Syrian Intervention and Just War Theory

I have many Christian friends and respected dialogue-partners who argue that we should stay out of Syria on the grounds that as things stand, bombing has ‘no reasonable chance of success’. Some, like Justin Thacker, go on to cite Just War theory in defence of this point. Yet there is a lot more to the application of Just War theory than the pragmatic prediction of likely ends, significant though that may be as one part of of the process. Certainly, an element of the post-Thomian conception of Just War is an interpretation of the Just Cause criterion which encourages a calculation of whether military action will result in better outcomes for civilians in the aggressor nation and in the nations of those attacked by the aggressor. And I said at least twice in my initial piece that this was the hardest of all considerations to weigh up in the debate on whether to extend bombing of Daesh strongholds from Iraq to Syria. Yet if we are to discuss Just War, this consideration – though clearly important – needs to be assessed alongside several other aspects of Just War theory. And I believe that when that fuller assessment is undertaken, the solemn decision made by parliament on Wednesday can be viewed as a cogent one. Let me explain…

Thomas Aquinas required that war should be declared or sanctioned by a Proper Authority – i.e. a legitimate government, state or equivalent body. Check: parliament voted convincingly for the Syrian intervention and the UN passed a resolution backing ‘all means necessary’ to combat Daesh. Then there is the fact that the very Just Cause criterion in Thomas that the later Salamancan tradition extended into pragmatic concern for ‘successful outcomes’ also includes the restoration of territory to those who have had it forcibly annexed by imperialist bullies. Check on this, too: Daesh are as unashamed in their murderous territorial rampage through the Middle East as the Nazis were in theirs through Europe.

Then, also under Just Cause, Thomas actually included ‘punishment for evil’. This makes a lot of modern-day liberals and Corbynite socialists particularly squeamish because the mounting influence of secular humanism on their worldview has led them to doubt the very existence of evil as a moral category at all. In this context it was notable that Hilary Benn was bold and unequivocal in calling Daesh ‘evil’, and thereby reminded his party that democratic socialism has historically been defined by a moral vision that can actually include this category – not least by dint of its roots in the Christian Nonconformist tradition. Benn’s grandparents, remember, were leading Congregationalists. So once again, check: unspeakable evil is being perpetrated by Daesh both against Syrians in and beyond Syria, and against non-Syrians through terrorist slaughter all over the world – including now, it seems, in California. We can debate how far this remit to ‘punish evil’ is our responsibility; we can worry about the danger that we and our NATO partners might over-play the role of ‘world police force’; we can agonise about the ‘imperialist evils’ that stain our own past. But we are talking about Just War theory, and in Just War terms it is legitimate to resist palpable evil with military force.

What else? Well, there is the criterion of Right Intention, which in Thomas includes the intent to bring peace rather than further conflict and chaos, and – tellingly in this context – the intent to support allies in their own attempts to defend themselves from further threat and attack. Well, yet again, check: it would be a gross misrepresentation of those who voted for action on Wednesday to cast them as ‘warmongers’, just as it was wrong of Cameron to cast those who voted against as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. However we construe the likely tactical consequences of either side’s position, surely we can agree that the intention of virtually all concerned was to increase the potential for peace rather than exacerbate suffering and bloodshed. I quite accept that an intention to achieve something is not the same as achieving it. I’ve allowed already that no one can be 100% sure what the pragmatic outcome of Wednesday’s vote will be in Syria, any more than it would have been clear what the outcome would have been if the vote had gone the other way. But we are dealing with Just War theory here, and in Just War terms an intent to resist terror, imperialism and atrocity through military means is a valid intent.

Furthermore, as I say, this valid intent is made even more valid in Just War terms if it is an intent shared by allies who are also under genuine threat, and if those allies explicitly ask for one’s support, as the socialist government of France and a number of other governments have done with respect to Britain in this instance.

More recent versions of Just War theory have elaborated on Thomas and the later Salamanca tradition to identify various other criteria. One of the most important is Proportionality: that is, targeting military forces, convoys, headquarters, resources, supply lines and infrastructure rather than, say, indiscriminately bombing mass populations. Check on this front too: Daesh’s territorial and global violence is wilfully indiscriminate, entailing brutal annihilation of innocent children, women and men. There is a cost to standing by and letting this happen, just as there is, no doubt, a cost to intervening to prevent it. The allied campaign in Syria is focused militarily on Daesh-specific sites, resources and personnel, precisely so that Daesh might be resisted from intensifying their beheading, rape and displacement of these innocent victims and the destruction of their homelands. Granted, the horror of such war is that however precise the targeting, some innocents get killed rather than saved in the process. In Just War terms, war is not an innate good, not a virtue. It is a dreadful but sometimes necessary expedient applied to stem yet further iniquity in a sinful, fallen world.

To repeat: the ‘chance of success’ dimension of the Just Cause dimension of a complexly-developed set of moral philosophies grouped under the heading ‘Just War’ is a key consideration in the whole Syria issue. I’ve conceded that it’s the toughest of all considerations to determine. But by its nature no one can be absolutely sure of the answer to it in this case. Analogies can be sought in favour of the Corbynite position from Afghanistan and Libya, but no two wars are exactly the same. Daesh might bear certain resemblances to the Taliban and Al-Quaeda, but they are distinct from each, in ideology, in tactics and in strategy. Hilary Benn made a passionate case for intervention on analogy with fascism, and with socialists’ willingness to go to war against it in World War II. I believe he was right to do so, but as I said in my previous post on this issue, Daesh are fighting both a ‘conventional’ ground war to grab foreign territory, Nazi-style, and at the same time a ‘global, postmodern’ war based on the terrorisation of innocents in disparate nations around the world. There are potential continuities and discontinuities in the parallels drawn by both sides in the argument. On balance, as I’ve shown, I take Hilary Benn’s view, and I do so not least with reference to the wider understanding of Just War that I’ve set out here.

Yet I don’t pretend for a moment that this matter is clear-cut, and I continue to pray for those suffering at the hands of Daesh, for the military personnel from the UK and other countries involved in the campaign, and for the politicians and diplomats engaged in complementary economic and intelligence-driven initiatives to stifle the repugnant threat that Daesh represents. Last, but not least, I pray for those either drawn to join Daesh, or already drawn into Daesh, that by God’s grace they might think again, and see it for the barbarous, nihilistic death-machine that it is.


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