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Ann Turner: Inside the meaning of a ‘just war’

Secretary of State John Kerry pauses on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the proposed authorization to use military force in Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Secretary of State John Kerry pauses on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the proposed authorization to use military force in Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Purchase photo reprints »

At any rate, there is something to be said for taking a look at just war theory and what it might — and might not — have to say to us as we reflect upon what it will mean for us, for Syria and for the entire Middle East if we become involved militarily in this bloody sectarian struggle.

I go to Catholic theology to see what it has to say about just and unjust wars. (Note: this discussion does not address whether any war can ever be just; it simply looks at what moral principles can be thoughtfully applied to armed conflict and its justification. Also, all quotes are from “The Challenge of Peace,” by the U.S. Catholic bishops.)

OK, tighten your seat belts, make a cup of strong coffee, sit up straight in your chair and let’s begin. The just war theory (also known as jus ad bellum, or “right to go to war”) has a long history, beginning with Cicero, who believed there were right causes for war. St. Augustine developed this theory, which was also later refurbished by St. Thomas Aquinas. Some 12th-century Arabic thinkers also weighed in on this.

There are several crucial components to just war theory, which, after all, is about looking at possible conflict and trying to decide not only where justice lies, but how justice might be achieved.

The first step includes the idea of having “just cause.” This means that nations must not go to war for frivolous reasons, revenge, punishment, or even simply national interest. The war must confront a “real and certain danger,” such as self-defense.

The second step is “competent authority.” This means that individuals or groups like the tea party cannot wage war on their own; it must come from a government committed to the “public order.” The third reason is “comparative justice.” This is an interesting one as it tells us to look at the other side, to weigh the reasons involved in force being used by the “enemy.” It also says that we should use “limited means” to pursue our goals.

The fourth criterion is “right intention.” This ties in with “just cause” in looking at the motivations for going to war; that war not be waged from revenge or hatred of the enemy.

The fifth reason is “last resort.” This states that all possible means have been tried to settle the conflict before going to war.

The sixth step is “probability of success.” Obviously, this means that officials waging war must have a reasonable chance of succeeding at their goals (what values are at stake) in the conflict. And the primary goal should be the re-establishment of peace and justice.

The seventh and last reason is “proportionality.” This states that the evils and harm brought about by war be “proportionate to the good expected by using arms.” In other words, the final good must exceed the present destruction. People must be better off after the conflict than they were before.

Then (breathe deeply), there is what is called jus in bello, which is defined as the “right in war” or justice in war and it covers how it should be waged if it is to be moral. This includes that the war not kill innocent civilians and that weapons of mass destruction not be used.

So. There we are. Need a nap yet? More coffee? Throwing darts at something, not someone? If you apply these conditions to the prospect of intervening in Syria’s civil war, what do you come out with?

Children’s book author and inspirational speaker Ann Turner lives in Williamsburg. Information about her work is available at annwturner.com.

The writer reports that her sources for this essay include: “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” Wikipedia, the Mount Holyoke College site on “Just War Principles,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” and the Religion and Ethics Aug. 30 broadcast with Notre Dame Professor of Peace and Justice George Lopez.

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