IS IT A JUST WAR?
Congress is currently deliberating a resolution to authorize military intervention in the civil war that continues to plague the people of Syria. There has been much debate about what role the United States, indeed all the nations of the world, should play in regard to the recent use of chemical weapons in what has become a human tragedy of immense proportions. In times like these, many look to the Church with questions about what the proper course of action might be; and for centuries the Church, the Body of Christ, has tried to find the best answer to some very difficult theological and moral problems.
It was St. Augustine of Hippo who laid the groundwork for the Church’s doctrine on Just War; and, while this brief article cannot embrace every aspect of that doctrine which has continued to develop over the past 1500+ years, we can consider a few of the key points relevant to our current situation.
First, our Judeo-Christian heritage has long recognized the need for a neighbor to come to the aid of another neighbor, particularly when that neighbor is threatened by someone of greater strength. Is it moral to stand by and allow a preventable evil to befall a neighbor when one has the ability to save them? Put another way, if we are walking down the street and come upon a poor fellow being beaten by a gang, do we lend a hand by calling a cop or even by intervening directly, or do we walk to the other side of the street and go about our business?
Certainly, there are people in Syria who are in need of help, but for the last two years, the United States and the rest of the world has been walking across the street and looking the other way. It is an unconscionable tragedy that so many people lost their lives on August 21 because of Bashar al Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons, however, where was the demand for action over the past two years as thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have died throughout the country. Since their deaths were caused by bullets, bombs, mortar rounds and conventional artillery shells, are their deaths somehow less meaningful in the eyes of the international community? We have had plenty of humanitarian cause to involve ourselves in Syria over the last two years, so perhaps it is now finally time to acknowledge our moral responsibility to our neighbor.
Second, the question of whether a war is just cannot be answered simply on the basis of providing help to a neighbor, however. It is much more complex than that. We must also consider whether what we are intending to do will actually help the people who are being hurt. In our current situation, the President cannot say often enough how isolated and temporary our strike against Syria will be. No one wants to see American troops deployed to Syria, and our military and civilian leadership are all taking great pains to assure the nation that there will be no “boots on the ground”. The United State Navy has ships in the Eastern Mediterranean which, we are told, have more than enough ordinance to strike targets in Syria that will seriously degrade Assad’s ability to wage war. I have great confidence in our men and women at arms, and their ability to put the right weapons on the right targets; but that is really not the issue. The issue is whether that will bring about the end of the problem at hand.
We might be able to destroy major elements of Assad’s army, possibly even his chemical weapon stores, but will cruise missile strikes alone so degrade his ability to fight that he will sue for peace? I have serious doubts. Is our goal the removal of Assad from power, and if so, who will we support in his place? Are we prepared to do everything that is necessary to bring about such a change in regime and the nation building that will result from such an occurrence?
Then, we must consider the almost inevitable unintended consequences of any military action. Any missile strike, no matter how well coordinated, will most likely produce additional damage to an already weakened social infrastructure and result in collateral damage, injury and death among the civilian population. We must also consider the possibility that, if successful, our efforts to help the Syrians might bring about a new government headed by the same extremist elements that are currently destabilizing so much of the Middle East.
Third, we must ask whether all other options have been exhausted. As it stands today, no other country in the world is prepared to join in a military intervention in Syria. Much of the reason for that is politics, pure and simple. Russia is Syria’s closest ally and trading partner and, therefore, has no political incentive to act as a catalyst for peace even though they may be in the best position to make it happen. Have we really exhausted every diplomatic option? Have we considered other options short of launching cruise missiles at the country? Would it not be more just to address the individual who is the only person in the country with the authority to order the use of weapons of mass destruction? If Bashar al Assad is the problem, would it be more appropriate, and, in the end, more moral to eliminate him and spare the people of Syria from a punishment more suited to their leader and their leader alone?
The way I read it, Just War Doctrine does not seek to absolve us of our culpability; rather, it seeks to find a way to reconcile how we, a broken and fallen people, can navigate a dangerous minefield of moral and ethical problems. It is not right to wage war upon another nation or culture merely because we can or because we think it in our best interest. Conversely, it is not right to turn a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbor. The real problem lies in doing that which will cause the least amount of harm; help the greatest number of people; and allow us to stand repentant and humble before God on the Day of Judgment.
(Author's note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive theological treatise on Just War Doctrine. This is a blog post which seeks to bring to the fore what I consider to be the most germane parts of a very complex discussion. Probably the best thing that any of us can do is pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for the peace of God which passes all understanding for all the people of the world who suffer. Please do not be afraid to comment on this post. I welcome the discussion. MWM+)