e-mail us

Special Report

The ethics of war


When terrorists flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon Sept. 11, Carol Corgan, a teacher at Gonzaga High School, knew she had to switch gears in her social justice class.

Many of Corgan’s 28 seniors in this all-boys’ Jesuit school in downtown Washington pass the Pentagon each day while traveling to and from school.

Emotions were raw, and talk of revenge was almost universal among students, said Corgan, who is religion department chair. She wanted to make sure her students, most of whom are at or approaching the legal age for military service, were well enough versed in the church’s moral teachings to make an informed decision regarding participation in war.

“When the tragedy occurred, I switched up my schedule and moved just war to the front,” Corgan said.

The so-called just war ethic provides a specific and complex moral framework in which Christians can make an informed assessment about the rightness or wrongness of war as an option to resolve conflict in a given situation.

In their 1982 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the U.S. bishops reiterated the just war criteria. “The purpose of moral theory is not, in the first place, to legitimize war but to prevent it,” the bishops wrote. “The presumption is against the use of force.”

In order for the use of force to be justified, seven just war criteria must be addressed: competent authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, probability of success, proportionality and just means.

Raised on what she calls “Blow ’em up movies,” Corgan said she also wanted to help the boys make the distinction between Hollywood and the real thing. “A lot of the guys didn’t like the strict and narrow parameters of just war,” she said. “They’re really good guys, but they’re also kind of already inculturated in this other mentality.”

As the prospect of war looms large in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, many Catholic theologians and educators have also moved just war discussions to the front of their agendas.

At Notre Dame, theology professor Michael Baxter, a Holy Cross Father and self-described pacifist, is a proponent of the teachings of the late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Baxter used the terrorist attacks as the basis for discussion in his class titled, “A Faith to Die For,” an introduction to Catholicism and moral theology.

Baxter opened the Sept. 13 class telling the students about his friend, Neil Hyland, an Army officer who died in the Pentagon attack. He invited students to also share personal experiences. About 15 of the 70 students talked. More shared when the topic switched to a more general discussion about the attacks.

“It was real somber and it was good,” Baxter said.

At both Gonzaga and Notre Dame, students reacted with a similar combination of anger, grief and a desire for revenge.

Corgan told her students that she is not a pacifist and that she was also struggling for answers regarding an appropriate response. The just war ethic immediately gave her students pause. Many of them were surprised that a just war would not permit the targeting of civilians.

“A lot of them would want to think that if you had to bomb civilian targets that would be OK,” she said. Killing noncombatants “is never appropriate,” she told them, even if it helps to end the war.

“They’d like it to be OK to use more force than just war theory would permit,” she said.

Corgan was pleased that her students didn’t reject out of hand the possibility that there could be a just war, but were willing to struggle with the moral questions.

To help the students understand the just war criteria, Corgan used an analogy comparing the actions of soldiers to those of the Washington police.

“The police are only supposed to use the force necessary to deal with criminals,” she said. “Analogously on the international scene, the same in terms of just war would apply. And that’s what they’re struggling with.”

More than two weeks after the attacks, Corgan said her students have become more thoughtful and less emotional.

Yet, anger still lingers for 18-year-old Joseph Burns. The day of the attack on the Pentagon, Burns passed the smoldering Pentagon on the way to his home in McLean, Va. His immediate thought, which was echoed by most of his fellow students, was to go to war to avenge the attacks.

“Things are definitely not normal,” he said. “I think everybody is angry. They’re scared, obviously, but my friends, when I talk to them, they’re more angry than anything.”

The desire to go to war has subsided for some of the students, but for some such as Burns the conflict about moral choices becomes real when considering the possibility of a draft. His discussions in Corgan’s class have led him to conclude that a war against the impoverished people of Afghanistan would not be just, but he also isn’t sure what he would do if a military draft were reinstated and he was called up to fight.

“Personally I would fight just because I’m a nationalist and I believe strongly in America,” Burns said. “I don’t think we should attack, but if I get drafted I would definitely fight.” Seconds later, though, Burns mentioned Vietnam, a war he thinks was wrong, and his thoughts changed.

“Maybe I wouldn’t join the draft,” he said. “Then I would just let myself get arrested. If they did reinstate the draft over just attacking Afghanistan, I don’t think I could actually fight.”

For her part, Corgan is pleased that she was able to lead her students to a level of thinking that got beyond raw emotions. “They had to look at it, and not just be too ‘flag-waving, let’s go get ’em.’ They had to look at [just war] and confront what the church says even if they don’t like it.”

An initial surge of patriotism also swept the Notre Dame campus, Baxter said. “The response is dishearteningly typical of responses of students at Notre Dame in past wars, Vietnam being the exception,” Baxter said. “There’s just a lot of flag-waving; there’s flags all over the place. The overwhelming response has been one of a display of patriotism, which began as a legitimate expression of grief and unity, but which sometime five or six days after this attack started to transform into a display of patriotism, and a call for vengeance -- a display, I should say, of nationalism and a call for vengeance.”

Questions of just war must be raised, Baxter said, and he expects the Bush administration will be ready with answers.

“My guess is that a lot of people in this administration, which has made its business to be conversant with Catholic tradition, will have answers to this,” Baxter said, “and they’ll be plenty of theologians, Catholic theologians, who will have answers to this and the answer will be, ‘Yes, it’s just.’ Because there’s a whole stock of theologians who have never met a war they didn’t like.”

Georgetown professor Jesuit Fr. John Langan teaches in both the philosophy department and in the school of foreign service. While the Vietnam War “seriously violated” the just war principle of proportionality, Langan says both Osama bin Laden, the person being linked to the terrorist attacks, and the Afghanistan government could be “legitimate targets” under just war criteria. Langan, who wrote an article on the subject to be published in the Oct. 8 issue of America magazine, likened the situation to three circles.

The first circle is Osama bin Laden and his network. If evidence concludes that bin Laden is “at the center of the attacks ... then he is a legitimate target” as well as “the people who collaborated to bring this disaster about, which resulted in the murder of thousands of people,” Langan said.

The second circle is Afghanistan.

“It does seem to be that the Afghan government, by giving safe harbor and comfort and supplying resources to Osama bin Laden, is a legitimate target,” Langan said. “But it would be very unwise for us to adopt proposals that require us to be in control of Afghanistan for some length of time or that involve replacing the government there.

“That brings us towards Vietnam I think, and that’s a bad way to go.”

On the basis of the principle of proportionality, war could start with a legitimate target, bin Laden, Langan said. “Keeping a careful eye on the relationship of means and ends I think is very important.”

The third circle is the Islamic world.

“If we’re going to maintain structures of peace over the long run, we need to build better relationships with the Islamic world,” Langan said. “In fighting terrorism we have to make sure that the actions we take don’t foreclose that possibility.”

In the face of the attacks, Pope John Paul II made several strong statements calling for peace.

“With all my heart, I beg God to keep the world in peace,” the pope said. “We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict.”

Said Langan: “Peace remains a very important good. In the just war tradition people are to be reluctant warriors rather than people who find that it’s some kind of vindication of their being or their manhood to be out there shooting folks up. So I find that what the pope says in favor of peace is correct and worth saying. Just war thinking is always a ‘yes-but’ sort of system. It’s saying, ‘Yes, there’s a right to defend yourself, but you have to do it with certain limits. Yes, there’s a prior commitment to peace, but at certain times it’s necessary to use force.’ ”

For Boston College professor of Christian ethics Lisa Sowle Cahill, the threat of war goes far beyond the philosophical. Lisa and Larry Cahill are the parents of four teenage boys, three of whom are draft age. The prospect of her sons going off to war is scary, Cahill said.

“Just war counsels caution,” she said. “I think that most importantly in the criteria of justice in going to war we would need to look at whether this is really a last resort, and also whether there’s a reasonable hope of success, as well as whether the action taken is proportionate to the good that we expect to accomplish.

“Those are the kind of criteria that cause yellow lights to be blinking.” The protection of civilian life is also critical in any engagement, Cahill said.

Cahill said conditions that may have led to the terrorist attacks must be analyzed. “There are many contributing conditions to the situation that we find ourselves in that don’t have to do with only religion, but also with economics,” she said. “Americans in general tend to have quite an insular view of their own identity, and their government’s actions.”

Cahill said she was moved by a sermon delivered by her pastor at Newton’s Our Lady Hope of Christians Catholic Church.

Using the Amos (8:4-7) reading from the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Fr. Walter Cuenin, spoke of “the oppression of the poor as the cause of the type of feeling that leads to terrorism,” Cahill said.

As the war rhetoric heated up, Cahill said it gave her husband pause. After the attacks, Larry Cahill had flown an American flag in front of their house “just out of that feeling of unity and being appalled at what had happened,” Lisa Cahill said. “But within a week he took it down because he said he didn’t like the sound of where things were going.”

Should things lead to war, Notre Dame’s Baxter says he doubts Catholics already serving in the military will have the information necessary to make good moral choices.

“They themselves need to look at these [just war] criteria and use them as personal guides to discern the extent to which they’re ready to cooperate with this action, and in particular being absolutely concerned not to do something intrinsically evil, like take the lives of the innocent. That’s where the rubber hits the road when it comes to actual soldiers. Our church teaches that noncooperation with evil is a moral duty.”

The responsibility to counsel Catholic soldiers on matters of morality in the conduct of war is the duty of military chaplains, Baxter said.

“I suppose, to put it nicely, that kind of critical reflection is not encouraged,” Baxter said. “Because it could mean someone might say, ‘I think this is too dangerous morally, and I should be switched out of duty.’ It’s just not conducive to the kind of atmosphere they try to cultivate in the military, which is one of ‘you obey your command.’ ”

Richmond, Va., Bishop Walter Sullivan is president of Pax Christi USA, the Erie, Pa.,-based Catholic peace organization. Sullivan, known for being outspoken against war, said the pope and the church have “taken a strong position against any revenge or retaliation, especially if it involves the lives of innocent people. We should not render evil for evil and turn around and do the very things we’re condemning the terrorists for doing.

“I think it’s an outrage to speak about a war on terrorists,” Sullivan continued. “I support completely bringing those responsible to justice, but let’s not blow the world apart trying to do so.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001