When War is OK: Church Teaching on Just War and the Use of Force

by Morals & Values, Value of Human Life

On a recent trip to DC, I had the privilege of visiting Arlington National Cemetery where, I’ve been told, more than 400,000 war veterans are laid to rest. I had seen images of the place in movies and pictures, but standing there physically took my breath away and made me pause in reflection. The train trolley that I took once inside, took us for a brief journey around the sprawling 624 acre grounds. Rows upon rows of standard white tombstones dot the landscape for as far as the eye can see. Throughout the journey, there was an air of respectful and thoughtful silence among all of us on the train.

Humankind has been ravaged by wars for centuries, but here the focus was on the soldier who fought for his nation and its freedom at the cost of his life. Debates continue on the usefulness and effects of war; some are more easily justified than others, but the soldier pushes on courageously, without care for his life. The cost of war is tremendous and those in power must think many times before asking a soldier to rush headlong into battle.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13)

Major Anup Joseph is one of my school mates and an Officer in the Indian Army. In 2013, He received the Kirti Chakra, the second-highest peacetime gallantry award for killing three foreign militants in a daring operation in Kashmir. None of us in school had ever imagined that he would be in the Army one day, killing terrorists. But there you have it. If I remember correctly, we met one day in Church after Mass, when I was still in the seminary and he had come home on leave for a few days from the Army Training College. We were discussing how life was in the Army when he turned around and asked me, “So what does the Church say on this? How many people am I allowed to kill per day on the battlefield?” It was a question more in jest and I was no expert on the Church’s teaching on these issues. But I told him without batting an eyelid “If they are shooting at you, you shoot back!”

I watched the film ‘Dunkirk’ over the weekend. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the film has received rave reviews for being a stand-apart war movie. The film draws heavily on slick cinematography to make its point, with very little dialogue throughout. It is a ‘thinking’ person’s war movie. 400,000 British soldiers stranded on the beach with the enemy advancing on them had little hope. It seems Churchill wanted at least 45,000 men so that Great Britain could be defended. But he eventually got more than 300,000 through the heroism of hundreds of small boat owners who crossed the Channel and brought the soldiers home. It was the largest civilian rescue of military personnel in history. The rest of them perished on the beach. The darkness of death is deeply visible and felt right through the movie.

All this got me thinking about the Catholic Church’s stand on War. So is war justified under any circumstances? Traditionally, the Church has said that was is justified in certain situations, especially when it comes to defending a country against an aggressor country. It is called the ‘Just War Doctrine’ and it was first articulated by St. Augustine in the 4th century. Over the centuries, it has been adopted for modern warfare. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lays down four conditions that must be met for the legitimate use of force:

1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. There must be serious prospects of success;

4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC2309].

The doctrine of Just War lays the responsibility of the decision in the hands of government. The soldier does not decide whether to go to war, but merely follows orders and therefore is not culpable. However, the Church does point out that even the soldier must follow the rules of combat and his/her own well-formed conscience. Not everything is licit in war. For example, killing of civilians and soldiers who have laid down arms, torture of POWs, bombing of civilian populations, mutilating bodies of dead soldiers are examples of morally illicit actions.

A case in point is the recent film by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge, about a conscientious objector. In the film, the soldier played by Andrew Garfield refuses to handle a rifle, but instead chooses to serve in the Army as a medic. He is severely tortured and mistreated at camp for his decision and becomes an outcast among his fellow soldiers but he sticks to his beliefs. During the Battle of Okinawa, he begins evacuating injured soldiers at great peril to his own life, dodging bullets and grenades. He eventually manages to save 75 soldiers and is hailed as a hero. Now obviously, not everyone can choose to play by these rules or else we would have no army, but the beliefs of individual soldiers must be respected, provided they serve their country in their own unique way.

In recent years, however, the Just War theory has come under a cloud, since modern wars seldom satisfy the criteria enumerated by it. The wars happening in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that civilian casualties are far greater than those of soldiers. Go through the four criteria, and you will find that the current conflicts hardly satisfy them. The US is mired in endless wars in these areas, which demonstrates that even the most powerful army in the world cannot win a modern-day war outright. War is more than just having the best weapons and quite often the only losers are the civilian populations, who have nothing to gain either from victory or defeat.

Calls are out for the Church to come out with a newer doctrine that justifies peace, not war. But until then, individual consciences and the pressure we bring to bear on our own governments, will play a huge role in minimizing unnecessary suffering and evil.

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