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.

  • I will not discount the faithful witness of martyrs. But I do have to ask whether any martyrs have managed to actually change the regime in control of their countries to prevent further death and bloodshed by innocents. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I can’t recall any.

    That’s the point of justice I’m talking baout here: Do we have a duty to defend the innocent whenever we encounter them?

  • Jim,

    My point isn’t whether the war meets the current just war principles, but whether the just war principles are enough.

    that SH’s most egregious acts of violence against Iraquiis (the Kurds) happened in the past.
    If you think he wasn’t still brutalizing his people even as late as this year, then you haven’t been reading the same stories I have. Saddam and his evil progeny were still raping, murdering, and despoiling. That they might be doing it less is no great accomplishment. That’s like saying Hitler killed fewer Jews in 1945 than 1944, so we didn’t need to remove him from power.

    Re: Number 4.  I think that the principle requires that you have a reasonable expectation that worse evils and disorders will not result, not an absolute assurance. No one can predict the future.

  • Dan, C Matt,

    Just because a nation claims to be justified doesn’t mean it is. The principles aren’t meant to be absolute. If some Islamic tyrant claims justification for attacking another country based on JWP (although I don’t know why they would bother to care about Christian principles on war), it doesn’t make it right because he claims it is.

    There is an absolute standard of good. All that JWP does is help the man of good will to determine if his own actions, or those of his political leaders, are justified.

    And, Dan, I think you are succumbing to some of the media re-writing of history. The WMDs were not the only reason given for going to war, just the most prominent. If you read the speeches by the president, by Colin Powell, and by others, you will see that Saddam’s tyranny and evil were also cited.

  • Joe,

    Many thousands of innocent Iraqis did not die. A lot of soldiers might have. But the media template distorts the true numbers.

    We also didn’t attack unilaterally. The US was joined by 35 countries in fighting to depose Saddam. Other major countries, like France, Germany, and Russia, opposed the action for their own selfish reasons (mainly having to do with money owed them), but that doesn’t invalidate it. I don’t equate the United Nations, with the “community of nations.” They are not the same thing.


    I know what the purpose of the JWP is, but I’m saying that the current conception of it may not be enough. If Saddam’s brutalizing of his people is evil, then what are we to do about it? What is a civilized nation supposed to do in the face of genocide and mass murder? Is it just and moral for a nation with the ability to do something about it to do nothing?

    I’m not saying that the Holocaust was the reason we went to war in World War II, but if Hitler had not invaded another country and we subsequently learned of the Holocaust, would we have been wrong to invade Nazi Germany to stop it? I have a hard time believing that it is wrong to stop genocide.

  • Then why is it okay for us to kill innocent Iraqis to stop Saddam if he attacks our country? That sounds like a double standard. It’s okay to kill innocent Iraqis if Saddam kills innocent Americans, but it’s not okay if he kills innocent Iraqis.

    As for who decides if a nation’s cause is just, I ask who decides if a war is just. The JWP are not evidentiary standards, they are guidelines for a just people to use to prudentially determine a course of action. Evil men can already claim that their wars are just based on the current JWP. Does that make the JWP any less valid?

  • Who says we entered Iraq without the consent of the people. The Kurds in the north welcomed the coalition. The Iraqis in exile welcomed the coalition. Shiites Muslims in the south welcomed the coalition. The only large group that didn’t like it were the Sunni minority who held all the power in Saddam’s regime. I don’t think you need 100 percent approval of the liberated, but a large minority of those who are actually being oppressed is enough.

    As for whether it’s obligatory, I would say it’s not necessarily. It depends, which is the whole point of prudential judgment. But obligation is not the point here. The question is whether it is moral.

    You think the Iraqi people could have overthrown Saddam? Do you remember the massacre at Halabjah? How about the 300,000 Shias buried in mass graves, killed after the uprising in 1991? They tried to overthrow him and couldn’t do it by themselves.

    Finally, a war is closed, when a treaty is signed. But when an armistice agreement is violated, then the original conditions for war persist. The end of the war was not satisfied by the expulsion from Kuwait, but would have been satisfied by the continuing conditions placed on Saddam that would have prevented him from further agression, including accumulating WMD.

  • Cardinal Ratzinger, God bless him, makes an unwarranted assumption in his remarks (as does Cardinal Laghi): that the United Nations=the community of nations. The UN is a framework body, but it is not necessarily the community of nations. It is a bureaucracy dominated by people with leftist agendas.

    In fact, the UN is no more the community of nations than the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Both organizations, while sometimes speaking for their respective wider communities, often speak only for the bureaucrats who have usurped the organization.