The President of the United States has reluctantly called for a handful of airstrikes to aid the Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq and defend the Iraqi civilians trapped by the Islamic State terrorists. With the nation tired of war in the Middle East and occupied with a bevy of domestic problems, the President must be wondering, was this the right decision? As a US Navy F-18 Super hornet pilot and devout Catholic I will use my unique background to assess the decision.
Our desired outcome is always peace. People have a right to live in peace, to be educated, to be free to choose their government and religion, and deserve the freedom to make those choices without violence from others who hold differing opinions. The Second Vatican Council made this explicit in section II of their Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae,
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
Conflict needs to be solved in a peaceful manner. However, when a group of people violently deprives a weaker group of people these stated rights, we have to seriously evaluate the situation to determine whether there is justification for war. As a Catholic, I hold Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium as my guidance for Truth.
The Bible has some verses which one could take as implying pacifism: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” (Mt 5:38-39)
But it also has others that allow for war: “He said to them, “But now one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack, and one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.” (Lk 22:36) Also Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens…A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.” Lastly, Romans 13:4 – “But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.” One can safely conclude that while peace is primary, war is acceptable under certain circumstances – but which ones?
During the Fourth Century, when Christianity became prevalent through the Roman Empire, Saint Augustine put together the framework of the traditional “Just War” doctrine. Saint Augustine, in his book City of God, said:
However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
St. Augustine says essentially that men who are authorized by the state to carry out the killing of wicked men in war are acting lawfully and morally as representatives of the state and are thus not responsible for breaking the fifth commandment. Thus, we have a “Just War” doctrine. Does this agree with the teaching of the Church?
The Magisterium recently clarified the doctrine during the Second Vatican Council in the document, Gaudium et Spes, and summarized it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2309-2314. A “legitimate defense by military force” requires:
1) That the damage inflicted by the aggressor be “lasting, grave, and certain”
2) That all other means of putting an end to the conflict have been “impractical or ineffective”
3) There must be serious prospects of success
4) The use of force must not be graver than the evil eliminated.
Additionally, once a just cause for war has been determined, the war must be carried out morally, by respecting and humanely treating innocents, wounded soldiers, and prisoners.
Now that we’ve established the ground rules for just war, we can turn to this specific situation with Islamic State, or ISIS. ISIS is a group of Sunni Muslims whose goal is to forcibly create an Islamic Caliphate across the globe in which everyone believes the same puritanical version of Islam.
The means by which they are choosing to attain this goal is terrorism. It is terrorism in its truest form in that they have created a climate of fear, by directing violent actions at the most vulnerable people (women, children, and prisoners of war) in order to get attention and to destroy their enemies’ will to fight. All those who disagree with them are given the choice of conversion, being taxed and humiliated as “dhimmi” (protected slaves), or death by beheading, crucifixion, or execution. They have violently targeted Shiites, Christians, moderate Sunnis, and other religious and cultural minorities – men, women, and children.
Initially supported by the Sunni Arab states and Al Qaeda, they have become independent – both financially (from looting banks) and doctrinally (even Al Qaeda disapproves of their tactics). They have taken over oil fields, major cities, and a swathe of land larger than some countries. ISIS has nearly captured Kurdistan and is at the gates of Baghdad. The Iraqi army we spent years and millions of dollars training was merely a speed bump for them. They intend to march on Kuwait next. If nothing is done, this cancer will clearly continue grow.
Now for the test: A “legitimate defense by military force” requires:
1) That the damage inflicted by the aggressor be “lasting, grave, and certain.”
-Islamic State has forced millions to flee, killed thousands, and kidnapped and enslaved hundreds. Check.
2) That all other means of putting an end to the conflict have been “impractical or ineffective.”
-While there has been no public announcement of negotiations for peace, there were the fruitless peace talks in Syria last year and it is possible that behind the scenes attempts have been made. Moreover, given ISIS modus operandi and their goals, we can also reasonably put them in the “impractical” category. Check.
3) There must be serious prospects of success.
– With a serious effort put in, the U.S. Military could certainly stop them. A handful of F/A-18’s have slowed them down considerably. Check.
4) The use of force must not be graver than the evil eliminated.
-A U.S. military intervention would not aim at conquest of the land or coercion of its people, and methods used would seek to avoid at all costs innocent deaths and fair treatment of prisoners of war. People would be taken care of, allowed to return to their homes, and lives rebuilt. Check.
In conclusion, U.S. military intervention to stop ISIS is indeed a case for Just War. I would go so far to say as not only is it an option for us to do it, given our unique capabilities, the U.S. is obligated to do it. Chapter Five of Part II of Gaudium Et Spes states:
In our generation when men continue to be afflicted by acute hardships and anxieties arising from the ravages of war or the threat of it, the whole human family faces an hour of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity. Moving gradually together and everywhere more conscious already of its unity, this family cannot accomplish its task of constructing for all men everywhere a world more genuinely human unless each person devotes himself to the cause of peace with renewed vigor.
As “Children of God” we are obligated to aid our brothers and sisters in securing peace if we are in a position to do so. In remarks made last week, Pope Francis praised the American efforts to help the innocent: “I thank those who, with courage, are bringing succour to these brothers and sisters, and I am confident that an effective political solution on both the international and the local levels may be found to stop these crimes and re-establish [the rule of] law.”
One of the reasons why I joined the US Navy and train hard every day is to help the defenseless and the innocent in the most effective manner possible. I know that my brothers flying off the USS H. W. Bush feel the same.
So, to take a line, Mr. President – “Put me in, coach” – you can sleep easy knowing that the decision is both moral, and that we will take care of the job.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.