Major Anup Joseph is one of my school mates and an Officer in the Indian Army. He received the Kirti Chakra, the second-highest peacetime gallantry award from the President in 2013 for killing three foreign militants in a daring operation in Kashmir. None of us in school had ever imagined that he would be in the Army one day and killing terrorists. But there you have it. If I remember correctly, we met one day after Mass in Church, when I was still in the seminary and he had come home on leave for a few days from the Army Training College. We were discussing how life was in the Army, when he turned around and asked me, “So what does the Church say on this? How many people am I allowed to kill per day on the battlefield?” It was a question more in jest and I was no expert on the Church’s teaching on these issues. But I told him without batting an eyelid “If they are shooting at you, you shoot back!”
Two events recently got me thinking about war. One was a visit to the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier of the US Navy which has seen many years of active combat and which is now harboured as a Museum alongside the Hudson River. I was extremely thrilled to go aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time. And all the real jets displayed on the flight deck drew my breath away. There was also an exhibition on the USS Intrepid’s role during the Vietnam War. The war was a failed campaign with a tremendous loss of American lives and resources. The US had to face huge protests especially at home from its citizens who were against the US involvement in the war. Vietnam was in a similar situation like we have North and South Korea today, and I think few people would doubt that the US would enter the war if the North were to attack the South.
Eventually, the US had to withdraw, Vietnam was unified under communist rule and many years later, the debate is still out if the US should have gone to war. Interestingly, we don’t hear anything much about Vietnam in the news today. Life seems to be normal there even under communism.
The second episode was the film ‘Dunkirk‘ which I watched over the weekend. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the film has received rave reviews for being a stand-apart war movie. The film draws heavily on slick cinematography to make its point, with very few dialogues throughout the film. It is a ‘thinking’ person’s war movie. 400,000 British soldiers stranded on the beach with the enemy advancing on them, had little hope. It seems Churchill wanted at least 45,000 men so that Great Britain could be defended. But he eventually got more than 300,000 through the heroism of hundreds of small boat owners who crossed the Channel and brought the soldiers home. It was the largest civilian rescue of military personnel in history. The rest of them perished on the beach. The darkness of death is deeply visible and felt right through the movie.
All this got me thinking about the Catholic Church’s stand on War. So is war justified under any circumstances? Traditionally, the Church has said that war is justified in certain situations, especially when it comes to defending a country against an aggressor country. It is called the ‘Just War Doctrine‘ and it was first enunciated by St Augustine in the 4th century. Over the centuries, it has been adopted for modern warfare. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lays down four conditions that must be met for the legitimate use of force:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- 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” [CCC2309].
The Just War Doctrine lays the responsibility of the decision in the hands of government. The soldier does not decide whether to go to war, but merely follows orders and therefore is not culpable. However, the Church does point out that even the soldier must follow the rules of combat and his/her own well-formed conscience. Not everything is licit in war. For example, killing of civilians and soldiers who have laid down arms, torture of POWs, bombing of civilian populations, mutilating bodies of dead soldiers are examples of morally illicit actions.
A case in point is the recent film by Mel Gibson, ‘Hacksaw Ridge‘ about a conscientious objector. In the film, the soldier played by Andrew Garfield refuses to handle a rifle, but instead chooses to serve in the Army as a medic. He is severely tortured and mistreated at camp for his decision and becomes an outcast among his fellow soldiers but he sticks to his beliefs. During the Battle of Okinawa, he begins evacuating injured soldiers at great peril to his own life, dodging bullets and grenades. He eventually manages to save 75 soldiers and is hailed as a hero. Now obviously, not everyone can choose to play by these rules or else we would have no army, but the beliefs of individual soldiers must be respected, provided they serve their country in their own unique way.
In recent years, however, the Just War theory has come under a cloud, since modern wars seldom satisfy the criteria put down by it. The wars happening in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that civilian casualties are far greater than that of soldiers. Go through the four criteria, and you will find that the current conflicts hardly satisfy these criteria. The US is mired in endless wars in these areas, which demonstrates that even the most powerful army in the world cannot win a modern-day war outright. War is more than just having the best weapons and quite often the only losers are the civilian populations, who have nothing to gain either from victory or defeat.
Calls are out for the Church to come out with a newer doctrine that justifies peace, not war. But until then, individual consciences and the pressure we bring to bear on our own governments, will play a huge role in minimising unnecessary suffering and evil.