Should there be missile strikes on Syria?

It has taken me a little while to work out whether or not missile strikes against Syria are justified by the UK at the moment.

It seems to me that there are quite a lot of people who don’t seem to need to take their time and know instinctively that military action either should or should not take place. Certainly those who are against missile strikes seem to be dusting down their “not in my name” T-shirts and getting ready to oppose military action.

If you are a pacifist then the answer is clear. If you are a pacifist then you are going to be opposed to military action come what may.

As it happens, I am not a pacifist. I think that there are situations when military action is justified but I think you’ve got to cross quite a high moral bar before you can justify the use of force.

There’s three tests for me – classic just war theory, intervention for humanitarian purposes and enforcing international law.

Let’s take them one by one.

Just War Theory

There’s plenty to read about Just War Theory. Some people don’t buy it at all but I think the tests are useful.

The idea is that certain conditions must be met before a war might be considered legitimate. Such tests are laid out, for example, in the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

They are:

  1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. there must be serious prospects of success;
  4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

In this case, I think that the first test is partly but not wholly met.

The use of chemical weapons is lasting and grave. However, the public doesn’t have certainty about how they were deployed. If governments have such  proof they have not made it public yet. There may be circumstances in which it is wise for governments to keep secret how they know things but it is the case that in modern times, simply saying “we know best and we are not telling you how we know” is a difficult place for governments to find themselves with their people.

The second test is difficult for me to assess. Are there any alternatives to military action. If military action is just about the use of chemical weapons and not about taking sides in the war then I don’t know whether there are any alternatives. There certainly don’t seem to be many.

The third test is more of a struggle I think. Is there really a serious chance of success? This doesn’t mean a chance that, for example, Western missiles might hit particular targets. The test is whether by hitting such targets, the use of chemical weapons would cease. Given that there were similar strikes by the US some time ago and we now appear to have further use of chemical weapons, I think we have to say that there are serious doubts about whether there is  realistic prospect of success.

The fourth test is perhaps the most grave. It seems to me that the use of force might well produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. We don’t know and we cannot know whether this test can be met in this case.

So, I’d say that Just War Theory offers little support for military intervention at the moment.

Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes

The UK has intervened in some countries in recent years for humanitarian purposes. In some cases it has gone well and in others perhaps less well. The Bosnian and Sierra Leone campaigns were said by many to be classic uses of force for good.

The prospect of missile strikes in Syria does not seem to me to be entirely about intervention for humanitarian purposes. Certainly it would be good to stop chemical weapons being used but far from certain that this can be achieved. I see no plans to be involved in building the peace after the bombing. I see no plans to intervene for anyone’s good.

Humanitarian concerns do not seem to be met by this proposed military intervention.

Enforcing International Law

The use of chemical weapons is illegal. Whoever used them committed a crime and should be brought to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Military intervention that was designed to bring perpetrators to justice could, in my view, be justified.

However, I don’t think that what is currently apparently being considered comes anywhere near this.

My conclusion

So, my conclusion after looking at this proposed action through these moral lenses is that military action cannot be justified at this time.

That is not to say that I think this is easy. I may be wrong. I think that it behoves everyone to support military personnel involved in any action that is taken. And I have much sympathy with the politicians who have decisions to make.

I once wanted to be one of them.

They have a hard job to do with partial information and some information that cannot be shared.

So far as I can see this military action cannot be justified. However, I’m very aware that this is a view based on my limited knowledge of events.

My thoughts are with all who have decisions to make which affect the lives of others.

You can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners

In a way, watching the debate yesterday in the House of Commons on whether the UK should join in with Air Strikes against the so called Islamic State felt different to me from the last times we’ve had similar debates.

This time I felt I was open to persuasion. As the debate began, I hadn’t made up my mind what I thought was right. I accept the arguments that such action this time is legal. (In the past I’ve marched against UK involvement convinced that it was illegal and wrong from the outset). I’m not a pacifist and don’t automatically assume that using force is wrong. That means that each time I need to be persuaded.

As I’ve said before, I once had aspirations to be a Member of Parliament and when crucial votes come around I find myself inevitably absorbed by them wondering how I would have voted. In this case, I’m sure that I would have entered the chamber undecided and left having firmly made up my mind.

The more speeches that I heard in favour of military action, the more troubled I was about it. In particular, I was troubled to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury throwing his lot in with the government and advocate new bombing missions.

It seems to me that the following points remain unanswered.

  • Likelihood of success.  This is a key point for anyone trying to assess using Christian criteria whether military action is just. How many bombs do we need to drop before we realise that air strikes alone are not sorting out the conflict in Iraq? The lessons of the past do not point to an easy or quick solution. I was particularly alarmed by the suggestion by the Prime Minister that this could take three years. I don’t believe any0ne can see what lies ahead in three years time in Iraq. These are not air strikes – this is a war. What’s more I don’t even know how we will judge success.
  • We are not fighting a conventional enemy but a set of ideas. Bombs do not destroy ideas they disperse them. The “Islamic State” people may claim to have territorial claims to a part of the world but that doesn’t mean we are fighting another state in the way that the West understands that. Controlling territory on the ground doesn’t mean that you control people’s minds. ISIS and al-Queda are as much a set of ideas as an army controlling a people. We need concrete strategies for making lives better and the underlying philosophical principles that are behind the terror attacks need to be taken to pieces and few of us know how to do that.
  • What about the innocents? In this week when we’ve remembered St Adamnan again in the church, again we are reminded that attacks which kill or harm the innocent are never justified. Collateral damage is terrorism by another name.
  • Finally, that you can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners. It seemed to me that many in the House of Commons were responding to the barbarity of recent hostage beheadings with the notion that we can somehow fly 6 RAF aircraft over Iraq, drop some bombs and stop people being beastly. It won’t do. You can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners. If there are any solutions they will be far more complex than what is currently proposed.

For all these reasons, though I would have gone into the chamber undecided, by the end of the day I would have made my mind up.

I would have voted against military action.