The National Catholic Review

It was unjust to go to war in Iraq. There was no imminent threat; there was no proper authority; and it was not a last resort. No, I am not going to keep quiet because we won. Winning is not the determinant of good. Nor do the good outcomes we hope forpeace and just representation for the Iraqi people, the end of torture and totalitarianism, a quelling of the rage of terrorists (all to be celebrated)justify its morality.

One of the things that are difficult for some people to understand is that there are still Americans who believe that the end does not justify the means. Put more colloquially for a nation mesmerized by success: success does not insure ethical good or right. The success of Michael Moore, Madonna and Rush Limbaugh proves little except that people are willing to listen to them and in some way pay for it. If Adolf Hitler had been successful in conquering the world, that still would not have made it a morally good thing, although most conquered peoples, press and politicians would still be singing his praises. (No, this is not moral equivalence. We are not the Third Reich, and there is no Hitler aroundjust his methods of self-justification.)

We citizens of a country that can spend years ruminating over one killing supposedly perpetrated by a retired pro football star might be expected to be moved by the plight of even one Iraqi child dismembered or dissolved by a bomb meant for someone else. But this is not the case. We are into success.

Success, however, even for utilitarian ethics, is a sometime thing. One of the problems that haunt the whole theory is how to calibrate the success. The war is successful this week. Will it be so next week if 200 members of the American military die? Will it be a success if next month we are fighting Iraqis throughout their country? Will it be a success if next year Disneyland is bombed? These questions are not predictions. They are indicators of the danger inherent in relying on success. Even on the utilitarian grounds of successful outcome, then, the case for war is still arguable.

But many of ussome influenced by Kant, some by Aquinas, some by natural law or even the urgings of Pope John Paul II, are not utilitarians. We believe there are some actions that no matter how desirable the outcome, ought not be donelike abortion, mercy-killing or the bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki. Good outcomes, maybe. But blood is yet on our hands, and there are stains on our national conscience.

People who disagree with such a position must realize that desirable outcomes are welcome on any humane account, no matter what the ethical principles from which one is working. Not only that. It is possible to admire and emulate the virtues of men and women who find themselves in the midst of war.

And this is why I am thinking these days of men and women I know who are part of our forces in Iraq. I believe they are in an immoral matrix, wherein the commanders and fighters are striving for moral integrity despite the compromised moral arena. This is the area of jus in bello, justice within war. So these warriors try not to kill civilians; they try to defend the defenseless and one another; they want only to help the Iraqi people.

It is foolish to think that all who go to war are heroes. Many are forced; some are cowardly; a few are cruel. But there are noble warriors as well. The words the lieutenant colonel of a Royal Irish regiment addressed to his brigade about to enter Iraq indicate that he is such a man.

 

We are entering Iraq to free a people, and the only flag that will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.... It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. They live with the mark of Cain upon them.... Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and of the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see, and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. Don’t treat them as refugees, for they are in their own country.

 

There is a reach for nobility in even this fragment of a speech to 800 soldiers. It calls for a vigilance and magnanimity that one hopes is bestowed upon the people we each might know in the land of the patriarchs. I have my own: a new Catholic for whom we all prayed as she was baptized, who was soon to be separated from her young child and sent to war; a nurse plying his profession, now not at home, but for Iraqi wounded, soiled and broken; the brother of a former student, now a physician, who was sent to practice medicine in the Middle East.

Who would not respect the courage and generosity of such people? Obviously one can be for them and against the war in the first place. If you count yourself as one of these, do not be intimidated by the jingo rhetoric blowing in our times.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Mike Michalek | 5/18/2003 - 9:08pm
Although John Kavanaugh's point is that "Winning is not the determinant of good", his assertion of the recent war's immorality seems to beg the questions involved. Three points might well be added to this debate about the morality of war: the first would be that the application of ethical/moral principals derived from the personal realm to the social entity realm seems to be, at best, a stretch. Whether it be Nazi Germany or contemporary US, to assert that all the individual members of those political bodies acted in concert contradicts fact. To the extent that the activities of the people within these bodies do not act in concert, is the degree to which those bodies cannot be considered as entities. To assert that political bodies constitute an moral entity, brought to its logical conclusion would demand that those in decent should exit the political body – frequently neither practical nor desirable. Other intellectual approaches would seem to be recommended. Secondly, unless John Kavanaugh has other sources of information than I, his assertion about the lack of “imminent threat” appears to be beyond his experience. I do not advocate the abdication of responsibility of the individual to assess, as best he/she can, the reality within which he/she exists. But the mark of such assessment is the admission of ignorance where it exists. I certainly was ignorant of the imminent threat that resulted in 9/11 but the threat very definitely was there but for me to have asserted that there was no threat would have been highly inappropriate. Lastly, if one were to apply his criteria of proper authority to the individual sphere, the good Samaritan should have left his fellow traveler in the ditch. There was no indication that the beaten individual would die right away, certainly the Samaritan did not have proper authority from either of the societies involved – they were not supposed to help one another, and the robbers had already left. Proper authority is a very tenuous concept: Does the Voice of the Faithful organization have the authority to address the sexual abuse issues? Did Mother Theresa have the authority to pull her patients from the street – as far as we know she did not ask their families? Our community benefits from the shared insight of each of us, however those contributions might best be made in such a way to respect the other participants experience as well the limitations of our own knowledge.

Don | 5/17/2003 - 2:13pm
I cannot disagree more! The war was not unjust and we are losing the important part -- the post-war now! I'm not going to keep quiet because we are, currently, losing and something must be done. Your article is quite short-sighted. What you call "success" is more likely failure! You sound like the many that are still fighting the "completed" war (i.e. hostilities).

I justified our going to war for, at least, three reasons -- 1) humanitarian, 2) threat to peace & safety, 3) support the UN. I don't intend to argue -- your "plight of ... child(ren) dismembered" versus those currently being dug up or maimed by Saddam. Or, comparing Bush to Hitler. Or, Weigel's arguments in America magazine several months ago. Or, still trying to correct spilt blood over Nagasaki and other American situations over the last 200 years.

I believe that went to war to enforce the UN Res. #1441 (approved 15-0 in Nov.) to protect the integrity of, at least, our American word -- which the UN Security Council could not do for the UN. Major nations provided a great disservice to the UN and the free-world by backing down (once again) from Res. #1441 in January -- this, despite flagrant and continuing violations by Saddam. There is no doubt that is was "put up or shut up" time for "serious consequences" in January.

Yes, the UN could be considered the "proper authority". But, as in other cases (e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Korea), the US had to assert its authority to support the UN resolutions. Therefore, as the mightiest nation (economically, politically, and militarily), America has the authority AND the responsibility to use its resources for the common good. Then, according to pacifists, there is always one more "last resort". Saddam has had many such "one more last chances" over the past 12 years -- taking advantage of such sentiments. Finally, anyone that does not understand that, in today's globalized world, any nation (or group) -- with the history, means and intent of using weapons of mass destruction -- is not a "imminent threat" is living in the past of conventional wars.

Our current American failure is the loss of international support -- mainly via the UN. Yes, we have an imperialistic side of the Bush Administration (Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowicz) against the coalition building side (Powell-McCain-Shelton-Scowcroft & Bush, Sr.) -- with the empire builders winning. This must be fixed somehow! We cannot nation-build Iraq alone -- which is becoming more evident every week. We cannot, and should not, finance and maintain world order. This must be done through coalition building within the framework of the United Nations. America, with its strength shown (again) in the hostile part of the Iraqi war, must use this strength to support a co-operative world order in the UN. For this we must pray!

Robin Cropper | 5/14/2003 - 6:38pm
How do you know when an action is right, good or just? How do you know its right? What makes it right? Do we get a feeling of completeness that fulfills a need? Is it our thinking where we sense it intuitively or consciously? Is it just a gut feeling where we know we are right? Is it consistent with the mores around us? Do we test it to see if the action has some universality? What does our conscience tell us? Is it a thought process where we check it out with our rules and principles? There are many descriptive ideas of how we can tell if an action is good. The consequentialist may look at the consequences of an act for determination. Utilitarianism looks for the lesser of two evils as he tries to minimize the bad and maximize the good. You may be deontological where you look to moral absolutes determined from rules and principles. Or you may be teleological, (telos= the goals of an action, where the ends justify the means where ends = do good, avoid evil.)

The just war theory has 5 major principles: 1)The cause must be just. Damn right! Saddam is, was an evil man. Wait, why was Afghanistan after the Russian invasion abandoned to all crazy people like Bin Laden to thrive? Oh, yeah maybe that’s a different subject! That is why the world was outraged by the atrocities and carnage done to human life. Illegal weapons of mass destruction … well that same USA had given Sadam the precursors to make the stuff decades before, at least the British press revealed that fact to a dumbfounded Donald Rumsfeld, the then Sec. of State. Didn’t get that one on CNN, huh? 2) War must declared by proper authority. Damn wrong! It is only God’s grace that makes everything possible. The desire for temporal possessions and power is not wrong or bad, it is natural for man to desire external things as means. What is wrong or bad is the immoderate desire, ‘greed’ or avarice, since it is this avarice that turns these things into ends, into gods. Thus, when a material thing or even a country is made into god, it becomes a devil. Please understand the actor is always good, it’s the performance that is often questionable. 3) All alternatives have to have been exhausted. Damn wrong! That is why the world was outraged at breaking the rules to suite your own national agenda. There was no way those cowboys were going to wait in the Gulf; they wanted to bring their war toys to shore. So much for pacifism, huh? So we’ll rationalize world diplomacy with a battle cry by saying Saddam can’t be trusted, and that these Iraqi people need us to provide their welcomed freedom. Like a decade ago? 4) There must be some chance of success. Damn right! There was no way Iraq was going to withstand the military post-modern laser-driven “freedom” fighters. 5) There must be proportion between benefit and the expected destruction. Damn right! Goes without saying, I still thank God for the quick victory without terrible casualties or massive loss of civilian life.

Will this great TV show of military power and resolve make for a safer world? Deeply saddened by the fact most of our kids, and some adults too saw it as a living room arcade game being played out unaware. The possible seriousness of games and play, and the possibly serious results, are well-known to anthropologists. “War” is really the grimmest of all games.

Besides in his “Yes to Life, No to Death,” our pope said, “No to war....” Doesn’t that mean anything to us Catholics?

Do good, avoid evil has a very, very rich meaning. How much bad can we tolerate and still do good? We should know that there are moral absolutes in our Church’s teaching. We can never torture anyone ever, no matter what the outcome. Why? Because no act we do should be intrinsically evil. The intended outcome should be a good outcome. The unintended although expected outcome may be a bad outcome. The good outcome is not caused by the bad outcome. The end does not justify the means. For instance, we cannot use death to eliminate

John M. Michels | 5/10/2003 - 9:20pm
The recondite philosophical analysis of just war theory in the Iraqi case ranks close behind the “angels dancing on the pin” issue. Why not ask how many Iraqis need to be raped and have their tongues cut out before some sore-heads can feel better about losing the last election?

Is it really correct to use morality and just war theory to protect evil-doers while they kill and torture thousands of innocents? Is it good sense to search so hard for a rationale to condemn those with the better spirit while injustice runs rampant?

Why not look at other alternatives, such as whether “war” is even the best term to describe the Iraqi action before getting carried away with war theory? Or, how about rationalizing on the basis of the “lesser of evils” theory?

Robert E. McNulty | 5/9/2003 - 11:32pm
Fr. Kavanaugh's position is simply "I'm. right, you're wrong"

The military action in Iraq. according to the Cathechism and Constitution of the United States was authorized by the proper parties: the Congress and the President. In the United Kingdom similar approval occurred.

It is claimed that Poland is the most Catholic country in Europe and it also supported the action very effectively with a group of its Special Forces.

President Clinton said in 1998 that we could not let Hussein acquire weapons of mass destruction. Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act which made regime change our national policy. What did Fr. Kavanaugh think that meant?

Mike Michalek | 5/18/2003 - 9:08pm
Although John Kavanaugh's point is that "Winning is not the determinant of good", his assertion of the recent war's immorality seems to beg the questions involved. Three points might well be added to this debate about the morality of war: the first would be that the application of ethical/moral principals derived from the personal realm to the social entity realm seems to be, at best, a stretch. Whether it be Nazi Germany or contemporary US, to assert that all the individual members of those political bodies acted in concert contradicts fact. To the extent that the activities of the people within these bodies do not act in concert, is the degree to which those bodies cannot be considered as entities. To assert that political bodies constitute an moral entity, brought to its logical conclusion would demand that those in decent should exit the political body – frequently neither practical nor desirable. Other intellectual approaches would seem to be recommended. Secondly, unless John Kavanaugh has other sources of information than I, his assertion about the lack of “imminent threat” appears to be beyond his experience. I do not advocate the abdication of responsibility of the individual to assess, as best he/she can, the reality within which he/she exists. But the mark of such assessment is the admission of ignorance where it exists. I certainly was ignorant of the imminent threat that resulted in 9/11 but the threat very definitely was there but for me to have asserted that there was no threat would have been highly inappropriate. Lastly, if one were to apply his criteria of proper authority to the individual sphere, the good Samaritan should have left his fellow traveler in the ditch. There was no indication that the beaten individual would die right away, certainly the Samaritan did not have proper authority from either of the societies involved – they were not supposed to help one another, and the robbers had already left. Proper authority is a very tenuous concept: Does the Voice of the Faithful organization have the authority to address the sexual abuse issues? Did Mother Theresa have the authority to pull her patients from the street – as far as we know she did not ask their families? Our community benefits from the shared insight of each of us, however those contributions might best be made in such a way to respect the other participants experience as well the limitations of our own knowledge.

Don | 5/17/2003 - 2:13pm
I cannot disagree more! The war was not unjust and we are losing the important part -- the post-war now! I'm not going to keep quiet because we are, currently, losing and something must be done. Your article is quite short-sighted. What you call "success" is more likely failure! You sound like the many that are still fighting the "completed" war (i.e. hostilities).

I justified our going to war for, at least, three reasons -- 1) humanitarian, 2) threat to peace & safety, 3) support the UN. I don't intend to argue -- your "plight of ... child(ren) dismembered" versus those currently being dug up or maimed by Saddam. Or, comparing Bush to Hitler. Or, Weigel's arguments in America magazine several months ago. Or, still trying to correct spilt blood over Nagasaki and other American situations over the last 200 years.

I believe that went to war to enforce the UN Res. #1441 (approved 15-0 in Nov.) to protect the integrity of, at least, our American word -- which the UN Security Council could not do for the UN. Major nations provided a great disservice to the UN and the free-world by backing down (once again) from Res. #1441 in January -- this, despite flagrant and continuing violations by Saddam. There is no doubt that is was "put up or shut up" time for "serious consequences" in January.

Yes, the UN could be considered the "proper authority". But, as in other cases (e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Korea), the US had to assert its authority to support the UN resolutions. Therefore, as the mightiest nation (economically, politically, and militarily), America has the authority AND the responsibility to use its resources for the common good. Then, according to pacifists, there is always one more "last resort". Saddam has had many such "one more last chances" over the past 12 years -- taking advantage of such sentiments. Finally, anyone that does not understand that, in today's globalized world, any nation (or group) -- with the history, means and intent of using weapons of mass destruction -- is not a "imminent threat" is living in the past of conventional wars.

Our current American failure is the loss of international support -- mainly via the UN. Yes, we have an imperialistic side of the Bush Administration (Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowicz) against the coalition building side (Powell-McCain-Shelton-Scowcroft & Bush, Sr.) -- with the empire builders winning. This must be fixed somehow! We cannot nation-build Iraq alone -- which is becoming more evident every week. We cannot, and should not, finance and maintain world order. This must be done through coalition building within the framework of the United Nations. America, with its strength shown (again) in the hostile part of the Iraqi war, must use this strength to support a co-operative world order in the UN. For this we must pray!

Robin Cropper | 5/14/2003 - 6:38pm
How do you know when an action is right, good or just? How do you know its right? What makes it right? Do we get a feeling of completeness that fulfills a need? Is it our thinking where we sense it intuitively or consciously? Is it just a gut feeling where we know we are right? Is it consistent with the mores around us? Do we test it to see if the action has some universality? What does our conscience tell us? Is it a thought process where we check it out with our rules and principles? There are many descriptive ideas of how we can tell if an action is good. The consequentialist may look at the consequences of an act for determination. Utilitarianism looks for the lesser of two evils as he tries to minimize the bad and maximize the good. You may be deontological where you look to moral absolutes determined from rules and principles. Or you may be teleological, (telos= the goals of an action, where the ends justify the means where ends = do good, avoid evil.)

The just war theory has 5 major principles: 1)The cause must be just. Damn right! Saddam is, was an evil man. Wait, why was Afghanistan after the Russian invasion abandoned to all crazy people like Bin Laden to thrive? Oh, yeah maybe that’s a different subject! That is why the world was outraged by the atrocities and carnage done to human life. Illegal weapons of mass destruction … well that same USA had given Sadam the precursors to make the stuff decades before, at least the British press revealed that fact to a dumbfounded Donald Rumsfeld, the then Sec. of State. Didn’t get that one on CNN, huh? 2) War must declared by proper authority. Damn wrong! It is only God’s grace that makes everything possible. The desire for temporal possessions and power is not wrong or bad, it is natural for man to desire external things as means. What is wrong or bad is the immoderate desire, ‘greed’ or avarice, since it is this avarice that turns these things into ends, into gods. Thus, when a material thing or even a country is made into god, it becomes a devil. Please understand the actor is always good, it’s the performance that is often questionable. 3) All alternatives have to have been exhausted. Damn wrong! That is why the world was outraged at breaking the rules to suite your own national agenda. There was no way those cowboys were going to wait in the Gulf; they wanted to bring their war toys to shore. So much for pacifism, huh? So we’ll rationalize world diplomacy with a battle cry by saying Saddam can’t be trusted, and that these Iraqi people need us to provide their welcomed freedom. Like a decade ago? 4) There must be some chance of success. Damn right! There was no way Iraq was going to withstand the military post-modern laser-driven “freedom” fighters. 5) There must be proportion between benefit and the expected destruction. Damn right! Goes without saying, I still thank God for the quick victory without terrible casualties or massive loss of civilian life.

Will this great TV show of military power and resolve make for a safer world? Deeply saddened by the fact most of our kids, and some adults too saw it as a living room arcade game being played out unaware. The possible seriousness of games and play, and the possibly serious results, are well-known to anthropologists. “War” is really the grimmest of all games.

Besides in his “Yes to Life, No to Death,” our pope said, “No to war....” Doesn’t that mean anything to us Catholics?

Do good, avoid evil has a very, very rich meaning. How much bad can we tolerate and still do good? We should know that there are moral absolutes in our Church’s teaching. We can never torture anyone ever, no matter what the outcome. Why? Because no act we do should be intrinsically evil. The intended outcome should be a good outcome. The unintended although expected outcome may be a bad outcome. The good outcome is not caused by the bad outcome. The end does not justify the means. For instance, we cannot use death to eliminate

John M. Michels | 5/10/2003 - 9:20pm
The recondite philosophical analysis of just war theory in the Iraqi case ranks close behind the “angels dancing on the pin” issue. Why not ask how many Iraqis need to be raped and have their tongues cut out before some sore-heads can feel better about losing the last election?

Is it really correct to use morality and just war theory to protect evil-doers while they kill and torture thousands of innocents? Is it good sense to search so hard for a rationale to condemn those with the better spirit while injustice runs rampant?

Why not look at other alternatives, such as whether “war” is even the best term to describe the Iraqi action before getting carried away with war theory? Or, how about rationalizing on the basis of the “lesser of evils” theory?

Robert E. McNulty | 5/9/2003 - 11:32pm
Fr. Kavanaugh's position is simply "I'm. right, you're wrong"

The military action in Iraq. according to the Cathechism and Constitution of the United States was authorized by the proper parties: the Congress and the President. In the United Kingdom similar approval occurred.

It is claimed that Poland is the most Catholic country in Europe and it also supported the action very effectively with a group of its Special Forces.

President Clinton said in 1998 that we could not let Hussein acquire weapons of mass destruction. Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act which made regime change our national policy. What did Fr. Kavanaugh think that meant?

John M. Michels | 2/7/2007 - 9:49am
This letter is in reference to “Unjust War, Good Outcomes” (5/19), by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. The recondite philosophical analysis of just war theory in the case of Iraq ranks close behind the “angels dancing on the pin” issue. Why not ask how many Iraqis need to be raped and have their tongues cut out before some soreheads can feel better about losing the last election?

Is it really correct to use morality and just war theory to protect evildoers while they kill and torture thousands of innocents? Is it good sense to search so hard for a rationale to condemn those with the better spirit while injustice runs rampant?

Why not look at other alternatives, such as whether “war” is even the best term to describe the Iraqi action before getting carried away with war theory? Or how about rationalizing on the basis of the “lesser of evils” theory?

John Blakeney | 2/7/2007 - 12:46pm
As a new subscriber to America, I look forward to each issue, which is certain to be challenging, relevant and formative. I am not one who believes that politics has no place in a Catholic magazine, as I believe it is both impossible and inadvisable not to have our spiritual mettle temper our political thoughts and actions. I do, however, question the merit of giving editorial space to columns such as “No Questions, Please” (Terry Golway, 8/18) and “Bush’s Nuclear Folly” (Ronald E. Powaski, 8/4), which have no religious, spiritual, ethical or philosophical framework to them. These columns serve only as a forum for the authors’ opposition to the Bush administration. Please consider these columns against the backdrop of a column such as “Unjust War, Good Outcomes” (John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., 5/19), in which the author presents an intellectual opposition to the Iraq war that challenges readers to consider issues of ethics and to think beyond the author’s opinions.

America magazine is a wonderful resource for thinking Catholics. I ask the editors to please continue to present columns and articles that will challenge readers and help us to think for ourselves rather than columns that simply express the author’s editorial viewpoint on political issues.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. | 2/7/2007 - 9:43am
While on every other issue I find the Ethics Notebook column of John Kavanaugh, S.J., illuminating, I can never manage to parse the logic of his argument when he turns to the topic of just war. His column “Unjust War, Good Outcomes” (5/19) is a case in point. He begins by asserting that “the end does not justify the means.” Since all wars bring great evil in their wake, does that make all wars unjust? In previous columns Father Kavanaugh hints (but never says outright) that such is his view. But in his most recent column he seems to argue on terms defined by the just-war tradition, in which case his invocation of the shibboleth about ends not justifying means is either rendered moot or needs nuancing.

This nuance he seems to supply by asserting that the bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki violated the norms of conduct in a just war (jus in bello). Of course, no cities were obliterated in the recent war in Iraq, although Father Kavanaugh brings into his moral calculus “the plight of even one Iraqi child dismembered or dissolved by a bomb meant for someone else.” But if the unintended killing of even one child retroactively renders a war immoral, why bother mentioning Dresden and Nagasaki? Why not invoke the same principle with World War II and condemn the Allies for the death of just one dead German or Japanese child?

Finally, Father Kavanaugh seems certain that the future bodes only ill as a consequence of the war: Disneyland will be bombed, Iraqis will grow restive, etc. Perhaps, but even a worst-case scenario would be hard pressed to weigh down the scales to make the overthrow of Saddam Hussein not seem worth the price. (Estimates of the number of corpses in Hussein’s mass graves now reach 300,000.) Who knows what the future will bring? But one cannot fail to note that India and Pakistan have now exchanged ambassadors, for the first time in over three years; and the heads of government of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt are now meeting face to face.

But the ultimate problem with Father Kavanaugh’s analysis, as with all those who continue to maintain a retrospective opposition to the war is their collective failure to face this conundrum: one cannot greet the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and simultaneously say the war in Iraq lacked justification.

The writer is the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.