Wounds of war fester down through time

August 28, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 497-507

Pope John Paul II was rarely, if ever, more outspoken than in the months leading up to and then following the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In a Jan. 16, 1991 prayer, the pope called the war an "adventure without return."

He pleaded for peace with the presidents of the United States and Iraq, urging Saddam Hussein to make some gesture of peace and George Bush Sr. to pursue dialogue.

In a series of speeches, letters and other comments, Pope John Paul urged that "peaceful means such as dialogue and negotiations prevail over recourse to devastating and terrifying instruments of death."

He warned that the war could bring disaster to the entire region and create a deep division between the cultures of the Western world and the Arab world. It would have "disastrous, unforeseeable consequences."


The pope was not the sort of person to say, "I told you so." But his warnings have, over the years, been shown to be prophetic. The Gulf War led to the Iraq embargo. Today, there is a deep and growing chasm between the Arab and Western worlds seen in the rise of new forms of terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the fiasco of the U.S.-British 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Those who spoke against war were denounced as appeasers similar to Britain's Neville Chamberlain who made a fateful compromise with Hitler.

Instead, the Iraq war has become, as Pope John Paul said, an adventure without return. The unforeseeable consequences continue in the forms of the London subway bombings, the Spain train bombing, the 9-11 catastrophe in the U.S., Iran's toying with the possibility of nuclear weapons and the arrests of people of Arab descent in Canada on terrorism-related charges. Would any of it have been avoided if the U.S. had chosen the way of dialogue in 1991 instead of the way of war? Most likely. The Persian Gulf War now appears as a turning point in history, a turning point that was avoidable if the perpetrators had only taken the time to reflect where their actions might lead the world.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church maintains that war "is never an appropriate way to resolve problems that arise between nations." War "creates new and still more complicated conflicts" and "is always a defeat for humanity" (n. 497).


The Compendium – and the last several popes - urged society's leaders to seek out and rectify the causes underlying conflicts, especially structural injustice, poverty and exploitation. The way to peace is through development.

Such a counsel may sound too simplistic in a world of suicide bombers and religious fanatics who fly passenger aircraft into tall skyscrapers. A greater degree of fairness in the distribution of the world's resources wouldn't pacify such madmen, would it? The self-satisfied wealthy few ascribing their good fortune solely to hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit doesn't create resentment among the majority who have so little, does it?

Well, the ways of dialogue and social justice are the only ways to peace. They do not guarantee peace because humanity is deeply flawed and the aggressive and the power hungry will always be in our midst. But, followed assiduously, they are sure steps toward creating trust and a less warlike world.

The Compendium is clear in saying that any aggressive war is immoral. When attacked, however, nations have a right to defend themselves. But even that right is closely circumscribed by what has been called the just war theory (n. 500).

A nation under attack does not have blanket permission to create all sorts of atrocities in its own defence. The carpet bombing of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War, for example, was not legitimized by the Holocaust or any other Nazi atrocities. The recent Israeli military response to Hezbollah provocations was not "measured"; it was disproportionate.

Actions taken by nations victimized by aggressors must have "serious prospects of success (and) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

Even the use of sanctions is legitimate only if used "to correct the behaviour" of governments threatening the international order or seriously oppressing its own population. "Sanctions must never be used as a means for the direct punishment of an entire population." They should only be used for a limited duration and with great discernment (n. 507).

Wars are started by governments, but too often it is civilians who are most brutalized. Those waging wars have an "obligation to protect civil populations from the effects of war" and to do their utmost to prevent the creation of refugee populations.

Modern means of warfare make it extremely difficult to limit the damage done to civilian populations. War in every era is an adventure without return. For individuals killed, maimed or displaced, life will never be the same. For civilizations, the resentments and physical destruction created by war can take a toll for centuries. It is only the foolhardy who would undertake such a venture without the gravest of reasons.