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Attack on Iraq – Just War or Just Plain Wrong?


The decibel level – not to mention the stridency level – is rising fast in America and here in Australia, as politicians lay the groundwork for an attack on Iraq. Once again, Christians will be called to take a stand.


The traditional Christian position seems to be either pacifism or support of the “just war” theory. We saw many Christians espousing one or other after September 11.


Yet is life – and war - nowadays so clear-cut? In an era when a government and its armed forces can inflict genocide on their own people – as happened in East Timor, against a Christian population – how many Christians can truly endorse pacifism? But equally, is the just war theory really relevant in the face of such intra-state atrocities?


Dr Tom Frame is Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Forces. In what I believe to be an important speech, he has bluntly called for Christians to overhaul their doctrines about war:


it is…my contention that traditional Christian deliberation on the ethics of resorting to force and the conduct of warfare – the stark choice between pacifism and just war – has become largely obsolete and almost irrelevant because both the reasons for which physical force is used and the nature of its delivery have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War in 1989.


The speech is important not just because of the ideas it contains, but also because Dr Frame is particularly qualified in such matters. He became a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy before quitting to pursue studies in theology and to train for the priesthood. His book “War and Christian Ethics” is to be published by Cambridge University Press.


He notes that international peace-keeping forces are increasingly becoming involved in domestic conflicts:


Alongside the proliferation of intra-state conflicts – or what we previously referred to as civil wars – there has been a most significant shift in attitudes towards the claims and pretensions of the modern political state and the relative value we accord national sovereignty….Whereas previously, national sovereignty was an impenetrable barrier to intervention, it is no longer considered a ground for inactivity….


The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and Jesus’ own intervention to protect the woman taken in adultery in John 8 oblige the Christian casual observer to become an active participant and give no grounds for indecision or indifference in the face of violence. The dominical command is clear; the ethical imperative is obvious.


On this basis, I believe there was a right – if not a responsibility – on the international community and on we Anglicans (as citizens of a politically stable and materially affluent nation) to insist on intervention to stop the slaughter in Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor. By contrast, I am yet to be convinced that there was (or is) any obvious right or duty to intervene in Afghanistan (when, for instance, no such right was even considered in relation to the Russian army’s campaign in Chechnya) while I am not at all persuaded by the present arguments being advanced in favour of a new campaign against Iraq.


I don’t entirely agree. Saddam Hussein is guilty of large-scale genocide against some of his own people, and in my opinion should have been taken out by the international community years ago. (On the prospects of an attack on Iraq, Dr Frame commented in an email to me: “There are some reservations within the Australian Defence Forces about a new campaign against Iraq, quite apart from the ADF being stretched practically on a number of fronts at the moment.”)


That the West is probably never going to stop Russian atrocities in Chechnya is not in my view a reason for allowing Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan. Some, like me, might have wished that, after liberating Kuwait, US-led forces had gone on to liberate Tibet as well. But we live in an imperfect and sometimes hypocritical world, and the appeasement of Chinese thugs does not mean we must equally appease every other tyrant.


Dr Frame also says:


I have great sympathy for the Eastern Orthodox position that stresses the necessity but not the justice of war because, among other attractions, it tends to eliminate the element of self-righteousness that just war theory appears to prompt in its advocates.


And he calls on Christians to focus on the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, to the extent even of enlisting in the military. He worries that too many Christians do not engage with the world (my view exactly, and one of the reasons for starting this website).


Andrew Sullivan, a hawk on the prospects of a new war with Iraq, last Friday called for a debate on the issue:

Let's get the anti-war left out in the open, on record, and accountable.

Christians should debate too. We should get our views out in the open and show how they can promote peace. Dr Frame’s speech presents an excellent basis for such a debate.


August 6th, 2002

See Also:

War, Just War and Christians

South Koreans welcome North Korea's nuclear bomb, the spirituality of military power, and other reflections.
November 1st, 2002


Just War, Christians and Iraq – Where Is the Justice in Not Attacking?

Haven't the people of Iraq suffered enough?
October 29th, 2002

Does God Still Speak to Soldiers?

In Old Testament times God spoke regularly to Israel’s military commanders, directing their battles and bringing about the defeat of their enemies. But what about today? Does God still take sides?

September 21st, 2002


Onward Christian Soldiers (Part II)

Can a senior military officer truly follow Jesus and still be an efficient and effective soldier? An emphatic “yes” is the answer from Major General Tim Cross of the British Army

September 13th, 2002


Onward Christian Soldiers

God loves soldiers. Christians should, too.

September 9th, 2002