Religious Studies GCSE: When is it right to go to war?

Patrick was 18 years old when New York was attacked on September 11 2001.

As a direct result of those events, he left his college course and joined the US Army, believing that this was the best way to defend his country.

Terry lost her younger sister in those same attacks, but she believes that war is never the solution to conflict, and continuously campaigns for peace today.

The film poses the question: When is it right to go to war?

The issue of war has been debated for centuries. The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of WW2 and one of its fundamental aims was world peace. Nevertheless, there have been continued incidences of conflict within the international community.

Increased military spending within the UK calls into question the future use of such resources. Under what circumstances could it be considered right to go to war?

This short film is based around the example of the 9/11 terror attacks, asking how the USA should have responded to the tragedy. It explores the moral and practical issues of war, from both religious and non-religious perspectives. It provides students with the opportunity to evaluate a range of beliefs, prior to consolidating their own viewpoint.

This clip is taken from the BBC Two series, Matters of life and death.


Teacher Notes

The clip provides two contrasting views regarding war.

Patrick is a war veteran who fought in the conflict between the USA and Afghanistan. He was 18 at the time of the terror attack on the World Trade Centre. He felt powerless watching events unfold on his television. Patrick was so incensed by the tragic events that he left college and joined the army, two days after it happened. He believes that war is justified if it is in response to an attack. Killing innocent citizens and damaging infrastructure is not, in his view, a reason to avoid conflict, as every war results in a degree of collateral damage. Although using violence to establish peace seems a contradiction, he believes it is necessary. Patrick was wounded during the conflict and two of his comrades were killed by his side. Despite this, he is certain that going to war was the right course of action.

Terry believes that war is never the answer. She lost her younger sister in the 9/11 attacks and describes her whole world falling apart as a result. The loss made her feel incomprehensible sadness and anger. However, she did not wish to do anything violent in response. Terry believes that, in the case of such a horrific crime, the correct action would have been to find those responsible, arrest them and bring them to justice. She describes how, when the bombing started in Afghanistan, she felt as if she had been punched in the stomach – she knew that the next day people would be waking up to experience grief in the same way she had. The citizens were not to blame for 9/11 and the wrong people were being punished. In addition, she believed that the war would make people hate America and it was hate which had caused the initial problem. Terry believes that it is short-sighted to think that violence will solve conflict long-term. War leaves behind victims, their suffering festers and this leads to more violence long-term. Terry believes that there are better, non-violent, diplomatic ways to solve conflict. We should be sitting down together, talking and resolving our differences, rather than going to war.

The clip concludes with representatives from various faiths and humanist societies, explaining their views on conflict and linking them to their belief systems.

Before watching the film:

Issues addressed within the clip may well personally affect students within the classroom.

You should preview the footage, to familiarise yourself with the content and enable you to pre-warn students of its sensitive nature. Specifically, the clip contains personal testimony relating to the 9/11 terror attacks, war and grief, as well as to the war in Afghanistan. You will need to approach with sensitivity and remind pupils to be empathetic towards others where there are differing viewpoints.

You may find it useful to introduce or revisit ‘ethics’ prior to watching the clip. You may wish to explore the following:

  • What is an ‘ethical issue’?
  • What should form the basis of our ‘ethical decisions’?
  • Historical context with reference to the events of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan.
  • Discussion of key terms such as terrorism, justice and diplomacy.

During clip:

You may find it beneficial to pause the video to check for understanding. The following questions make useful discussion points:

  • What impact did 9/11 have on the USA and the global community?
  • Who do you think was to blame for 9/11?
  • Do you think that the correct response to 9/11 was to go to war with Afghanistan?
  • Should citizens be considered as an acceptable part of collateral damage?
  • Is the death of citizens ever avoidable within war?
  • Is it right that the Afghan citizens suffered because of the actions of the terrorists who committed 9/11?
  • Is America safer because of military action taken in Afghanistan?
  • How might those who fought in Afghanistan feel about the war now?
  • Should revenge ever be a reason for war?
  • Does violence ever resolve an issue?
  • What diplomatic methods could be used to resolve a conflict without the need for war?
  • How does Terry feel about the war in Afghanistan and why?
  • What do you think accounts for Patrick and Terry’s difference in opinions?
  • Is war in self-defence justifiable, even if innocents are hurt?
  • Should there be rules under which war is fought?
  • Is it our duty to fight against oppressors to protect others?

Following on:

You could support students in consolidating their learning, deepening their understanding of the issue and applying exam skills in context. Suggested tasks:

  • Lead a class discussion or debate around the question ‘Under what circumstances is it right to go to war?’. This could be informal or more structured. The class could be divided into smaller groups and students could be asked to research arguments to represent a particular viewpoint e.g. Humanist, Hindu, Sikh. Alternatively, students could be asked to do their own independent research with some guidance, in order to participate in a free-flowing debate. This could also be carried out in the form of a ‘silent’ debate, having students write down their responses on large sheets of paper or tables. Students could be encouraged to respond to each other to develop evaluative skills.
  • Give students examples of conflict, both current and historical. Ask them to apply just war criteria to assist them in deciding whether each one was or is justifiable. Present facts and statistics relating to the war in Syria and ask students to decide which action the United Nations should take in trying to resolve this current conflict.
  • Ask students to research ways in which religious and non-religious organisations have helped victims of war. Identify reasons why action has been taken and evaluate the extent to which we have a duty to help others in this way.
  • Consider wider issues relating to conflict such as the use of weapons of mass destruction and the UK’s nuclear capabilities. Students could debate the morality of using such weapons and discuss how conflict has changed over the years. They could study Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reflect further on the ethics of war.
  • In relation to religious responses, students could be presented with a collection of scripture or religious teachings relating to the religions which they are required to study. This could be in the form or a card sort (separating those arguments for and against) and they could then be asked to explain the rationale behind their choices.
  • Organise and deliver a carousel task, allowing students to collate information regarding different religious viewpoints. This could be related to specific questions or they could be asked to fill out a grid which they could use to compare beliefs.
  • Facilitate an in-depth study into one religious perspective (individually or in groups) and present this to the class who could take notes.
  • Ask students to consider conflict resolution strategies and evaluate them. They could look at the United Nations and how effective it has been in maintaining peace using diplomatic methods.
  • Students could be asked to complete a ‘Venn Diagram’ in which they identify similarities and differences between two religious viewpoints.

Curriculum Notes

This short film will be relevant for teaching Religious Studies.

This topic appears in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 4/5 in Scotland.

More from Matters of life and death:

Is it ever right to experiment on animals?
Is it okay to have a child to save another?
Should assisted suicide be legalised?
What are the rights and wrongs of abortion?
What are the rights and wrongs of the death penalty?