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Iraq War, Unjust, Illegal and Immoral; Just War Theory Condemns Invasion

Fr. Paul Surlis was professor of Catholic Social Teaching at St. John’s University, New York 1975-2000. He is now retired in Crofton, Maryland, writing and doing occasional parish ministry.

The tradition of The Catholic Worker, under the editorial direction of Dorothy Day, was to publish two threads of discussions and theologies of war and peace, that of pacifism as well as the just war theory. Dorothy, with the theologians she published, used the just war theory to condemn all modern war.

An editorial in the New York Times, “Preventive War: A Failed Doctrine” (September 12, 2004) finally named the Iraq war correctly calling it preventive and not pre-emptive as the Times and other media had done since the inception of the war. Pre-emptive war may sometimes be justified but preventive war, according to majority opinion, never is justified. Using the terms pre-emptive and preventive inter-changeably, as the Bush Administration and the media have done in justifying the war on Iraq, blurs legal, moral and political distinctions of the greatest significance in international rules against aggression.

Speaking on the floor of the US Senate in October 2002 Senator Edward Kennedy lucidly laid out the distinction between preventive and pre-emptive war. Kennedy argued: “Traditionally, ‘pre-emptive’ action refers to times when states react to an imminent threat of attack. For example, when Egyptian and Syrian forces mobilized on Israel’s borders in 1967, the threat was obvious and immediate, and Israel felt justified in pre-emptively attacking those forces. The global community is generally tolerant of such actions, since no nations should have to suffer a certain first strike before it has the legitimacy to respond. By contrast, ‘preventive’ military action refers to strikes that target a country before it has developed a capability that could someday become threat-ening. Preventive attacks have generally been condemned. For example, the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was regarded as a preventive strike by Japan, because the Japanese were seeking to block a planned military buildup by the United States in the Pacific.” And Kennedy added: “Pearl Harbor has been rightfully recorded in history as an act of dishonorable treachery.”

He recalled that a preventive war was urged against the Soviet Union to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons, but in 1950 Truman put an end to such advocacy when he declared preventive war as inconsistent with American tradition. Truman famously argued: “You don’t ‘prevent’ anything by war … except peace.”

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the Soviet Union had installed in Cuba missiles capable of striking the United States many military advisers urged President Ken-nedy to launch a preventive strike to destroy the missile capability before it became operationa, but Robert Kennedy countered that a strike of this kind was not in accordance with American values and “would be a ‘Pearl Harbor’ in reverse” and peace was preserved while negotiation and compromise prevailed.

Senator Kennedy said the new National Security Strategy unveiled by the Bush Administration was advocating pre-ventive war even while justifying it as pre-emptive, and he rejected such an extreme doctrine as both immoral and impractical and as “unilateralism run amok.” Kennedy expressed fear that such a drastic change in the rules governing aggression would increase the risk of conflict between Russia and Georgia, India and Pakistan and China and Taiwan. He might have instanced Russia in Chechnya, Israel in Palestine and extrajudicial murders sanctioned by these countries as well as the United States with President Bush’s approval in the name of combating terrorism.

It is obvious that Kennedy hoped to spark a national debate with his Senate speech, but what he said was barely mentioned in the prestige papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which have since apologized half-heartedly to readers for being insufficiently skeptical and critical of administration argu-ments in the run up to the war in Iraq and in the first year and a half of its execution.

The Pope made more than fifty public addresses in which he condemned the war in Iraq prior to its inception and he sent a special emissary, Pio Laghi, to the White House to convey his disapproval, but the Bush Ad-ministration was adamant in pushing for war and even forbade Laghi to address the American people from the White House on the occasion of his visit. Most heads of major religions in the United States, including the head of Bush’s Methodist Church condemned the war as unjust.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The central pretext urged by the Bush Administration and by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair for going to war was to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and a supposedly imminent nuclear capability. Also, by insinuation and bluster, President Bush misled the American people into believing that there was direct complicity between the Hussein regime in Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorists who murdered more than 3,000 people in their bombing attacks of September 11, 2001. All these reasons given for the war are false, thus in terms of just cause alone the war is immoral.

It is supremely ironic and hypocritical that American, British and coalition troops used weapons of mass destruction on a devastating scale in searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. One bomb that the US used is named the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), and it contains ten tons of high explosives. When detonated this bomb obliterates everything within a 1,000 yard radius. In other words it destroys all persons, animals, all living creatures, all vegetation and buildings within a radius of almost one square mile. There is no way that a bomb of this destructive capacity could be used as a precision weapon; what its toll in terms of lives lost and environmental devastation was will not be revealed to us by a Pentagon which says it does not do body counts of Iraqi dead.

Also used on a side scale were missiles launched from one thousand miles away and also totally destructive of their “targets” and surrounding human communities with their populations of children, women and men. Each of these missiles cost $1m and they were used against a poorly armed military and against civilians, 500,000 of whom had already died from lack of fresh water and medicines during a ten-year period of sanctions of the most stringent kind.

We know that US warplanes used in Iraq (and elsewhere) can drop bombs from a height of five miles. Pilots merely have to align sights and press buttons. They do not have to witness the death and destruction these bombs inflict on areas the size of several football fields where they detonate without sound or warning and instantly vaporize all person and other living beings and all buildings and vegetation.

Cluster bombs were used with powerful bomblets spreading outwards and destroying or maiming all persons with whom they came in contact. Unex-ploded ones were picked up by children who lost limbs and were often blinded by what appeared to be toys.

Depleted uranium was used despite evidence from the 1991 Gulf War of severe health damage being inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike. Even today as Iraqi fighters resist occupation of their country by foreigners we read of so-called “precision” bombing of densely populated areas, but we are never given a count of the deaths, really murders, of those targeted for destruction so that they may be “liberated.”

To date (12/06/04) there have been 1,260 US military casualties with 5, 049 wounded in Iraq. An estimated 20,000 suffer from trauma and illnesses, some caused perhaps by exposure to depleted uranium. A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found that 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died as a result of the invasion. In recent months Iraqis opposed to the occupation have slaughtered thousands of their own people to intimidate collaborators. Some of the ferocity of insurgents’ tactics may also be explained by attempts of US proconsuls in Iraq to privatize Iraq’s businesses and state-owned enterprises allowing foreign corporations to own them outright and repatriate profits to their headquarters. This neo-liberal policy, until disrupted by the insurgents, was keeping hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in poverty and unemployment while foreign corporations got massive subventions from the US to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure while using foreign workers usually at minimum wages and pocketing the profits for shareholders and CEO’s.

Preventive war is intrinsically unjust. When war is based on lies and conducted with massive, indiscriminately destructive fire power the war is unjust in terms of its conduct and pro-portionality, traditionally consi-dered under jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello, or justice and proportionality in conducting the war.

Why was the war waged? Unquestionably, to control the second largest supply of oil in the world, hence the fourteen military bases being constructed by the US in Iraq. And oil is not only a fuel, it is power and controlling it and its pricing gives the USA leverage over the global economy and particularly over China, Germany and Japan, possible future economic and military rivals in a world capitalist system that is failing the majority of the world’s people while increasing the wealth of extremely rich elites.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 1, January-February 2005.