The Risk of Virtue: Sending a Son to War


S. Michael Craven

In the spring of 2012, I sent my twenty-year-old son to war. I, along with my wife and two daughters, watched as he boarded a bus with his buddies from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines—guns and gear slung over their shoulders—to begin their long transit to Afghanistan. Their unit was the last of the “Surge” troops sent to Afghanistan in a final effort to rout the Taliban from the Sangin River Valley of the Helmand Province, the birthplace of the Taliban. As his father and a veteran, I was overwhelmed with a multitude of emotions. On one hand I was incredibly proud of the young man he had become—a man committed to service, duty, and love of country—but on the other I feared for his safety.

While there is the potential to place these virtues under the rubric of blind nationalism or militarism, this would be improper. The proper foundation for exalting these as true virtues lies in the biblical concept of love as revealed in Christ Jesus. Contrary to popular notions, love is not an emotion but the act of placing the needs of another above your own. According to the Scriptures, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7) and this would apply to those who bear the burden of protecting the nation. It is God himself who acted in history to show us the way and nature of love. This is best summarized in Romans 5:8, which says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This, and nothing less, is the model that his church is to follow as we bring his love into the world.

Love, rooted in the nature of God, leaves us no choice but to act, even in the face of danger, and in doing so we manifest the image of God, who spared not, His own son that we may have life. It is in this that human courage and heroism becomes noble—worthy of praise and honor.

During that long season in 2012, I wrestled deeply with these emotions because I was reminded that teaching your children to be virtuous can carry a cost, indeed a heavy cost that seven other families of sons, brothers, and husbands in his unit tragically paid that summer. I recall thinking, how do I reconcile teaching my son to love others with the possibility that doing so may require him to give his own life?

You see, it is only at the moment of real risk that one is confronted with the weight of his or her convictions. Is it possible to truly believe in these virtues if one isn’t willing to bear the full consequence of living them out? I don’t think so. As Christians, we may soon come face-to-face with the reality that showing the love of God by standing for truth and defending the victims of bad ideas may involve great personal risk.

Sadly, I don’t think we as a nation are all that committed to teaching our children to be virtuous anymore. I think most parents, including many Christians, are more concerned with getting their kids into the right school so they can secure the “American dream,” pursuing instead what Francis Schaeffer described as the two “terrible values of personal peace and affluence.”

To clarify, virtues are not to be confused with values. Values are temporal things, personal preferences that one can choose and change at any time. Virtues are transcendent and thus unchanging; they are something outside and above us to which we aspire. And the virtue of courage is essential to them all as C.S. Lewis so noted: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

For me, the question centers more on what C. S. Lewis described as “men without chests.” Will we produce men (and women) who, in this case, are willing to go when their country calls or will we instead produce people who weigh the cost and choose to place their own comfort and safety above all else? If we succumb to the latter, there is little hope for civilization and/or the Church.

As Christians, how likely are we to confront evil and injustice if we are unwilling to risk our lives, much less our jobs or reputations? Already, too many Christians have embraced silence in the wake of policies and practices that are unravelling the moral fabric of the nation. People uncommitted to virtue, who do not trust in the providence of God, will likely not cross the street to help a neighbor, much less go into harm’s way to defend the higher ideals of justice and liberty in a foreign land.

I didn’t believe in 2012 that the war in Afghanistan had clear objectives, but I dare not suggest that each man act autonomously and determine “this cause isn’t worth fighting for.” If that were to become the case, every cause could be dismissed by its various shortcomings and no one would commit to anything involving risk.

Scrawled on the wall of his small forward operating base in 2012 were the words: “The Marines are at war; America is at the mall!” a reference to the fact that the long War on Terror has been borne by less than 1 percent of the US population. It is a certainty that without such devotion, we would not be celebrating American Independence this week.

This is where faith takes hold. Sometimes the justness of a situation only becomes clear after the fact. However, faith in God always compels us to act in the service of others—setting aside our personal safety and comfort, trusting that God is sovereign. Try as we might to avoid the reality that our lives are lived in the valley of the shadow of death, our fate rests in the hands of God, not in politicians. To many, these virtues seem anachronistic but because they reflect the suffering character of God, they remain essential aspirations for being a good man or woman.

Thus, I could not teach my son to love others in the way the Bible describes and then discourage him when doing so might place his life at risk. I would have failed in my duty as a Christian father if I drew such a line and my son would know nothing of virtue or be willing to bear the cost of being virtuous. That being said, it is far easier to follow in theory than to practice!

Thankfully and by God’s grace, my son returned home from that awful season in Afghanistan, went on to complete his service in the Marine Corps, graduate from Texas A&M University and marry our dear daughter-in-law. I still rejoice inside every time I see him, knowing how things could have been very different. However, I also think about those friends of his—glorious young men—who made the ultimate sacrifice and the sorrow that their parents still bear. How long we continue as a Republic and the Church depends largely on whether or not we determine to be virtuous and continue to teach these virtues to our children.


Michael Craven serves as the Director of the Colson Fellows Program at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.


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