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What is a just war? (Scripps Howard News Service) September 24, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Preparing for war requires marshaling resources, a process that is surely under way. The American military is rounding up troops and preparing battle plans targeting Iraq. Diplomats are working our allies and the United Nations to stir up international support. Politicians are busy with television talk shows and hearings to move public opinion.

Not to be outmaneuvered, 100 Christian ethicists came together in a statement opposing a U.S. attack on Iraq, agreeing that, “As Christian ethicists, we share a common moral presumption against a pre-emptive war on Iraq by the United States.” This follows last week’s letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to President Bush raising similar concerns.

That Christians could be marshaled to oppose war is hardly news. There have always been strong strains of pacifism, conscientious objection, and antiwar thought in religious communities. That notoriously left-leaning academics would fire their own pre-emptive strike against the possibility of President Bush launching a pre-emptive strike is not astonishing.

Indeed, why did they rally only 100 Christian ethicists? To be fair, this number would be substantially reduced if we removed the pacifists whose theology would preclude all wars and those whose politics are anti-Bush. Just as these scholars share a “moral presumption” against a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, most professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, would also share political presumptions against such a Bush policy.

I am less impressed when contestants in a political debate label something “immoral” when they disagree with the policy anyway.

Still, these ethicists raise an important question for public debate. In this modern world of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, could a “just” war ever include a pre-emptive military strike? Or, is striking first, as these Christian scholars maintain, presumed to be immoral? A nation with strong moral, ethical and even spiritual ideals should be as concerned about the rightness of our position as we are the strategy or politics.

The doctrine of a “just” war in Christian thought accepts the New Testament teaching that civil authorities are “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Early Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo, and later Thomas Aquinas, have taught that a “just” war should meet several criteria: a just cause, with wrongdoing on the part of the one attached; a legitimate authority carrying out the war; and a good purpose, such as the advancement of good and the avoidance of evil.

Is there just cause for a strike against Iraq? without question Iraq has been a wrongdoer, developing weapons in violation of U.N. resolutions, attacking one neighbor and seeking to annex another.

There is considerable evidence of Saddam’s support for terrorist activities. The difficult question is whether one must await a direct attack by Iraq before acting.

In days of mor conventional warfare, this might have been reasonable, but with weapons of mass destruction, it should no longer be necessary. Just as many wonder why many did not stand up to Adolf Hitler earlier and prevent mass atrocities, we should not leave historians to ask why no one pre-empted an evildoer like Saddam from using his illegal arsenal.

Is there legitimate authority? Those who feel the United States must await United Nations approval forget what Margaret Thatcher pointed out years ago: The United Nations is a political body, not a moral one. Surely it would be preferable to have U.N. support, for political reasons alone, but it is not necessary for moral authority to act.

What is the purpose of the military action? To punish and remove the wrongdoer, is the obvious answer. With Saddam’s record, there is ample moral justification for this. Clearly the weapons themselves are a legitimate target, but in the case of an especially notorious leader like Saddam, a regime change is also a moral option.

The studied opinion of 100 Christian ethicists about the morality of a war is an important word, but not the last word on the matter. There is ample room for Christians, and others, to find solid moral ground for military action against Saddam.

Sometimes Christianity demands its followers to be proactive, not merely reactive or passive. Frequently it requires tough choices between shades of good and evil. Most of all, it requires us to adapt ancient moral principles to modern realities, which fairly includes the pre-emptive removal of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the evildoer who controls them.

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