Monday, September 9, 2013

Just war, Syria, and Captain America syndrome

With the possibility of strikes against Syria by our own government in mind, let's take a look at what the Church actually teaches about war (and I thank the reader who suggested this).  Here, first, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2307 The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.105
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."106
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. 

The CCC then goes on to discuss the rights of countries to defend themselves and the right of competent authorities, in a just war situation, to compel their citizens to come to the nation's defense.

How does any of this relate to what's going on right now in Syria, and our justification for becoming involved?

This is not an area in which I have any expertise, but just seeing things as a Catholic laywoman, I would have to say that no case for intervention in Syria falling within the just war principles has even been made.  In fact, the more I look at that list of criteria, the more I think that the tendency of America in recent years has been to stop at principle #1: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain...  Once we've focused in on that, it's full speed ahead, at least in the recent past.

What's interesting about that is that I think that this tendency on the part of the American people to support wars when we see people in distant nations suffering under the cruelty of tyrants is, in fact, a good thing--even a noble thing.  It's the kind of thing the people who brought us this movie recognized when they portrayed the pre-Captain America version of Steve Rogers as the kind of guy who would stand up to bullies, even when he was no match for them--which made his transformation into a capable hero all the more satisfying.

But in the real world, the calculations we have to make before we enter a war don't stop with the knowledge that someone is being an unjust aggressor and hurting the innocent (and the questions which have been raised about just exactly what is going on in Syria indicate that we don't really know for sure that either side can claim innocence or the moral high ground here).  Even if we knew for a fact that Assad was inflicting damage on his nation that was going to be lasting, grave, and certain, we would still have to consider the other points: is there no other way to end this conflict?  Can we win? Will our entry into this fight produce greater harm than if we stayed out--especially given that last consideration about modern warfare and its ills (especially the tendency to target civilians disproportionately)?

Those aren't the kind of questions we should consider only after committing to action--they are the questions we must consider before committing to action.  Our national impulse to wish to help when people are suffering is a good thing, but it's also something that--in the real world--is far too easy to manipulate by those who have more cynical or more political or less pure motives to want to go to war.

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)