Just war?

It seems timely to recap the principles of a just war laid out by the Catholic Church, based upon the teachings of Ss Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Paragraph 2309 of the Catechism states the following:

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 modern 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.

First of all it is worth noting the opening sentence, which mentions the strict conditions and gravity of the decision to go to war. Before the decision can be taken, rigorous consideration must be given to all of the conditions. It is not sufficient for simply one or two of them to be met. They must all be met “At one and the same time”.

Is this the case in Libya? Let’s look at the conditions in more detail:

Condition One.

the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

There must be an aggressor who is harming the nation or the community of nations. OK check. Gaddafi certainly fits that criteria, although the same could be applied to other aggressors throughout the world, such as Robert Mugabe who is certainly doing his bit to inflict lasting, grave and certain damage on the population of Zimbabwe and the surrounding region.

This sentence also makes clear that one cannot go to war simply to expand one’s sphere of influence, conquer new territory, subjugate peoples, or obtain wealth. One only can go to war to counter aggression.

If this military action is successful it will give the West more control over the oil fields of Libya, not to mention boost David Cameron’s personal ratings, however, for the moment let’s leave aside personal cynicism and state that Gaddafi does fit the image of aggressor.

Next, the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be “lasting, grave, and certain”, the aggression must not be temporary or mild, it must be foreseen to have effects that are both lasting and grave. I don’t think anyone is arguing against this point.

It is worth noting that it is not necessary for the aggressor to strike first. A moral certainty that the aggression will occur is sufficient. An example might be where a party with a history of aggression began amassing troops of munitions. Actually Gaddafi did strike first with the indiscriminate killing of those protesting against him, moving to full-scale war and military aggression against his own people. We live in a world where it is possible for an aggressor to strike at a distance, with little or no warning, and cause mass casualties, therefore it is important to identify a potential aggressor early and determine whether he poses a morally certain danger.

This condition can surely not be in any doubt.

Condition one – met.

Condition two

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

The second condition establishes war as a last resort. If there are other practical and effective means of stopping the aggressor, they must be used. Alternatives include one-to-one diplomacy; international pressure; economic sanctions; and such tools as blockades, quarantines, covert actions, and small-scale raids that do not amount to a full-scale war effort. It is not necessary to employ all such methods before going to war. It is sufficient if rigorous consideration reveals them to be impractical or ineffective.

Altenatives would be shown to be impractical if rigorous consideration revealed that, even though they might work in theory, they were not practically possible. They would also be shown to be ineffective if they had little or no chance of stopping the aggression and preventing the damage that it will bring.

We could argue about whether or not the above measures have been given a chance to work until kingdom come. It seems fair to note that Gaddafi certainly doesn’t seem to have been paying any attention up until military action has been threatened, the wholesale slaughter of his people has gone ahead. He has been acting like a paranoid delusional maniac with nothing to lose, tonight’s threat to attack Mediterranean ports shows the kind of person we are dealing with, so I think on balance of evidence:

Condition two – met.

Condition three

serious prospects of success

Crystal ball anyone? A guarantee is impossible, therefore all that is required for this condition is that there is a substantial possibility of success.

The combined military might of the United Nations is substantially greater than that of Libya. What constitutes success however? Are we creating a similar situation in Libya to that which we have created in Iraq? Are we further destabilising the region? If all we are doing is taking out military targets and eliminating a dictator’s capacity to kill significant numbers of innocent citizens then in these terms:

Condition three: met

Condition four

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.

We must take into account the damage that is done by the war. Again, damage is a subjective notion, including not only military and civilian casualties, but other evils such as destabilizing neighbouring countries, altering international alliances in a manner that causes harm and creating economic burdens.

It is incumbent on those making the decision to go to war to attempt to the best of their ability to foresee both what damage will result if the war is conducted and what damage will result if it is not. The former must not clearly outweigh the latter.

Condition Four – uncertain.

However, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”, i.e. the burden lies solely upon the government to decide whether or not this action is just, or in this instance, the United Nations. Though we have elected our government and therefore have allegedly put our trust in our political leaders, guiding their voices through political debate (in an ideal world), we the general public, do not bear the ultimate responsibility for the decision to go to war.

Pilate-like though it sounds, the decision has been out of our hands. All we can do is watch and pray.

I can’t help but think if only we hadn’t gone into Iraq and Afghanistan then this decision would be so much more clear-cut. Tony Blair has much to answer for.

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