Military action in Iraq (again): justified?

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its rampage, the United States has resolved to assist in the defense of Iraq through limited airstrikes (while emphatically repudiating the deployment of American ground troops). This post intends to analyze the current use of military force in Iraq by Western nations in light of Catholic doctrine. This is not a political article; rather, it is moral-theological in nature and offers an interpretation of general Catholic principles to a particular situation. I do not speak for any nation, much less for the Church; this a humble endeavor to elucidate her teachings and provide a moral lens through which to read the sign of these most troubling times.

The Catholic doctrine concerning war has its definitive formulation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (henceforth “CCC”) paragraphs 2307-2317 and in Chapter V of Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s constitution on the Church in the modern world. Furthermore, we refer to modern moral and legal theory’s distinction between jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum (the conditions which justify war, the moral conditions to be observed during war, and the moral conditions which govern victors after a victory). We will mostly concern ourselves with jus ad bellum, though we will make references concerning the other two, since each one has implications for the other.

First principles

“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (CCC 2258; cf. Ex 20:13 & Deut 5:17) “By recalling the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ our Lord asked for peace of heart and denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral.” (CCC 2302) War is an evil, and “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” (CCC 2308). It is a manifestation of sin in the world, and even a just war only arises to rectify a pre-existing injustice. Therefore, “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.” (CCC 2309)

“The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. ‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor… The one is intended, the other is not.'” (CCC 2263, cf. Aquinas, STh Secunda secundae, 64,7, corp. art.) “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” (CCC 2265) Finally, those men and women “who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.” (Gaudium et spes 79) “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” (CCC 2310) Military service, even in war, is not in and of itself an evil. Rather, each combatant is judged, as is every man, secundum facta sua.

Jus ad bellum

The Catechism (2309) lists four principles which must all be present in order to claim a “just war”. Legal scholars count seven. However, the six of the seven legal principles are covered in the Catechism’s four; the seventh legal principle, that war be waged by competent authority, is implied in other sections of the Catechism.

The seven commonly accepted legal principles are:

1.  Just cause: innocent human life must be in imminent or actual danger at the hands of an aggressor
2.  Comparative justice: the suffering of the oppressed party must outweigh the suffering claimed by the aggressor
3.  Competent authority: only a legitimate government (with a basic respect for international law) can wage war.
4.  Right intention: nations must enter war to rectify an evil, not as a pretext for economic or political advancement.
5.  Probability of success: nations should not enter a futile war, and nor should they have to use grossly disproportionate means to effect military victory
6.  Last resort: war is to be avoided if at all possible. Diplomatic attempts to resolve crises must precede armed conflict.
7.  Proportionality (macro-proportionality): the benefits of victory must outweigh the anticipated harms caused by war.

These correspond to the principles elucidated in the Catechism as follows:
Catholic principles (CCC 2309) Legal principles
the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain Just cause, Comparative justice, Right intention
all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective Last resort
there must be serious prospects of success Probability of success
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated Proportionality

The reference to competent authority is implied in the last sentence of CCC 2309: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” (See also CCC 2265, cited above.)

On countering ISIS

Now we proceed to the situation of Western military intervention against ISIS, weighing it against the four principles listed in CCC 2309.

1.  The damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave, and certain.

There is no reason to believe that the crimes committed by ISIS in recent months is anything less than a genocide. Polish-American legal scholar Raphael Lemkin (who had fought the Germans in 1940 and, as a Jew, lost 49 relatives in the Shoah), coined the term “genocide”. In his 1944 text Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), he wrote:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

The first meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946 condemned “genocide” without providing a definition; the Nuremberg trials likewise prosecuted Nazi leaders for genocide, though without establishing the exact meaning of the term. Finally, in 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG)– among whose “fathers” is Raphael Lemkin– was adopted by the UN General Assembly, providing the following definition:

Article 2. In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial, or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, and Shi’ites are all in ISIS’ crosshairs, and the Islamic State has been highly effective in either killing large numbers of them while driving the rest from their historical homelands. Over 30,000 Christians have fled Mosul and even more have fled Qaraqosh, while those who refused to leave are murdered; 50,000 Yazidis have been displaced, while hundreds of them at one time are either shot or buried alive; all across ISIS-controlled territory, arbitrary killings of Shi’ites have become commonplace. We have all heard of the Arabic letter ن (nun)– short for nazara (“Nazarenes”), the Arab pejorative term for Christians– painted on Christians homes, churches, and institutions, marking them for future assault, looting, and exploitation. Concerning the Christians, ISIS said in an official statement: “We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” Because of the intensity of Iraq’s crisis, it is difficult to obtain an accurate count of dead; we do know, however, that the figure will only increase if ISIS remains unchecked.

The sign of genocide

To get an idea of the absolute brutality of ISIS, I encourage the reader to watch this video, though it is not for the faint of heart and stomach. If what you see here is not genocide, I don’t know what is. [**WARNING**: This video contains graphic footage of mass murders perpetrated by ISIS. The Islamic State is the ultimate source of this video and others on the internet have reproduced it. The Facebook page which hosts this copy contains strong language as well.]

Is the damage caused by ISIS “lasting, grave, and certain”? The answer is obvious. Genocide must be stopped.

2.   All other means of putting an end to [conflict] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective

Given that the crisis is an ongoing reality, and that ISIS is already engaged in combat against Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces, we must begin with the fact that a war already exists; our question, however, is whether or not armed Western intervention in Iraq is warranted. As the Islamic State is not recognized under international law, one cannot perceive any effective diplomatic effort. Nevertheless, ISIS has not allowed military resistance to halt its campaign of terror, and for all intents and purposes, this second principle of jus ad bellum has already been fulfilled.

3.   There must be serious prospects of success

This difficult to judge, since it depends on the criteria for “success”. Does this entail:

-getting ISIS out of Iraq?
-completely destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria (and thus risk entering the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad)?
-a political solution which unifies the various ethnic/religious groups in Iraq (and risk becoming embroiled in internal Iraqi politics)?
-the division of Iraq into smaller, ethnic/religious-based states?

The last two questions point more to matters of jus post bellum, but they cannot be divorced from present considerations in a thorough analysis of Iraq’s predicament. But if we only limit ourselves to the military aspect, it is highly possible that the intervention of Western nations’ superior firepower can at the very least stem the tide of the Islamic State’s advance in individual instances; the use of American precision-guided bombs from drones and airplanes against ISIS artillery have, by all accounts, halted the advance on Erbil, though the city is still under siege. As of yet, ISIS has no known air defense capability, providing Iraqi forces a critical advantage, should they fight under the cover of Western air power.

To date, official US military assistance to Iraq has come in the form of precision airstrikes and the deployment of “trainers” to Baghdad. Other than this, the government has emphatically refused to send ground troops to Iraq. Precision airstrikes can be highly effective against isolated targets. However, there is the problem of target acquisition. As in any war, one must be able to distinguish friendly forces and civilians from the enemy.

Here I speak with my job experience as a US military officer (without speaking in any way for the US government). My job description includes the integration and coordination of indirect fire weapons systems, to include artillery and air-to-surface munitions, in support of ground forces. A pilot flying thousands of feet in the air cannot know the location of every friend and foe on the battlefield: the pilot often relies on a human sensor on the ground to help him “walk onto the target”, as is said in our jargon. The pilot’s munitions may be accurate to within 10 meters, but if he does not know the target building, or if he cannot distinguish an ISIS tank from an Iraqi Army tank, that bomb will never leave the aircraft. There can simply be no technological substitute for human intelligence and a human sensor on the ground, and it is difficult to believe that there are “no American boots on the ground” guiding these airstrikes (either special operations forces or intelligence operatives acting covertly). In fact, the United States has indirectly acknowledged the presence of “American trainers” in Erbil; to instructed ears, this likely means US Army Special Forces (Green Berets), and it is probably these units who called in the recent airstrikes which halted the advance on Erbil.

I mention all this based on my belief that a complete reliance on airborne target acquisition platforms significantly diminishes the effectiveness of air power, and consequently, this mitigates “serious prospects of success”. Against a determined yet irregular ground force which has proved itself effective against Iraqi Security Forces, Western intervention would need to greatly improve coordination with Iraqi forces in order to maximize efficacy of air assets. In my opinion, this must entail a bigger and more active Western ground presence to expedite target acquisition and to help mass effects on more ISIS targets at one time. Like any sizable ground force, the Islamic State cannot be fought piecemeal. Merely relying on individual “precision strikes” without understanding what is needed to acquire targets betrays a poor appreciation of proper military doctrine and risks the onset of a protracted air campaign. The adage “time is of the essence” is doubly true when one considers an active genocidal army.

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

This criterion is also difficult because of its subjective nature. However, we do know a few things about the situation to assist our analysis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees (mostly Christians and Shi’ites) have fled to the protection of the Kurds, who have largely been successful (with some exceptions) in keeping ISIS out of their territory. Thus, in contested areas, civilian presence has greatly lowered.

The “evil to be eliminated” is genocide; one can think of few, if any, evils greater than this. If Western intervention continues to rely heavily on surgical airstrikes (as opposed to a strategic bombing campaign), one can argue that this fourth criterion might be met. Even a limited ground offensive in concert with close air support against ISIS in the open Nineveh Plain might be feasible. However, this depends largely on whether civilian leaders in the West are willing to make timely decisions based on the expertise of military leaders and not on considerations of political expediency.


The humanitarian situation in Iraq is dire and one cannot argue that a moral necessity to stop ISIS has arisen. They threaten to extinguish entire populations based on ethnic and religious heritage. The impassioned, heart-wrenching pleas of Raphael Louis Sakho, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, on behalf of the afflicted minorities of Iraq have, until the arrival of American air power, gone largely unheard by Western governments.

(On another note, if Pope Francis has any good sense, Patriarch Sakho should be raised to the Sacred College of Cardinals immediately in pectore, to be published at the next consistory– for in these bitterly trying times, he has proved himself a true shepherd of his flock, guarding the faith usque ad sanguinis effusionem, and thus eminently deserving of the sacra porpora.)

We have enumerated the applicable principles of Catholic doctrine to the current situation in Iraq, and we believe that one could argue that further military action against ISIS might be a moral necessity. The issue at hand is much larger than whether or not the West should bomb ISIS; at stake is the future of the Kurds, Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Shi’ites, and the very existence of Iraq. If one accepts that none of these are worth saving, one risks moral complicity in genocide.

All this, of course, is neither for the Church nor for a private individual to decide; we can only pray that governments adequately weigh the moral considerations before making what we hope will be the right decision.

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