Syria, the War in Iraq, & Principles of Just War


General Sir David Richards, who steps down today as Chief of the Defence Staff of Great Britain, said that if the West wanted to see an end to President Bashar al Assad’s regime it would have to step in as in it did to end the Gaddafi regime in Libya. General Richard’s comment joins the chorus of many in both Britain and the U.S. who have been considering the possibility of going to war with Syria.

John Glaser on yesterday had this to say about the gathering storm around Syria:

In debating a U.S. intervention in Syria, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not it would be comparable to Iraq. Advocates of intervention say “Syria is not Iraq,” and argue we have “over-learned the lessons of Iraq.” Opponents, like myself, say Syria is like Iraq and a direct military intervention would be a similarly catastrophic experience.

Many, like John McCain, cheerleader of “the surge,” view the overall U.S. war in Iraq as good and effective. To me, the calamitous failure in Iraq is not even debatable. But too much of this has focused on the war itself and whether or not there would be an insurgency long after the U.S. toppled Assad and so forth.

Is it possible that the U.S. could soon find itself in another war with a Middle-Eastern nation, similar to Iraq?

Lessons from Iraq

For several months in 2006, President Bush watched as his approval ratings dropped from the high point they had experienced after 9/11, and one of the foremost issues people expressed concern about at the time had been  the War in Iraq. According to major news networks at the time, “58 percent still say the war was not worth fighting, just off its peak, and 64 percent say Bush lacks a clear plan of what to do in Iraq.”

Intestingly, the news also reported that 71 percent of those polled believed the Democrats had no clear plan either.

For a while now, the situation in Iraq has given many Americans cause to stop and reflect. To reevaluate their beliefs about when it is appropriate to go to war. As Christians, we must first look to the Word of God for guidance in discerning the principles of just war — just as we should look to the Word God for any basic question in life.Some Christian scholars have taken the time to carefully examine the Scriptures to see what is says about just war. Among these Christians is Pastor William Einwechter, who has written a brilliant paper called A Christian Perspective on Just War.

In this paper, Pastor Einwechter explores the history of organized just war theory, shares quotes from other Christian scholars such as Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, and highlights numerous Scriptural principles — making it worth the read.While pacifists (including many Catholics) insist that all killing is inheriently wrong, the Bible says there is “a time to kill” and “a time of war”(Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). Some quote the King James Version of the Bible when it gives the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). However, they fail to realize that the word that was eroneously translated “kill” is the Hebrew word ratsach, which means “murder.” Thus, the passage literally reads: “You shall not murder.”

Biblical Principles of Just War

So when can a war turn turn into mass murder? On the other hand, when is a war appropriate? Pastor Einwechter presents seven principles of just war from Scripture. How does the War in Iraq stand up against these principles?

1. The War Must Be Conducted by a Legitimate Civil Authority. (See Rom. 13:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:14; 1 Tim. 2:1; Deut. 16:18-20.)“This Constitution . . . shall be the supreme law of the land; . . . .” U.S. Constitution Article 6, parragraph 2.

In our country, the highest civil authority is the Constitution of the United States of America. That Constitution requires that before our nation can go to war, the United States Congress must officially declare war on the particular nation or group we intend to fight.

“Congress shall have power to . . . declare war, . . .” U.S. Constituion, Article I, Section 8.

The Constitution does not allow any substitutes to this requirement—even Congressional resolutions short of an official declaration of war.

Interestingly, the War in Iraq was never declared by Congress. Not only that, but the War in Iraq has been done under the authority of the United Nations — an organization that has never been granted legitimate civil authority over our country by the Constitution through amendment.

The United States entered into war with Iraq because we claimed it had violated sixteen U.N. Resolutions. Again, who ever gave the United Nations civil authority over the United States or Iraq?

Thus, the War in Iraq violated the first Biblical principle of just war because it was entered into under an illegitimate civil authority (the United Nations) rather than the legitimate one (the Congress of the United States of America).

2. The War Must Be Based on a Just Cause. (See Rom. 13:3; Exodus 22:2-4; Deuteronomy 20; Gen. 14.)

If you read A Christian Perspective on Just War, you will find that historically Christian scholars saw basically three types of wars as being just: (1) Wars of defense against aggression; (2) Wars to help and defend an ally or weaker nation from aggression; (3) Civil wars to overthrow rank tyranny and oppression by the rulers or to put down evil insurrection.

Although President Bush and others originally claimed that we were going to war with Iraq to defend ourselves against weapons of mass destruction, now years after the war we have still found no weapons of mass destruction as the President described. (Senator Rick Santorum announced a false alarm, but Intelligence officials continued to report that “there is no evidence that Iraq manufactured chemical weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.” See article.)

Syrian tank | Source: London Telegraph

Even if Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, so what? China has weapons of mass destruction! Why didn’t we attack China? North Korea has weapons of mass destruction! Why didn’t we attack North Korea? Why, even the United States has weapons of mass destruction!

If we say, “Yes, but China and North Korea didn’t violate the U.N. resolutions,” then we’re back to the U.S. violating principle number one.

Since when is it immoral to own weapons? We conservatives complain about the government regulating us for owning a gun, but we don’t mind that the U.N. regulated a nation from having weapons?

In our common law (which was derived from Biblical case laws found in passages like Exodus 22:2–4), I cannot attack you out of self-defense just because you own a gun and you say you hate my guts. In order for me to have the right to exercise self-defense, you must demonstrate an intent to cause imminent harm to me. Likewise, a nation cannot go to war with another out of self-defense unless the other nation demonstrates intent to cause imminent harm to the first nation.

Still no evidence has been introduced that Iraq had an imminent intent to use weapons against the United States.

3. The War Must Be Waged with Right Intentions. (See Matt. 6:1-5, 16; 1 Cor. 3:13; 10:31; 13:1-3; James 4:1-3.)

A nation may have just cause to go to war with another, and yet opt to not retaliate against its aggressor. If the attacked nation does choose to fight, it should not be because of unjust intentions. As Pastor Einwechter writes,

Often, a “just cause” is just a cover for national or political ambitions. Augustine wisely pointed out that nations often go to war for no more than political and economic reasons. Political reasons include the desire for power, conquest, personal glory and national pride, and solutions to domestic problems. Economic reasons include the acquisition of new wealth, territory, natural resources, and access to trade routes and ports.

We can examine our own intentions for wanting to go to war with another country. Usually, however, we cannot judge other men’s intentions unless they become apparant. Many of the politicians who led the cry for the War in Iraq gained millions of dollars as investors in various oil companies. They should ask themselves if their motives for going to war were just.

4. War Must Be Undertaken Only as a Last Resort.

Pastor Einwechter observes:

The Scriptures support the concept that ultimate sanctions should not be pursued until other options for reconciliation and redress have been exhausted (cf. Matt. 18:15-17). The Bible condemns those who are hasty and rash in their actions because they exalt folly (Prov. 14:29). When one contemplates the misery and suffering that war brings, it is certainly folly to go to war when the injury can be made right without war. The law of God instructs Israel to offer terms of peace to an enemy city (Deut. 20:10-15) before attacking it; only after the offer is rejected can Israel begin hostilities. . . .

The principle that war should be a last resort does not mean that we are required to negotiate a base peace that leaves aggression and tyranny unopposed. To abandon justice in the name of peace ultimately is to lose both.

Some may point out that God ordered Israel to attack several nations and destroy them without any other resort when He led Israel into Canaan. This is true. However, for God, destroying those nations was a final resort after centuries of mercy. God sometimes called Israel and specific men in the Bible to do things that were non-normative.

Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac— a non-normative command. Peter was commanded to walk on water — a non-normative command. God gave Israel a non-normative command to wipe out several nations that had done Israel no harm. As we have already observed from the other principles, this command was not normative to principles of just war God gave in His Word.

If God ever specifically commands the United States to attack Iraq or some other nation, then so be it. Otherwise, the principle of last resort should govern.

5. War Must Be Fought on the Basis of a Reasonable Chance of Success. (See Luke 14:28-32.)

Pastor Einwechter writes:

Before war is pursued there must be a careful calculation to determine if a nation has the strength and resources to win the war. If not, the commencement of military action should either be abandoned or postponed until the nation is ready. It is considered unjust to commit soldiers to die and to subject citizens to the depravations, sorrows, and horrors of war in a vain undertaking.

In Luke 14 Christ specifically spoke of the wisdom of a civil leader who calculates whether he has the ability to succeed in a war before he commits himself to it. If we want to follow Christ’s instruction, we must carefully evaluate whether the objective of a war is attainable.

For example, a war against the terrorist organization Al Quaeda has an attainable goal: the destruction of the organization and the capture of its leaders. On the other hand, a “war on terror” is about as unattainable as a “war on poverty.” As long as men are plagued with a sinful nature, we will always have terror. (Not to mention that just as the civil government was never given the right/responsibility by God to make me rich, it was also never given the right/responsibility to free me from terror.)

Using war to spread democracy around the world is likewise unattainable. If a culture of people do not have the character to have a constitutional republic, then all the nation-building in the world will not help them. You remove one tyrant for them, and they will set up another. Because people are not a product of their environments.

6. War Must Seek to Establish a Superior Peace.

In Deuteronomy 20 God told His people that when approaching a foreign city, they were to first attempt to make peace with that city. If that city refused to have peace with them, then and only then were they to attack that city.

“The legal principle of lex talionis (the law of retaliation) calls for proportionality in sentencing criminals — the punishment must fit the crime,” writes Pastor Einwechter. “It was given to judges to enable them to carry out their duties as God’s ministers of vengeance on evildoers. As a just war is waged for the suppression of evil and visiting God’s judgment on evildoers it seems proper to apply the principle of lex talionis to warfare, at least in the general sense of proportionality.”

The United States has deposed Sadam Hussein. It has defeated his Iraqi army. Any perceived threat of an imminent attack from Iraq has long been eliminated. But how long did we have to keep occupying Iraq before our troops withdrew? Delaying our withdrawal only fanned suspicions that we are at best busybodies or at worst imperialists in diguise. Furthermore, delaying our withdrawal in countries we occupy continues to subject our soldiers to harm while they provide no protection to their country.

7. War Must Be Waged with Proper Discrimination Between Combatants and Non-combatants.

The laws about normative conduct in war given in Deuteronomy 20 specified that women and children should be spared from the sword. Only in non-normative situations, such as for the nations God had specifically condememned, were non-combatants to be killed. (See Deut. 20:13–17.)

Once a person has been accepted as a prisoner of war, he is no longer a combatant. Thus, the treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the War in Iraq violated of the principles of just war.

We Were Soldiers Once and Young

On November 1965 the Vietnam War was just beginning. Some 450 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 7th calvalry under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore were sent on a death mission into a small clearing in the la Drang Valley. They were immediately surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese troops. Dozens of men in that battalion died brutally. Three days later, only two and a half miles away, a sister battalion was chopped to pieces.

Half-way around the world, wives of the fighting soldiers were pained when men showed up at their door bearing telegrams with the stark words: “KILLED IN ACTION.” Among the Vietnamese, many hundreds would also die, leaving children, wives, and sweethearts behind.

What makes this story so despicable is that the 1st Battalion had no clear objective. They were pushed into the line of fire against incredible odds with only two orders: Survive. Kill.

Why did military leaders push these men, these fathers, these husbands, these sons into harm’s way? Because they could. Why did they attack this particular army of Vietnamese? Becasue they could.

For anyone who has read about the Battle of la Drang Valley or seen the movie based upon it entitled We Were Soldiers, the story is a stark reminder of the weightiness of war. Sending hundreds of souls out to kill hundreds of other souls is no small matter.

A man’s life is worth more than a chess piece.

Before sending our soldiers to the shock of war, we must ensure we fight for a cause God deems just.

For more study on the Biblical Principles of Just War, I recommend reading Pastor Einwechter’s paper A Christian Perspective on Just War and watching Dr. Paul Jehle’s three-part message from the Introduction to Christianity, Law, and Culture: Video Curriculum.

Nathaniel Darnell

Nathaniel Darnell holds his juris doctorate from Oak Brook College of Law and has served as a director at ministries such as Vision Forum and American Vision as well as a filmmaker and graphics designer. He is the author of the novel “Glory, Duty, & Gold Dome” and the producer of over 120 commercial videos. Before working as the Director of the Video Department at Vision Forum Ministries for five years, he served for eight years as a legislative aide at the Georgia State Capitol.

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