Syria and Just War

by nonewsisnew


This article discusses biological warfare in Syria, and why we see it as so horrible even though fewer people have died from it than from bullets.  I chalk this up to still adhering to some of the aspects of Just War Theory enumerated by none other than the Dumb Ox himself, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The 100% true to life picture of Thomas Aquinas.

The 100% true to life picture of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The start of Just War theory actually goes earlier, to St. Augustine.  He explained how it is just for the State (AKA, the Western Roman Empire) to use force against heretics because the Church may make use of earthly power to gain valuable spiritual ends.  In particular, he justified the use of State power to quash the groups of Donatists trooping around northern Africa and killing Catholics.

St. Aquinas elaborated and defined what a State is bound to in the military enforcement of good spiritual ends that St. Augustine taught was acceptable.  They are as follows:

  1. The aggressor needs to threaten to cause lasting, severe, and certain damage.
  2. All other approaches to resolve the conflict must have failed or be certain to fail.
  3. The defender must have a good chance of winning.
  4. The war must not create greater evils than the harm being fought off.

This last point is what condemns chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare.  Bullets and bombs can have very limited scope, whereas gasses and nuclear fallout cut a much wider swath and are more likely to kill innocents — such as children who have nothing to do with the fighting.

But why is the Pope opposed to US military intervention in Syria if chemical weapons are so evil?  It goes back to Just War theory.  For the US to join the fight to defend the rebels from poison gas, Assad must threaten lasting, grave, and certain damage, and it is not clear that he will do this.  He ran the country for some time without running it into the ground.  Also, attempts at dialogue with Assad and the rebels hasn’t really occurred.  We have failed to put a lot of diplomatic pressure on both groups to talk it out rather than fight it out.  Next, the US doesn’t stand a good chance of winning.  The talked about plan is to bomb some stuff and then leave, which won’t put the conflict to an end.  These are all reasons why the US joining the Syrian civil war would be unjust.

So while it is clear there is some holdover from Catholic Just War Theology it is also clear this holdover is limited.  The opposition to chemical warfare is good and right, but how we live out that opposition with the other aspects of Just Warfare seem much less so, at least in our President.  The low number of supporters for US intervention shows while maybe our society cannot articulate Just War Theory, we might still intuit it well as a holdover from our Christian past.  I pray with Pope Francis that this intuition pushes us back from joining the war.