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Statement of Most Reverend Edwin F. O'Brien
Archbishop for the Military Services, USA
December 30, 1998

A long-planned Christmas pastoral visit to our Nation’s military serving in the Gulf region coincided by chance with the bombings of Iraq by American and British forces in the Gulf.

I was able to witness at close hand the courage and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forces during the very trying days of military action.

In recent years and months, in the Middle East, Bosnia and in many other parts of the world, our military have served in the role of peacekeeper. In so doing, many have placed themselves, generously and willingly, in great danger. Their military activities are ever subject to civilian policy decisions as formulated by the executive branch of our government. Presumably, military leadership is asked for opinions and options in matters relating to their expertise. However, once civilian leadership decides a policy requiring military action, it is the sworn obligation of all in our armed forces to execute their mission in complete obedience unless in a specific instance the required action is judged clearly illegal or immoral.

The air strikes on Iraq by the United States and Great Britain have been questioned in varying degrees by many nations of the world community including the Holy See. In stating his profound sorrow for the Iraqi people and for the failure of international law, our Holy Father stated “War has never been and will never be an appropriate way to solve problems between nations.”

The chair of the NCCB International Policy Committee, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, has echoed the concern of the then-president of our Bishops Conference, Bishop Anthony Pilla, in raising serious questions in mid-November as to the justifiability of military action at this time; that is, whether just war requirements for noncombatant immunity, proportionality and probability of success could be met in the situation. ***

Archbishop McCarrick suggests that while ”answers to these questions are not easy, and people of good will may come to different conclusions” it is his opinion that “these military strikes unduly risk violating just war criteria.”

Our government’s action should cause serious moral concern for all Americans. Indeed, it has been reported that some senior military officials expressed their opposition to these military actions, opinions that civilian leadership chose not to accept. The strikes purportedly were designed to avoid any and every civilian target once initiated.

In executing orders that might violate just war requirements military personnel face a serious moral challenge, and are not exempt from making conscientious decisions. Any individual who judges an action on his or her part to be in violation of the moral law is bound to avoid that action. When clear moral conclusions that a particular act is unjust cannot be reached because, for example, of lack of sufficient evidence, the individual is justified in following the presumably better informed decision of his or her superiors.

I join the bishops of our Country as well as the concerned voices of the Holy See and other hierarchies in calling on our President and his advisors to initiate no further military action in the Middle East; rather to seek the assistance of the international community in addressing peacefully and diplomatically, imaginatively and perseveringly, the serious excesses of the Iraqi government that have led to this crisis.

*** From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2309 -- The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • 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 that the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.