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Arguably, a Just War
by Fr. John G. Yockey

My personal thanks to Bishop Richard J. Sklba for inspiring us all with his eloquent article, "The sorrow of a war-torn world," Catholic Herald (August 11, 2005), p. 3, reprinted in our bulletin last weekend. At the same time, I respectfully disagree with his closing criticism of the Iraq War.

It is both true and commendable, as the bishop noted: "...the highest levels of our universal Catholic Church concluded that the decision of the United States to go to war in Iraq was morally indefensible." The prophetic voice of our late Holy Father on this issue will always give me serious reason to pause. His constant, categorical insistence that every war is a defeat for humanity came from the indelible pain of his first-hand encounter with atrocity, even more fundamentally than from his mystical prayer or theological conclusions. Nonetheless, his specific application of such core Gospel value to the complex crisis in Iraq under Saddam is a matter of pastoral opinion (however well informed), not of doctrine.

Catholic doctrine, while emphasizing the primary imperative of non-violent conflict resolution, still concedes that a war can be justified when certain principles are followed (cf. Catechism nos. 2308-09). Often the painful limitations of our human condition most tragically fall far short of the evangelical ideal. The finite nature of creation, the devastating consequences of sin, and our unfinished world groaning for full transformation in Christ make conflict unavoidable at times so long as the weeds in Jesusí parable continue to grow with the wheat.

In his own column August 4 ("Herald of Hope," Catholic Herald), Archbishop Dolan nuanced the present state of things this side of heaven very accurately: "...patience, dialogue and reconciliation usually accomplish far more than sticks and stones." Usually, but not always. Most regrettably, there seem to be times when the horror of war is the best that can be done practically to counter pernicious evil. I submit that Operation Iraqi Freedom, striving to follow Just War principles under very treacherous circumstances, has been a terrible but necessary exception to the normative Gospel ethic of non-violence.

While I write, Mrs. Cindy Sheehan remains camped outside the Presidentís Texas ranch. She hopes to meet again with the Commander in Chief to tell him that "...he recklessly endangered the life of my son by sending our troops to attack and occupy a country that was no imminent threat to the United States." My prayers and empathy go out to Mrs. Sheehan, but I find her reasoning (apparently now shared by polled majorities) a lapse of memory and factually wrong.

Saddam Hussein brutally unleashed weapons of mass destruction during the late 1980s. Tens of thousands of graves attest to his barbarism. After the Persian Gulf War (1991), he refused to comply with more than a dozen UN resolutions, requiring him to provide the Security Council documented, corroborated reports about his remaining stockpiles and their mandated destruction.

For more than a decade he kept the international community at bay Ė in perilous doubt, constant uncertainty about his capabilities and schemes. He rebuffed repeated, often public efforts to verify that his regime posed no threat of nuclear terrorism. By March, 2003, the stronger consensus in global (not just American) intelligence presumed the existence of wmd in Iraq.

Everyone remembers the first point from the congressional testimony of chief weapons inspector David Kay shortly after the war began. No wmd were discovered in Iraq. But hardly anyone recalls his second crucial point at that very same hearing.

According to Kay, the Coalition rightly invaded Iraq nonetheless because the overall situation there after 1998 was much more unstable, much more chaotic and menacing than international intelligence had even supposed. The looming threat posed by a tyrannical regime out of internal control posed a danger only too real and increasingly ominous for the entire Middle Eastern region as well as for the rest of the world.

In my view, the wrenching decision to wage Operation Iraqi Freedom was strategically pre-emptive but morally defensive, not aggressive. President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and other Coalition leaders correctly chose the safer course to counter such intolerable, grave uncertainty about a potential catastrophe which, left unchecked minus outside intervention, could have escalated to the disaster of another Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

While the overthrow of Saddam and his terrorist ambitions was accomplished with reasonable success, the occupation and concomitant rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure obviously have proven much more arduous. It does seem that the original plan for war did not at all anticipate the ferocious resistance which has frustrated progress toward achieving an indigenous democracy. But I share the confidence of our generals on the front line (lauded for their competence by political leaders across the spectrum) that so lofty a goal is still attainable if we firmly persevere in our current strategy.

In the conduct of any war, abuses and atrocities inevitably occur that can never be justified. The brutality of the Iraqi conflict includes many instances of egregious immorality. No one can deny this repugnant down side. At the same time, I do believe the good does outweigh the bad in this dreadful quagmire.

We rightly coil when we hear civilian casualties referred to so impersonally as "collateral damage." Yet, I think the sophisticated weaponry used by our military forces deliberately seeks to target combatants and their hideouts with greater technical precision than ever before possible. Often we hear about and see our troops taking definite steps to minimize, if not totally shield, the innocent from injury and death.

Bishop Sklba commented that the Pentagonís omission of Iraqi casualties "suggests to many...that we cannot bear facing the full impact of the human damage being caused." Caused by whom? My own impression is that insurgent attackers wantonly, indiscriminately maim and kill far many more Iraqi civilians than do Coalition soldiers.

Furthermore, the daily outreach of our military in meaningful, direct services to the local people, plus our persistence in providing enormous economic and political aid to rebuild the very country where we tragically had to wage war, shows that we responsibly make good faith efforts to contain the devastation as much as is humanly possible.

Arguably, then, the Iraq War is just. It meets the classic moral standards for planning war (jus ad bellum). It began as a last resort after more than a decade of failed diplomacy to guarantee the abolition of wmd in Saddamís arsenal. It pursued a just cause, defensively taking the safer course against the devious deceit of a known perpetrator of mass destruction. It was declared by legitimate authority with no proven immoral intent. It proceeded with a reasonable hope for success, however difficult the regime change sought may ultimately be.

Similarly, the Iraq War meets the classic moral requirements for conduct during war (jus in bello). Maximum care has been taken to avoid direct attack on innocent non-combatants. And, though it is too early to determine conclusively, you can hold an opinion as probable as any opposite that the good of Saddamís removal from the black market of nuclear terrorism proportionately outweighs the evil required to effect those structural changes conducive for human betterment and greater stability throughout the Middle East.

Arguably, the Iraq War is just, but Pope John Paul is vindicated. War is always a defeat for humanity, always. We trust that when we suffer such catastrophe in the cosmic battle between grace and sin, we become even more radically dependent upon divine mercy to save us.


This essay originally appeared as a Guest Opinion with the title "Arguably, Iraq war is Just War" in the August 25, 2005 Catholic Herald and is republished here with the permission of Fr. Yockey.


Hypertext created by Terrence Berres
Revised September 17, 2005.

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