Posted by: Bruce Allen | April 30, 2015

The “Just War” and American Interventionism

This from Wikipedia:  The just war doctrine [of the Catholic Church – sometimes mistaken as a “just war theory” – found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309,] lists four strict conditions for “legitimate defense by military force”:

  • 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 modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

Since the United States has not been invaded in a meaningful way for over 200 years, the modern theory of the just war, as it relates to the USA, can only be examined in the context of American participation/intervention in overseas conflicts, most notably in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

NPR has been running a series of broadcasts recently looking back at Viet Nam.  In interviews with veterans of that war, two major themes emerge.

  • The people (Congress and the President) sending soldiers to fight and die were not the ones doing the fighting and dying. A disproportionate number of those on the ground were poor and black.  The majority of those sending them were wealthy and white.
  • One of the biggest problems we experienced in Viet Nam was that, having committed hundreds of thousands of troops, the U.S. never had a coherent exit strategy. Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” was advertising-speak for retreat, defeat and, finally, a panicky evacuation.

Thus, I would argue that the just war doctrine applied to foreign interventions should include a fifth element, namely:

  • there must be clearly-defined conditions when military efforts are no longer needed/wanted, and an articulate strategy for exiting the theatre when those conditions are achieved. 

All of which brings us to today.  I would argue that the Bush administration’s commitment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001 violated articles 3 and 4 of the just war doctrine, in addition to the proposed 5th article.  There was, at the time, no serious prospect of long term success.  The use of arms produced evils and disorders graver than the evil to have been eliminated.  And, there was no exit strategy for either incursion.  No serious discussion of the conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan can possibly conclude that either country is better off today than it was in 2001.  Moreover, these interventions have led, directly or indirectly, to the uprisings of the so-called Arab Winter, the birth of Al-Shabaab and ISIS, and the catastrophic conditions facing people in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the war hawks in Congress have failed to learn anything from the three wars discussed above.  The constant refrain emanating from the halls of Congress, most discernibly the halls on the political right, goes something like this:  “Terrorist organizations in _________ are murdering civilians and fomenting civil war.  We, the United States, must commit ground troops to ________ in order to put a stop to these deplorable acts.”  Fill in the blanks as you wish:  Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Eritrea, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Syria, etc., etc.  In short, for many conservatives, a popular sense of common decency and American moralism dictate that we essentially invade much of the non-Western world.

The question, then, is how can anything that feels so right be so wrong?  Once again, though we are deeply offended and troubled by events in these places, committing U.S. ground troops to any of these areas would again violate the third, fourth and proposed fifth elements defining a just war.  Initiating an unjust war, whether we like it or not, constitutes aggression.  In most of these countries, American troops would be welcomed by the few and reviled by the many.  Terrorist propagandists would surely characterize such actions as illegal aggression by infidels, stoking the flames of discord and facilitating recruitment of new terrorists/freedom fighters to take the places of those martyred by the infidels.

The peoples in most of these regions have been engaged in religious wars and sectarian violence against one another for centuries.  As combatants coalesce into the frightening Al Qaedas and Al-Shabaabs of the world, the temptation on the part of American political administrations to intervene in the slaughter is virtually irresistible, especially on the political right.  Doing so, however, does not rise to the standards of “the just war,” becoming, instead, just war.  As distressed as we are by these events, it would be morally wrong to commit U.S. ground combat forces to these areas.



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