard gas"). This gas, belongs to the type of vesicant, causes blisters on the skin and slowly healing the wounds. An yperite causes irritation of the respiratory tract and lungs, and blindness.

The lasttypeof poisonousagent are psychotoxic agents so. psychogases. They are divided intotwo groups: psychomimic and psychotropic. These first disrupt the functioning of the central nervous system - are related to psychoactive substances withpsychedelic. Examples of gases of the first group is the "BZ" (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The symptoms of poisoning resemble schizophrenia; primarily there are intense hallucinations of all senses, which are accompanied slurred speech, loss of mobility in space and a complete lack of the orientation in time. The second group, which Fentanylis a representative, causes severe depressive states of anxiety, nausea and vomiting.

Whenwe visualize all the symptoms of poisoning is not difficult to put side by side the suffering of people infected by gases and thesufferingcaused and perceptibleinHell, whichI described in the previous subsection (specifically I have in mind descriptions of Catholic saints.). These examples mentioned above clearly draws this image, and can be found many other examples that also pointedly reveal the parallelism.

Also,the magnitude of suffering is noticeable in the description of practices committed by the U.S.soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq [3]. The reference is to the absolute horror; to severed limbs, cutting off heads, cutting off ears alive, of rapes, human limbs scattered of across the fields.  

MichaelWalzer’s another argument for the impossibility of alignment of Hell to the “hell” of war is the duration of tortures, suffering. Suffering in Hell iseternal, infinite. The sinners can not reckon with the fact that that one day the fires of hell will be extinguished, and the weeping and mourning will come to an end. In the case of soldiers the opposite is true. They do not have to take leave of hope that the war (their suffering) will end. Walzer did not pay attention to the aspect of relativity of time. The feeling of the differences in the length of the passage of time is relative - one ofthe symptomsof "BZ" that I mentioned in this chapter was the lack of the orientation in time,which may indicate that the poisoned man,overwhelmed bypain, think that his pang seems to take forever. But not only for person poisoned "the time may extend indefinitely. " Every man, fighting - participating actively, whether – participating passively  in the "hell" of war experiences this feeling.

Walzeralsoignored, makingthis distinction, that there wasamong thewar veterans, so. PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Depression, anxiety attacks, anger, suspicion, irritability, insomnia, nightmares, memory loss, predict, mania, dementia, uncontrolled outbursts of crying and hysteria, guilt and hopelessness are just a few of the symptoms of PTSD. As can be seen the "hell" of war for soldiers (but those indirectly involved in the war) continuesalsoafter the war.

"30 years after leaving Vietnam we are still struggling with the consequences of this war, still spent millions on veterans who have PTSD because they could not organize their lives. We treat them from alcohol, drug abuse, condemnthemforcrimes, and send tojail - recalls Robinson, a former commando who fought during the first Gulf War, he wrote a report under the title: "Hidden costs of the war in Iraq"- The more important it is to help veterans from Iraq. Otherwise we will have to struggled with their problems over the next 50 years. Many of these soldiers think that after returning to their homes and families these issues will pass. However, in previous wars, we know that it does not go away. At most, is getting worse. ".

In thischapter I have tried to show that Michael Walzer was wrong by putting the sign of inequality between Hell and the “hell” of war. However, this impossibilityexistsonlywhen one takesinto accountjustthe reason of findingtheseunitsinHell [4], because, when one takes into account exclusivelythe aspect of physical and psychological suffering, the equal sign between the hells can be put.


      II.        “Hellish” recruits and their commanders

            „One of the most important features of war - which distinguishes it from other plagues of humanity – is the fact that people, who are entangled in it, are not only victims but also agents” [Walzer, p. 54]. That is why, when it is being talked about the war limited or unlimited in resources, it is not by accident. "Hell” of war, as opposedto Hell, is not created by the transcendent God. Thecreators of "hell" of war are people who are responsible for the torture and death of people who have been "knocked down" into this “hell”-thisis which I called the“differenceof the creator”.

            In this part of my essay, on the basis of Michael Walzer’s thoughts I will try to consider the issue of “hellish” soldiers committing the war crimes [5]. There will be discussed the problem of being morally responsible for the crimes committed – I would also inquire Jeff McMahan’s opinion. Comparing his thoughts with Walzer’s opinion I will try to find out if the moral justification of soldiers committing the war crimes is possible. To answer this question I would examine the various kinds of arguments for defending the soldiers who committed the war crimes.

            The first kind is an argument of “battle rush” based on ascribing insanity to soldiers. It is some kind of amok generated during the fight which ends in committing a crime. In the soldier’s mind the borders of the acceptable behaviour are blurred that leads to getting rid of any inhibitions and results in the brutal fights or the massacre. Walzer fairly claims that the war crimes cannot be justified by the emotions that lead to them. [6]

            During the Vietnam War there was the My Lai village massacre. After marching in the village, soldiers had expected the guerrillas, but they found only the civilian people whom they later on tortured and killed. Defending the soldiers who took part in the massacre, it was said that “they acted in the conditions of cruel and dehumanizing war that pushed the soldiers to kill without recognition.” However, it is known that soldiers who were shooting they were conscious of what they were doing because they later on felt guilty and disgusted – so they could not use the argument of “battle rush”. [7] Walzer points out that to justify their behaviour, soldiers could have used the argument that they only obeyed the orders – they would have used to the second kind of argument which apply to an army discipline and obedience. [8] So that happened and soldiers defended themselves with that argument – they were not arraigned, but the officer in command was sentenced.

            Michael Walzer claims that second kind of arguments – justifying the soldiers only obeying their orders – consists of two arguments: of ignorance and of duress. The argument of ignorance is based on the presumption that a soldier has no access to the information in what kind of warfare does he take part. In such a case the soldier depends on his leaders presupposing that they act reasonably and giving orders they engage their soldiers in the justified warfare. When it comes to the argument of duress, it derives from the fact that soldiers are obliged to follow their leaders’ orders without any word of criticism. However, it should be pointed out that there are exceptions, where a soldier is obliged to be disobedient. Soldiers have their moral obligation not to obey their leader’s order if they know that the order breaks the laws of war (ius in bello) [9] and is unjust, even if they are threatened with demotion. Walzer notices that in the case of My Tai, soldiers could not have doubts about the justice of the action and the innocence of their victims. Furthermore, the soldiers who refused shooting in My Tai were not reprimanded which may lead to a conclusion that the others should be denounced for their obedience. 


            Walzer thinks that soldiers should not be blamed so hasty that they did not opposed the leader’s orders. An army is an organization which works efficiently only if the subordinates are obedient to their superiors. A disobedient soldier becomes the broken part of an efficiently working institutional mechanism. [10] A soldier who questions or disobeys a leader’s order risks “the deep and morally disturbing loneliness”. It does not mean that under this argument it is allowed to participate in the war crimes. However, such a problem should be taken under consideration – “a moral life is rooted in such a kind of social bonds which an army discipline excludes or cuts off”.

            Jeff McMahan in his article „Ethics of Killing in War” thinks that Walzer is wrong claiming that moral justification of the soldiers taking part in the unjust wars (war crimes) is possible on the basis of these two arguments. Walzer’s reservations are only explanations: they could only prove the fact that soldiers participating in war crimes are not the criminals and they should not be blamed or punished for what they did; it does not prove however that they acted in the justified way. [11] The fighters’ behaviour could be only explained but not morally justified. He thinks that Walzer exaggerates the role of knowledge and duress e.g. because alleging on the duress “never fully absolve of liability in the cases of an illegal murder”. But even if we assume (which is only a hypothesis for McMahan) that in some cases we deal with the justification of their actions, it does not mean that these actions were just – allowed. Nevertheless, Walzer was right that responsibility for the My Lai massacre swings the balance on the leaders’ side and the people in charge (but not only) should be blamed for the committed war crimes, because as the leaders they are obliged to supervise their subordinates’ actions.




III.       The Logic of war


The assumptionof war, which described Michael Walzer after Carl von Clausewitz, is that in order to conquer the enemy, alwaysone ofthe sidesmust“act proactively”. In a war we are always dealing with the "mutual influence", i.e. each side wanting to win a war is forced to catch up or surpass the opponent. It is often so, that a warfarecomesto the"last resort".That constitutes this infernal “logic of war”, which is a “constant urge to moral extremes”[Walzer, p. 66]. It seems that there is noother limits than"the limits of force”.


There are knowncases in which soldiers or civilians rebel against the aggression and agree to stand up to fight. [12]. Guided by the higher and (for them) morallysignificantgoals. Walzer calls this a "higher ambition" when they seek to reduce tyranny and to reduce the probability of its in the future. However, as I have already noticed at the beginning of this chapter in order to win they are obliged to reject any restrictions that are left; they are forced to exceed the cruel tyrant, or even imitate him. This leads to the spiral of violence, in the words of Martin Luther King, the nations of the military coming down the stairs down to hell. According to Michael Walzer logic of war in particular presents a hellish nature of war.




IV.              Summary. Does the "hell" of war is avoidable? [13]


Inthis essay I wanted to explain what is the hellish nature of war. From the fact that war is compared to the Hell I demonstrated that the comparisons and convergence between Hell and the “hell” of war are possible. I paid attention to that war as a product of hell is created by humans, which revealed - totally dependent on people dimensionof the “hell”of war. Then I showed the “hellish face” of recruits, their hellish fate, and what is the "logic of war" and its hellish consequences.


Could besaid that there is one more similarity between the Hell and the "hell" of war, which is not written in the beginning, and which allows to answer the question: does “hell” of war is avoidable? This similarityarises from the fact that, as a Hell, so the "hell" of war can be avoided by preventing or stopping certain activities.The problem is that the avoidance of Hell is more real [14] thanavoidingthe latter, because in that first, we can always count on a “grace”, etc. referring to the instance ofan infallible,an omniscient and a loving God, when, in the case of “hell” of war, we have to the deal with instances in the form of people whose qualities are fallibility and frailty. Having, therefore, to deal with "the human people” only what we can appeal for the “war without weapons” isthe self-restraint of armed. “The condition for the transformation of the war in a political struggle is to limit the war as an armed struggle” concludes Walzer,andheaddsthatan appealshouldbe as follows: "You can not shoot me because I did not shoot you and I do not intend to shoot you. I'm your enemy who is not fighting, but you need to have a coercion on me and control over me, if you can, without violence” [Walzer, p. 472]. [15]. Acceptance ofthiswould requires a compliance to certain rights and conventions in complying them with the fidelity of the soldiers and their commanders - whatwould have to beconstantlysupervised. Such a limitation of the war, according to Walzer, is the beginning of peace, which may subsequently lead to the avoiding of the “hell” of war.




[1]       Michael Walzer argued that both hellsare notsimilar to one another -butIthinkthatin somerespectsaresimilar. In this context I will show the hellish nature of war only on the example of the suffering of soldiers and war veterans, and not on the example of the suffering of civilians. The reference to the sufferings of the latter occurs in the chapter on the moral responsibility for war crimes in order to show more explicitly the subject.


[2]       In the United States appeared an idea that the convicts on the criminal background sent to the army.Then theywouldfacetheimposed choice:imprisonment or going to the army. An element of freedom which appears here is not the freedom at all; [convict, however, will be in captivity - between two confinement: prison either war (maybe this, and that would not want to choose in deciding about himself)]. If this idea would be implemented, an argument that is designed to distinguish the hell, will disappear.


[3]        The impact of war on the soldiers and the aspect of moral responsibility for war crimes I will deal in  the chapter: “Hellish”recruitsand theircommanders.


[4]       I realizethat there is a difference between the two hells, I name it here, "the difference creator" although it does not affect on the value of all comparisons made here and not affectedon the similarity of both hells whichhas beenshown in the sense described in this section. This difference will allow us to show the hellish nature of war - more about this primarily in the chapter: “Hellish”recruitsand theircommanders.


[5]       Thewar crimes which are characterized by a violation of the rights and customs of war, such as: murders, mistreatment of the population who inhabit the occupied area, destroying of settlements, towns, villages and causing any other damages.


[6]       This can not be explained by invoking the reasons of the initiatedfight. The reason for fighting, although most righteous, should not entail the unjust practices. As Walzer contends: killing " above the norm" is not the evidence of the fighting spirit, and determination of soldiers and the degree of fairness of a war, but an evidence of hysteria. [Walzer, p. 439].


[7]       In TheDiariesSt. Faustina Kowalska claims that one of the many types of torments, which experienced the sinners is the "constant pang of conscience". It is caused by the conviction that it was possible to do otherwise than it was done.If a man would act properlyhe will notfind himselfinHell. Also in this case theHellcan be likenedto the"hell" of war.


[8]       They were able todo this because a company commander did not give them precisely formulated guidelines, and when they were given in the form of a more definite by the direct commander of the unit, they sounded unequivocally, to kill innocent noncombatants.


[9]       Jeff McMahan proves that even if the rules of iusin bello are respected by the soldiers it does not mean that the fight could not be unjust.Afterwards, in his article “The Ethics of Killing in War”, he points out that the unjust war will never be conducted in accordance to the rules of iusin bello.


[10]     This is based on the difference between the organization and the community - civic protest stems from the community of values - the army is not a community.


[11]     The difference in the opinions of Walzer and McMahan is based on the fact that the first considers that law of iusad bellum and iusin bello are independent, where the latter puts this counterattack, and shows that both rights are interdependent.


[12]     The Warsaw Uprisingis an example of it.


[13]     Thequestion is not about how to make the army institution ceased to exist, the question is that in spite of its existence did not have to deal to "hell" of war - the use of violence against themselves and other people would be confronted with the "war without weapons”. Indeed an answer to the first understanding of this question would involve the issue of pacifism and its conditions, and to raise this issue individually I have no place here.


[14]     To avoid thishell is more real despite the fact that the mere existence of theological hell is called into question andoftenisconsideredto beunrealistic.


[15]     It would have tobe associated with an absolute confidence between the fighters on opposite sides. In a different situation one might ask, to what extent it would be possible to say that indeed the potential opponent has no weapons.




  1. Michael Walzer, Wojny sprawiedliwe i niesprawiedliwe. Rozważania natury moralnej z uwzględnieniem przykładów historycznych. (Just and Unjust Wars.). Warsaw PWN 2010.
  2. Jeff McMahan, “The Ethics of Killing in War”. Ethics 114, no. 4 (July 2004): 693-733. Condensed version in Philosophia 34 (2006): 23-41.
  3. Jeff McMahan, “The Morality of Military Occupation”. Loyola International and Comparative Law Review 31 (2009).
  4. Jeff McMahan, “On the Moral Equality of Combatants.” [in:] The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 14, Number 4, 2006, pp. 377–393.
  5. Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Red A. Rudnick, ed. Mireki
  6. The Bible is the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.The British and Foreign Bible Society, Warsaw, 1991.
  7. Assoc. K. Korzeniewski, “Mental Disorders of the Contemporary Battlefield.” (dated: 24.08.2010.).
  8. Gazeta Wyborcza,75515,2334528.html  ( dated 26.08.2010).
  9. Rzeczpospolita 25.08.2010).
  10. Bogna Skrzypczak-Walkowiak, “The Infernal Themes in Different Texts of Culture”. [in:] School Books No. 3 (9) / 2003, p. 29

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