In the Western democratic tradition, debates over war and peace are recorded as far back as the Peloponnesian Wars. St. Augustine assumed, by the lights of his day, that the decision for war lay solely with the magistrate. By Shakespeare’s time, audiences had become sufficiently sophisticated to hear common men question a king’s wisdom. When King Harry tells common soldiers, “Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable,” Williams, a common soldier, responds impertinently, “That’s more than we know” (Henry V, Act IV).
The history of just war thinking shows an evolution of Catholic thought about moral responsibility for war and peace. For centuries authority rested solely with the ruler. While assigning primacy to the king, Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), one of the great Catholic just war theorists, specified the duty of royal counselors and military commanders to speak the truth and voice their reservations to the king. Following World War II and the Holocaust, the Second Vatican Council rejected the view that military personnel could be excused from moral responsibility in wartime by appeal to superior orders.
Over time responsibility has become dispersed. In contemporary papal teaching, one finds growing emphasis on the role of public opinion in avoiding armed conflict. In his 1982 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Peace cannot be built by the powers of rulers alone. Peace can be firmly constructed only if it corresponds to the resolute determination of all people of good will. Rulers must be supported and enlightened by a public opinion that encourages them or, where necessary, expresses disapproval.” In their pastoral letter on nuclear war and deterrence, The Challenge of Peace (1983), the United States bishops built on this papal teaching to argue that in a modern democracy “public opinion can passively acquiesce...or it can...indicate the limits beyond which government should not proceed.” The principle that public opinion should set limits for government policies relating to war and peace is valid in the present crisis over Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has put forth the case for war with increasing clarity. In the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, President Bush made his most sustained argument yet against Iraq. The burden of that argument was that for 12 years Iraq has systematically violated the cease-fire agreement that concluded the Persian Gulf war and required disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. With satellite photos, signal intercepts and human intelligence reports, Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech before the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5 marshaled evidence against Iraq and for U.N. enforcement.
Thanks to Mr. Powell’s determination to bring the issue to the Security Council and British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s insistence that the issue is Iraqi compliance with Security Council Resolution 1441, the case against Iraq has greater focus. In addition, by returning to the U.N. Security Council Mr. Powell increased the likelihood for any enforcement action to be conducted with proper authority—that is, by the Security Council—forestalling unilateral U.S. action.
Despite the damning evidence Secretary Powell displayed, serious questions remain about the resort to war. Until now, containment has worked. With the U.N. inspectors in place, with intelligence to guide them, why not continue the strategy of containment and disarmament? Is the goal of war Iraqi disarmament, regime change, the institution of a democratic Middle East or punishment of an egregious human rights violator? Is the United States, which has not shown the appetite for nation-building, prepared to stay the course, once victory is in hand? Will victory over Iraq ensure progress in the war against terror? Will war silence the Arab street out of respect for American power, or will it produce more anti-Americanism and more terrorism from Arabs and Muslims?
Most of all, is the Iraqi threat significant enough and sufficiently realizable that it warrants inflicting and bearing the horrible costs of war? Pope John Paul warned after the first Gulf War against “the violence, which under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse.” He pleaded, “‘Never again war!’ No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a solution of the very problems that provoked the war” (Centesimus Annus, No. 25 and 52). Will we, like the pope, take the measure of war and weigh its evils against a containable threat from Iraq?
Even as the military is poised for war, the debate over the resort to force must continue. Secretary Powell has documented Iraqi transgressions. He did not make a conclusive case for war as a remedy. It is time for an informed citizenry to move from “passive acquiescence” to vigorous debate over the recourse to war and, if necessary, to “indicate the limits beyond which government should not proceed.”