The bishops on Iraq

I’m dubious too about the projected war with Iraq, although the reason may be that I know so little about the situation. Still, it’s important to sort through the issues rationally. With that in mind, it seems to me that the definition of “just cause” as a case in which “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain” [emphasis added] shouldn’t be treated as if it dealt adequately with all situations. Taken in a formulaic way, it’s not persuasive.

A formulation of “just war” doctrine has to depend on the nature of war, and that changes. It matters that travel is easy today, that bacteriological warfare and suitcase A-bombs have become possibilities, and that war between states can now be carried on through shadowy informal associations as well as directly.

Under such circumstances the possibilities become infinite. The immediate threat of violence—pointing a gun at someone to force him to do something—would I think constitute aggression. What if it weren’t certain the threat would be carried out? How about the implicit threat that if we don’t play ball something very bad might plausibly happen to us in the near future? What if a tyrant found he could get his way in the world—could engage in gross injustice with impunity—because of the known risk he had created by acquiring atomic weapons, his known willingness to stop at nothing to get his way, and perhaps the difficulty of tracing what had happened if one went off somewhere? What if it seemed likely a tyrant was about to put himself in that position?

It seems hard to draw clear lines under present circumstances. That’s bothersome, because it makes it harder to exclude horrible things. Still, I’m not sure what one can do but try to think through the issues as well as possible. The bishops can make a contribution to public affairs by dispassion, by placing things in a different perspective, or in some cases (especially if they have personal credibility) simply by pointing out the obvious and making an issue of it. They can’t do that though if they use formulations that don’t respond to actual serious concerns about the specific situation presented. And saying the war’s unjust because certainty of damage happens to be a requirement doesn’t seem to me helpful in this case.

On another point, the bishops say

In assessing whether “collateral damage” is proportionate, the lives of Iraqi men, women and children should be valued as we would the lives of members of our own family and citizens of our own country.

The lives of Iraqis are certainly as valuable as the lives of the members of my family. Still, I have a special obligation to look out for the well-being of the members of my family, and the American government has a special obligation to look out for the well-being of Americans. That principle must have some weight, although I would agree that in practice it’s not likely to be slighted.

2 thoughts on “The bishops on Iraq”

  1. Thanks for the inquiry! I’ve
    Thanks for the inquiry! I’ve had a sudden burst of things to attend to—computer problems, a 36-hour flu epidemic sweeping through the household, mobs of family members over the Thanksgiving weekend, and a request for an article from a publication I’d like to establish a relation with. I should get my head above water today or tomorrow though.


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