During the past six months we have heard many rumors of war. I first heard about them from a colleague who used to serve in the United States Army. Many of the officers he knew were shipping out to Turkey and the Middle East, getting ready for war. Soon we started hearing about it on television as President Bush began to make a public case for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. By the end of this month more than 100,000 American troops will be ready to strike, and this week several newspaper articles were describing war with Iraq as “inevitable.”

I’m still not convinced that America is going to war. Saddam Hussein is a bully, and bullies only respond to a show of force. The way to keep them under control is to present them with a credible threat of imminent destruction. And perhaps this is what President Bush is trying to accomplish. For his rhetoric to be persuasive, the threat of war must appear to be real.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we really are going to war. If so, then the rationale goes something like this: Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction that he intends to use against defenseless civilians. In order to prevent the clear and present danger of Iraqi atrocities, we are morally justified in striking first.

This line of reasoning is based on too many variables for me to evaluate fairly. What kinds of weapons does Saddam have? How does he intend to use them? What risk is there that a U. S. strike would destabilize the Middle East? I have opinions on these matters, but as a private citizen I lack the information needed to make a reliable judgment as to whether it is morally imperative for us to wage war on Iraq.

What I do want to point out is that under the present circumstances, an attack on Iraq would require a whole new ethical doctrine of war. Historically, the United States has generally tried to wage what orthodox Christians theologians would call “just war.” With the exception of some pacifists, Christians have generally recognized that there are circumstances in which it is right to fight. As the Scripture says, there is “a time to kill” as well as “a time to heal,” “a time for war” as well as “a time for peace” (Eccles. 3:3,8).

So when is it time for war? Going back to Augustine, theologians have come up with clear ethical standards. A war is only just if it is waged by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, in the interests of peace, against an aggressor, and only as a last resort. A just war must also be waged justly. Among other things, this means that weapons may never be directed against civilians, but only against legitimate military targets.

When these conditions apply, it is not only morally permissible, but in some cases also morally necessary to wage war. As Darrell Cole has written, “The Christian who fails to use force to aid his neighbor when… force is the best way to render that aid is an uncharitable Christian. Hence Christians who willingly and knowingly refuse to engage in a just war… fail to show love towards their neighbor as well as towards God.” Of course, as a nation we have not always succeeded in waging war according to the strict standard of God’s justice. But this has generally been our goal.

What makes our conflict with Iraq different is that, at present, Iraq is not committing acts of aggression. The case for war is based instead on the presumption that Saddam Hussein intends to use weapons of mass destruction, and that therefore we should stop him. Indeed, this is part of the President’s new international doctrine. The preemptive strike has become part of our national strategy for dealing with terrorism.

Can such a war be just? I think it can be. There are times when a threat of harm is so immediate that force must be used to stop it. Think, for example, of a man brandishing a weapon in a crowded shopping mall. May force be used to stop him, even before he shoots? Of course! Similarly, there are situations when a pre-emptive military strike may be just.

The problem is that terrorist attacks are so unexpected. Just war theory was developed when armies still waged war in conventional ways. But terrorists do not play by the rules. Innocent victims are targeted, and there is no time for them or anyone else to act in self-defense. It is for precisely this reason that global terrorism is such a menacing evil. And it is also for this reason that a new and broader definition of just war may be needed. Charles Colson has argued–I think rightly–that “Christians can and should support a preemptive strike, if ordered by the appropriate magistrate to prevent an imminent attack.”

But we should be careful not to reach this conclusion too quickly. It is risky to base our actions on what someone else might do. In the present situation, those who argue that America should go to war have a high burden of proof. Can they demonstrate a real connection between Saddam Hussein and global terrorism? Is there hard evidence that Iraq poses a credible threat of mass destruction? Can our armed forces deal with this threat while still maintaining the high standards of justice in war, such as avoiding civilian casualties?

These are the kinds of hard questions that thoughtful Christians ought to be asking. In our zeal to strike a blow against global terrorism, we should be careful not to set aside biblical principles for justice, or to ignore the heritage of careful Christian reflection about war and peace.

[The general line of thinking in this Window on the World, as well as both quotations, come from Charles Colson, “Just War in Iraq,” Christianity Today (December 9, 2002), p. 72]

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