Posts Tagged ‘War’

Can We Talk About War?

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

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.

His Majesty’s Illegal Wars

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the power of the monarch to act on his own initiative, without accountability to anyone, in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc. One of the driving principles in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution was the need to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

We have now come to a place where it seems to be generally accepted that the president has the royal prerogative to take the United States into war without approval from anyone else. The last President and the current one have involved us in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Syria, all of which were or are being waged without any regard to the law. Now the President is threatening to attack Syria and Russia in response to the illegal use of chemical weapons against civilians. His use of intemperate language in these threats is deeply disturbing.

The war against civilians in Syria is a profound injustice, and the use of chemical weapons can never be justified. The instinctive desire to respond, to punish those responsible, is perfectly understandable. But we cannot respond to illegality with illegality – we need to act according to the law, both human and divine.

Let’s first go back to Constitutional Law 101. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulate them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Chief of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military. But this does not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld very clearly by the Supreme Court.The President is not above the law, but is bound under Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.

It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. But the War Powers Resolution, which has been the law for over forty years, specifically states that “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” (50 U.S. Code § 1541(c)) None of those conditions exist here.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51). But it also requires that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2 §4). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII). Again, none of these conditions have been met.

In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the first Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts. Even worse, none of the self-described “constitutional conservatives” or other self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution are raising any objections to the current President’s threats of war.

Now let’s turn to God’s law. It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2307 to 2309. It comes under the Fifth Commandment, which imposes on us the strictest duty to respect all human lives, to avoid war, and to work assiduously for peace. Military force may be used as a last resort and only for defensive purposes, and the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorities. None of those requirements are even close to being satisfied here.

The Holy Father recently condemned the war in Syria and the use of chemical weapons: ““There is no good war or bad war. There is nothing, nothing, that can justify the use of such instruments of extermination against unarmed people and populations.” The Latin Rite Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, who is on the ground in Syria, added, “The Pope’s appeal words echo our position and our greatest desire. We want peace.  In front of these attacks and the consequent threats, people are afraid and the escalation of the last days is frightening. I cannot say what has changed in recent weeks, but what we are seeing is the search at all costs for a pretext to destroy our country.”

We cannot accept a regime with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. As Americans, we must insist on the rule of law, both national and international. And as Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

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The American Monarch Wages War

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over the extent of what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the inherent power of the monarch in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc.

The history of England is in many respects the history of the gradual restriction of the unlimited power of the king and the imposition of conditions and limitations that established a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of the central elements of the royal prerogative was the power to make war without the approval of Parliament. Even to this day, the monarch of Great Britain has the sole authority to declare war, without the consent of the legislature.

That history is essential to understanding the foundation of the United States. If you were to read the Declaration of Independence, and focus on the “long train of abuses” in that document, you’ll understand that the misuse of royal prerogative was at the heart of the grievances that led to the Revolution. One of the driving principles in the Declaration, and later in the Constitution, was the need to limit the royal prerogative and to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulare them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Cheif of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military, but did not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for instance in the Youngstown Steel case, which overturned President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War. It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. That same section has also been understood to give the President very broad powers to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, including making treaties.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51) but specifically forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII).

Over the course of our history, presidents have greatly expanded their powers over war-making. Our nation has engaged in many conflicts on Presidential decision alone, without specific Congressional approval. From time to time, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to restrain that power. In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts.

Why does this matter to Catholics? It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2309. An essential element of that doctrine is that the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorites.

Those requirements have been consistently flouted by our militarized government. We have now come to a place where the President has no accountability to anyone — not Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Constitution. And so we are engaged in on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria, all of which are being waged without any regard to the Constitutional limits on presidential authority.

It is as if we never separated from Great Britain. In effect, we have a monarch with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. These decisions are too important to leave morality out of the calculus. As Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

War and Consequentialism

Friday, January 13th, 2012

As the presidential race heats up, the rhetoric also heats up.  And the language being used on the issue of war and national defense is becoming very warm indeed.

And very, very morally troubling.

Just yesterday, a scientist who is allegedly working on the Iranian nuclear program was killed when his got into his car and was blown up by an explosive that was attached to it by unknown parties.  It was the latest incident in an ongoing covert war being conducted against the Iranian regime and their suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons.

In response, one of the candidates for the Presidency of the United States said this:

any nuclear scientist, particularly any foreign nuclear scientist, who’s cooperating with the Iranians in developing a nuclear weapon program would be considered an enemy combatant…  this is the most serious threat to the security and stability of the world that we have today, and we should be using all types of methodologies to stop that, including taking out people

Now, I’m certainly no pacifist.  I strongly support the ability of a national government to defend itself and its citizens against unjust aggression.  And I have no doubt that the current regime in Iran is oppressive to its own people and dangerous to its neighbors, particularly Israel.

But there is no way that one can justify the rhetoric I just quoted.  Leave aside for a moment the question of legality under American and international law — which would involve answering the question, “when did we declare war on Iran?”

Killing this scientist was utterly inconsistent with the principles of the divine and natural law. It is clearly not morally permissible to kill another human being because one believes that he may be working on a scientific program that may, at some point, pose a threat to our nation.

Pope John Paul, in his great encyclical, the Gospel of Life, said this very plainly:

“The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity” (57)

Assuming we can trust in the accuracy of our intelligence community (a dubious proposition, in any event) and consider this scientist not to be “innocent”, a preemptive use of deadly force is still unjustified.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, in the context of the death penalty:

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (CCC 2267)

Killing a man because his work may prove a threat to the United States at some undefined point in the future is consequentialism at its most blatant — doing evil so that good may come of it.

Christians must be better than that.