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Iraq intervention meets just war conditions


Crucifixion victim

The Catholic Church has reflected long and hard on the use of violence, and the theory of just war has evolved as a way of laying out the conditions under which a way may be justified morally. It could be argued that no other system of analysis has come close in defining such an approach to war. 

The just war theory posits a number of key conditions. A war must be defensive in nature and be undertaken by a legitimate authority. The damage sustained ‘must be lasting, grave and certain’ in nature so as to justify a military response. War must be the last resort in addressing such damage. There must be a serious prospect of success, and the principle of proportionality must be observed in the waging of war. 

While the principles are relatively clear, applying them to particular contexts leaves room for different judgments and opinions. I would argue that the intervention in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, in Syria, meet the conditions of just war theory. The case against ISIS in terms of it being an aggressive force inflicting lasting, grave and certain damage is compelling. 

Millions of Iraqis and Syrians have been displaced and there is widespread hunger. There has been a deliberate policy of ethnic and religious cleansing: ancient Christian communities have been expelled, and the Yazhidi minority, who pose no threat to any group by virtue of their small numbers and isolation, have been particularly targeted for extermination. There has also been systemic cultural cleansing of many historic sites such as the Green Church in Tikrit, the tomb of Jonah and Shia shrines and mosques. 

Women have been targeted, with rape used as weapon of terror and women, and girls, sold into sexual slavery and forced marriages. There has been forced genital circumcision of both males and females. Crucifixions and beheadings have been employed as a method of control, such as the beheading of the prominent human rights lawyer, Samira Salih al-Nuaim. Captured prisoners of war have been summarily executed. Millions of Shia, Christians, Kurds, and others, are in harm’s way in what is potentially a humanitarian disaster on a scale similar to that of Kampuchea’s killing fields or the butchery of Rwanda. The humanitarian argument for military intervention is compelling. 

Moreover, the genuine danger to world peace is also a persuasive argument for intervention: a Sunni-Shia bloodbath could plunge the Middle East into war as Saudi Arabia and Iran are drawn in. An ISIS advance towards the borders of Israel would carry enormous risk. And just as ISIS has become a magnet for thousands of foreign fighters, so too, it is not unreasonable to see it becoming a base for attacks on civilian targets around the world. Indeed, ISIS’ own rhetoric calls for waging such terrorism. These reasons perhaps also answer the question as why military intervention is justified in this case when there may be no intervention in other parts of the world in which there is violence and bloodshed.

The legitimate government of Iraq has asked for military support (the issue of the Syrian government under Assad, which has major questions of legitimacy, is a reason why intervention in Syria is less clear from the perspective of just war theory). The range of nations prepared to join the campaign also adds legitimacy to the case for intervention, as an international effort is not tied to the interest of any one nation. 

There appears to be a determination on the part of the combatant nations to minimise the potential for civilian casualties, thus meeting the test of proportionality. The execution of four westerners by beheading, along with its general policy of terror and its violent ideology, would suggest that ISIS has no intention of negotiating, and indeed welcomes war, thus meeting the test of last resort. The possibility of success in military action against ISIS appears to be most problematic in terms of just war theory, at least in terms of neutralising ISIS. In averting the fall of the Kurds or the Shia, and of containing ISIS in the short term, and of saving hundreds of thousands of lives by doing so, the case is more easily made that military action might be worthwhile, especially as there seems to be no alternative.

The responsibility that comes with military intervention is immense. It is easy for fear, hatred and prejudice to rise to the surface. In this case of conflict with ISIS in Iraq it is vital that we understand that most of its victims are Muslim. 

In an understandable concern for security here at home we must be vigilant in opposing any vilification or discrimination against our fellow citizens who are Muslim. Islam, itself, is very broad movement of over a billion believers and contains diversity just as Christianity does: there are fundamentalists, moderates, conservatives and liberals; there are also different sects and communities. 

We need to remind ourselves that for a significant period in history the Islamic world was the home to the best in science and learning, which European society came to owe much to. Nor should we forget that much of the Islamic world is still emerging from the demoralising experience of Western colonial rule, explaining in part the frustration and anger that sometimes is associated with Islam. 

Nor should we blind ourselves to the fact that profoundly negative and hostile forces can rise in the name of religion or nationalism or ideals such as liberty or equality. This past century has witnessed numerous examples of extreme ideologies coming to power with disastrous results for the world. To intervene in Iraq carries real risks; to turn aside, in my view, carries substantially greater risks.

Chris Middleton headshotChris Middleton SJ is the Rector at Xavier College, Kew, in Melbourne. This article is an extract from his contribution to the school newsletter.

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, just war, violence, ISIS, Iraq, Syria, Islam



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Existing comments

The crimes you describe could be talking about the US army where 25% of female soldiers are raped by their colleagues.

Marilyn | 14 October 2014  

George Monbiot writing in the Guardian used similar arguments to show how we can justify bombing everyone in the Middle east. http://www.monbiot.com/2014/09/30/bomb-everyone/

Peter Hanley | 15 October 2014  

The action against the Islamic State (as it now calls itself) strikes me as not so much a "just war" in the classical sense but more like an international police action. We are there as part of our long term alliance with the USA but also at the request of the Iraqi government. This time I am glad we are in Iraq. President Obama and General Dempsey are very savvy and will not allow us to get involved in a "bottomless pit" way. IS and the "caliphate" have been condemned by Islamic scholars, including conservative ones such as Bilal Philips. We need, as a nation, to become much more intellectually literate about Islam and Muslims. Muslims themselves need to look at solving the problems caused by the Sunni/Shia split and centuries of warfare. In the situation in the Middle East I can see the point of a lot of what the late Christopher Hitchens said about religion. The ME is highly sectarian. It would be much better if that sectarianism were less blatant.

Edward Fido | 15 October 2014  

This advocacy of mass murder is in no sense just. Would the author condemn the Crusades, whose first victims were Jews massacred by Crusaders en route to the Holy Land, and then Eastern rite Christians in Jerusalem, as recorded by embedded ‘Christian chroniclers’ at the time? After all, it was Pope Urban II who declared bellum sacrum (holy war, his own term) against the Muslims. The greatest ‘danger to world peace’ is the US, which has callously committed genocide in the Middle East for decades now. This is what causes the rise of groups such as the Islamic State. Are the author’s arguments, consistently applied, not a ‘justification’ for levelling that entire region — in order to ‘save’ them, of course? In Gaza recently, 2,100 Palestinians were massacred: including people taking shelter in schools and hospitals. Do not such atrocities demand a just war against Israel? What about Iraq’s Shi’as (also US and Australian allies now), where a Shi’a cleric has called for the genocide of Sunni women, children and elderly? Let's bomb Basra and Tehran! The article is uninformed and promotes unjust killing — under cover of being restrained and humanitarian.

Paul White PhD | 15 October 2014  

The weak link in Fr Middleton's argument is what he has to say about "the possibility of success". See for example Hugh White's article: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-the-campaign-against-islamic-state-is-doomed-20141013-1154pa.html

Robert | 15 October 2014  

I would agree with Robert that the weakest point in applying just war theory to Iraq and Syria is the criterion of success. Insofar, however, that intervention might prevent an immediate bloodbath then it might meet the criteria. I would certainly not argue that military action can solve the situation in the long term. Nor does the article set out to establish what might be the most effective military strategy, nor does it attempt to provide a political blue print - it simply argues that there can be a moral case for military intervention.

ChrisMidleton SJ | 15 October 2014  

Robert, Hugh White is a military commentator with real credibility. However, there are as respected figures, such as David Kilcullen, who think, with some changes, the Islamic State could be defeated. One of the real problems is Turkey, who, by blocking PKK fighters from crossing through its territory to relieve Kobane, may have a disastrous effect on that battle. Much of the "problem" is political. That is a worry. Unity is important. IS are trans border. You cannot have one strategy in Iraq and another in Syria.

Edward Fido | 16 October 2014  

Fr Middleton says in his reply that military intervention "might meet the criteria" for a just war. That is a very different statement to the assertion "Iraq Intervention Meets Just War Conditions", which is the heading of his article in Eureka Street and the heading of the email sent to Eureka Street subscribers!

Robert | 16 October 2014  

What is the reason for white colonial rule?No one wants to address the effects, consequences and make reparations.Hypocritical authorities exploited and oppressed the ordinary, simple, poor people with burdens of all types placed on them, while they were struggling for survival.Leaders did nothing to alleviate the poverty and misery.Jesus finds no justification for the unjust behaviour who has scant respect for any godly values.If you look at today's Gospel Luke 11:47-54 Jesus brings to light the attitude of religious authorities who became arbitrary judges over the prophets of God and executed them, forgetting their own unworthiness.Jesus gives the example of the brutal murder of Abel and Zechariah.Jesus knew that they would do the same to Himself.It is the rejection of God himself when His true messengers are sidelined, rejected and persecuted.If religion is used to safeguard the interest of a dominant group it will end in bloodshed and breakup the very fabric of society. We have only to look in Australia, with so many educated nations but where is that representation in government, industry, Church.The very purpose of religion is to unite people and lead them to God.Without godly values religion becomes a tool of oppression and exploitation, and it is indeed, our day to day experience all around us.

Jackie | 16 October 2014  

I want neither to be a stirrer, nor attempt to knock you off your highly moral perch, Jackie, but some of the worst colonial (with all that means) rule was by non-whites. For instance the atrocities committed by the Japanese in their colonies in Korea and Manchuria as well as the Rape of Nanking (China) come immediately to mind as well as the Burma Railway. Getting to Iraq and the Levant, the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the whole area for centuries before WW 1 and Sykes-Picot, were normally considered Oriental. The verified massacre of Armenians and Assyrians at their hands is well known. In Iraq Sunni Muslims, whether under the monarchy or Ba'ath have slaughtered Assyrians, Kurds and Shi'ites as if it were going out of fashion. Certainly George W Bush's intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq were dreadful and could be construed as economically colonialist (oil) in the second case. But there was strong opposition to that in the US. I think it is very dangerous demonising whites, browns or anyone else. Everyone, sadly, has the ability for evil. No one "race" or "colour" is more virtuous, inherently, than another. Victims can become oppressors once the tables are turned.

Edward Fido | 16 October 2014  

Does this just war theory include the American "Kill Teams" that go around killing innocent civilians as a blood sport to take photos / videos as souvenirs? Did anyone see the documentary airing on the ABC2 this week?

AURELIUS | 16 October 2014  

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