“How We Can Prevent War Crimes” by Dr. Johannes Reimer

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by Dr. Johannes Reimer, Director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Public Engagement Department

Last fall, the Russian defense ministry invited the Russian Evangelical Alliance to provide evangelical chaplains for its army. Unfortunately, the REA was unprepared and unable to respond. It had never received a request of this type previously. To begin equipping Christians for this role, a faculty of military chaplaincy was created in the Moscow Evangelical Seminary.

Six months later, in March 2022, unable to subdue the Ukrainian city of Kyiv, frustrated Russian soldiers withdrew from the suburb of Bucha. They left behind them perhaps the most horrible atrocity Europe has seen since World War II–streets lined with the dead bodies of innocent civilians.

Could a suitably trained group of chaplains have prevented this tragedy from occurring? We have no way to know. After all, these soldiers don’t appear to be the only war criminals. The Russian military seems indifferent as to whether their bombs hit a fuel depot, a hospital, or a school.

But we know a lot about the dynamic that causes people to do horrible things in wartime. And there is no better time than now to consider what we can do to keep what happened in Bucha from happening again.

In a 2007 article, British Royal Air Force wing commander Sara Mackmin described four factors that tend to push soldiers toward committing atrocities in war: personal disposition toward violence, emotional stress, poor command discipline, and being trapped in novel situations. Members of the military are trained in “combat motivation,” which includes overcoming any inhibitions that would make them hesitate to kill enemies.

Personally, I am a pacifist. I believe that any use of violence against other people is morally unjustified. But I recognize that any solution to the horrors of war crimes must appeal to those who accept the possibility of just wars and the need for countries to maintain a strong military force.

I believe we can all agree on the following actions: 

1. Soldiers must be freed from any violent dispositions. Combat training should be accompanied by training in peacemaking and reconciliation. Men and women with tendencies toward violence, whether from their own nature, their upbringing, or painful experiences in their past, should receive counseling. Many armies, including the Ukrainian army, employ chaplains and counselors for this purpose.

2. Soldiers should learn methods of conflict resolution and defusing stress outside war situations that they can apply in war as well. With these tools, they can maintain the necessary combat motivation without hatred. 

An appropriate attitude toward defense treats killing enemies as a last resort, not something to be glorified. If soldiers value nonviolent conflict resolution, they are less likely to use their weapons in dishonorable fashion even when under stress.

3. Soldiers must learn principles of proper submission to authority and responsible, independent decision making outside the military before they enter the military. This is, of course, a long-term task. It involves raising a whole generation of people who know the limits of obedience and who will not cross moral red lines. 

Some churches offer special trainings for young people considering careers in the army or as police. This has never been done in Russia; I know of only a few churches anywhere in Europe with such programs. Perhaps the present war will cause more churches and other organizations to make training young people in ethical decision making a priority.

Christians should be taking a lead role in these efforts. They know that in normal circumstances, they should obey their government, as the apostle Paul explained most clearly in Romans 13. But they also know that their highest allegiance is to the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and that if they have to choose, they must obey God rather than people (Acts 5:39). These convictions should give them the moral backbone to resist participating in inhumanity.

The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace and Reconciliation Network offers a program called “The Church as a Reconciliation Center in Community,” designed to train people to make peace and resolve conflicts at all levels of society. Maybe the horrors of Bucha will stimulate more churches to become involved in such programs.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the evangelical chaplaincy project in Moscow has been struggling. Like many others, the main sponsor of the project has pulled his money out of Russia. I understand the decision. But we have to find some way to cultivate peacemakers, even in societies ruled by autocrats.

Our missionary task as Christians and civic leaders must include a mission to the military. Where this need is overlooked, war crimes will continue.