8 January 2020

(I usually post a reflection on Friday. Due to current developments, I post this a couple days earlier.)

In January 2003, I was invited to meet with a group of about twenty US Army and Air Force chaplains at a US base in Germany. I often met with them for what were called “days of recollection.” This time the presentation and discussion were about the “Just War Theory” and what was already being seen as an impending US invasion of Iraq. (That happened of course in March 2003.) As I explained the main points of the traditional understanding of a just war, one young chaplain became very restless. Rather emotionally he called out to me: “If I understand what you are saying, it would be immoral for the US to launch a war in Iraq.” Very calmly I said: “Yes. I think it would be immoral and unjustified.” I looked around the room. Just about every chaplain there was shaking his head in agreement. The young chaplain then said, with great restlessness, that he could not be a part of such an invasion and didn’t know what to do. Then an older chaplain, whom I have always greatly respected, said: “Young man pull yourself together. I was a chaplain in Vietnam. I understand just and unjust wars. Your responsibility is not to implement government policy per se but to travel with your soldiers and be with them in their own difficult journeys.”

Now, with President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, those just war reflections jump back at me, with fears of a major military escalation. What is morally legitimate and responsible international behavior these days?

As I explained to the chaplains back in 2003, the traditional just war theory defines four conditions that must be met in order for a war to be just:

1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

2) All other means of putting an end to the initial problem must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

3) There must be serious prospects of success.

4) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

The first consideration, I would suggest, is not whether an act of war is just but whether or not it is wise. I remember the remark of the American writer, Issac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” A January 3rd editorial in the New York Times, titled “The Game Has Changed,” expressed it this way: “The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but the killing is a big leap in an uncertain direction.”

My second consideration would be that the traditional four-points just war theory totally ignores our contemporary situation. With today’s atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction can there ever be a “Just war”?

Today, we need to explore and implement other ways of resolving international conflicts. We need to reinforce and collaborate with international organizations like the United Nations. We need to see that the function of the military is not to make war but to maintain peace.

I resonate with the January 3, 2020 statement by Johnny Zokovitch, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA:

The decision by the Trump Administration to assassinate Iran’s General Soleimani on Iraqi soil, reportedly by drone strike, has only succeeded in escalating tensions in the Middle East and put in jeopardy the lives of innocent men, women and children who will bear the brunt of back-and-forth retaliation between the US and Iran. This is another in a long string of failures by this administration to pursue diplomacy and act with prudence in addressing the complicated problems of the region, many of which have been exacerbated by or are the direct result of decades of bad decisions undertaken by the US in the Middle East.”

Yes. We are moving into a new decade……We must “beat swords into plowshares” and pursue peace. This is not just pious rhetoric. It is now our practical life or death reality. I think 2020 will be chaotic, unpredictable, and enormously consequential.


14 thoughts on “War Wisdom

  1. Thank you for your post.
    Yes I do think this year will be enormously consequential given Trumps decision and action. I still can’t believe he did it.
    It is , of course , as J Z says, the ordinary men and women who will bear the brunt of the retaliations.
    God help us all
    Anne Chung

  2. As with the abdication of Benedict XVI, the problem in the USA, and therefore in this Wide Old World, is not so much with the removal of an infantile and erratic president, as it is with the system that supports his rule-by-tweet rather than by law and the considered opinions of humanity across the globe.

    You are so right to hearken back to the faded “just war theory” because, ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki — which our nation’s populace barely recalls, the “theory” was blown away in a mushroom cloud. Technology is not that primitive anymore.

    As a grandfather living close to another ground zero in DC, I am reminded daily by the rumblings overhead of flocks of military helicopters, to and from the Capitol and Pentagon, that our very existence moment to moment is a mere click away from radio-active dust… and that doesn’t include awareness of the presence of unrecorded drones.

    This is the eternal presence among us now. Is it an indication of how remote is the imagery of a sacramental life from the digital imagery of glowing screens in which so many live, by proxy?

  3. Thanks, Jack. These are indeed unsettling and scary times. We’ve had a few of these times, during my lifetime. The biggest difference this time is that I have no confidence in the White House occupant to make the right decision for our safety and well-being. Sad times as well.

  4. Jack, Thanks for this superbly enunciated plea to end all war. The cheap choice of raging violence is the prelude to lifelessness. Peace. George

  5. Dear Jack,

    I have often wondered at the war images in our Biblical readings, songs, and prayers; e.g., “A mighty fortress is our God;” “Onward Christian soldiers;” “St. Michael, the archangel, defend us in battle,” etc. It seems strange that our faith uses language linked with violence or dominance. I’m not quite sure if attending Our Lady of Victory church should be consoling or alarming. Yes, it is probably naive to think that simply praying for peace and expecting the adversary to wrap loving arms around us is a way to view reality.

    On the national level, it seems that the image of the U.S. in the world has shifted from the necessarily strong savior of WWII to the dominant occupier and nation-builder of the twenty first century. My hope is that people of conscience will become leaders so that we can be a model of goodness, kindness, and compassion who will only use force when necessary and only at a level proportionate to the crisis.

    While times appear bleak, I am consoled by the most repeated words in the Bible: “Be not afraid.” I truly believe there are no weapons in heaven!!


      1. Frank Skeltis, also a fellow student of the late Cardinal in DC, James A. Hickey of Saginaw, brings the welcome insight that much of the lyrics in the traditional hymnody has been mollified, but not enough in my opinion. In congregations where I served as organist for decades, when homilies are dull or errant, many parishioners admitted privately that the hymnal texts offered better a better reflection on the gospels. Some even struggled with scapegoating, to which Jesus of Nazareth was opposed, and which He concluded, on the cross.

        The lectionary for Epiphany II presents again the image of the “Lamb of God,” from John the Baptist’s mouth. John’s Agnus Dei, Jesus of Nazareth, wasn’t about sacrificial ritual at all. Leaning into the counter-culture, what Jesus taught and did for sanctity and sanity in his time would move us all out of animal or human sacrifice, and into the love of God, and God’s love and trust in us. His purity of intent shows the way to seek out the wounded and accompany them. A good accompanist finds a way to harmonize discord and modulate from key to key, varying cadence and timing, into a colorful and often unexpected resolution.

        But still, our secularized Christianity has missed the point of “Do not be afraid” when all revile those who, symbolically turning the other cheek, of walking the extra mile with companions, of finding another way instead of reacting in violence to violence. After two millennia of misdirection, Vatican II took a step back to The Way that preceded Nicaea. The task is unfinished: Sapiens is still in the wilderness of terrifying temptations, using dynamite instead of dinner to resolved differences. Such a dynamic– Catholic or otherwise– is not the way of Jesus. His epiphanies are shown in patience and compassion, not in triggering a self-imposed apocalypse.

    1. Thankyou for these wise words, Frank. I too believe in no weapons in heaven- but also in the power of words of peace. Mary Grey

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