Thomas Aquinas reflected on the question, “Whether it is always sinful to wage war?” in Summa Theologica Part II, Question 40. His short answer was “No.” A war would be just, he argued, if three conditions were met:
First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . . .
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . . .
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. . . .
Hold that thought!
In his article “Tom Ricks, Standing Firm on a Fallacy,” Peter Wehner calls our attention to this little contribution to moral theory by Ricks, a contributor at Foreignpolicy.com and author of The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008:
I think that invading Iraq preemptively on false premises, at the time that we already were at war elsewhere, was probably the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Everything we do in Iraq is the fruit of that poisoned tree. But I think also that there are no good answers in Iraq, just less bad ones. I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but I think leaving immediately would be even more so, because of the risk it runs of leaving Iraq to a civil war that could go regional.
“There’s a lot of silliness and sloppy thinking in these four sentences,” comments Wehner, who proceeds to point them out one by one. With regard to the claim that this is the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, for instance, Wehner wonders about whether it rises to the disaster of Vietnam. He then notes:
One can argue that the [Iraq] war wasn’t worth it, in large part because of the opportunity costs. One can also argue that the war was worth the sacrifice and that as time goes on, it will become increasingly clear that it has advanced our national security interests. But to continue to argue, as Ricks does, that it is “the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy” is, I think, evidence of closed, inflexible mind.
With regard to the claim that “staying in Iraq is immoral,” Wehner says:
Beyond that, to say that “staying in Iraq is immoral” is an example of a journalist disfiguring the meaning of words. Immoral means “deliberately violating accepted principles of right and wrong; contrary to conscience or the divine law; evil; morally objectionable behavior; acts in violation of moral law.” Now one may argue that staying in Iraq is counterproductive, though that argument seems unsustainable. Even so harsh a war critic as Barack Obama has rejected it. So, apparently, has Ricks himself. For him to therefore argue that it is “immoral” for the United States to maintain a presence in Iraq, in order to keep that nation from descending into violence and chaos, is ludicrous. What would have been immoral was leaving Iraq prematurely, allowing it to become a Mesopotamian killing field.
If we were to take Ricks seriously, it would lead us to the rather bizarre conclusion that even though the intent (or motive) of, say, President Obama in keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is as pure as the driven snow (to prevent a civil war and potential regional genocide), and even though the goal (or consequence) of keeping troops in Iraq is to promote an undeniable good and prevent an undeniable evil (i.e., civil war, regional genocide, instability), and even though in good faith one can reach a prudential judgment that this is the best of several alternative courses of action, we should still embrace the notion that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is “immoral.”
Confused? You should be!
In terms of the just war tradition, then, Ricks would have us embrace the idea that even though legitimate political decision makers have the purest of intent with the proper end (or goal) in mind, they are still acting immorally in their use of military (or police) force. Which is another way of saying that Ricks, to the extent that he has reflected on the matter, has reached a conclusion precisely contrary to that of Aquinas and the just war tradition. In Ricks’ view, to resort to military force even when every condition of the jus ad bellum is met is to act “immorally,” or, as St. Thomas would put it, sinfully. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ricks would council President Obama to do evil (keep troops in Iraq) so that good (prevent genocide) may come.
We should not, of course, take journalists like Ricks all that seriously when they seek to instruct us on the jus ad bellum or the morality of war more generally. But we should recognize that this sort of thinking is fairly prevalent. It’s just so rarely stated in such an explicitly ludicrous manner.