What’s the first thing you picture when you hear someone described as “anti-war?” For a long time, my mind would conjure one of two images. The first is the idealistic hippie who sings John Lennon songs and in his drug-induced haze doesn’t understand the first thing about the “real world.” The second image is the anti-American liberal, who, in her seething hatred of the United States, reflexively condemns any and all wars the country is involved in. Neither image is one I have wanted to be associated with.
Although I was born during the Vietnam War, the first significant U.S. conflict I remember was the first Iraq War in 1990-1991. Like most Americans, I got swept up in the patriotic fever that gripped the nation and supported our country’s actions there. That conflict was so antiseptic: it only lasted a few months (the fighting itself only a few weeks), and there were so few (American) casualties that it became easy to have no qualms about war.
Just War Theory
A few years after that conflict I became Catholic and embraced the Church’s “Just War Theory.” This classic view of war posits that a country may enter into a war only in defense (i.e., it cannot initiate force). Further, the Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the additional criteria for a war to be justified:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- 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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2309)
Because I accepted the Just War Theory, I could not consider myself “anti-war” since situations could arise in which it would be justified for a country to enter into war. For years this was my default position regarding war. In practice, however, I didn’t apply these criteria carefully when I considered conflicts my own country was involved in. In fact, my default criteria became “If the U.S. is involved in a conflict, then it must be just.”
However, over the years I became more and more uncomfortable with the use of U.S. military force in the world, especially during our unending “War on Terror.” I could see some justification initially in our conflict in Afghanistan, as that country harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. After all, this conflict was not initiated by the U.S., and the damage inflicted on our country was “lasting, grave, and certain,” as Just War Theory requires.
However, the other three criteria were not so easily met. Had all means of stopping bin Laden been met? Perhaps, but that was questionable. Was there a serious prospect of success? Considering how long it took to actually find him and the human toll it required, that seems unlikely, at least in retrospect. And would the use of arms produce graver evils and disorders than the evil eliminated? The attacks of 9/11 killed almost 3,000 people; however, over 31,000 civilians have been killed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and there have been almost 3,500 military deaths as well (including 2,300 American soldiers). And of course our mandate in Afghanistan went far beyond capturing bin Laden.
Although one could still try to argue that our original attack on Afghanistan was justified in light of 9/11, the expansion of the conflict and its ongoing nature clearly violated Just War Theory. And this is the one U.S. conflict in my lifetime that best fits the Just War Theory! The second Iraq War was a disastrous foray of foreign interventionism and score-settling. The various U.S. bombings in the Middle East over the years, such as in Syria, clearly violate Just War principles.
I came to a realization: there has been no U.S. military conflict in my lifetime that fully meets Just War Theory criteria. Thus, I was bound, if I wanted to be consistent with my own system of morality, to be opposed to each of these conflicts. Although I am the polar opposite of the stereotypical anti-war activist, I found myself in common cause with him.
Pro-Life Means Pro-Life
A final thought: my growing opposition to war led me to take more seriously the significant human toll every war causes. When I reflexively accepted the morality of any U.S. conflict, I could just as reflexively ignore the damage in lives and properties it caused. After all, that death and destruction was in a far-away land I had never been to and had no connection with. Yet, inconsistently, I was horrified witnessing the tragic events of 9/11. But is the blood of foreign innocents any less valuable than U.S. blood?
As a Catholic, I am pro-life, meaning I’m anti-abortion, for abortion causes the death of an innocent human being. Yet how can I oppose the deaths of those pre-born innocents, and support the deaths of so many thousands of innocents around the world due to the unjustified actions of my country’s government? Being pro-life isn’t limited to defending the lives of only one demographic, it means I oppose any and all killing of innocent people, no matter where they live, how old they are, or who does the killing.
So line me up next to the idealistic hippie and the anti-American liberal. For all practical purposes, I am anti-war.
1. “[T]here must be serious prospects of success.” In the OT, and in history, you see battles where it seemed hopeless: but that was to leave God out of the equation.
2. Fighting a war is often “pro-life”–although that is an American political term, and not a theological one. So, it cannot be hijacked into defending whatever we want to in theological terms. For example, it doesn’t mean that God requires us to be vegetarians.
3. Catholics are supposed to think in centuries, and so we should not form our opinions merely on recent decades.
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