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'War Begets War, Violence Begets Violence'

09/04/2013 02:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

"War begets war, violence begets violence." With these words, Pope Francis called upon Catholics the world over to follow his lead and devote Saturday, September 7 to prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. What can we do to bring about peace in the world, the Pope fervently asked. We must touch peoples' hearts. And we do that through prayer.

The medieval Catholic Church developed the just-war doctrine as a means of resolving the relative justice or injustice of participation in war. In its most refined form, the just-war theory embraces a number of criteria governing entry into conflict and the means employed to fight a war. And it is worth reflecting upon these criteria in light of the Pope's heartfelt summons.

War, the medieval philosophers acknowledged, was one of the greatest evils human beings can inflict upon one another. Still, they asserted, where it has a reasonable chance of preventing a still greater evil, a state may go to war.

There is no doubt that the use of sarin gas against a civilian population is a very grave evil. For a moment, we should consider how people die from sarin gas. A particularly gruesome account of sarin's lethality has recently emerged from the archives of the Royal Air Force. Back in the early 1950s, the RAF engaged in a series of hideous experiments on human subjects to discover the concentration of sarin needed to kill young soldiers -- men of the age and physical condition they might confront should they ever come to blows with Russia.

The tests were not supposed to actually kill anyone. But one unfortunate airman, 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, received a fatal dose. An eyewitness described what he saw: "It was like being electrocuted, his whole body was convulsing. I have seen somebody suffer an epileptic fit, but you have never seen anything like what happened to that lad. The skin was vibrating and there was all this terrible stuff coming out of his mouth. It looked like . . . tapioca."

Bashar al Assad has rained exactly this sort of torturous death upon his people. Women, children, the old, the infirm -- all alike they have died agonizing deaths as sarin gas relentlessly degraded their nervous systems and caused them to choke in their own bodily fluids.

Let's not lose sight of the grotesque reality of chemical weapons. But what about military intervention? Can we make things better? War is evil. Assad is evil. But what is the likelihood of some targeted cruise missile strikes actually improving things? In the words of the philosophers, what is the reasonable likelihood of success?

First, it should be borne in mind that President Obama is not speaking of regime change. He has not even suggested undertaking an air campaign sufficient to eliminate Assad's large stockpiles of chemical weapons. And, indeed, such a campaign could quite possibly cause horrific casualties should nerve gas and other chemical agents be released in large quantities. The strategy, rather, seems to be to engage in a limited retaliatory strike, a calibrated response sufficient to signal Assad that he has crossed a line he must not cross over again.

It is at this point that two other features of just-war thought must enter the equation. Because war is a very grave evil, we must be vigilant not to cause collateral damage. And also, because of war's deeply wicked essence, it must truly be the last resort. All other options must be exhausted.

Let's talk first of collateral damage. Personally, I despise the expression "collateral damage." It is among the most Orwellian of terms. It masks the horror of war. War, after all, is not neat. Even just wars kill innocents. Just ponder the hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants incinerated in the last days of World War II by our nightly fire-bombings of Japanese cities and then by two nuclear weapons. Our invasion of Iraq, its exponents promised us, would be brief and bloodless. And we know how that turned out.

What would be the collateral damage of a so-called surgical strike on Syria? Many would suffer, but let us consider one group in particular -- the Christian population of Syria. Christians are under siege throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, this summer, Islamic radicals targeted Coptic Christians across the country in bloody, fiery pogroms after Mohammed Morsi was removed from power. Christian institutions -- shrines, convents, hospitals, orphanages, places of worship -- were burnt and a number of Christians murdered in a rampage of violence some commentators have properly likened to Kristallnacht.

Indeed, the Egyptian mob attacks are part of a rising tide of violence against Christians throughout the Middle East. Dale Gavlak has recently documented an on-going "religicide" in Iraq. Our invasion of that nation succeeded in removing from power the bloody-minded Saddam Hussein but the costs of that operation continue to mount. Christian churches have been bombed, worshipers murdered, and leading Church officials murdered.

As in Egypt and Iraq, Christians make up a significant minority presence in Syria, perhaps ten percent of the population. The Christian presence in Syria goes back to the beginning. St. Peter is reputed to be not only the Bishop of Rome but, before that, the first Bishop of Antioch. Without a natural protector, Christians have depended on Syria's separation of religion and state for their defense. And with that barrier damaged or destroyed, Christians could be swept from the country. And it is foreseeable, perhaps even likely, that airstrikes on the Assad regime might hasten precisely that outcome.

War, the just-war theory finally counsels, must be the last resort. The religicide now haunting the Middle East teaches us why that should be so. I have not even mentioned the possibility that by striking at the Assad regime we could be emboldening the radical, al-Quaeda wing of the Syrian resistance. A Syrian rebel commander recently posted a video depicting how he killed an Assad supporter, cut open his chest, and sectioned and ate the poor man's heart. Who knows what atrocities a limited, clinical, retaliatory intervention might unleash? Credible commentators have suggested the breakdown and dissolution of the Syrian state itself.

I have not personally witnessed the horrors of war. But I know many who have. And I believe I would not be alone in saying that Pope Francis has struck exactly the right note -- "War begets war, violence begets violence." He acknowledges the hideousness of chemical weapons but fears for the consequences of retaliation. And he is not alone. I for one shall be fasting and praying for peace on Saturday, September 7. And I hope and pray that all like-minded Christians and other men and women of good will, might join in this summons. Who knows what good a motivated, non-violent Christianity might accomplish?