Just War Doctrine for the Asymmetric World

“Insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.”  Gaudium Et Spes 78, 6.

The theory of a “just war,” the moral factors which govern when to enter into war and how to conduct war, reach back into Biblical and Roman antiquity, through the early days of the Church, from Augustine to Aquinas, Renaissance philosophers, and finally summarized in a few points in the current Catechism.  In the main the principles of a just war have been fairly well preserved:  a legitimate and otherwise peace-loving authority ordering his troops to battle in order to defend the realm or to undertake some other morally justified objective; and right conduct in war that includes proportionate violence, avoidance of plunder, and care for innocents.

I’ve come to love the Catechism as I find it easy to read with clear and firm teaching.  Given that it was published after Vatican II, it’s probably no wonder that it often provides specific guidance on living a life of faith, through the lens of Gaudium Et Spes.  Thus, in regard to waging war, much of the Catechism’s articulation is taken from GS.

“Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”  GS 80,4

The principles are pretty clear.  Reducing these to practice is always the trick.  I daresay in most wars there is enough cloudy ambiguity about who or what really started it, or enough misdeed during battle, or enough greed in the conditions of victory to make a final determination about moral justification sketchy.  Consider a few of the terms used in CCC 2309 to present the conditions for war:  “rigorous consideration,” “aggressor,” and “lasting.”   Latitude aplenty.  Consider also that both the Catechism and Gaudium Et Spes were written during the Cold War, when two diametrically opposed superpowers had already created the means to annihilate all life on earth.  This context is evident in the Council’s specific naming of the arms race as a “treacherous trap for humanity.”  And while I agree with the grave risks to humanity of an arms race, aside from a full-on nuclear exchange (or perhaps some equally devastating chemical or germ-based apocalypse) we’re normally talking about conventional means.

My interest here is in applying the just war doctrine as currently taught to the frequent asymmetric nature of the foes of nominal western Christendom.  As the term is commonly applied asymmetric war involves opponents with disparate military means, with the typical consequence that the lesser antagonist resorts to guerrilla tactics and terrorism.  In the modern construct of warfare is a just war even possible to prosecute when you’re always the greater of the foes?  Islamic terrorists come to mind, of course, specifically ISIS.  As a military force they have a tiny fraction of our power.  But, they are ideological and brutal.  And clever.  They intimidate and dominate, through violence, and essentially live amongst the captive populace.  They also purport to have established a worldwide caliphate and call themselves a “State.”  The provisional capital of this state is Raqqa, Syria.  So, if our aim is to destroy this “state,” for instance by taking down its capital, can we accomplish such an objective while adhering to just war principles?

“People now feel more afraid about the idea that all over the world they want to bomb this small city. People are afraid. The city of Kubani is completely destroyed. The people of Raqqa don’t want that. We love our city. The West says, ‘Let’s get the people out and bomb ISIS.’ They can’t. It’s a big prison. Women under forty-five can’t leave without special permission. It’s a tribal area, and females can’t leave without men. ISIS uses the people of Raqqa as a human shield.”  Quote by member of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) in “Telling the Truth about ISIS and Raqqa,” by David Remnick, The New Yorker November 22, 2015.

How to smash ISIS’s capital in order to demoralize ISIS and stop the atrocities?  Let’s review the conditions of a just war articulated in CCC 2309.

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.  CHECK – tens of thousands have been killed by ISIS, and millions are under their control.

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.  CHECK – although I have seen other points of view on this, I don’t believe there is room for diplomacy with ISIS, and waiting for moderate Muslims to somehow wrest control of the situation has proven fruitless.

There must be serious prospects of success.  CHECK, BUT… – the U.S. and her allies have the firepower to raze Raqqa to the ground in sixty minutes if that is truly the goal; however, the Russians (our old, equally nuclear nemesis) backs the former dictator and would likely still fight to swing the pendulum back to Assad if we cleared the board of radical Islamists in Syria.  We created the Arab Spring which eventually led to this misery; let’s define “success” before we count our chickens.

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.  QUESTIONABLE – The Council forbade wholesale destruction of cities, so the alternative to the action above would seem to lean more toward some air strikes with a massive ground war, which at the very least makes the previous condition (prospects of success) less certain.  We’ve learned the lesson, or rather the lesson has been presented to us many times whether we’ve comprehended it or not, that air power can destroy but it cannot hold ground.  Holding ground takes holders, men who occupy space and can defend their positions; men who will be shot at again and again.

In this contemporary, very real situation it would seem that the morally acceptable choice to knock out ISIS in Raqqa is a conventional force and many, many boots on the ground.  And although we know that under the most prudential of conventional actions, innocents will still die, I believe the principle of double-effect makes this action morally acceptable.

Having found a justification for action, even in this asymmetric environment, the rub is that the western powers, if we be the ones who should undertake this objective in the first place, don’t seem to have the stomach for it.  Not that we don’t have men and women who will and do readily put their lives at risk to follow such orders; we do have them.  Rather, it’s as though we’ve collectively lost the moral authority to stand up for innocent victims, not least of all victimized Christians in such global hot spots.

If nominal western Christendom won’t do this, who will?

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

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