The Price of Peace

The price of peace is letting oneself be taken for a coward, a fool, even someone who secretly favours the enemy — whoever or whatever the enemy may happen to be. Being a pacifist is not the same as being a wimp. It means that one can never have the golden glow of feeling heroic, that one has made a difference or done the ‘right thing’ as often conceived. It means a different kind of anguish, one that no warlike activity can relieve; and it is an anguish many must be experiencing today as the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria grows ever closer. Most of us want peace and are prepared to defend it; but that is not the same thing as seeking to impose our ideas about peace on others. Whether we are pacifists, believing that war is never justifiable, or whether we are reluctant fighters, believing war must only ever be a last resort, the situation in Syria calls for some clear, cool thinking about ourselves as well as what we think is happening there. Emotional muddle, soundbite theology and Walter Mitty fantasies are not the best preparation.

We might begin by thinking about what is called the Just War Theory. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, believed that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. St Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on this so that, in his view, three conditions must be met for any war to be called just:

  1. Legitimate authority, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war;
  2. there must be just cause;
  3. the warring party must have the right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.

To these many would now add that war should always be the last resort, when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have failed; that there should be proportionality, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result; and that there should be a reasonable probability of success.

I am not sure how a missile strike against Syria measures up against these, but I hope our politicians will think very seriously indeed. President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed if chemical weapons were used must, in retrospect, look unwise. Men, women and children have been dying as a result of the bloodshed in Syria for two years. The manner of their deaths has been different, but it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant. Are the conditions for a just war being met? Can they be met? If the West acts now against Syria, the conflict will escalate. War in the Middle East will quickly spin out of control and mean war elsewhere. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. If the price of peace is to be thought a coward, the price of an unjust war — perhaps any war — is, quite simply, death.

Note: for the record, I am totally opposed to Western military intervention in Syria and pray that a peaceful solution may be found.


17 thoughts on “The Price of Peace”

  1. Catherine, thank you for this. I am – perhaps ‘in favour’ is not quite the right term – of the belief that intervention is the better course of action at this point, but I appreciate your calm and rational approach to the issues. There are heavy costs to either path and it will not, in the main, be us in the west who pay them. My problem with non-interbention is how else do we stop this kind of activity? If a tyrant or bully knows there will be no recourse, s/he will carry on? All the old arguments on both sides, of course, and I have no answers. We must, I suppose, do the best we can.

    • I think a major problem at the moment is that there is pressure for military intervention without allowing the U.N. investigations to conclude, and without duly heeding what various Syrians and others ‘on the ground’ are saying. It is, as you say, a very complicated situation. I understand the need to stand up to evil, but in this case, I am not convinced of the truth/validity of the case made by our Western leaders.

  2. Someone else today has quoted “The Duty to Protect” which was used in Rwanda against Genocide, and to an extent against Serbian war lords in Bosnia and Croatia in the 90’s. But does what happened in Syria compare to those situations?

    The answer has to be Yes and No. Yes, because the use of Sarine Gas against a civilian population is a war crime and might amount to genocide if racial ethnic origins or religious beliefs are involved, but the situation in Syria seems to be an inter-religion situation, muslim against muslim, with the politics of one sect repressing another. No, because the episode with WMD is one incident (allegedly there were several others earlier, but not proven) in a civil war which is killing hundreds daily, thousands weekly and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands since the war started.

    Both sides in this conflict seem to have access to WMD and either side might use them, even against their own people to discredit the other. Although the Western consensus seems to be that the government used them this time.

    This civil war in Syria is of course, unjust, savage and cruel, and has killed thousands – why no call to intervene when just conventional weapons were involved? Are lives lost to these, less precious than those lost to WMD?

    Somewhere in this is a twisted logic and false morality, where the Western nations seem to be busting to have a go at the Syrian Government for no better reason than a change in tactics has been seen to raise the stakes against the opposition? Questionable at best.

    Let Tony Blair and Barak Obama put on uniform, pick up their guns and go and fight for their cause, man for man against their perceived enemy and do not go to war on a false premiss and most certainly “Not in my Name”.

    Prayers will continue unstintingly for peace and commonsense and legal sanctions via a UN Mandate to be the priority and only consideration is this whole business.

    • Although I agree with that statement, the views of later popes are more nuanced, e.g. this by John Paul II in 2003 clearly admits the legitimate possibility of war as a last resort but rings it round with the conditions found in just war theory:

      ‘I will simply add today, faced with the constant degeneration of the crisis in the Middle East, that the solution will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if military victories could be the solution . . . War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.’

  3. Needless to say, no Quaker would disagree with you; but I was particularly struck by your assertion that “… it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant.”

    Precisely my own view. I suppose that chemical weapons are regarded as particularly horrible because they are indiscriminate – but so are bombs and artillery shells. And whether a particular weapon is indiscriminate or precise, the end result is still the same: someone gets killed or maimed. I still agonise over the rights and wrongs of World War II but, instinctively, I believe that violence almost inevitably begets more violence.

  4. A good article. But what sort of peaceful solution?
    Appeasement was Halifax’s idea to deal with Hitler. Should we not use the UN in its main role; to keep the World at Peace?
    It’s easy to wring our hands and tut tut but we, the civilised world, have to solve it. We may have to use force.

    • Gerry, I don’t get the impression that anyone’s just wringing their hands and tut-tutting, but the apparent reluctance of the Obama administration to wait until the U.N. team has concluded its investigations (see current BBC front page) suggests that a decision has already been made. Surely we should learn from the Iraq experience that going to war on faulty or inadequate grounds leads to further problems? But maybe I am just less confident than you that military intervention will solve anything.

  5. Last resort is certainly the key and seeking peace can only be thru dialogue. We all know one of the key obstacles to a peaceful settlement has been Russian
    support for Assad. But we were able to resolve the Cold War without violence. Violence only begets violence.
    Basically this dialogue must be between the factions of
    Muslims but we and the Russians have the only leverage
    that could conceiveably bring that about.

  6. “we, the civilized world”

    Right the same crowd that dropped atomic bombs on the civilian population in Japan so as to get an “unconditional” surrender from their masters. The same crowd that supported Sadam Hussein when he used gas during the Iraq and Iran wars. The same crowd that supports military dictatorship in Egypt to do all they can do to stay in power but who opposes the Syrian government from doing the same. The same crowd that puts the names of soldiers who died in vietnam on a wall, but ignores those that came home from the war and committed suicide. The same crowd that continues to carry on the British tradition of intervening and meddling in the internal affairs of every country of the near east in order to benefit a hand picked number of corporations and military companies. Sounds like barbarism and not civilization, and it sounds far more like sadism than the gospel.

  7. If western governments do take military action against the Assad regime we will be once again sticking our noses into what seems to me to be tribal warfare that we don’t fully understand and almost certainly can not solve. Such action would in my opinion probably lead to a much wider conflict and I for one do not want to contemplate that eventuality.

    Prayer followed by the patience to listen for an answer and then then the courage to act is the best course IMHO.

  8. As I read your blog this week, I was reminded Thomas Merton’s thoughts on St Augustine’s ‘just war’. Merton describes it as a ‘noble principle when St Augistine says “Love does not exclude war or mercy waged by the good”. Merton explains “Thus Augustine becomes also the remote forefather of the Crusades and of the Inquisition. Then Merton goes on to say, however: “The history of the Middle Ages of the Crusades, of the religious wars has taught what strange consequences can flow from this noble principle”. So he concludes:”The deficiency of Augustine’s thought lies therefore not in the good intentions it prescribes but in an excessive naivite’ with regard to the good that can be attained by violent means which cannot help call forth all that is worst in man. And so alas, for centuries we have heard kings, princes, bishops, priests, ministers, and The Lord alone knows what variety of unctious beadles and sacrists, earnestly urging all men to take up arms out of love and mercifully slay their enemies (including other Christians) without ommiting to purify their interior intention ” Tomas Merton- Seeds of Destruction in his chapter entitled “The Christian in World Crisis”

  9. Rien ne prouve sérieusement les exactions reprochées à Bachar. Rien de juste ne transparaît dans les intentions guerrières des chefs d’états, notamment Français. Et enfin les divergences Syriennes ne sont pas binaires; (Le méchant Bachar contre des gentils rebelles) la situation est plus complexe et englobe des ethnies, des peuples, des variantes religieuses.

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