Which "unjust war"?

There was considerable debate among Catholics leading up to the war in Iraq in 2002-2003.

With respect to the election, however, I find myself continually puzzled by references to this or that candidate’s “support for an unjust war” or the existence of U.S. forces in Iraq in terms of an illegal occupation.

Several thoughts:

In terms of an “unjust war” — while Pope John Paul II and Benedict expressed disagreement on the justifiability of a war with the nation of Iraq, it would appear that this particular war is over. I am inclined here to agree with Weigel’s observation (Just War and Iraq Wars First Things April 2007):

Framing that debate correctly in just-war terms means recognizing that there have been, in fact, four Iraq Wars since a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003:

  • The first was the war to depose Saddam Hussein’s regime and create the political and military conditions for the possibility of responsible and responsive government in Iraq. It was quickly concluded at a very low cost in coalition military and Iraqi civilian casualties.
  • The second—the war against Baathist recalcitrants and other Saddamist die-hards—erupted shortly after a decisive military victory had been achieved in the first war. Both coalition and civilian casualties increased significantly.
  • As Jihadists such as the late, unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” flooded into the country, they deliberately created a third Iraq war, whose aims included not only driving the infidels from Mesopotamia but also destabilizing the fragile Iraqi democracy they regarded as an offense against Islam.
  • The fourth war, between Sunni “insurgents” (terrorists, in fact) and Shia death squads and militias, broke out in earnest after the bombing of a major Shia shrine, the Golden Mosque of Samarra, in February 2006—a decisive event in which al-Qaeda operatives seem to have played a part. The second, third, and fourth wars continue to overlap.

In fact, insofar as military engagements in Iraq at this time appear to take the form of joint actions between U.S. and Iraqi military forces in opposition to Al Qaeda, I find continued characterization of such engagements as “unjust” as questionable. Has the Vatican actually ruled that this is the case?

By way of illustration — in 2006, Al Qaeda was occupying Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi, with the intent of establishing a new Islamic caliphate and holding its 400,000 inhabitants hostage. Tribal sheiks rebelled in a movement known as the “Anber Awakening”, collaborating with U.S. forces under General David Petreus in expelling Al Qaeda from the province in what is recognized as a turning point in the war against Al Qaeda-in-Iraq:

Ramadi’s transformation is breathtaking. Shortly before I arrived last November masked al-Qaeda fighters had brazenly marched through the city centre, pronouncing it the capital of a new Islamic caliphate. The US military was still having to fight its way into the city through a gauntlet of snipers, rocket-propelled grenades, suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Fifty US soldiers had been killed in the previous five months alone. I spent 24 hours huddled inside Eagles Nest, a tiny COP overlooking the derelict football stadium, listening to gunfire, explosions and the thump of mortars. The city was a ruin, with no water, electricity or functioning government. Those of its 400,000 terrified inhabitants who had not fled cowered indoors as fighting raged around them.

Today Ramadi is scarcely recognisable. Scores of shattered buildings testify to the fury of past battles, but those who fled the violence are now returning. Pedestrians, cars and motorbike rickshaws throng the streets. More than 700 shops and businesses have reopened. Restaurants stay open late into the evening. People sit outside smoking hookahs, listening to music, wearing shorts – practices that al-Qaeda banned. Women walk around with uncovered faces. Children wave at US Humvees. Eagles’ Nest, a heavily fortified warren of commandeered houses, is abandoned and the stadium hosts football matches.

“Al-Qaeda is gone. Everybody is happy,” said Mohammed Ramadan, 38, a stallholder in the souk who witnessed four executions. “It was fear, pure fear. Nobody wanted to help them but you had to do what they told you.”

(How life returned to the streets in a showpiece city that drove out al-Qaeda Times Online August 31, 2007).

Hostilities in Iraq by no means have ended, but such success stories as this are becoming more and more frequent. In October, U.S. and Iraq fatalities fell to a record low in October, the sharp drop reflecting “the overall security improvements across the country following the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and the rout suffered by Shiite extremists in fighting last spring in Basra and Baghdad.”

The situation, however, is precarious:

“Iraqi government figures showed at least 364 Iraqis killed in October — including police, soldiers, civilians and militants … the Iraqi death toll serves as a reminder that this remains a dangerous, unstable country despite the security gains, which U.S. military commanders repeatedly warn are fragile and reversible.”

So I find myself asking: with the chief perpetrators of violence being Al Qaeda and the incursion of foreign fighters from Iran and Syria, what do we owe the people of Iraq?

And while the Vatican has indeed criticized the United States’ overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein, is this to say that our current presence in Iraq (chiefly engaged in humanitarian effforts, providing security, and training allied Iraqi forces in counter-insurgency) is rightly characterized as “unjust”?

The USCCB’s present position on Iraq is that:

“Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only so long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition,” the statement reads. “Our nation should look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal.”

As far as I understand, both candidates appear to be genuinely supportive of this objective.

Parting thoughts: there are recognizably serious reservations about fighting a “perpetual” conflict from the perspective of just war criteria. Unfortunately, this does not change the historical reality: that we are presently involved in what is sometimes referred to as “the long war” against the threat of a radical Islamism* — of which 9/11 was not the start but simply an awakening.

A war that is presently occuring on a global front, and in which the successful withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan — even the successful capture of Bin Laden — can hardly be considered as an indicator of ‘victory’.

In fact, we should recognize that this war is chiefly ideological and spiritual, and that if victory can be achieved at all, it will be accomplished not by military strength (though there is a legitimate role for such), but the persuasion of hears and minds.

Here I think it is important to heed the observation of Fr. Samir Khalil, SJ, that Islam is not the enemy per se (Islamism, a disease of the Muslim world):

Islam does not identify itself with radical islamism. But radical islamism is not foreign or separate to Islam: it is one of the possible readings of Islam (that is the Koran and the Sunnah); in short the worst possible reading.This is why it is not only essential that Islam and islamism are not confused, but that Muslims are encouraged to reject islamism as an unnatural alteration of authentic Islam, and to combat this invasive tendency.

For a perspective on what has gone before, I recommend Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

22 Responses to Which "unjust war"?

  • Bush signed a timetable.

    I’ve never been more proud of him. I’ll probably never be again.

    A timetable means we’re out and no excuse in voting for Obama.

  • On the issue of Islam and radical religious extremists, the point that Muslims are not terrorists cannot be said enough.

  • This is something that we can disagree on, using prudential judgement. But here’s my two cents worth. The reigning Pope, John-Paul expressed the opinion that the invasion of Iraq was an unjust act.

    To have a just war, you need to fufill four requirments:

    It must be declared because of a substantive attack, that makes a declaration of war proportional to the attack. Iraq didn’t attack us.

    It must be declared by an authority that destest war–President bush was looking for an excuse to attack Iraq–and didn’t prove any sort of provocation.

    It must be waged in such a way as too prevent or preclude evils greater than the war itself from surfacing, and to minimize civilian suffering. Gee–with the civilian casualty rate in Iraq being what it is, and the country being plunged into a situation resembling civil war at times, we didn’t even come close to this. I know that the vast majority of casualties have been inflicted on the Iraqi people by other Iraqis or by Al Queda. But the moral standard is that such things must not occure. And we set up the situation that allowed that to occure. Evils, greater than the ones the war was meant to remedy, is the phrase.

    And finally, Their must be a reasonable expectation of success. We did OK with this in phase one, the war against Saddam. And we felt we could, and we have, defeated the Islamicists in Iraq, so we’re OK on that count.

    One out of Four? When all Four are supposed to be met?

    Finally,

  • Excellent post.

  • Ignorant Redneck,

    Just my two cents worth as well.

    Pope JP2 offered a statement that is not binding on Catholics. This is where there is ‘wiggle’ room for debate.

    As for me. I am still struggling with the Iraq War on whether it was a necessary war or not so I can’t offer much but my two cents worth for now.

  • On the issue of Islam and radical religious extremists, the point that Muslims are not terrorists cannot be said enough.

    Eric — I agree. It’s a topic that I’ve addressed repeatedly on my own blog (Against The Grain) and will likely touch on here in future posts.

    As far as evaluating the decision-making that led up to the war in Iraq, I recommend Doug Feith’s War and Decision for an inside look at how the issues were debated at the time — many will find it “revisionist history”, insofar as it manages to counter the dominant “Bush lied, people died” meme of the left.

  • The war in Iraq is yet another blatant example of an incompetent presidency. The only good that can come of this war now is for the Republican Party to be denounced for the rubes that they are. Even the most ardent Republican must shudder at the thought of continuing this madness for 4 more years.

  • AC must be hitting the big-time – we now have a troll.

  • Ignorant Redneck,
    Your criteria don’t quite seem to match the Catechism. I quote:

    CCC 2309 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 modem 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.

    It says that those in the government have to make the decision, not that they have to “detest war” as you put it. We can still debate as to whether the initial invasion was just. I don’t know the answer to that.

  • Thank you, Sue (and all, for commenting).

    I guess my chief point is that it’s not 2002 — it’s 2008.

    We can continue kicking the dead horse of “was the Iraq war just or not”, but I’d argue that what’s important is to evaluate morally the role of our armed forces in Iraq in the here and now.

    Even if one were to rule that the invasion of Iraq was unjust, does it necessarily follow that joint actions between U.S.-Iraqi forces against insurgents/Al-Qaeda since the fall of Saddam Hussein are unjust as well?

    From the way some discussions go, one gets the impression that any and every U.S. action at this moment in time in Iraq (even those undertaken in the defense of Iraqi citizens), the answer would be affirmative.

  • Christopher,

    First, I agree tht it’s useless to debate the “justness” of the Iraq war. What is always absent from such discussions, though, it seems,is any mention of the original reasons given for going to war, and any mention of the multiple opportunities given to Saddam to avoid war. Nothing that was demanded of him **by the United Nations** was unreasonable (unless you think the wounding of his pride unreasonable); there would have been no war had Saddam submitted to the inspection regime mandated by the UN. So, findings post-invasion aside, Saddam could have avoided having unwelcome guests by simply doing what he was asked to do by the international community.

    I also find the selective ommission of that last little part of the Catechism’s treatment of just war illuminating. It says:

    “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”. (Thanks, Sue, for posting it above). Which part of, “it’s the President’s job, and ultimate responsibility to determine if a military action is just” is it so hard for folks to understand? Those who have all the info get to make all the decisions.

    Think of it like this: you’re standing in a dark alleyway. A police officer shines a light on you, points a weapon at you, and says “Freeze! Police!”. You’re holding something in your hand that, in the dark and from a distance, could be mistaken for a hand gun. You raise your hand in a manner similar to someone lifting a weapon to point it, the officer fires three times, striking you cenþer-of-mass, and you fall down mortally wounded.

    That officer’s prudential judgment was that you posed an immediate threat to his life. Your actions did nthing to dissuade him; he placed three. Rounds through your torso. Who wqas wrong, given the circumstances? You. You didn’t do as you were asked, by a man with a bigger stick and the authority to use it, and now you’re shot.

    I deplore war. I lost two classmates and countless fellow alumni in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would rther we not have gone to fight anywhere. But we did. So what now?

  • Pope JP2 offered a statement that is not binding on Catholics. This is where there is ‘wiggle’ room for debate.

    As for me. I am still struggling with the Iraq War on whether it was a necessary war or not so I can’t offer much but my two cents worth for now.

    Ignorant Redneck,

    Y’see, Tito is one of those “wigglin’ Catholics.”

    “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”. (Thanks, Sue, for posting it above). Which part of, “it’s the President’s job, and ultimate responsibility to determine if a military action is just” is it so hard for folks to understand? Those who have all the info get to make all the decisions.

    Deacon Chip,

    All that line from the Catechism means is that those in authority (the president, in shorthand) are the ones who ultimately make the call whether or not to go to war. The Church doesn’t make the call, because the Church does not go to war – states do. But the responsibility for reflecting on and making judgments according to just war teaching do NOT belong to “the president” alone. The Church reserves the right to make a judgment on the president’s decisions. Otherwise, there is no authority above the state. Likewise, each Christian, and especially each Christian soldier, must make a judgment regarding each war which may not coincide with the prudential judgment of the state. The individual’s conscience is above that of the president. Your view, that “what the president says goes” is dangerous and ties the hands of the Church and of individual Christians.

  • Even if one were to rule that the invasion of Iraq was unjust, does it necessarily follow that joint actions between U.S.-Iraqi forces against insurgents/Al-Qaeda since the fall of Saddam Hussein are unjust as well?

    Great question, although I’m not sure that some of your interlocutors will even acknowledge it.

  • Isn’t it slimy how Weigel wiggles his way out of the indirect, but arguably well foreseeable consequences of the initial, unjust invasion, in his division of the wholeaffair into separate ones?

  • Uh, no, not at all Mark. They are two entirely separate questions. I think Weigel was wrong to support the initial invasion, but I don’t deny that a case could sincerely be made based on the available information. What to do once the U.S. was in Iraq is an entirely separate question, and, by the way, the one that has been relevant for about five years now.

  • I think this is one of the areas where tribalism becomes an all too negative force in our politics. The argument from the religious left is, “The Iraq was unjust, therefore we must vote the Republicans out of office.”

    This is, of course, very convenient if you were against the Republicans taking power back in 2000 in the first place.

    However, while one can certainly take the punitive approach of “They were wrong, so they should suffer” I don’t think there’s much of a moral imperative either way in this election as regards the future conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is virtually no difference between the two candidates positions on those issues.

    Which is why I don’t exactly understand why the war is sometimes presented as a “proportionate reason” one must vote pro-choice this time around.

  • However, while one can certainly take the punitive approach of “They were wrong, so they should suffer”…

    Y’see, you just don’t get it. It’s not that we anti-war types wants republicans to suffer. We want the suffering that republicans cause to stop.

  • And yet the candidate you endorsed today does not have a position on the war that is one jot different from that of McCain. (Which is, after all, how he neutralized the issue on which McCain hoped to run.)

    Your great hope is that he’s lying, and will act differently than he’s said he will.

  • We want the suffering that republicans cause to stop.

    Yeah, there weren’t any Democrats who supported the initial decision to go to war. Only Republicans can cause suffering, I guess. Democrats get absolved somehow if they vacillate when the going gets tough…. And then when the surge works, their Presidential candidate can vacillate again and take an essentially identical position to the Republican candidate.

  • If Obama wins tomorrow, the Democrats will have the presidency and a majority in Congress. Since they are the majority, anything that goes wrong on the national level, they’ll take the blame for, regardless of who did it or if the Republicans cooperated in the so-called “evil.” The GOP will be at a natural advantage in the next election.

    I pray that this isn’t reality come tomorrow.

  • Eric,

    I feel the same way. But what amount of damage can the democrats do in two years in complete and total power?

    I hope not much, but they WILL do a lot of damage.

  • -Since they are the majority, anything that goes wrong on the national level, they’ll take the blame for-

    Yep. They might try and shift blame, but the majority of americans won’t buy it. The majority may vote them in, but that same majority is just voting against the Republicans. They aren’t doctrinaire Democrats, just pissed off Americans. They’ll keep the Dems on a short leash. In two years, here we go again!

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