LANGAN: How Would a Just Warrior Handle Syria?
Published: Monday, October 7, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 00:10
In August A.D. 430, Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, lay dying in his cathedral city, now in modern Tunisia. The Vandals, a Germanic tribe who waged war in very destructive ways, had besieged the city. Augustine’s theory of just war is a lasting contribution to Christian theology and to Western ideas of international order and, surprisingly, is directly relevant to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The bishop combined early Christian abhorrence of violence with an acceptance of the necessity of force to protect the values of societies striving to meet the demands of justice. His position prefers peace to violence and attempts to limit the use of force.
While just war theory has been articulated by religious thinkers and institutions for generations, notably in the Catholic tradition, employing it in the moral assessment of political and military decisions is an exercise of reason compatible with religious pluralism. Just war theory itself needs further development to handle the problems presented by civil wars, asymmetrical forms of warfare and religious and ethnic conflict. But it is the most effective way of raising questions about the justifications proposed for entering into conflict.
The requirements that it sets for a justified war are just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, comparative justice, last resort, probability of success and proportionality. Collectively, these requirements are known as jus ad bellum, or right in entering a conflict. The requirement of jus in bello, or right in conducting a war, requires the observance of proportionality and discrimination, and thus rules out excessive force and attacks directed against civilians. Increasing scholarly and practical interest exists in jus post bellum, or right in concluding a war and establishing a new order of peace, which looks especially to reconciliation, restitution and the prospects for a lasting peace. Just war thinking can be combined with conservative and liberal orientations in politics as well as with varying degrees of realism about the international system. More recent presentations of it have noted the religious and political values promoted by non-violent policies.
Ancient Rome may seem a long way from modern Syria, but the recent use of diplomatic pressure and an agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons meets the just war requirement that force be used only as a last resort. Earlier American responses to the murderous Syrian conflict wobbled among objectives that failed to satisfy the requirements of the theory, including humanitarian intervention to rescue the people of Syria from the brutal violence used by both sides, punishment of Syria for violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons and the removal of a tyrant from power — or, to put it in more contemporary terms, regime change.
All are worthy objectives, but they all either lacked proper authorization from the international community and involved overriding the sovereignty of Syria or suffered from a lack of correlation between ends and means. Pinpoint missile strikes against Syrian military facilities would communicate disapproval and show punitive intent, but it would do very little to protect the Syrian populations most at risk. Clear consensus exists that chemical weapons were used against civilians in Damascan suburbs in August 2013, but compelling evidence linking Assad’s government to the use of the weapons doesn’t seem to exist. Considerable uncertainty remains whether a rebel-installed government would have the values and discipline needed to govern a divided and troubled society in a way that would lead to peace and justice.
The humane feelings that impelled the advocates of military action to seek ways to stop the slaughter and to rescue the victims are recognizable, but one also should remember from Iraq that the application of overwhelming military force can break the back of the military on the other side without coming close to bringing peace and stability. From a just war point of view, arguments for the use of force, while important and relevant, fall short of the requirements for a just war. In the current context, prudential reasons for caution also arise from the likely costs of such an intervention, from the negative effects on Muslim perceptions of the West and from the likely negative consequences for Christian minorities in Syria and the Middle East.
I believe that St. Augustine — who famously took the long view of most matters but who cared passionately about peace and the “the tranquility of order” — would be distressed over the cruelty and hatred that mark contemporary wars. But he would also be pleased that his work has stood the test of time.
Fr. John Langan, S.J., is senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a professor of philosophy. ENGAGING BIOETHICS appears every other Tuesday.