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Annie Turner

Annie Turner
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Tuesday, September 3, 2013


I have been swimming in the murky waters of the Just War theory as our nation appears balanced on the edge of a spear, about to lance itself into conflict with the Middle East.  Again.  With no hope of success.  Again.  With no support in the international community, save France, and divisive voices at home.

There is something to be said for taking a look at Just War theory and what it might--and might not--have to say to us as we reflect upon what it will mean for us, for Syria, and for the entire Middle East if we become involved militarily in this bloody, sectarian struggle.  So I go to Catholic theology to see what it has to say about just and unjust wars.  (Note:  This discussion does not address whether any war can ever be just; it simply looks at what moral principles can be thoughtfully applied to armed conflict and its justification.)

Ok, tighten your seat belts, make a cup of strong coffee, sit up straight in your chair, and let's begin. The Just War theory (also known as jus ad bellum, right to go to war) has a long history, beginning with Cicero who believed there were right causes for war.  St. Augustine weighed in heavily on this theory, developing central reasons, and these were later refurbished by St. Thomas Aquinas. (Apparently, some 12th-century Arabic thinkers also discussed this.)

There are several crucial components to the Just War theory, which after all is about looking at possible conflicts and trying to decide not only where justice lies, but how justice might be achieved.  My sources for this essay include:  The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Wikepedia, the Just War theory; the Mt. Holyoke site on Just War; the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2307-2309; George Lopez, Professor of Peace and Justice at Notre Dame from the August 30th Religion & Ethics Weekly Broadcast; and the U.S .Catholic bishop's pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," the source of quotes used in this essay.)

The first step includes Just Cause:  This means that nations must not go to war for frivolous reasons such as revenge, punishment, or even simply national interest.  The war must confront a "real and certain danger," such as self-defense.

The second step is Competent Authority:  This tells us that individuals or groups like the Tea Party cannot wage war on their own; it must come from a government committed to the "public order."

The third criterion is Comparative Justice:  This is an interesting one as it tells us to look at the other side in the conflict, to weigh the reasons involved in force being used by the "enemy."  It also says we should use "limited means" to achieve our goals.

The fourth criterion is Right Intention:  This ties in with "Just Cause" in looking at the motivations for going to war, that war not be based on revenge or hatred of the enemy.

The fifth step is Last Resort:  This states that every other peaceable means has been tried to settle the conflict before going to war.

The sixth criterion is Possibility of Success:  Obviously, this means that officials waging war must have a reasonable chance of succeeding at their goals (what values are at stake) in the conflict.  And the stated goal should always be the re-establishment of peace and justice.

The seventh and last step is Proportionality:  This states that the evils and harm brought about by war be "proportionate to the good expected by using arms."  In other words, the final good must exceed the present destruction.  People must be better off after the conflict than they were before.

Then (take a deep breath and gulp your coffee, pleas), there is what is called jus in bello, which defines the right way to wage war.  This includes:  That war not kill innocent civilians; and that weapons of mass destruction not be used.

So.  There we are.  Need a nap? More coffee?  Single-malt Scotch?  If you apply these conditions to the prospect of intervening in Syria's Civil War, what do you come out with?

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