If This War is Just, It Must Be Won

When the United States and its allies went into Afghanistan almost eight years ago, they had the support—quiet but real—of Pope John Paul II and the Holy See. But when, not long after, America and its friends attacked Iraq, the Pope and his people were strongly and publicly opposed.

These contrasting reactions by Rome to American military ventures struck me then and strike me now as reflecting eminently sound moral judgments. In light of recent events, it’s useful to consider why that is so.

Afghanistan was and is a just war. In early 2002, the U.S. had lately suffered the vicious 9/11 terrorist attacks plotted by al-Qaeda from the sanctuary provided by its Taliban protectors. Without a prompt American military response, there surely would have been more of the same.

In Iraq, however, the puzzle from the start has centered on why we were going to war there. Saddam Hussein was a bloody tyrant and no friend of America, but he hadn’t attacked the U.S. or its allies, and despite the dire warnings of the Bush administration there was no compelling evidence that he meant to do so, with weapons of mass destruction or without them.

So why invade Iraq? Six going on seven years later, many explanations have been offered but none of them has had staying power—beyond the embarrassingly obvious one of bad judgment.

Here, then, is the heart of the situation: legitimate self-defense in Afghanistan and a big question mark in Iraq. But there’s more to the story than that.

Once the allies had the Taliban on the run in 2002, a terrible mistake was made. Instead of pushing ahead to win a solid, lasting victory, America turned its attention and the bulk of its military resources to Iraq, leaving the wrapping-up in Afghanistan—as was supposed—to undermanned NATO forces and the CIA.

The results as we see them now were predictable. In Iraq, a shaky semi-peace, with the U.S. anxious to pack up and leave. Soon it will be up to the Iraqis to work things out—or fight them out—for themselves. This is exactly the outcome that was probable all along. Does it really justify all the killing and maiming, along with the destabilization of a crucial sector of the Middle East?

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the fighting drags on in what even American military commanders have taken to calling a deteriorating situation. President Obama has begun increasing the troop levels, and the generals are asking for even more. Whether they will get it, in the face of growing unhappiness with the war back home, is anybody’s guess.

Morally speaking, what should one make of all this? I reason as follows.

Afghanistan was a just war at the start, and nothing has happened to change that today. The same overriding consideration applies now that applied in early 2002—the need to spike the terrorist threat in its heartland. American failure would be a calamitous setback for the U.S. and a godsend for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

But for America to succeed in Afghanistan, the war must be waged seriously. The one thing the Obama administration mustn’t do—because it would be a military and moral disaster—is to carry out a token military buildup that would be sure to fail. Fighting a just war halfheartedly isn’t the way of moral sensitivity but the way of national cowardice. If we are going to fight this war at all—and unfortunately we must—we need to fight to win.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • When President Bush made clear his intention to invade Iraq, I quietly went along in spite of papal opposition because Bush was my President. I suspect many Catholic Americans did the same. I now see that I, and perhaps the whole American Church, have made a grave mistake in not opposing the war vigorously.

    Pope John Paul II warned President Bush that he would be “judged by God and by history.” What could be a clearer (or more terrifying) statement of judgment than that? I know he wasn’t speaking ex cathedra, or even on behalf of the ordinary Magisterium, but still, he was the Pope and his words should have had great weight with Catholics (and, it might have been hoped, with a faithful Protestant President).

    So now we’re in this fix, and, as Americans, we’re all in it together. The question in my mind is, what’s the exit strategy? And how do we as a nation begin to make reparation to God and to the Iraqi people for what has been done?

  • ctmoses

    To say “Once the allies had the Taliban on the run in 2002, a terrible mistake was made. Instead of pushing ahead to win a solid, lasting victory, America turned its attention and the bulk of its military resources to Iraq, leaving the wrapping-up in Afghanistan—as was supposed—to undermanned NATO forces and the CIA,” is a misunderstanding of the situation both culturally and militarily in Afghanistan.

    Afghanistan is a “melting pot” as old as history that never quite blended. It is a mish-mash of many cultures and ethinicities ranging from Persians to Russians to Mongolians to even Greeks left over from the times of Alexander. The Taliban, are predominantly Pashtun, Sunni Islamists. This range of cultures, and even greatly varying religions (from buddhist to sunni to shiite muslims) is very important to know in order to understand the mission the military faces. It is probable, that even military decision makers were not confronting the cultural and faith diversity of the country in their original decision to act .However, that has changed.

    The military mission in Afghanistan is not to eradicate the Taliban only. Its mission is too stabilize the country and “leave it better than we found it” so to speak. In order to do this it requires instilling a sense of Afghan nationalism in Afghans rather than cultural pride only. One way this is being done is by distributing radios and broadcasting national news (in all the different local languages) including stories about the various ethnic groups and tying their story to that of the new Afghanistan. Also the country is trying to build a highway system through certain parts of the country to develop a better flow of goods and ideas across areas where villagers may never have seen what lies outside their own tribal valley. These are just a couple of examples.

    Afghanistan may have become an afterthought with the American media based on its prerogative to push negative press of the Iraq war, but it hasn’t been thrown under the bus by the military. What appears to be neglect by the military is only neglect of our national attention.

    Military leaders are demanding more troops because we are moving forward and into areas we have not yet been. Because of Afghanistan’s imposing terrain and uncompromising weather, the going has been difficult. When you must move valley by valley it is a slow moving process. When sharing troops with OIF requirements it has made the Afghan theater even slower to progress.

    We won’t be “wrapping-up” in Afghanistan any time soon if the mission is to be completed and we understand that the mission is to unite a very diverse and historically resistant group of people.

  • goral

    There is a saying that never so much bad math is used as when calculating the benefits of going to war. JP the Great just used good math, the Renaissance man that he was. On the other hand he was not privy to all of the information about that part of the world.
    We now find out that neither was Bush.

    I as an armchair general advise the field generals this way:
    We start the clean-up in Afghanistan enough to get them running, then lets go into Iraq and cut off a lot of their support. We will also get many of them in that theatre. We are more likely to draw and defeat them in that field because our equipment will work better there.

    OK, then they will see that we’re too strong for them and that we left a vacuum
    in Afghanistan. The terrorists will go back to Afghanistan to regroup and find shelter.
    By then we will better know them and their tactics and their allies.
    We will once again take the battle to them where we started and ultimately finish the job.

    I believe (ahm) that my math and strategy is good.
    I also know that there are very brave and dedicated and intelligent military strategists who thought this through more than I did. Don’t give up on them yet.
    The only thing that will defeat us is a lack of resolve.
    Prez Bush will be judged indeed. He may yet find more mercy than his detractors
    would like to believe.

    I’m not yet ready to apologize to the cut-throats for cutting off their lifelines.

  • Joe DeVet

    I think the invasion of Iraq during the “Bush 43” administration is best understood as a continuation of the war of liberation of Kuwait (and by extension the others in the region threatened by Saddam at the time.)

    The war of Kuwait liberation was suspended in good faith, with a peace treaty which required common-sense good behavior on the part of Saddam. The good behavior never materialized. We were patient over a 14-year time period during which Saddam continually violated the peace terms, his WMD programs were pursued and he became ever more dangerous. The situation with him in power was unstable, and headed inexorably in the wrong direction. It is also the case that he fostered Islamist terrorism by a number of means while in power at this time.

    During this 14-year time frame we tried UN resolutions, negotiation, sanctions, and all manner of diplomatic initiatives recommended by various voices, and nothing worked. Saddam’s power kept increasing, and there was nothing except the opposing power of the US and its allies to keep him from annexing Kuwait, attacking Israel, or fomenting God knows what other mischief. In the end, the original, clearly just war of liberation of Kuwait was resumed and finally completed.

    I was aware that the Vatican opposed this, and that, of course, is something not to be ignored. However, to my knowledge the Vatican never gave a reason for opposition beyond “the situation should be solved by diplomatic means.” It seems clear that all avenues of diplomatic means had been long exhausted by the time G W Bush decided to invade, so it seems to me our Catholic leadership simply failed to make a credible just-war case in opposition to that invasion.