“…Even as I write, Western politicians are talking about ‘the right thing to do’ and ‘making Assad pay’ yet Assad’s use of chemical weapons is, at the moment, merely a probability rather than a proven fact and there is the disturbing sense that ‘making Assad pay’ is a long way from anything approaching a Just War.
THE JUST WAR THEORY
Since the idea of a Just War is often invoked, it may be helpful to consider the Church’s teaching on the subject. St Augustine of Hippo was quite clear that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. Wanting to punish someone, even for an illegal act (using chemical weapons), is not the same as desiring peace. If we look at later elaboration of the Just War theory by St Thomas Aquinas we find that three requirements must be met:
• 1. LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war.
• 2. There must be JUST CAUSE.
• 3. The warring party must have the RIGHT INTENTION, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.
In the case of Western intervention in Syria, who has the authority to declare war? Does an individual nation state, such as the United States of America or Britain, or even the United Nations? Russia has already warned that acting without a mandate from the Security Council places any military enterprise on legally doubtful ground, and I must say I concur. We do not have the duty of preserving the common good inside another nation state.
A ‘just cause’ will always be arguable, but examination of intention is more difficult still. Few nations are entirely open about their motives and the complicated web of alliances and counter-alliances in the Middle East takes some untangling. We cannot pretend that chemical weapons have never been used before (think attacks on Kurds) or that there are no other interests at play in the Middle East that would make regime change in Syria (officially not on the agenda) desirable. It all begins to get a little sticky.
It gets stickier still when we consider three more requirements for a Just War:
• 1. War must always be a LAST RESORT, only engaged in when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have been exhausted.
• 2. There must be PROPORTIONALITY, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result.
• 3. There should be a REASONABLE PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS.
Have we truly exhausted all diplomatic avenues, or has the present coolness between the USA and Russia made it impossible to obtain unanimity at the United Nations? With proportionality and a reasonable probability of success we enter a very fraught area. Missile strikes and drone attacks are not, despite what their advocates say, 100 per cent accurate. Civilians will be killed, among them women and children. Innocent casualties of war, of course, but should they ever be placed in the firing-line?
Finally, there is that reasonable probability of success. Is there anyone who would dare to assess that?
In the West we tend to view Arabs and Muslims as one and the same. We don’t see the differences or make any real attempt to understand them. As a result, we don’t understand why our version of democracy is so unpopular, nor why the values dear to us are less so to others. Unless we can make that imaginative leap, all appeals to a Just War will be fruitless. We shall simply be imposing our own ideas about right and wrong and multiplying the bloodshed. Worse still, we shall be storing up hatreds and resentments for future generations. If, at this point, I urge prayer, it is not because I think we can do nothing else. It is because I think it is the most important thing we can do. Only God can save us from ourselves.”
– This article by Sr Catherine Wybourne entitled “In time of war, only God can save us from ourselves” was published in “The Catholic Universe” issue Sunday 8th September, 2013. For subscriptions please visit http://www.thecatholicuniverse.com (external link).