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Just war

Go to: Andrew Hamilton unpicks the arguments.

Bruce Duncan examines the churches’ response.

The Australian government is withdrawing its 450 Special Air Service troops from Afghanistan to Australia so they can be redeployed to Iraq if needed.

Many Christian churches have opposed, or cautioned against, war with Iraq—in marked contrast to their initial support for the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The mainstream western churches, having subjected the claims of the Bush administration to careful scrutiny, remain unconvinced about the moral legitimacy of the war and have refrained from blessing any such endeavour.

Their opposition has presented the US administration with an unprecedented problem of moral legitimacy. The US churches play major roles in shaping public opinion. If they continue to refuse to endorse military intervention, it will create grave problems of conscience for many Americans.

On behalf of the 60-member Administrative Committee of the bishops of the United States, the president of the US Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, wrote to President Bush on 18 September expressing ‘serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any pre-emptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq’. He went further: ‘Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.’

The bishops welcomed the US decisionto seek UN approval for any action but, on the evidence available to them, opposed ‘a pre-emptive, unilateral use of force’, which, in their view, failed to meet the traditional just war criteria of just cause, right authority, probability of success, proportionality and noncombatant immunity.

Cardinal McCarrick of Washington on 27 September reiterated that the US needed to produce evidence that it faced an imminent threat from Iraq, lest ‘we do something which we would have to say would not be moral’.

In Australia, opposition to a war with Iraq has been voiced across the spectrum of churches, including Anglican, Uniting Church and Catholic. In early September in letters to the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, 38 leaders of numerous Christian communities, including at least eight members of the Catholic hierarchy, deplored the possibility of Australian involvement in an attack on Iraq. The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Watson, accused the Australian government of a ‘major propaganda push’ to involve Australia in a war with Iraq. Mr Howard reportedly condemned the views expressed by Anglican and Uniting Church leaders critical of a pre-emptive strike against Iraq (The Age, 5 and 8 October).

Archbishop Francis Carroll, Bishop Pat Power of Canberra/Goulburn and Bishop William Morris, chair of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, together with leaders of eight other churches, expressed their concern about Australia’s ‘unquestioning support’ for unilateral US military intervention in Iraq on 23 August. But as a group the Australian Catholic bishops have been slow to respond, issuing their first joint statement on the prospect of war on 29 November.

Even after months of debate, the statement was vague and perplexingly non-committal on whether war would be justified. The bishops made no mention of the US bishops’ statement or the opposition to the war by other western episcopal conferences or Catholic church leaders. Nor did they assess the issue in terms of traditional just war criteria, except for recognising that ‘any further conflict would be a human catastrophe, with the weakest inevitably suffering the most.’

The Australian bishops did not discuss the US claim to a right of pre-emptive unilateral strike if the inspections fail and the UN refuses to endorse such a strike. Nor did they raise the question of conscientious objection if members of the armed forces consider a war against Iraq unjust.

The argument for a right to pre-emptive action rests on a belief that containment of Saddam Hussein has failed, and on an assumption that he possesses chemical and biological weapons and is intent on developing nuclear weapons as a direct and imminent threat against the West and its allies.

President Bush argues that deterrence will not work against Saddam since he has used chemical and biological weapons against the Iranians and his own Kurdish populations. But what Bush omits to say is that the United States supported Iraq during the 1980s with weapons and intelligence in the war against a radical Islamist Iran.

Even after the US Congress voted for sanctions against Iraq because of the poison gas attacks on the Kurds, Bush Snr. refused to implement sanctions and continued to supply Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax and botulinum toxin and missile equipment. In effect, Iraq remained an important ally of the United States. It is thus not surprising that people in the Middle East see these arguments by the United States as deeply hypocritical.

Decisive action needs to be taken to reduce and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but as Richard Butler, former head of the UN weapons inspection commission in Iraq (UNSCOM) in the 1990s, has argued (in Fatal Choice: Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Missile Defense), the United States itself has failed to promote such disarmament. It remains the largest arms spender and refuses to seize this opportune, post-Cold-War time to set in place an effective international disarmament process.

As this article goes to press, it is not clear whether the new UN weapons inspectors in Iraq will succeed. Ideally, if they were to eliminate any weapons of mass destruction, sanctions could be lifted and Iraq could begin rehabilitation. But if Saddam Hussein refuses to co-operate, containment still offers an alternative to war. In the predominant view of many churches, and on the available evidence, a new war would fail the test of just war theory, particularly on the grounds of ‘last resort’, proportionality and just cause.

Bruce Duncan CSSR lectures in social ethicsat Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, and is a consultant at Catholic Social Services Victoria.


Andrew Hamilton unpicks the arguments.

In Christian thinking about war, there have been two main strands: just war and pacifist theory. Pacifism is often a powerful, mute challenge to the national conscience. But public discussion will be the poorer if it is the only Christian contribution.

Public argument and conversation are important, because they allow arguments to be scrutinised. They also demand that arguments apply equally to similar cases. The reasons that allow or prohibit us from going to war will also allow or prevent our enemies from doing so.
A recent statement by the United States bishops accepts the importance of public discussion. Because it is pitched within the public debate, it offers a framework for moral conversation without drawing definitive conclusions. It uses the categories of just war theory in a way that shows awareness of their frequent misuse:

Just war teaching has evolved … as an effort to prevent war; only if war cannot be rationally avoided, does the teaching then seek to restrict and reduce its horrors. It does this by establishing a set of rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to war is to be mostly permissible. Such a decision, especially today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war.

The categories of just war theory, namely proper authorisation, just cause, hope of success and proportion between good and evil caused, offer a shorthand list of questions that Australians might usefully ask about their participation in any war against Iraq.

General support for a war, however, does not alone legitimate it any more than it legitimates bullying in the playground. The cause for which the war is fought must be right. There is increasing agreement that the only just cause for which a war may be fought is self-defence. The United States has urged this case against Iraq, claiming that it, in common with other peaceful nations, is at grave risk from terrorism, and that Saddam Hussein’s evil disposition and possession of weapons of mass destruction greatly increase the risk of terrorist attack.

This argument for war is vulnerable in its parts and in its articulation. Although Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, acts viciously and has some weapons of mass destruction, it is not alone on either count. The United States itself has a more lethal arsenal, while the Burmese regime, for example, acts equally brutally. But these qualities alone would not justify war waged against these nations. Furthermore, no evidence links the Iraqi Government to terrorism that claims Islamic inspiration. The lack of this evidence, and the relative weakness of Iraq, disqualify a war against it as one of defence against aggression. Rather, it would be a pre-emptive war, fought to prevent the future possibility of terrorism.

The moral consequences of deeming legitimate such a preventative war are enormous. The argument, if endorsed, would justify a military response to almost any perceived threat, no matter how remote. It would also negate the force of another provision of just war theory—that it should be a last resort. The normal responses by a stronger power to real but not immediate threats are monitoring and containment. There is no evidence that those responses have failed in this case.

Because the bishops are so sceptical about the moral justification for military action against Iraq, their support for selective conscientious objection is significant. Governments often accommodate pacifists who believe that all war is immoral. But they are angered by anyone who wishes to opt out of the particular war that they wish to wage on the grounds that it specifically is morally unjustifiable. In this statement, just war theory provides the grounds for making this claim, and the insistence on the right to selective conscientious objection provides the space to act on the claim.

Andrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street’s publisher, and teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

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