Just War – A Catholic Theory

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The Citizen – as habitual visitors to this site already know – is a teacher of history. Sometime in the course of every year, my students are going to learn about the most common method of political change throughout history…war. Being young, idealistic, and living in a region where a number of family members and friends are currently fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of my students question the legitimacy of war. Believing in the ‘teachable moment’, this initiates an inquiry unit based on the concept of Just War theory.

Because I teach in a public school, I don’t teach the Catholic Catechism on Just War Doctrine. But as this is MY forum, I will focus my arguments on a basis that is germane to Catholics. The Catechism, paragraph 2309 is quoted herein:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

· the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

· all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

· there must be serious prospects of success;

· the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Let’s break these down.

‘Damage…must be lasting, grave, and certain’. War is sometimes necessary to redress great injustice or evil. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on ‘aggressor’ – this implicates that it is justifiable to wage war against an aggressor. It is acceptable to fight in order to defend one’s nation, an ally, or a nation unfairly beset. Very few people would argue with the Persian Gulf War. President Bush responded to defend Kuwait against blatant aggression.

The second caveat dictates that a war is just if it is a last resort. All possible peaceful means need to be exhausted before it is morally acceptable to wage war. This includes diplomacy, sanctions, embargos, and other forms of political and economic coercion. Again, the Persian Gulf War provides a good example. After the initial invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations – spearheaded by the U.S. – demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.  Could there have been more non-violent attempts at ending this conflict? Perhaps. But often war compels action. Iraq was given sufficient and adequate warnings and the longer Saddam Hussein’s army occupied Kuwait, the more entrenched it would be. And – this is important – the longer they were unchallenged, the greater harm they could inflict on the people of Kuwait.

It is immoral – and stupid – to fight a war that has absolutely no chance of success.  To do so creates a milieu of violence, bloodshed, anarchy, and chaos without the hope of any manner of justice prevailing. The third proscription is a difficult one to accept. Was Israel acting in a just manner when they stood against a united Arab attack in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War? Arrayed against such a force, could the nascent Israel prevail? Questionable at the time. But, as they had little choice, and with the horrors of the Holocaust fresh in their living memory, I would wager that the Israeli leadership felt that they had to fight.

The fourth caveat demands that the war must not cause more harm than the situation that compels a nation to fight. To use a somewhat tired cliché, this is a case of ‘although the patient died, the operation was a success.’  This is the ‘lesser of two evils’ clause. One could certainly argue that if the policy of appeasement was followed, Hitler’s conquest of Europe was permitted, the horrors and violence of the Second World War could have been averted. This course – desired by many both in England and the United States – violates the first doctrine and in the long term would have resulted in greater oppression and tyranny. As terrible as the war was, it certainly resulted in a world that was less dangerous than the promise of the Third Reich. Weapons of mass destruction is an example of a weapon that violates this precept. Mustard gas, atomic weapons, biological agents – all of these are weapons that violate this injunction. They are indiscriminate. They cannot be controlled once released. The likelihood of non-combatants being killed is high. Many historians weigh the immorality of the firebombing and the atomic attacks of WW II as weighed against the fact that they likely shortened the war – sparing lives. A topic which while worthy is a task for another day.

If it were only as simple as applying the ‘checklist’. These four doctrines form the cornerstone of Just War Theory from the Catholic perspective. It is interesting to note that many secular philosophers and ethicists have come to similar conclusions. Curiously enough, when I have my students draw up a list of justifications to wage war, they end up with a list that is also very similar.

But wait – didn’t Christ say ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’? Of course he did. But in Luke 22:36, scripture tells us he also said “and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword.” Evil must be confronted. Sometimes witness is sufficient. Sometimes it must be fought with harsher measures. War is – unfortunately  – an element of our fall from grace. If it must be employed, it is our duty as Christians to ensure that our voices – and values – are heard.

Currently, the United States I fighting a global war on terror, a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, and is currently – despite claims from the White House – an air campaign against Libya. Currently, Israeli citizens are being shelled periodically by Hamas. In a dozen nations, Islamic fundamentalists are destroying Christian churches and assaulting Christians. The leadership of North Korea subjects their citizens to atrocities dictators like Gadhafi could never dream of attempting.  The question we must ask is why are we acting in some instances and not in others?

The Citizen will argue that Hitler needed to be stopped. One could make a justification that the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have actually saved more lives than they took. What of the wars and military actions we are waging today? Are they just?

Read Aquinas. Read the news, look for the truth. Pray. And then – act.


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