Can We Talk About War?

At today’s Mass, we heard Isaiah’s famous lines about the coming kingdom of God and the reign of the Messiah:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Is 2:4)

So can we talk about war and peace in this age of ours, two thousand years after the coming of the actual Messiah?

We just survived a long and grueling national election campaign in what was called, with typical political hyperbole, “the most important election of our lives”. I follow politics pretty closely. I don’t recall much, if any, talk about war and peace during this allegedly monumental campaign. How strange, considering:

  • The United States is currently in our seventeenth year of war — by far, the longest period of war in our history — with no end in sight.
  • We are currently involved in armed conflict in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Yemen, Somalia, and Niger. Our soldiers may also be involved in secret combat operations in several other African counties. We have combat troops and active military bases in many more nations as well.
  • The Defense Department estimates the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria at $1.5 trillion. The monthly cost is about $3.4 billion. Other estimates, which include projected future costs for veteran health care, have been as high as $5.6 trillion.  By way of comparison, the annual defense budget is about $700 billion.
  • The human cost of the wars — according to one estimate from Brown University, approximately 500,000 people have died in these wars, including about 6,300 US military members and contractors. This doesn’t include people who died due to indirect results of the conflicts or the millions of people who have been displaced from their homes.

There are many policy arguments we can have about the legitimacy and conduct of these wars. But our nation hasn’t had that discussion, and virtually none of our public officials seems interested in having it — on all sides of the political spectrum. It is truly bizarre, in a democratic nation at war, that it isn’t even on the political radar. Are these wars worth the cost? What policy goals are they pursuing? Are we doing more harm than good? Can those goals be achieved by other, non-military means? Aside from ritual incantations about “support the troops”, the silence is perplexing and troubling.

Can we also talk about the legality of the wars? Since Congress hasn’t declared war on anyone, the only legal leg for these wars to stand on is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Resolution, passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That resolution provides that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…” Three Presidential Administrations have interpreted this to permit military operations against forces that not only had nothing to do with 9/11, but didn’t even exist at that time. The last Administration proposed an amended AUMF, but efforts by some Senators and Congressional representatives to open a debate about it have been consistently stymied by the leadership of both houses. Can we at least talk about this?

There have also been credible charges that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed in the Yemen war by Saudi and allied forces. America supports their war effort with intelligence and material, raising the question of whether the US is complicit in those crimes. There have been attempts recently in Congress to end US support for that war, but there is little hope that they will succeed. Is anyone talking about this?

It is vitally important that we have a serious debate about this. For pro-lifers, this is a critical issue. God cherishes every human life, regardless of nationality. We cannot be consistent or coherent in our defense of life unless we defend life everywhere. For Catholics, the need for the debate, and for our unique faith-based contribution, is even more essential. The Church has long been an eloquent advocate for peace. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been salient voices for an end to armed conflict. In his last Message for the World Day of Peace in 2013, Pope Benedict said,

[T]he Church is convinced of the urgency of a new proclamation of Jesus Christ, the first and fundamental factor of the integral development of peoples and also of peace. Jesus is indeed our peace, our justice and our reconciliation (cf. Eph 2:14; 2 Cor 5:18). The peacemaker, according to Jesus’ beatitude, is the one who seeks the good of the other, the fullness of good in body and soul, today and tomorrow. From this teaching one can infer that each person and every community, whether religious, civil, educational or cultural, is called to work for peace. Peace is principally the attainment of the common good in society at its different levels, primary and intermediary, national, international and global. Precisely for this reason it can be said that the paths which lead to the attainment of the common good are also the paths that must be followed in the pursuit of peace.

In this Advent season, we listen to the Prophet Isaiah and the other prophets in their longing for the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Prince of Peace. We have to remember that these are not just pious sentiments about “pie in the sky” someday in the distant future. Working for peace in our time is an essential part of the Gospel message of redemption, and is a specific obligation for every Christian to work tirelessly for it. We cannot stand by and do nothing while the world burns. We need to talk about war.

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