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Robert W. McElroyApril 30, 2007

The United States has reached a new chapter in its intervention in the Middle East, as the enormous obstacles to achieving peace are being recognized more clearly with every passing day. We have lost our way in Iraq—strategically, militarily and morally—and we need to forge a pathway forward. To do so we must have a vigorous, sustained public debate on the future of American involvement in Iraq to resolve the question whether justice can best be served by continued military operations on a massive scale in Iraq or, alternatively, whether measured but vigorous steps should be undertaken to end the war.


This debate must be characterized neither by the skeptical deference that typified the initial decision to invade Iraq, nor by the partisan rancor that threatens to engulf the current congressional discussion. What is needed is true public argument, as the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray (1904-67) used the term, argument that is civil, reasoned, critical, broadly penetrating of American society and, above all, moral in its nature and tone.

For the Catholic community in the United States, that argument must be molded by two elements—the church’s fundamental stance toward war in the modern age and the principles of the just-war tradition.

It may seem strange that anyone would question whether the Catholic tradition on war and peace proceeds from a moral presumption against war. But that is precisely the case that articulate and theologically informed Catholic advocates for the war in Iraq, most ably represented by George Weigel and Michael Novak, have been making during the past four years. They point out that the just-war tradition was founded as a counterpoint to Christian pacifism and was designed explicitly to show that war was at times the moral duty of the Christian disciple. Citing from Anselm, Augustine and Aquinas and skillfully sifting texts to emphasize the theologians’ ultimate acceptance of war in limited circumstances, these American Catholic supporters of intervention in Iraq propose that the great architects of the just-war tradition considered the warfare of their age to be inherently neutral in its moral identity.

A crippling problem with such argumentation is that it presents the just-war tradition as primarily an artifact of medieval theology. But the just-war tradition in Catholic theology is not primarily a historical artifact. It is a living, breathing moral tradition designed to provide some light for the Catholic community and the world as a whole about the legitimate use of force in the present age. The primary background against which the church has interpreted the just-war tradition for the past 50 years is not the limited destructiveness of medieval warfare, but the enormous destructive potential of contemporary warfare. Against this background, the leadership of the church has been unswerving in its presumption against war. From the assertion of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris that “it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era, war could be used as an instrument of justice” to Paul VI’s clarion call at the United Nations in 1965, “No more war, war never again!” to Benedict XVI’s questioning whether it is even licit, given the current destructiveness of war, to admit the possibility of a just war, the popes of the contemporary era have unequivocally taught that a presumption against war lies at the very center of Catholic thinking on war and peace.

Continuing Moral Scrutiny

One implication of this strong presumption against war in Catholic moral teaching is that moral scrutiny of the decision to wage war should take place not merely at the beginning of a conflict, but at every stage of its duration. If it is morally required by just-war thinking that there be a just cause, approval by competent authority, the presence of right intention, reasonable hope of success and proportionality of means in any initial decision to wage war, is it not also morally required that these conditions be present throughout the conflict if war is to be continued? The moral warrant for war can hardly be said to continue if the foundations for that warrant have disappeared.

Scrutiny of the current situation in Iraq reveals that four of the required foundations for the moral use of force are not currently being met.

l. Just Cause. The most troubling element of the argument that the United States has had a continuing just cause in waging war in Iraq is that the nature of that just cause has constantly shifted during the past four years of war. Originally it was proposed that the possession of massive stores of chemical and biological weapons by the regime of Saddam Hussein, an aggressive and brutal expansionist dictator, clearly satisfied the demand that war could be waged morally in order to repel legitimately anticipated aggression. Then, when weapons of mass destruction were not found, it was proposed that the war was just because Saddam Hussein was committing aggression against his own people and neighbors. Then, after Saddam was arrested, the case for a continuing just cause has come to rest upon America’s desire to transform Iraq into a stable democracy.

But transformational democratization falls outside the criteria of the just cause as it has been formulated in the modern age. Because of the destructiveness of modern warfare, only the repulsion of aggression is now viewed as an acceptable cause to go to war, not the desire to transform other societies. This defect in the theory of transformation is magnified by the fact that the justice of America’s cause must now be measured not by the abstract dream of democratization but by the concrete role that the United States has undertaken in Iraq: the defense of an unstable government of questionable commitment to equal justice in an environment where centrifugal regional, ethnic and religious forces threaten to tear the nation apart.

2. Right Intention. As America evaluates its commitment to remain in Iraq, the criterion of right intention presents an ever greater obstacle to those who advocate sustained military occupation. For right intention demands that a nation wage war only to address the specific grave wrong that led to war. Increasingly in the national debate on Iraq, the justification for continuing the use of military force is not peace and stability in Iraq, but the necessity of demonstrating America’s continuing commitment to fight terrorism in the world. The notion that a defeat in Iraq will severely damage the United States’ reputation in the world is taking center stage in this nation’s domestic debate, and in the process America’s fulfillment of the just-war requirement of a right intention is evaporating. Considerations of reputation can never fulfill the criterion of right intention, and insofar as they forge the United States’ decisions and commitment in Iraq, they render continued military occupation there morally illegitimate.

3. Last Resort. The world was dubious that the United States had exhausted all diplomatic options for peace when it went to war against Iraq in 2003, and the world should be dubious that it is exhausting those options now. The refusal of the Bush administration to accept the recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton commission (The Iraq Study Group) that America should begin a direct and sustained dialogue with Iran and Syria in the pursuit of peace in Iraq is a testimony to the Bush administration’s continuing reluctance to treat military action as a last resort. If Catholic theology carries with it a strong presumption against war, it also carries with it the implication that the use of force, unaccompanied by a constant, sustained and strenuous search for viable peaceful alternatives, is never legitimate.

4. Reasonable Hope of Success. The level of tragedy in the United States’ intervention in Iraq becomes apparent when one recognizes that the greatest difficulty of assessing this criterion lies not in measuring the level of well-founded hope for the American cause in Iraq, but in defining what constitutes success. Each milestone of limited success—the fall of Baghdad, the establishment of a new government and the writing of a constitution—has been followed by a deterioration of the situation in the country as a whole. As a consequence, the United States is now unwilling to establish public milestones and to define achievable success in any concrete way.

Retreating to Proportionality

The original moral warrant for the intervention in Iraq has collapsed along with the American dreams of a swift and relatively peaceful democratization of Iraqi society. Any just-war argument that a new moral warrant has emerged founders upon the difficulty of demonstrating that the current situation meets the tests of just cause, right intention, last resort and reasonable hope for success.

Catholic advocates for continued military occupation in Iraq on just-war grounds have turned to the one criterion of the just-war tradition whose importance and even epistemological possibility they had previously questioned at every stage of the decision to go to war: the criterion of proportionality. In the months leading up to the war and in the first years of the intervention in Iraq, advocates argued that the complexities of war and geopolitics in the modern age made it impossible to predict with any precision whether the evils unleashed by war in Iraq would outweigh the good to be accomplished by war. They proposed that epistemic modesty is required in any moral analysis of the contingencies of war and rejected as speculative and unfounded the many arguments of specialists in the Middle East who predicted that intervention in Iraq would produce evils greater than the good likely to be achieved.

Now these same advocates of continued American military occupation in Iraq propose that this epistemic modesty is to be cast aside, and that the one certainty in Iraq is that American withdrawal would be a catastrophic blow to peace and just order in the world. In other words, just-war advocates are asserting that they can in fact analyze the consequences of remaining in Iraq versus those of withdrawal, and can know those comparative consequences in sufficient detail to ground a moral mandate to continue military action in Iraq.

It must be emphasized that these advocates for continued American military occupation in Iraq proceed from a profound moral concern that U.S. actions in Iraq have created moral obligations for the United States that can be satisfied only by achieving a peaceful, secure Iraq. When one views the history of brutality and repression that has been visited upon Iraq by a succession of imperialist powers and home-grown dictators, one cannot help but be drawn to such a hope. But hope is not reality, and neither hope nor a sense of moral obligation is sufficient to ground a moral mandate for war in just-war thinking.

The Vietnam Analogy

George Weigel has suggested that the moment of the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam provides the best analogy to the current dilemma in Iraq. He thinks that Tet was really a victory for the United States that was misinterpreted by the media as a loss. The media’s misinterpretation led to the collapse of American domestic support for the war and ultimately to the failure of the U.S. effort to fight Communism in Southeast Asia. Current perceptions of the American public regarding conditions in Iraq constitute, in Weigel’s view, a corresponding distortion of reality that is being exploited by terrorists to destroy the American will to remain in Iraq and secure the peace.

The problem with Weigel’s analogy from history is that the United States did not stop fighting in Vietnam until four long years after the Tet offensive. During those four years, more than 30,000 Americans and 480,000 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action, double the respective numbers that had been killed in the four years before Tet. Yet despite all those deaths, South Vietnam still fell to the Communists. The Tet offensive, then, is not a warning of what early withdrawal from Iraq might yield, but rather a warning about the enormous costs and moral failure of staying in a war when it has been lost.

In an Orwellian twist of politics, the burden of proof in the current debate about U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is being placed upon those who advocate withdrawal; they must prove that withdrawal will not destabilize Iraq. In Catholic thinking, the calculus is just the opposite. Those advocating continued military action in Iraq face the burden of proof not only to demonstrate that remaining in Iraq is clearly more likely to yield more good than evil, but also to show that such continued action meets the conditions imposed by just-war thinking. Facing the current realities in Iraq, this burden is impossible to meet. The only moral warrant that emerges from any effort to apply rigorous just-war thinking to Iraq is the warrant to move immediately toward a measured and prudently crafted American military withdrawal.

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17 years 2 months ago
No need to wonder after reading that article that the application to the just-war theory to the current war no longer applies

17 years 1 month ago
I disagree with Msgr. McElroy’s assessment on Iraq. The purpose of the Iraq war was to remove Hussein from power. Guess what? We did that! The war is over! Then the issue is do we just walk out or do we have an obligation to help the country recover and to get on a stable footing. I think the answer to that is clear. So we worked with them to set up a constitution, to have elections, and to set up a government. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. How long does it take to set up a new country and a new government? How long did it take the United States to do that? The fact that Iraqis and Americans are still being killed in Iraq is a tragedy. This is being committed by Iraqis on Iraqis and by outsiders on Iraqis and Americans. The US is not doing the killing but we are helping the fledgling government to achieve some form of stability. Once the war was started and completed, we had a moral obligation to help the Iraqis create a new country – it would be immoral to walk away.

17 years 1 month ago
5 May 2007

To the Editor:

We owe America and Father McElroy a vote of thanks for the clarity with which he has measured the conflict in Iraq against the criteria of a just war, as seen by Catholic tradition, and with which he calls for a "true public argument" in which those criteria could be used. Though he doesn't mention it, considerations of the just war tradition might also be useful as measurements ("benchmarks?") in any debate with those who appear to be calling for armed action against Iran.

Dr. Rowden points to what he considers the inexplicable silence of our bishops on the subject of the war, since their earlier warnings four years ago (such as Bishop Wilton Gregory's letter to the president of September 13, 2002, and two statements of early 2003). I'm afraid I don't consider their silence inexplicable at all. Isn't it rather simply another indication of the circle-the-wagons mentality that continues to affect the church's leadership in the wake of the crushing scandals that broke in 2002?

Nicholas Clifford

17 years 2 months ago
To the Editor, In response to the article by Msgr. McElroy, I would like to propose that there is a second and greater reason for the present war in Iraq, other than the reasons listed and disputed in the article. And that is that the primary reason for the war was to carry the fight against terrorism to the enemy and that enemy had and has a major presence in Iraq. It is just because the terrorists have vowed to convert the world to the Islamic Religion by any means and the 9/11 attack attests to this. The right intention is that it prevents the loss of life to American citizens. The last resort is that the terrorists cannot be stopped in any other way. The hope for success is that we have prevented further major violent attacks on American soil. Now in the early 1990's, I remember hearing the then Israeli Prime Minister, sounding as if he were close to tears, pleading on the radio for the United States to intervene in the Middle East against terrorism. I believe that it is still a relevant pleading.

Sincerly, Quentin Johnson

17 years 2 months ago
To the Editor:

Msgr. Robert McElroy is correct in every aspect of his analysis of why we must withdraw from Iraq. While George Weigel and Michael Novak might be credibly characterized as "catholic light" on the just war criteria as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is difficult to understand why the American Bishops after an initial complaint have been so uninvolved in the necessary moral scrutiny of this disasterous war.

Few have spoken out recently and to my eyes the USCCB seems more concerned with litugical detail than it is with the morality of warfare in 2007. Fear of accusations of political partisanship is not a justification for continued silence.

Robert M. Rowden M.D.

17 years 2 months ago
Contrary to Mr. McElroy, we have not lost our way in Iraq. What has been lost is the will to win and defeat a terrorist enemy on the part of some Americans.

There are segments of the establishment-media and the Democratic party who are actively working for the defeat of the United States in this war. These Democrats along with their media-allies have staked their political fortunes on defeat and sabotaging the surge-military strategy.

For example, Senator Reid recently announced that the United States cannot win. The newsmedia constantly drumbeats the casualties and nothing else. To my mind, this amounts to aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war.

If this crowd were around in WW II and constantly engaged in body-counts, and we-can't-win palaver,we would never have defeated Nazism and Fascism not to mention Communism.

A withdrawal would only embolden the enemy and increase the liklihood of terrorist attacks as appeasement/weakness always does. We have the finest country and finest military in the world. Let the military do its job in defending us, supporting their service and sacrifice. I say this as a priest and a veteran.

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