The major difference between Guy Ritchie’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare(MUW) and the historical operation that the film depicts is the body count. There are other major deviations between film and fact, to be sure, but most of them, in the end, really all come back to the kills.

It pains me to say it, as I was looking forward to the movie dealing with an ethically rich subject, but toward that end Ritchie accomplishes not much of anything, really. MUW (let’s pronounce it: “meh”)is both far from outstanding—or even entertaining—cinema as well as far less interesting than its source material. This is more or less where the critical review portion of this essay ends. But whatever its artistic shortcomings, MUW, particularly when compared to its source material,does offer an occasion for thinking about the character of modern war and of those who have to fight such wars.

The film is very loosely based on the book of the same name by war journalist Damien Lewis that narrates the recently declassified history of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, a top-secret department tasked with developing a fighting force trained in irregular warfare tactics to operate behind German lines and confuse, disrupt, terrorize, exhaust, and demoralize Hitler and his thugs. Their methodology included all sorts of things one really isn’t supposed to do in war: assassinations, black operations, bribery, corruption, money laundering, and other, well, ungentlemanly things. For its own tactical inspiration, the SOE pilfered lessons-learned from a range of then non-traditional warlords such as T.E. Lawerence, Michael Collins, and Al Capone. This was war with the gloves off. If Hitler wasn’t going to play by the rules, the thinking apparently went, then neither would we.

MUW boasts a stacked cast and host of characters, but the story essentially focuses on the portrayal of a pair of historical figures who were early legends in Britain’s special operations community. Gus March-Phillips, played by Henry Cavill, was the founder of the British Army’s No. 62 Commando, a Small-Scale Raiding Force formed around a group of commandos under the command of the SOE. March-Phillips was also noteworthy for being one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond and the film offers us a little Easter egg by giving Fleming a cameo depiction in the film. It’s true-to-life, Fleming was recruited to the Director of Naval Intelligence and did work with the SOE. The second character focus is Alan Ritchson’s Anders Lassen, a Danish national who escaped from his occupied homeland to join the British Commandos in 1940, where he served in No. 62 Commando. Lassen would become the only non-commonwealth recipient of the Victoria Cross in the Second World War.

As its centerpiece, the plot depicts Operation Postmaster, a mission to steal three critical German and Italian supply ships and thereby disrupt the Nazis’ submarine program long enough for the Americans to move men and materiel across the U-Boat-infested Atlantic to England. A necessarily clandestine—and technically illegal—operation, Postmaster was characterized by those ungentlemanly tactics noted above: fighting incognito, non-attribution, hit-and-run tactics, and the use of deceit, ambush, sabotage, espionage, and booby traps. Such tactics were considered at the time to be dirty, mischievous, and best done by cads.

Curiously, though, it’s not clear that Ritchie knows these are the elements of guerilla fighting that were declared ungentlemanly. What Ritchie seems to find so roguish is his heroes’ zealous, even lighthearted, lust-for-violence. Tellingly, the historical Operation Postmaster had zero casualties, aside from one baddie getting knocked a bit on the head with a truncheon. This is due to an aversion to causing harm. It was a military necessity. The targeted supply ships were in a Spanish port, neutral territory. If the Brits were caught violating this neutrality there was a real concern that Spain might join the Germans in an open fight against the Allies. To avoid all this, the commandos were to use the cover of night to sneak in, take over the ships with as little fuss as possible, and get out before anyone on shore knew what was going on. But Ritchie’s Postmaster, ignoring the historical facts, abandons the stealth and runs the mission through an enormous amount of very loud and terribly conspicuous gunfire and high explosives. And a videogame portion of corpses.

Somewhere between the real-life event and Ritchie’s retelling, this focus on killing becomes the point of the story. This might be partially explained by Ritchson’s assertions about his character’s motivations. Ritchson is said to have pressed Ritchie to give Lassen more kills than the script originally allowed. Drawing on the fact that Lassen’s homeland had been overrun not simply by Nazi ideologues, but by common German soldiers who carried out cruel orders against Lassen’s countrymen, Ritchson insisted: “Lassen hated the Nazis. He wanted to murder these guys. He didn’t just want to kill him. He wanted hate kills. We should see malice in the knife.”

As an action-comedy, however dark, the film doesn’t quite lean into this level of hatred. But it does depict the commandos killing a heck of a lot of Germans with a cavalier jocularity that would likely have offended their real-life counterparts. It would certainly have offended Augustine, who insisted that the real evils of war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, and a desire to inflict gratuitous suffering. But these very vices are on full display and are jarringly discordant with the film’s comedic elements.

Certainly, some believe that Augustine is naïve. The attitudinal requirements of Christian just war thinking, they insist, are not realistic. I’ve noted elsewhere that one such argument is indirectly made in What It Is Like To Go To War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes’ extraordinary combat memoir. Recounting a ferocious battle between his Marines and North Vietnamese fighters, Marlantes describes how he managed to maneuver into position to kill an adversary when they suddenly locked eyes over the sights of his M-16. He realized two things in immediate succession. One, the enemy soldier was just a kid. Two, the kid was holding a grenade. Marlantes hesitated, hoping the boy wouldn’t throw the device. Maybe, Marlantes imagined, the boy would surrender and “raise his hands or something and I wouldn’t have to shoot him.” But the boy-soldier snarled and began to throw. Marlantes killed him.

When he asks himself what he felt back then, Marlantes’ answer sounds a lot like Ritchson’s description of Anders Lassen. Mixed with the relief and professional satisfaction of having survived and achieved the mission, Marlantes admits, “it also felt just plain pleasurable to blast him. There is a primitive and savage joy in doing in your enemy.”

Now, however, decades removed from the fight, Marlantes feels only sorrow. He imagines the boy as one of his own sons: trapped, filled with fear, knowing he’s about to die. What he feels now, Marlantes knows, is empathy. But he’s quite certain that if he felt empathy then he would never have been able to shoot the boy. And that would likely have led to his own death and maybe the deaths of those he was leading. This suspicion casts doubt on Augustine’s moral aspirations regarding the just warrior. The common experience on the battlefield suggests that one cannot both love—or feel empathy toward—the enemy and kill him.

But I continue to affirm, however, that Marlantes’ own testimony betrays him. If he’s so sure that he wouldn’t have been able to kill the boy if he felt empathy in the decisive moment, then why did he hesitate in the midst of combat? Why did he pause long enough to hope the boy would throw away his weapon and wouldn’t have to be killed? In that luminous moment between hoping he wouldn’t have to squeeze the trigger and squeezing it he hoped the best for that boy. Love, in its most basic form, is longing for the genuine welfare of the beloved. Only when freewill and circumstances conspired against Marlantes’ aspiration did he kill the boy. It’s not that Marlantes simply overruled love. Love also motivated him. In the positive, he was moved by love for his fellow Marines, for his family back home, for his nation’s cause, for himself. In the negative, love moved him to not want to have to hurt the boy, to not rejoice in getting to harm him. Battlefield actions are very often a confusion of competing loves, not all of which can be enjoyed in their fullest expression in exactly the same moment.

Of course, there is something in Marlantes’ testimony that also vouches for the opposition. Marlantes’ hesitation can be dangerous. Hesitate too long and you might get outdrawn. Perhaps, if it’s true (and it is) that wars that are right to fight are right to win, then maybe you dispense with whatever it is that might jeopardize that win. Enter the cold expediency of Lassen’s hate. Malice might well be a combat multiplier. Hate might be effective. There’s no hesitation in the film. As I mentioned above, the large-scale slaughter that our ungentlemanly warriors exact against the Germans is pursued with a jaunty merriment. Our heroes enjoy killing Nazis. They mock them as they fall and make jokes about the noises the dying make. Perhaps curiously, in some ways this is almost an aspect of Ritchie’s film that I appreciate; because it offers—or almost offers—a kind of corrective.

As I’ve stressed, the just war tradition asserts, in part, that killing in war ought not to be too easy. Instead, lethal force is only to be used for the right reasons, in the right way, to the right degree, and against the right things. Indeed, in some ways—as with Marlantes’ story—the just war tradition stresses the tragedy of war. I capture this in my own work, where I assert that even when a warrior makes a good kill—one that is morally justified—there ought to a kind of sorrow in having had to make it, such that while this kind of kill ought not lead to a moral injury—because no moral norm has been broken—it might be expectedly to lead to a moral bruise, a more modest kind of impact trauma. One has done nothing morally wrong, but the thing still leaves a mark.

To this point, in Damien Lewis’s book there is a graphic description of Lassen killing a German guard with his knife. While Lewis describes the expertise with which Lassen makes the kill, he also notes Lassen’s own testimony which looks back to the first occasion Lassen ever used a knife to kill one of his hated Germans. Lassen described it as the most difficult thing he had ever done.

This said, the corrective that Ritchie’s film might offer is against the temptation of some—if unintentionally—to rob our young warriors of some steel in their spines, of some measure of the vigor and joy that rightly ought to accompany a just warrior embarking on a just fight to protect the innocent, to requite injustices, and to punish evil. Some might think that the just warrior—what I have sometimes called a mournful warrior—ought to be glum. In this sense, Ritchie’s depiction of the glee with which his warriors kill Nazis might be appropriate.

But, as I say, this temptation is a misreading of the just war tradition. Given a deeper look, we ought to recognize that there is nothing in the just war tradition that mitigates against military professionalism and a vigorous martial spirit. While the just war tradition asserts that killing in combat ought not to be too easy, it also insists that it mustn’t be too hard. In part, this assertion can be seen in the fact that the tradition is shot through with moral responsibility and a sense of dutiful purpose. When a proper authority determines that nothing but proportionate and discriminate force is likely to succeed in protecting the sufficiently threatened innocent, requiting gross injustices, or punishing sufficiently grave evil, the just war framework doesn’t merely allow for war, it requires it. Just war can be a leash on belligerence, to be certain. But it can also be a spur to it. This is surely why, in his letter to the Romans, Paul placed his disquisition on the obligations of the magistrate to use his sword for the sake of the common good right after his disquisition on love—which includes the requirement to abhor evil.

Lassen is not wrong when he hates the Nazis. Their ideology is hateful. There are some monsters in the world who have so abused the good, the true, and the beautiful that their deaths amount to a net gain for the world. Against such monsters, a just warrior can fight with not just probity, but even with something like happiness. One thinks here of Tolkien’s Rohirrim:

And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them.

Ritchie’s warriors, wreaking havoc on the fascist villains, are clearly having a good time. There’s something right about this. They are highly skilled, wonderfully brave, and busy doing something just and necessary to be done. They should rejoice in that. They don’t quite sing, but the accompanying soundtrack is—again discordantly—rather chippy.

This is uncomfortable. The West—even, or especially, Western Christians—have an increasingly maudlin understanding of love. We have rendered it trite, shallow, and sentimental. We forget the biblical accounts that render depictions of men in battle with much the same zeal as Tolkien depicted. We forget the prophets who mock their enemies as they fall. If nothing else does, the imprecatory psalms ought to serve as a tonic against such sentimentality.

But the corrective, however uncomfortable, had better be made. The world, most especially of late, seems to be in desperate need of men and women eager to fight monsters—or even just fools. We need a companies of warriors like Guy March-Phillips and Anders Lassen who are eager to fight Nazis for the simple reason that the Nazis are very bad people. We also want them to make distinctions between monsters and the common soldier—and, happily, there is one scene in MUW in which one German soldier, just a boy, is allowed to flee the fight unharmed. This one scene perhaps makes some small amend between the jocularity of the film and the gravity of the real world. It is the film’s one gesture to the just war prescription that would suggest that the just warrior should rejoice in being the kind of human being with the skill, virtue, and willingness to fight—but not to rejoice in having to fight.

Having suggested that MUW illuminates a corrective, I want to be quick to avoid misunderstanding. MUW has no such high-minded aspirations. If it is making any comment at all, it is lost in the silliness. The killing it depicts recognizes neither the humanity of the enemy nor the nobility of the Allied cause. Those who are killed fall like videogame props. Those who kill them too often do so in ways that would mock the professionalism of the vocation of arms if we took MUW at all seriously.

None of this is to ask that our warriors feign a fondness for the enemy that in most cases will be impossible to feel. We can love—whether in the positive and negative sense or just the latter—even what we do not like.

Say it this way: the just war tradition does not demand a revolution in how we think about our enemy, but in how we think about love.