Are the just-war principles enough?

Are the just-war principles enough?

Obviously, the Church’s teaching on the principles of just war have been on people’s minds lately. Specifically, it is the question of whether the war in Iraq was just.

Now, on a natural level, we know that it’s good that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. He was brutal tyrant on the order of the worst sorts of evil men in history, killing hundreds of thousands of his own people in the most horrific ways possible, and brutalizing millions more. The world is undoubtedly better off without him in power in Iraq. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that some people think that perhaps, because the US hasn’t found evidence that Saddam was creating weapons of mass destruction (or hasn’t released that evidence yet) or shown that Iraq was an imminent threat to the US, then the war was unjust.

What are the just-war principles? The Catechism enumerates them in paragraph 2309:

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.

Those are long-held principles that apply to many of the wars fought in the past few hundred years. But are they enough?

There is one thing missing, and I think it is a glaring omission. All of the conditions consider the aggression of one nation against another, but there is nothing in there about a dictator’s aggression against his own people.

Let’s look at it from another viewpoint. Say, you are driving down a deserted road and you see a car parked along the side of the road. Outside of the car is a man brutalizing a woman, holding a gun to her head. Let’s say you are armed. What do you do? You are not threatened. You can keep driving. You can even get on the cell phone and call the police. But odds are that by the time they arrive the woman will be dead. What is your moral responsibility? Now let’s say there are innocents surrounding the madman, who may be injured as you act against him. Do you still let him kill the woman? If you do, he may then kill the other innocents as well.

I think the just-war principles are incomplete. They do nothing to address the need for men of good will to act to safeguard the innocent under the thumb of oppression. Some may say that we should do all we can short of war to stop the tyrant. Okay, what are those actions we should use? Economic sanctions? We tried that for a decade, but for almost the entire time the Pope called for an end to those sanctions because of their effect on innocents. So military force is out. Economic force is out. What is left? Moral persuasion? You have to have a conscience first, and I doubt Saddam had one.

For the record, I think it is just to go to war to defend the innocent. I thought so about the war in the Balkans (I disagreed with Clinton’s means, but I agreed with the ends), I think so about the war in Iraq, and I think we should have gone to war against the Nazis even if they didn’t invade their neighbors, but for the Holocaust alone.

I’m no theologian or philosopher, so I’m willing for someone more qualified in those areas to tell me why I’m wrong.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli