Questioning Libya

Does Just War apply?


Bombs came raining down; the night sky was punctuated with the light of streams of bullets; over 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. warships; and French jets were actively taking out tanks and supply vehicles. Eerily eight years to the day the Iraq War started, a whole new international war was beginning. This time in Libya. But can it be termed “just”?

There seems to be a consensus among advocates of the intervention that it is a battle of necessity to save countless lives from the brutality of a dictator. I would certainly count myself as one of the many convinced that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would “show no mercy” to rebels and protesters by committing murder on a massive scale. And yet, I can’t help but feel a sense of restlessness and unease over the action of bombing military targets, an action the member states of the U.N. Security Council saw as critical to protecting the civilian population.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Violence begets violence.” Is this a situation where violence is the only solution? Does God call on us to defend human life “by any means necessary?” These questions have been torturing me for the past week, ever since the U.N. resolution passed, and I have yet to find a definitive answer.

A day after that U.N. vote, I got together with my friends for our annual “Lenten Film Fest.” Every Friday of Lent we watch a different thought-provoking movie and discuss it afterward. Last week’s movie was Doubt, about a priest who is accused of abusing children based on suspicious observations but without any hard evidence proving this to be the case. Its major theme: sometimes there are no clear answers, only doubt. It’s a movie that tries to convey that we don’t live in a strictly black-and-white world, but that there is an awful lot of grey. Grey doesn’t lead to crystal clear answers about what should and shouldn’t be done. It is the breeding ground for doubt, a feeling that is only present in the void of uncertainty.

An awful lot of grey

Thousands of lives hang in the balance. And yet, in my heart of hearts, I want peace. I believe in peace. Not just as an end goal but as a vehicle to reach it as well.

Doubts have been plaguing me as I’ve been thinking about the international response to the Libya crisis. It seems nearly impossible to say there is one certain answer to this issue. Thousands of lives hang in the balance. And yet, in my heart of hearts, I want peace. I believe in peace. Not just as an end goal but as a vehicle to reach it as well. I want the international forces to use peace to protect civilians. I want the rebels to lay down their weapons and use peace to protest against their government. And ultimately, however unlikely, I want Gaddafi himself to address their grievances in a peaceful way.

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI said the hostilities had sparked “great fear and alarm” in him and that he was praying for peace in the region. He directed his comments to “those who have the political and military responsibility to take to heart the safety and security of citizens and guarantee they have access to humanitarian aid.”

So was the U.N. intervention just? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church there are four main conditions (more widely known as the Just War Theory) that must be met in order to call any military action just:

  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. (CCC 2309)

When I review these conditions, more questions come to mind. Everyone has said that without an intervention, Gaddafi’s forces were certain to turn the rebel held city of Benghazi into a “bloodbath.” Does the bloodbath have to occur to give us proper reason to intervene? After all, to go by the teachings of the Church, the damage “must be certain,” and how do you ever have certainty when predicting the future? Still, we can’t possibly sit on the sidelines waiting for a mass atrocity to happen before we act.

Had all the options to prevent Libyan troops from inflicting a massacre truly been shown to be “impractical or ineffective?” I’m reminded of the American poet, William Stafford, who refused to fight in World War II saying, “Violence is a failure of the imagination.” Are we just not doing a good job of imagining other options? Or was military action the only practical choice on a menu devoid of other alternatives?

Have we avoided another Rwanda or Bosnia? Or have we started down a path that only leads to more violence and inevitable death?

When considering the prospects for success, the very definition of success regarding our military actions towards Libya is being debated. Is success ousting Gaddafi from power or is it merely protecting civilians? Even then, how can we be sure when dropping large (albeit precision-guided) bombs on Libyan targets that all civilians will be protected? Already, several civilians have been reported shot (though not killed) by an American crew flying in to rescue a downed pilot in the Eastern part of the country.

Finally, the Just War Theory compels us to be proportionate in our destruction, making sure not to cause more “evils and disorders” than that which we are trying to eliminate. With several nights of relentless bombing, is this still the case? You might say that because we are not targeting unarmed civilians, the destruction and pain international forces are inflicting is still less than that caused by the troops loyal to Gaddafi. But when do the scales start to tip in the other direction? How can we ever be sure when they do? By what metric do we calculate this ratio?

There are still so many questions, so many doubts. The American public is wary of war. And rightly so. We’ve been engaged in conflict for nearly a decade with little end in sight. And yet, President Obama decided to join with the U.N. to intervene in Libya anyway. Surely he felt compelled on moral grounds to do something to avoid what was widely seen as being an atrocity waiting to happen. It must have been an extremely difficult decision and I question anybody who claims otherwise.

But was it the right decision? Have we avoided another Rwanda or Bosnia? Or have we started down a path that only leads to more violence and inevitable death? It’s hard to justify the relentless bombing but it’s also hard to justify doing nothing. Despite all my effort to escape it, I am still plagued by a paralyzing doubt.