War is Not a Corporal Work of Mercy

On March 19th U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a statement calling for military action against Syria. [1] The statement was this:

“We are extremely disturbed by reports that chemical weapons have been used today in Syria. President Obama has said that the use of weapons of mass destruction by Bashar Assad is a ‘red line’ for him that ‘will have consequences.’ If today’s reports are substantiated, the President’s red line has been crossed, and we would urge him to take immediate action to impose the consequences he has promised. That should include the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups. If today’s reports are substantiated, the tragic irony will be that these are the exact same actions that could have prevented the use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria.”

Such decisions can be tough to make. Questions always arise as to whether U.S. intervention will be, on balance, helpful in the cause of stabilization. With regard to Syria in particular there are concerns about the composition of the rebellion, and whether those who will ultimately replace the Assad government will be friendly to U.S. interests. Additionally, there is the U.S. domestic situation to consider, specifically, a national debt that we are told is reaching crisis levels, and should not be, therefore, in sufficient health to withstand yet another foreign military adventure.

But those who take Catholic social teaching seriously can avail themselves of guidance to help them in their discernment in such situations by means of the Just War Doctrine. Since it is anticipated that many of our readers will be of that ilk, it will be useful to lay out the elements of the doctrine, and try to apply them to the Syrian situation.

The requirements of the Just War Doctrine are strict, and each requirement must be satisfied in order to give moral legitimacy to any military action. One such requirement is that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain….” [2]

To comply with this requirement it would be necessary that either the United States was being attacked by Syria, or that Syria was launching a serious attack on the community of nations. But neither of those things are taking place. In fact, no nation is being attacked at all. The conflict in question is a civil war. The Just War Doctrine, therefore, does not provide justification for the United States to launch a military attack against Syria.

This should not prevent the United States from providing humanitarian assistance. There is no evil in doing such things as providing medicine to those who need it, or giving aid to refugees. But the Just War Doctrine reminds us that our eagerness for good works ought not to wander into military adventurism, the only inevitable outcome from which will be human suffering.

Jack Quirk


  1. fr.mike@hotmail.comApril 1, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    wow great article

  2. "It would be necessary that either the United States was being attacked by Syria, or ... attack on the community of nations."

    By this standard, no outside military intervention to attack a nation involved in a strictly internal civil war with its own people would ever be justified, no matter how terrible the slaughter.

    1. Why, yes, that's true. It doesn't dispense with humanitarian assistance, however, such as taking in refugees. Civil wars are rife with ambiguity, and one cannot be certain of aligning with the "right" side. This is especially true from the standpoint of the ordinary citizen, who must get his information through the media, and the notion of a completely unbiased press is a delusion.

    2. Would it have been wrong to attack NAZI Germany to prevent the Holocaust? Assuming Japan never attacked us to begin with.

    3. Here is how the Just War Doctrine is stated in the Catechism:

      "2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
      - 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 modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

      These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the 'just war' doctrine.
      The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."

      This doesn't seem to allow for attempting to effectuate regime change even for genocide committed by a government against its own people, or minorities within its borders. As shocking as that may seem, the Just War Doctrine does not foreclose other remedies that might, in certain circumstances, actually be mandated by Catholic Social Teaching. Where the United States is confronted with such a situation, I would argue that it is obligated to assist persecuted populations to escape, and to allow them to relocate within the U.S., or in some other safe haven of their choosing.

      With specific reference to Nazi Germany, since its attack was against the community of nations, I do not believe that Pearl Harbor was a necessary precondition for U.S. entry into the war.

  3. Be sure to listen to Right Wing Blow Hard Radio to start rattling them sabers, like they did when Bush trotted out his coterie of sycophants and lies to get us involved in Iraq for oil -- under the pretext, of course, of national security.

  4. Did the French violate the Just War Doctrine by helping the US in the Revolution? This makes for fascinating conversation. Thank you.

    1. I would have to say that they did indeed violate the Just War Doctrine. France entering the war also serves as an object lesson, since the French were poorly repaid for their efforts on our behalf.

      The effort decimated France's treasury. The trade with the U.S. that they hoped for never materialized, and Britain became the chief trading partner of the U.S. after the war. Then, in a subsequent war between France and Britain, the U.S. declared its neutrality.

      Such are the proverbial "good deeds" that never go unpunished.

  5. @Tim Youree

    Yes, probably, though the doctrine wasn't so clearly stated at that time. But then, the Revolution itself almost certainly wouldn't meet the criteria for a legitimate use of force.

    1. But it isn't a completely anachronistic exercise. The just war doctrine in some form goes back as far as St. Augustine. Prior to him, it wasn't clear that Christians should engage in war at all.

  6. We should all whether Catholics or Christians need to pay attention to the words of our first President who warned us not to get involved in any foreign entanglements yet we are still acting as the world's police man, and like Pat Buchanan has pointed out the US is supposed to be a Constitutional Republic NOT an Empire. Past empires did not last and these Empires were the Roman Empire the British and the US for the last Century. The Neo Cons and their Chicken Hawk military policy is making us the object of mistrust and scorn throughout the world.