On October 4th,1965, (the feast day of peacemaker St. Francis of Assisi) Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations with an impassioned plea for peace: “No more war. War never again!” It was at the height of United States involvement in the Viet Nam War.
As we find ourselves at the precipice of possible involvement in another military conflict abroad, Pope Francis took to Twitter to recall those famous words of his Papal predecessor. On September 2nd Francis tweeted, “War never again! Never again war!” He also called for an international day of fasting and prayer on September 7th to pray for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.
People of faith are being called to take the words of the Pontiff seriously as our President and politicians debate the legitimacy of an attack on Syria. Most Christian traditions have continued to use the Just War guidelines, first articulated centuries ago by Saints Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, as the principles for justifying military involvement and use of force. The Just War Theory states three general principles for deciding “just” military action and intervention: 1) War must be waged by a properly instituted authority, such as the State. 2) War must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain. 3) Peace must be a central motive, even in the midst of violence.
While the President is not calling for a declaration of war, these principles may also be used in evaluating the justification of a military strike against a sovereign nation, and may be helpful to people of faith in determining a response to the escalating situation.
With regards the first principle, it would seem the properly instituted authority would be Congress, since only Congress has the authority to declare war upon another nation. While the argument can be made that a military strike is not necessarily a declaration of war, President Assad apparently does not agree. In his comments about a possible Western strike Assad said, it would spark an uncontrollable regional war and spread “chaos and extremism.” There is no guarantee that the United States would not be drawn further into such a conflict.
Secondly, the “good and purpose” required to justify military action is debatable. While it is clear that the alleged killing of civilians with chemical weapons is an act that must be countered by a peace-seeking world community, the most effective means for obtaining justice remains debatable.
President Obama has said that the Assad regime has crossed a “red line” and must now pay for its actions, but that sounds more like punishment and vengeance than resolution. Military aggression here could be interpreted as saving face and flexing ones military muscle simply because “we said we would.” Is that not “self-gain”? Is that good enough reason to escalate a conflict that may put even more civilians in harms way and could even provoke another chemical attack?
Thirdly, it is not at all clear that peace is the central motive in a military strike against Syria. In fact, the opposite may be true. Retaliation and punishment seem to be the driving forces behind the proposed action, possibly making a bad situation even worse.
There are added complexities that make an unprovoked military attack against Syria even less advisable. There is no clear evidence that the Syrian people would be better off after such an attack. If, in fact, the Assad regime is toppled (though President Obama has stated this is not his intent), would the Muslim brotherhood and Al Qaeda allies be a better solution for the Syrian people? We need look no further than Egypt for our answer.
The Just War tradition maintains that the use of force will end the suffering of people and that any military action is the last resort after all diplomatic and political measures have been exhausted. A proposed military strike against Syria does not seem to meet these standards either. The suffering of the Syrian people will no doubt continue and clearly not all measures have been exhausted when the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the use of force is only legal when it is in self-defense or with U.N. Security Council authorization.
Lastly, while the outrage at the use of chemical weapons against civilians (or anyone, for that matter) is understandable, death is death. Does it, in the end, matter how one dies if the killing will continue? Is the use of chemical weapons any more of a justification for intervention than the months of death that have occurred already in Syria, to say nothing of Egypt?
In his 1965 address to the United Nations Pope Paul VI said, “If you wish to be brothers, let the weapons fall from your hands. One cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.” That goes for all weapons. How far we still have to go.