Killing in Warfare

A reader recently submitted the following questions: 

My step-father is now in his early 80s. He has served in both WWII and the Korean War.  During the Korean War, he was in a rice patty where a young Korean boy suddenly popped up in front of him.  In a split-second, he had to decide... kill a young boy or be killed.  He shot. 
 
To this day, he cannot forgive himself for this in particular above all of the other horrors or war that he has seen and experienced.  And, he does not feel that he is worthy of forgiveness by God and Christ for this act.
 
Are there any Scriptures that you can point to help him gain any sense of peace and comfort?  I think the primary struggle is looking the young boy in the face and needing to decide will it be him or me?  Shoot a young boy or be killed.  Should he have let the young boy live?

My reply: 

Many people have misunderstood the Bible on the subject of killing, often because of an incorrect translation in the old King James version of the Bible.  The sixth commandment, in Exodus 20:13, does not actually say, "Thou shalt not kill" as translated in the old King James.  A more accurate translation is provided in many of the modern versions, such as the NIV, which says, "You shall not murder."  The Bible forbids the act of murder, which means the unjustified taking of a person's life (including suicide, abortion, and euthanasia), but it doesn't forbid all killing.  In fact, it is sometimes very adamant that killing is the right thing to do, but it must be justified in God's eyes.
 
The Bible tells us quite clearly that killing is not only justified in warfare, but it's also necessary.  It offers many examples where God commands His people to kill their enemy aggressors in warfare.  In Genesis 10 through 12 (specifically 10:5 and 11:9), God created the institution of nations, and determined that people would be divided according to national entities.  God condemned aggression from one nation against another, and he sanctioned warfare as a means of protection from aggressors.  The Old Testament is filled with commands from God to Moses, Joshua, David, and many others, to kill their enemy aggressors.  Deuteronomy 20:1 says, "When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you." 
 
Sometimes God even commanded the unmerciful annihilation of evil nations. Deuteronomy 2:33-34 says, "The LORD our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them--men, women and children. We left no survivors."
 
In your step-father's experience in Korea, the nations of North Korea and China were the aggressors.  They invaded South Korea which was our ally, so we helped them in their defense against those aggressors.  Your step-father explicitly obeyed the Scripture above that says, "... do not be afraid of them, ..."  He had been trained to obey orders, and that he did.  He bravely fulfilled his duty in killing the aggressors, even when he had some moral questions about it. 
 
Remember also that our armed forces work as a team in defeating our enemies.  Consider a particular service man whose sole responsibility was to load the proper coordinates for a 90MM anti-aircraft cannon, perhaps under a cloudy nighttime sky.  After the coordinates were loaded, another man positioned and aimed the gun.  Another man loaded a mortar shell, and yet another man fired the weapon.  If the artillery (hopefully) hit its target aircraft, it likely killed all of the enemy onboard.  In many cases, none of these men even saw the far away explosion, but each was (proudly) a part of the killing of the enemy.  The unfortunate thing in your step-father's incident is that it took place in such close physical proximity to the aggressor.  Even if this is a recurring nightmare for him, he should be proud of the part he played in defense of freedom.  In fact, the enemy soldier that he killed may have been destined to kill him, or another American soldier, if he had not done the right thing as he did. 
 
Your story reminded me of the movie, Saving Private Ryan.  I love the scene with the American sniper, whose job it was to hide, take careful aim with his rifle, and kill German soldiers.  Each time, just before pulling the trigger, he would quote a Scripture from the Bible.  In other words, He was demonstrating his obedience to God and to his commanding officers by killing the enemy.  Such a man, so learned in the Scriptures, probably also said a prayer for his enemies (Matthew 5:44), while he also thanked God for the opportunity for obedience to Him. 
 
Now, regarding forgiveness, Acts 13:38 says, “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you."  Forgiveness of sin is a matter of believing in Christ.  If your step-father is a believer (John 3:16), then, like the rest of us believers, he can simply claim his eternal forgiveness (Romans 4:7), and use the technique of confession (1 John 1:9) to receive temporal forgiveness.  However, regarding his specific actions during war, I believe that there is no need for forgiveness in this situation.  His was not an act of sin, but of obedience. 
 
For more information on this, please see my article at

    http://www.christiandataresources.com/killing.htm

I certainly have an appreciation for the fact your step-father is haunted by that moment when he had to look the young boy in the face and decide what to do.  I may not have addressed this issue directly enough.  I have never had such a difficult decision, but I'll try to better explain my view from a biblical and moral perspective. 
 
During those wars, and in all of our wars since then, our enemies have often been terrorists who have been willing to sacrifice the lives of their own women and children by using them as decoys, traps, human shields, and suicide bombers.  They quickly learned that American soldiers have compassion for innocent women and children.  Unfortunately, our soldiers also quickly learned that they had to be cautious and untrusting in all engagements with enemy civilians.  Too often an American soldier came to the aid of such a child only to discover that it was a trap to set off an explosion and kill as many Americans as possible. 
 
Your step-father suddenly faced a situation where he had to make a split-second decision, and his instincts and military training kicked in.  Yes, if he had more time, he might have made a different decision.  However, he didn't have more time.  Our enemies intentionally try to cause our soldiers to hesitate by exploiting their compassion and sensitivity as weaknesses.  There have been many similar situations where American soldiers tried to help an innocent child, then the slightest move by the child set off an explosion, or a trigger from a nearby enemy sniper.  For all your step-father knew, he was saving American lives by sacrificing the life of a child. 
 
I know it had to be terrible for your step-father to look the young boy in the face and decide whether to shoot him or be killed.  I still adamantly believe that your step-father did the right thing.  I believe that this is obvious by the mere fact that this was the decision at hand--to shoot or be killed.  In such (horrendous) moments of battle, our soldiers are taught to do the right thing.  They must shoot.  They would not further our cause to allow themselves to be killed in such a situation.  They are still needed for future battles, and to return home safely. 
 
Note that this does not excuse the war-time murder of civilians such as what some American soldiers did during the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.  Killing the enemy in warfare is justified, but intentional murder is an unjustified sin.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is a fine line, requiring an instant decision by our soldiers.  War is an ugly, but necessary, thing, and part of the ugliness is having to make quick life-threatening decisions. 
 
So, should your step-father have let the young boy live?  I don't believe so.  He demonstrated strength during wartime, making some quick decisions and acting on those decisions.  If his training, battle conditions, and momentary decision-making were similar to what I described, then he can take solace in the Scriptures that I have offered.  If, for some reason, a sin was committed, then he simply needs to take solace in confession to God (1 John 1:9), as the rest of us do, in order to receive temporal forgiveness. 

Please be sure to thank your step-father for the freedom that he provided to me for his faithful service in fulfilling the (sometimes awful) call of duty from God and from our country, in not just one, but two wars.  I was never in the military, and, much less, never in his shoes.  Because of this, I truly believe that I'll never be half the man he is.  My simple and easy duty is to simply admire and thank him, and it's my privilege to do so.  I am praying for your step-father's peace and comfort in God (Philippians 4:7). 

Owen Weber 2011