Against Military Action in Syria

06 Sep

This week the President expressed his desire for military intervention in Syria, subject to Congress’ approval.  Many have asked variations of the question, “is this a good idea?”; but the question that seems mostly unaddressed is more basic: “Is this idea just?”

The concept of “the just war” was developed by the church (and others) over a period of several centuries.  It acknowledges both the desire for peace and the reality of human aggression.  And it seeks to determine when it is right and just in engage in war, and when it is not.

But it is not only Christians who should ask this question.  Immoral societal actions corrupt and corrode that society.  And certainly most of us would not want our country engaged in killing (and perhaps being killed) if we were not convinced it was just.  To be civilized means more than seeking to uphold justice, but it cannot mean less.

The just war doctrine lists several criteria for evaluating a proposed war (and make no mistake, cruise missiles and strategic bombing are still acts of war).  For a war to be justified, it needs to follow all of these guidelines, to the extent mandated by common sense. They are these:

  1. War should be the last resort, after all other non-violent options are exhausted.
  2. The war can only be conducted by a proper authority; vigilante justice is a contradiction in terms.
  3. The war must be for a just cause.  This is usually defined as self-defense, or for the protection of other innocent lives. The damage the war seeks to prevent must be “lasting, grave and certain.” Material, financial and power gains are excluded.
  4. The war must have a probability of success. It is immoral to waste lives on a futile or hopeless cause.
  5. The war must be fought in order to establish peace; that is, the peace after the war must be better than whatever peace existed before the war.
  6. Related to the above, the use of war must not produce evils and disorders greater than the evil it seeks to eliminate.
  7. The violence of the war must be proportional to injury it seeks to redress.
  8. The plans and weapons of war must discriminate between combatants and civilians. Civilians are never a permissible target of war, and every effort should be employed to avoid killing them.

In my opinion, the military action proposed in Syria does not, at this point, meet the criteria of a just war.  These are my reasons.

First, I don’t believe all non-military options have been exhausted.  We have not sought to work with the U. N. or with our allies to seek economic sanctions, technology sanctions, or other disincentives to chemical attacks.  I am not saying these would work. I am saying they have not been tried.

Second, related to the third criterion, I am not yet certain that the Syrian government is the perpetuator of the attack. I think it is probable, but has not yet been proven. The U. S. government cannot, after the last war, just say, “trust us.”

Third, I am not convinced the attacks would bring about a better peace, or avoid more evils than it eliminated.  If the action is strong enough to serve as a legitimate deterrent to further chemical warfare, it would also be strong enough to weaken the Assad regime and (relatively) strengthen the rebels who oppose it.  But some rather hard-core Islamic factions make up this rebellion.   As one of the writers at The Atlantic put it, “we would be serving as Al Qaeda’s air force”.  If the Assad regime is destroyed, there is a distinct possibility that the new Syria could become a sponsor of terrorism; the new government almost certainly be less tolerant of Syria’s Christian minority. In addition, military action forceful enough to make a difference also risks escalating the conflict to other countries.  The Assad regime has allies both in the middle east, as well as outside it (especially Russia). If we have learned anything over the past 50 years of U. S. intervention, it is that wars are much easier to plunge into than to pull out of.

For these reasons, military action at this time would be unjust.  This is why both the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East have asked the U. S. not to intervene at this time. The question about whether (apart from its justice) it would also be a good idea in a practical sense, I leave to others to argue.



Leave a Reply


  1. Steve Skirvin

    09/06/2013 at 10:00 pm

    Pastor Daniel,
    I strongly agree with your conclusion and would like to commend you for the post; once again I am reminded how much I enjoy your thinking on important matters. I would only add the following observation, which I do not see a a corrective to your thinking, only additional commentary; and that is that there exists a strong historical questioning of the entire concept of just war theory residing in the anabaptist tradition. The Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, etc historically maintain a conviction, based on Jesus’ forbidding violence throughout the New Testament both theoretically and literally. So there is that, and there would appear to be considerable wiggle room in Catholic theology as well. I recall Cardinal Ratzinger once saying all modern wars are unjust because the soldiers use modern weapons, instead of swords, which was an honorable way to fight (well, he said something like that, anyway, I enjoyed it and agree).

  2. Saturday Ramblings 9.7.13 |

    09/07/2013 at 12:01 am

    […] on military intervention in Syria. Fr. Ernesto wrote a great piece on this for us yesterday, and Daniel Jepsen also wrote a reasoned response on his blog. Religion News Service’s Jonathan Merritt offers […]

  3. Michael Snow

    09/07/2013 at 12:36 am

    Would that Christians today had the courage to speak to the issues of the day as C.H. Spurgeon: “I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible…”

  4. Romanov Oleg

    11/10/2013 at 9:45 pm

    Честно скажу, очень неожиданно и весьма интересно было услышать такую оценку происходящих событий из глубины северо-американского континента. Фраза: “… из глубины Северо-американского континента…” – это не сарказм и не ирония какая-нибудь. Я просто хотел с её помощью сделать акцент на том, что, обычно, чем дальше от места событий находится наблюдатель, тем менее объективные выводы он способен делать. Потому-то мне и показался такой подход к происходящим событиям неожиданным, что он, не смотря на географическую отдаленность наблюдателя – очень даже объективен!
    Но чтобы мои рассуждения об объективности (или необъективности) военного способа решения разных сложных геополитических вопросов не показались вам кощунством с моей стороны, скажу о главном: меня радует то, что мы все еще не очерствели настолько, что нас беспокоят тысячи погибающих людей. Вы только подумайте – это тысячи реальных человеческих жизней. Тысячи реальных человеческих судеб. Тысячи семей. Детей, родителей… Надеюсь что эта “чувствительность к судьбам других людей” – это только отличительная черта христиан.
    (Вообще-то, можно было бы об этом поговорить…)
    Заранее прошу прощения за возможные ошибки Google при переводе. С русским у него не очень хорошо… :-)

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