Is war with Iraq just?

Posted: Mar 07, 2003 12:00 AM
This week, on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has asked all good Catholics to pray and fast for peace.

"Our bishops' conference continues to question the moral legitimacy of any pre-emptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the conference. "With the Holy See and many religious leaders throughout the world, we believe that resort to war would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for the use of military force."

There is nothing in the Catholic tradition of just war that prefers multilateral to unilateral use of force, unless you subscribe to the belief that the United Nations -- that struggling collection of mostly tyrannical sovereignties -- is the only legitimate political authority. But for Catholics and many other Christians, the just war tradition, stemming from a profound reluctance to take any human life made in God's image, imposes real boundaries on the war on terrorism.

What are the strict conditions that justify war? As the catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "The damage inflicted by the aggressor ... 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 modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition." A good Christian cannot support fighting a war for national glory, for revenge, to grab territory or out of vague fears of some future attack, aka pre-emptive war. Wars, like all use of force, can only be fought in self-defense, or in the legitimate defense of another.

How does this apply to Iraq? For one thing, as Michael Novak has pointed out, the war with Iraq is not a pre-emptive war. It is a war made necessary by the failure of a military aggressor to abide by the terms of its peace agreement, after its invasion was forcibly repelled.

For another, the anti-war strategy that poses as the moral high ground may in actuality be a selfish swamp. Think it through. The French, German and Russian position is that war is not necessary because we can contain and degrade the ability of Iraq to threaten its neighbors through economic sanctions and inspections. Sure, we may not find every weapon of mass destruction, but we can prevent full-scale re-armament of a kind that would allow Saddam to invade his neighbors.

Meanwhile, how many people Saddam kills, rapes and tortures remains his own business unless he threatens to invade another country. What he does with terrorists is also his own business unless a smoking gun can be found. What the international economic sanctions needed to degrade his military power do to ordinary Iraqi people is also none of our business.

The anti-war strategy thus amounts to substituting vast civilian suffering for direct attacks against military targets. Is this just? The war envisioned by the Bush administration is less a war against Iraq than a war against the bloody Hussein regime, using postmodern warfare methods, which tend to reduce civilian casualties through precise targeting.

This Lent, let all good Christians pray and fast for peace, as U.S. bishops ask. Let us pray and fast as well for moral wisdom to distinguish between true, just and lasting peace and a fearful indifference to the bloody moral consequences of inaction.