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Military Code of Conduct |
Be it the 11th century or the 21st, Christian warriors face a dilemma

Military Code of Conduct is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 26, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Prior to the Crusades a massive peace movement produced a Christian code of rules for battle, but in the war against Islam it was rarely applied

Military Code of Conduct - Be it the 11th century or the 21st, Christian warriors face a dilemma

Military Code of Conduct - Be it the 11th century or the 21st, Christian warriors face a dilemma
Petty Office First Class Marcus Luttrell, third from right, is pictured in Afghanistan in 2005 with a group of U.S. Navy SEALs. Nineteen men died as a result of Lutrell’s eminently Christian decision to spare the lives of three goat-herders. The goat-herders reported the soldiers’ presence to the Taliban enemy, who wiped out Luttrell’s comrades and the entire team sent to rescue them. For Christians in arms, such a dilemma raises an eternal question: what would Jesus have done?

In 2005 Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell, heading a four-man party of U.S. Navy SEALs sent in secret to kill or capture a notorious terrorist leader in Afghanistan, was closing in on the village where the man was believed hiding. Suddenly three goat-herders appeared. What was Luttrell to do? Let the three go free and risk their tipping off the terrorist nest? Or shoot the three on the spot?

The trio, two men and a boy, denied frantically that there were any terrorists in the village. Luttrell believed them. One of his three comrades did not; the other two were uncertain. So Luttrell had to decide. In his military soul, he said, he knew they must be shot. “But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong.”

So he set the goat-herders free, and they promptly tipped off the terrorists. One hundred and forty of them attacked Luttrell’s party, killing his three companions and sixteen more Americans sent to rescue them. Luttrell was held hostage and eventually released, bitterly condemning himself for “the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brained decision I ever made.”

But in sparing the lives of the goat-herders and thereby (as it turned out) dooming his own men, did Luttrell do what Jesus would have done in like circumstances? Did Luttrell’s “Christian soul” truly reflect God’s will?

Jesus is often portrayed as a pacifist, but this is not altogether supported by what he said and did. True, he observed that those who take the sword will perish by it, but this could be a statement of probable fact, not necessarily of admonition. In almost every instance in the New Testament where a Roman centurion is mentioned, he appears in a favorable light. Paul’s portrayal of the Christian virtues in one of his letters is composed entirely of military metaphors: “the breastplate of righteousness . . . the shield of faith . . . the helmet of salvation . . . the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:13—17). If these weapons of war were instantly repulsive to early Christians, why would Paul have used them at all?

Finally, the commandment sometimes cited as “Thou shalt not kill” does not properly translate the Greek and Hebrew from which it is derived. Both languages have different words for “kill” and “murder,” and in each case the latter word is used.

The dilemma in which Luttrell found himself, however, is in no sense new to Christians, who have been trying for two thousand years to resolve the moral issue raised by war. In the Christian Eastern Empire, whose army held the Muslims at bay for more than seven centuries, soldiers who killed a man in battle were denied communion for three years, though, ironically, they were often sent off to war with prayers and holy water.

In the West the issue became serious in the tenth century, a lawless time when monarchies had broken down and warring feudal armies spread destruction and chaos. The church decided to act. Church councils began to institute a process that by the middle of the eleventh century would be called the “Peace of God” (Pax Dei). Specific rules of engagement were enacted, first under threat of retaliatory action by the powerful relatives of a local bishop, later by the dire threat of excommunication, which meant that all oaths of fealty and debts to the excommunicated were cancelled.

Initially the Peace of God prohibited three crimes: theft of church property, assaults on clerics, and theft of cattle from peasants. But through the eleventh century the scope became much more comprehensive until a vast “peace movement” was under way. Large outdoor peace assemblies became common. Miraculous cures were said to occur, communal penances were undertaken, and the declaration of a Peace was believed to ward off natural disasters such as famine, disease, and flood. Bishops and monks brought relics to help spiritually persuade nobles and knights to take oaths to observe the Peace.

In 1038 an early version of a peacekeeping force appeared when Archbishop Aimon of Bourges created a “peace militia” to enforce the Peace of God. Comprising clergy and peasants, it went from castle to castle importuning the nobles to swear the Oath of the Peace. Unhappily, like many exuberant religious campaigns, it got out of hand. According to one chronicle, the militia set fire to the castle at Beneciacum, near Vienne, in France, and fourteen hundred of its occupants perished.

An adjunct to the Peace of God known as the “Truce of God” sought to impose on knights civilizing codes of conduct: no fighting between Thursday and Sunday (the days of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection), during Lent or Advent, or on holy days. Out of the Truce came a canon (i.e., a law) passed by a church council at Narbonne in 1054: “No Christian should kill another Christian, since whoever kills a Christian doubtless sheds the blood of Christ.”

Did these controls work? Undoubtedly they did restrain violence throughout western Europe, but they could apply only to war between Christians. In the Crusades and in the long war in Spain, where the enemy was Muslim, they had no application, though they were sometimes observed anyway and by both sides.

The moral principles behind the Peace of God descend into the twenty-first century in such things as the U.S. military’s rules of engagement, to which Luttrell adhered and which specifically prohibit attack on unarmed civilians. But in his book Luttrell understandably pleads, “They’re not their rules. They’re our rules, the rules of the western countries, the civilized side of the world. And every terrorist knows how to manipulate them in their own favor.”

Out of the Truce of God grew the twelfth-century ideal of the chivalric knight, which, it might well be argued, Luttrell has personified in the twenty-first century. By the time Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in 1095, the knight was not only prohibited from spilling Christian blood; he was enjoined to become valorous, protective of the poor, truthful, a keeper of the peace at home, and a defender of Christendom against its enemies, which included, of course, the infidel.

But since some crusaders thought they had the church’s assurance that by “taking the cross,” they were absolved from all sins anyway, why should they bother with the stern moral restrictions of the Truce of God, whether fighting infidels or other Christians? This was not the response the church expected to these indulgences, but as many incidents in the Crusades evidence, it was frequently the one that occurred.

The Christian Luttrell, nearly a thousand years later, is left with a dilemma. If in cold blood he had shot and killed the two men and the boy, he would have had to live with it for the rest of his life. Since he didn’t, he brought on the deaths of his companions and had to live with that instead. But he can take consolation from the fact that hundreds of thousands of Christians fighting in wars over two thousand years have faced precisely the same dilemma, and all can hold fast to the single hope that Christ in his boundless mercy will understand.

This is the end of the Military Code of Conduct category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 26, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Military Code of Conduct from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at