What Iraq Taught Us About Just War

by Drew Christiansen
This story originally appeared in the Washington Post "On Faith" blog. View the original post.


If, as common sense tells us, we should learn from our mistakes, Americans have many lessons to draw from our nine-year military engagement in Iraq. Here are three.

Beware politicians employing intelligence to persuade. A long-time, senior CIA official once told me that he never knew an administration to use intelligence to illuminate public discussion of an issue, but only to bend audiences to policies they had already decided on other grounds. The intelligence used to promote the invasion of Iraq, above all Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the UN, was fundamentally flawed.

Even those who have no formal acquaintance with the Just War tradition understand the legitimacy of a conflict depends on having a just cause. In the case of Iraq, serious consideration of the justice of the cause was impaired by erroneous intelligence and tactics of deception.

In the future, the public needs to be far more skeptical of official justifications for going to war.

Furthermore, after Judith Miller's erroneous reporting in the New York Times, Americans must also be skeptical of major media outlets when armed conflict is in prospect.  They should test alleged evidence against alternative news sites and foreign sources. As the prospect of conflict grows, the mainstream media ought also to be more attentive to alternative sources, and experts outside government ought to work much harder to get a hearing with major outlets.

Those who employ the Just War need to have the courage of their convictions and condemn a war as unjust when that is where their thinking leads them. The Just War is too often used as an academic tool with no practical or pastoral force. In 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops urged the public to "say 'No' to nuclear war." In 2003, they warned President Bush that "resort to war would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for the use of military force." Yet, once war came, they never condemned the war as unjust. As a political and pastoral tool, public use of the Just War tradition must move from analysis to judgment.

With the Iraq War a new category has entered the Just War vocabulary: ius post bellum (post-war justice). Victors are obligated to return the territory to conditions of peace and to make the victims of war whole again.

One outstanding post-bellum issue of the Iraq War, as of many contemporary conflicts, is the rights of refugees. In the case of Iraq, finding a homeland for Christian refugees who were driven from their homes is a major unfulfilled obligation. So far, the U.S. has failed to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees to safe asylum in the U.S. or third countries. Their re-settlement remains an unpaid cost of the war.

Drew Christiansen, S. J. is editor in chief of America, the U.S. Jesuit weekly. For 14 years, he advised the U. S. Catholic bishops on Mideast policy.

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