This weekend, Pope Francis asked the faithful to pray and fast for peace in Syria. As a practicing Catholic, I did on Saturday the 7th as the Holy Father asked and, after all, St. Augustine wrote in The City of God: “a good man would be under compulsion to wage no wars at all.” However, listening to the moral claims for taking military action in Syria, I could not help but think about St. Augustine’s Just War doctrine: does Syria meet the standard?
“A Just Cause”
A war is justified, said St. Augustine, “only by the injustice of an aggressor; and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is human injustice. It would be deplorable in itself apart from being a source of conflict.”
This is the first requirement: a just cause.
The other two conditions are: the one who wages the war must have a legitimate authority to do so and, thirdly, a right intention or inward disposition on the part of those waging war is also essential.
It would appear, then, that a U.S. military response meets the criteria. We have the use of chemical weapons against human beings, which is reprehensible. The President was duly elected and entrusted with the defense of our nation and our interests. As such, with or without Congressional approval, he would be deemed to possess the legitimacy to proceed and, while only God knows what is in a person’s soul, we assume the President’s intentions are righteous.
That is not, however, the sum total of the Just War doctrine. It is important to look deeper.
Based on the information provided by the Administration, the offense was actual and of substantial importance that it renders it absolutely necessary to use force to correct an evil. The proposed surgical strikes would fall within the parameters of proportionality prescribed under St. Augustine’s doctrine.
But was the chemical weapons attack unprovoked or could it be argued that it was carried out in self-defense? Is there no doubt that it was carried out by the Assad regime and not by other parties to the conflict? Would military intervention lead to a just peace or would the U.S. be punishing one heinous group while empowering others motivated by enmity, hatred, and lust for power?
Should Congress, as it is asked to retaliate for one slaughter but discount those committed by some Syrian rebel groups? Should decision makers ignore the background of rebel leaders such as Abdul Samad Issa? Issa took up arms against the current regime in Damascus, not for lofty goals of freedom from oppression or democracy, but to avenge the death of his father who is believed to have been killed by the previous Assad during a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982.
The U.S. cannot guarantee that our military intervention would result in a just peace or that there would be mercy in peace. On the contrary, the revised text of the use of force resolution adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and to be debated by the full Senate this week, by referencing the provision of lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, virtually guarantees the opposite of a peaceful outcome.
Those who, on policy grounds, disagree with the proposed surgical, limited military strikes on Syria but are morally torn, St. Augustine may provide the answer to your dilemma.