How To Make a Just War Unjust in One Simple Step: ISIS Edition

If you haven't had your head buried in the sand-- er, that isn't the best analogy. If you haven't been paying attention, there is a brutal terrorist (self-styled) "regime" on the march in the Middle East leaving a trail of horror and carnage the world has rarely seen. Thousands of people, mostly Christians and other religious minorities, are being massacred, crucified, beheaded, and (the reason my analogy was poor) buried alive. They style themselves the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."

If ever there was cause that meets the criteria of classical "Just War" theory, I believe this is it. Not simply because a marauding band of barbarians are on the march committing unspeakable crimes against humanity, but also because they are gaining and occupying lands, infrastructure, and natural resources that enable them to sustain themselves indefinitely and ultimately succeed in their nefarious plans. No group of terrorists has ever had its hands on such spoils. In short: there is no "isolating" or ignoring a group that holds this kind of geography. They aren't content with some small patch of ground anyway: in their fanatical eschatology their eventual goal is to make the world a Muslim state.

Confront them now or confront them later; you will be made to care.

To my surprise, the President of the United States this week authorized airstrikes against ISIS, largely to protect some 40,000 displaced Christian refugees cut off from help and facing annihilation. To my mind this is clearly entering a war for "just cause" (jus ad bellum in the classical moral tradition of Christianity). 


One of the principles of "Just War" theory is called "Probability of Success." The idea is that it is immoral to launch a war in a futile cause, a conflict that cannot be won, for this will perpetuate the conflict and result in unnecessary death and destruction. 

Now, clearly the Unites States of America never gets involved in truly "futile" wars. Its military might is unequaled in human history. Eleven years ago we took over the entire country of Iraq, a nation with a military 500,000 strong (including Republican Guard and paramilitary units). The invasion phase resulted in 139 deaths of U.S. soldiers (172 total coalition deaths). No, that was not a typo; there is no comma with zeroes after it. Simply: nobody withstands the full force of U.S. military involvement.

But what if U.S. foreign policy commits itself to something less than full force? What if the official policy, set by the President, is that we have no intention of defeating the enemy?

You see, the repeated, emphatic declarations of our President that we will not put "boots on the ground," only commit ourselves to "limited" airstrikes (everything is tagged with that word: "limited"), and never really get involved militarily in the region again has got me to thinking: Is this a self-imposition of futility? Have we suddenly placed ourselves outside the boundaries of Just War theory? 

For we have said, in no uncertain terms: "Dear ISIS: we plan to disrupt a few of your plans, destroy some equipment, and cause you some casualties. But rest assured: we will never fully meet you on the battlefield." This means, self-evidently, that our military action will have the opposite effect of deterrence. What enemy ceases its ambitions by having its opponents promise not to destroy them?

We seem to be voluntarily entering a war with no intention of success. This will have the effect of emboldening these barbarians and causing more, not less, misery and destruction in the long term. The irony is unbearable: We have here an opportunity to get involved in a truly just and moral cause, but because of our moral and political incompetence, we are turning it into an unjust action that will result in more harm in the long run, not less.

The principles are fairly clear: if you go to war, it had better be winnable and you'd better be in it to win it. Our official policy appears to substantially diverge from this.

Note: I am not advocating all-out, boots-on-the-ground invasion. If victory can be had by lesser means, it is requisite to use those lesser means. I am criticizing the declaration of official policy that tells our enemies that we will not use all means at our disposal to defeat them.

Brian Mattson