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The air strikes over Libya undoubtedly meet St Thomas’s conditions for a just war

This is a risky venture: but the risk of doing nothing was much greater

By on Monday, 28 March 2011

Women in Benghazi rally in support of coalition strikes (CNS photo/Finbarr O'Reilly)

Women in Benghazi rally in support of coalition strikes (CNS photo/Finbarr O'Reilly)

Mary Kenny asks in this week’s Catholic Herald whether St Thomas Aquinas would have backed the Nato operation to install a no-fly zone over Libya and to take “all necessary measures” to defend civilians from their own government’s bloodthirsty behaviour. It is true that we don’t actually know what the final outcome of all this will be. But that can’t surely affect the question of the morality of this military operation, even if, as some claim, it actually, in effect, tacitly includes the ambition of “regime change” – the ousting of the Gaddafi family from power – since it is difficult to imagine how else the Libyan population is ultimately to be defended. As for unpredictable outcomes – the question “what happens then”, which Mary says makes the Nato operation, from the point of view of “the Aquinas conditions”, borderline – they surely can’t come under the just war criteria.

There were originally only three conditions laid down by St Thomas himself:

1) The war must be started and controlled by the due authority of state or ruler – in other words, it can’t be a civil war or a rebellion. This rules out the war being waged by the Libyan rebels, but not the military intervention of the Nato forces, since that was indeed started by the due authority, not of one nation, but of the United Nations itself.

2) There must be a just cause. This wouldn’t include, say, a war for territory, but it would include the protection of a civil population, self-defence and the prevention of a worse evil. The UN resolution emphatically fulfils that condition.

3) The war must be for good, or against evil. Think what Gaddafi said when he thought his tanks were about to roll virtually unopposed into Benghazi: that he would go “from alley to alley, from house to house, from room to room” and that he would show “no mercy”. Thousands would have died. Without any doubt, the airstrikes have been against a very great evil indeed.

The Church later added two more rules, though St Thomas usually gets the credit for them (and why not?). The first is that the conflict must be a last resort. In other words, every other option must be tried first. In this case they had been. Sanctions, diplomacy, phone calls from Tony Blair to his pal Muammar, freezing of assets, the lot. None of it had any effect. The UN military measures were not only a last resort, they were employed only at the last possible moment, just in the nick of time.

Lastly, the war must be fought proportionally. This means that more force than necessary must not be used, nor must the action kill more civilians than necessary. Enormous pains are being taken to fulfil this condition, too. The supposed “smart bombs” they talked about in the first Gulf war (which constantly missed their targets and killed large numbers of civilians) appear to have been in the last 20 years perfected in the most remarkable way, so that tanks can be taken out surgically even inside urban areas without damage to their surroundings (special missiles are used, with a considerably reduced explosive charge).

I know that some Catholics with whom I am usually prone to agree are strongly against the whole thing. “Bang, crash, wallop,” writes Stuart Reid this week in his Charterhouse column, “Here we go again. Which of the western allies will be the first to bomb an aspirin factory or an orphanage?… We have been in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and in Iraq for eight and all we have to show for all that innocent blood and treasure – and for all those innocent victims – is two failed states and a world that is more dangerous than ever.” But the whole point is that we are extremely unlikely this time to bomb any orphanages. (My readers will undoubtedly hold that against me if I’m proved wrong). And this is emphatically not Afghanistan, and it is not Iraq. Here we do not go again. There will be “no boots on the ground”, this time. That’s the most unshakeable condition of all. And as for innocent victims: this action will save them – has already saved them – in their thousands from a merciless tyrant bent on a bloody revenge.

So, here we all are, whether we like it or not. Maybe I will come to regret sticking my neck out so publicly: but I think that Parliament was right, this time, to give such overwhelming support to a military venture. Of course, we cannot watch what is going on without great anxiety. It was risky: but there was an even greater risk in doing nothing. There is much more to be said, of course. But for the moment, perhaps, it would be better leave it at that: this is not a subject, I fear, that is going to go away soon.

  • Anonymous

    Ahhh…the right thing to do!
    After we’ve spent decades doing the wrong thing – and now? When it comes to the critical juncture we must resort, in our moral dilemma, to actuating an intrinsically moral disorder [ a war - no matter how just - is still intrinsically morally disordered] to prevent an objective evil from occurring.

    Of course this is our fault – there have been bloodless means of fulfilling this objective readily available for decades – but no – Gadaffi was a stick to beat a dog – a useful means to direputable ends. We, like dogs, went off and conspired with the wolves; and the wolves have turned on us.

    May God forgive us.
    But now?
    Do we have any choice other than to save these lives? Of course not.
    But how many have died because we did not act beforehand?
    Such is the way with all things these days – we look the other way while it benefits us to do so.

    Too little:Too late.
    We must make amends a few minutes before midnight – and hope and pray that our delay does not invoke the hostility and anger of those we rescue; justifiably bitter that too high a price has already been paid.

    You’re right of course that this isn’t an Iraq or Afghanistan scenario – but we cannot deny that this is one of the worst possible [however ultimately critically necessary] outcomes and when it comes to the heart of the matter – we will not be forgiven by historians for our failures.

    So please – I for one will not feel morally secure having the Just War principles to fall back upon – we’re only justified because we lost the opportunity for every other option along the way.
    We failed – and failed – and failed: People died because of our failure.

    Of course we must do the right thing – but it remains scandalous that we only do so when we have left ourselves with a ‘right thing’ which bears so heavy a price.

    We’ll live with our regrets: Many have died, and will die; because of them.

  • ms catholic state

    So……will the Ivory Coast be the next nation where we will intervene……or don’t they matter?!

  • Anonymous

    Fight This Day The Battle Of The Lord

    O glorious Prince of the heavenly host,
    defend us in battle,
    and in the struggle which is ours
    against the rulers of this world of darkness,
    against spirits of evil in high places.

    This wicked dragon pours out,
    as a most impure flood,
    the venom of his malice on men
    of depraved mind and corrupt heart,
    the spirit of lying, of impiety, of blasphemy,
    and the pestilent breath of impurity,
    and of every vice and iniquity.

    Behold, this primeval enemy
    and slayer of man has taken courage,
    transformed into an angel of light,
    he wanders about with all the multitude
    of wicked spirits, invading the earth
    in order to blot out the name of God
    and of his Christ,
    to seize upon, slay and cast into eternal perdition
    souls destined for the crown of eternal glory.

    Fight this day the battle of the Lord,
    together with the Holy angels,
    as already thou hast fought
    the leader of the proud angels,
    Lucifer, and his apostate host,
    who were powerless to resist thee,
    nor was there a place for them
    any longer in Heaven.

    We ask in your name,
    that you come to the aid of men,
    whom God has created immortal,
    made in his own image and likeness,
    and redeemed at a great price
    from the tyranny of the devil.
    You whom live and reign with the Father
    and the Holy Spirit, and the one God,
    forever and ever.


  • Wmp

    As a backer for such a war theory in the Catholic Catechism it also states the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. I do not think the rebels even though their lives have to be protected will be better than the present regime.

  • Martin

    Just War???????

    Hmmm lets look at this.

    Point One: The war must be started and controlled by the due authority of state or ruler.

    Errrrm No, this was done on the back of mass popular uprisings across the Arab Countries. It was enthusiastically started but not thought through, it was a complete failure.
    The only natural consequence of this was a backlash by the Government.
    Anyone who couldnt see this is pretty naive in regards to the workings of a Dictatorship. Its not as if they didnt have 40 odd years of experience here.

    We then had a situation where Warplanes were stopping the retaliation on the protesters by force. I would support the just war theory here but then rather than defend, politics as always got involved and we actively started to support the protesters.

    It was at this point that the protesters decided to become rebels, arm themselves as a group and with the use of allied Air power start taking cities. It is at this point the Just War Theory Collapses:

    We were/are no longer defending the rebels but supporting them by taking ground and killing others.
    The french have said that they may conduct Missions outside of the UN/NATO mandate and sp the Rebels (I use the word rebel here in much the same way as the Army Cadet force, they would stand no chance without foreign air power), they may along with others, hit Libyan targets to allow the rebels to keep advancing.
    So based on this, how can the present government react? If it now stops those that threaten it, any defence would now meaning attacking members of NATO, thus justifying further bombing of its forces and it becomes a lose lose scenario. This is not about being Just, its totally political, this is all about regime change.

    Point Two: It must be just.

    Defence is just but as stated above they are now on the offensive. Anything that is viewed as a threat will be destroyed. Now innocents on the other side will suffer but under a better PR campaign so that they will look like they deserve it.

    Point Three: The war must be for Good, or against Evil.

    It was good in that it supported the lives of those who who had come under the wrath of the Goverment. But we have now moved from that role into Land Grab mode. Here we have echoes of Afghanistan and Iraq. How do we leave the country? Under the rebels who may become a dicatatorship in their own right through taking the country by force, Divided under the constant threat of Gaddaffi or let Gaddaffi retake everything?

    Unfortunately like most systems in this area of the world, the government is Tribal, it is not a democracy, it is ran by the strongest leader. When that falls, it all falls. There is no one to take his place because if there had been they would probably be in power already. So who will set the conditions on the ground? are we infact causing more harm than good? (not that is support the Gaddaffi regime).

    Point four: Was it a last resort?

    Maybe (primary due to inaction by everyone), but if regime change was the real goal, why didnt the west directly target the Gaddaffi family and save a lot of other lives. That would be more just, cheaper, and leave it a military apperatus in order to continue to allow the country to defend itself.

    Lastly, the war must be fought proportionally.

    There is no way you can do this in war. In order to win you must bring more firepower to bear than the enermy. It must be more accurate, move devastating in impact and shatter his will to carry on fighting.

    Likewise we still have civilian/rebels playing at being soldiers and moving forward of where they live. This constantly puts them in situations where any military force would either be forced to react to it, withdraw from it or be over run by it. As you can see, their actions are thus forcing conflict and inviting NATO to act on their behalf (which is probably the plan). I actually feel sorry for the soldiers who are simply from their point defending their own country. I am sure that the common soldiers are just doing what they are told. Any Military commander worth his salt (regardless of side) when faced with an Armed Aggressor (and the armed rebells are now playing that part) would be more than justified in taking it out. It would be cowardise not to and a total betrayal of those he (in his viewpoint) is defending.

    This so called just war can only end in more bloodshed and i dont eagerly look forward to what could come,
    I also dont think the rebels would be any less restrained in offering No Mercy than gaddaffi if he falls. Have you seen how they stab the face of Gaddaffi on the posters or shoot directly into his face. It doesnt fill me with warm confidence in regard to how they would view his supporters.

    Heres hoping i am wrong and everything turns out for the better. All we maybe doing is creating something far worse.

  • Edward Z.

    The Pope appears not to share your certainty in this matter, Dr Oddie, as his careful remarks show. Do you consider yourself more Catholic than the Pope? I do hope not. That way lies the funny farm.

  • Louisa

    It’s amusing to see Dr. Oddie’s assesment that is it a just war on the same day the Catholic Herald published the article ‘Pope calls for suspension of fighting in Libya.’ Dr. Oddie, you are usually the first to defend the Pope and encourage obedience to him, even when he has perhaps said things which may not have been ideal; what impact then does his statement on Libya have on your opinion?

  • RJ

    An amusing intervention but I would think both the Holy Father and Dr Oddie agree on the principles of the just war theory while not necessarily agreeing on their application in this particular case. I wouldn’t see that as ‘a problem’.

  • W Oddie

    What’s so amusing? The pope wants a ceasefire: so do I. But Gaddafi isn’t going to give us one. I detect no difference whatever between the Holy Father’s position and mine. Pope John Paul was unequivocaly against the Iraq war from the beginning. That isn’t Pope Benedict’s position about the no-fly zone. He has not condemned it: what he’s done is ask for care to be taken over non-combattant casuaties. Since that’s the whole point, there’s no problem.

  • RJ

    I believe the Pope is right but I don’t think this is a matter of obedience. I would have thought the original intervention was justifiable but, at this stage, negotiation looks the best option. Prolonging the war is going to put civilians at risk, so that should be avoided if possible. On the other hand, Gaddafi’s political survival is a risk to the victims of his regime.

  • W Oddie

    Sure: the trouble is that GADAFFI WON’T NEGOTIATE: and he won’t declare a cease-fire: and even if he did, you couldn’t believe him. So what are we to do?

  • RJ

    Yes, that is a real problem. Hope, pray and keep ourselves in a position to defeat him, and make sure he knows it.

  • Martin in responce to W Oddie

    W Oddie – i am watching Sky News and watching the Rebels who are attacking Gaddafi beg for airstrikes in their support as they have woken up to facing an army that doesnt want to give up. They are in full retreat.

    There is now requests for additional airstrikes in support of them and people are making noises about getting advisors on the ground (AKA Western Military), in order to support.

    Is this still a just war or as Bishop Moth warned….Mission Creep from the original mandate?

    I wouldnt be suprised if there are UK and other forces preparing to move to Libya as we speak. If this were true would this and should this be permitted?

  • Pat Schwarz

    Thank you for this powerful prayer.  In these times when we think we know who the enemy is, but the real one in lurking behind the scenes.

  • Pat Schwarz

    Something is wrong with this picture.  This war is not about liberating the people of Egypt, it seems, but about creating anarchy after Moamar Gaddafi is gone.  May God have Mercy on his soul.