I really have no desire to write about the proposed U.S. military intervention into the civil war in Syria. I doubt I really do punditry that well, especially in regard to war; it is hard to make jokes about it. But when Pope Francis calls for a day of prayer and fasting in regard to Syria (and world peace in general), it tends to become hard to think of anything else.
So here goes. The only consolation I can offer you is that I will not actually try to convince you of anything one way or the other. Rather, I will just offer a couple of philosophical reflections on the Syrian conflict and the possibility of American intervention in light of the tradition of just war thought. Take from it what you will.
Since I already mentioned the Pope, I will start there. In his Angelus address of September 1st, the Pope stated that “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.” Some commentators have seen this as a leaning away from the school of thought in the Church that would, within very strict limits, allow for a war to be considered “just.” They understand the Pope to be espousing a more thoroughgoing pacifism. And that is probably true–it seems to me that Pope Francis does lean towards pacifism. That may be more than just a personal preference of a gentle man. As no less than the philosopher Robert Spaemann has pointed out, the idea of a just war also carries big risks, namely that such thinking can lead to total war–since, of course, if one’s own side is “just,” the other side is “unjust” or “evil,” and is thus to be resisted to one’s dying breath.
And even for those of us who find something to like in the tradition of just war thought, the Pope does make a good point in the quote above. While one might object that a definite military victory does, in fact, seem to establish peace, I take the Pope to be warning us not to mistake a contributing factor for the true cause. A military victory can establish a cessation of violence for a limited period of time, but that is not yet to establish peace. A case in point might be World War I, a military victory for the Allies which brought a temorary cessation of hostilities–but not yet a true peace, for war would break out again about 20 years later. For the establishment of peace, violence is not sufficient. There must also be a just settlement, and I daresay, the development of the personal and political virtues that allow for dialogue, cooperation, and mutual respect. Unfortunately, for humans, these are difficult achievements. One should indeed work for “no more war,” though that maximum will never be achieved prior to the Parousia.
While on the subject of the just war tradition, I would also like to point out that while developed by Catholics, it isn’t specifically Catholic: that is to say, it is reflects common moral intuitions of human beings in general, not just Catholics. A nice articulation of some of its principles may be found in number 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For a defensive action/war to be just:
– 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.
It is intriguing to think about the just war tradition, and these principles in particular, in regard to military intervention in Syria. The tradition has been invoked both on behalf of U.S. military intervention and against it.
I take it that a lot of what drives the arguments for intervention concerns the first and the last of those principles listed above. The damage inflicted on the community of nations by the unpunished use of chemical weapons would seem to qualify as “lasting, grave, and certain,” especially since it seems that this may not be the first time they have been used in the Syrian conflict. To put that more bluntly, the damage caused was not just to the particular civilian men, women, and children who died in the attacks: the norms of conflict have also been wounded. My guess is that responsible political leaders worry that if the use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, the use of chemical weapons will increase (human nature being what it is), and they judge this to be a graver disorder than that which would be caused by “limited” U.S. military intervention (a limitation the fourth principle above calls into question in regard to every modern conflict).
However, I take it that a lot of what drives the arguments against military intervention concerns the second and third principles listed above, with some reference to the fourth as well. Evidence for my earlier statement that the just war tradition actually reflects the way we just tend to think and speak as humans may be seen in the fact that even some of the statements of the “pacifist” Pope Francis implicitly address these points. In his open letter to the G20 leaders, the Pope called military intervention “futile,” a judgment in regard to the third principle above. He also seems to be implicitly invoking the second principle–that all other means of ending the conflict must first be shown to be ineffective–when he laments how the search for a solution has been hindered by “one-sided interests” and calls for “dialogue and negation” between the warring parties. And while in the above-mentioned quote “violence begets violence” Pope Francis does not actually claim the evils and disorders of military intervention would be graver than the evils eliminated, others are indeed making that claim, especially given the prospect that American intervention could widen the conflict in the region.