The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. In World War I, 39 million people died (30 million were civilians); in World War II, 51 million died (including 34 million civilians); since World War II, approximately 150 wars have killed an estimated 16 million people worldwide.
Now we are considering military action against Syria. As we saw yesterday, “total pacifists” would reject all such aggression. “Preemptive war” advocates might say we should have attacked Syria’s war munitions sooner.
A third approach to our question is called “just war” theory. These proponents believe that aggression against others can be justified under certain conditions. Cicero was the first to argue for such an approach, but St. Augustine (AD 354-430) set forth its classic formulation:
- Just cause —a defensive war, fought only to resist aggression.
- Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money.
- Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed.
- Legitimate authority—military force is authorized by the proper governmental powers.
- Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace.
- Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done.
- Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as is humanly possible.
As you can see, the application of each criterion can be debated. Did we “resist aggression” by invading Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent further attacks by al Qaeda? Did we defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1990 only to “secure justice,” or were our oil interests a motivation? When have we reached “last resort,” so that we can be certain that all other attempts to resolve the conflict have failed?
How are we to define the “proper governmental powers” for each nation? For instance, Saddam Hussein claimed that Iraq’s constitution authorized him to invade Kuwait. Is armed aggression “limited” to military activity, or is nation-building sometimes needed to create a “just peace”? Who determines that the good gained has justified the harm—the winners or the losers? Must armed forces sometimes engage noncombatants in order to end the war, as with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Jesus taught us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Our Lord’s heart is clear: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). How can we show his heart to our enemies and culture today?