A Call To Cautious Arms

| October 1, 2014

ISIS is everywhere now. Front-page articles of newspapers, breaking stories on televised news, constant tweets, trending stories on Facebook, videos on YouTube, conversations on the street. Everyone is thinking about it. Everyone is talking about the latest threats and the latest efforts to stop them. And everyone is asking the same question: how are we going to stop them?

America is the country everyone is looking to. With the most powerful military in the world, we are the hope of the Middle East, and we know it. Yet as with every military endeavor, there are countless factors to take into account and consequences to be considered. Every possible outcome of every possible strategy must be thought out. Going into war is one of the biggest decisions a world leader can make, and, once made, there is no going back.

That being said, stepping in to help the fight against ISIS is not only our responsibility as the world’s leading power, but also as a member of our now-international society. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the Church teaches that “the principle of humanity inscribed in the conscience of every person and all peoples includes the obligation to protect civil populations from the effects of war.” Of course such protection is not advised to be violent, but there will always be situations in which force is, unfortunately, necessary. To help decide such cases and to guide what actions of war are taken, the Compendium famously has four criteria for use of force to be “licit”: that the harm done by the enemy is “lasting, grave and certain;” that no other means of stopping the enemy will work; that there must be a good chance of success; and that the inevitable destruction caused by the defender is not greater than the damage done by the enemy.

No one would argue that force is not necessary against ISIS at this stage, or that they have not already created a level of destruction that will be difficult to recover from. Given American technology, power, resources, and a military history we can learn from, if not copy, we have a good chance at succeeding. The tricky criterion is the one that requires we do less damage than the people we intend to defeat. Fighting ISIS will require fighting in areas that are populated with civilians. While we will not be purposely killing civilians as ISIS does, we will unintentionally cause some to die. Airstrikes will worsen an already-war-torn area. Resources will be depleted even farther, supplies will be even more limited, and shelters will be destroyed. Training Syrians to fight on the ground will allow soldiers to be more selective in their targets and thereby diminish civilian casualties, but it will also take away providers and protectors from their families. Some of our generals are advocating that American soldiers be sent to the field, which would help with intelligence and take away a certain security ISIS may have gained from Obama’s repeated statements that “no boots will be on the ground.” But this would put American lives in the direct line of fire, and no one wants any more Americans to die. Not because anyone wants others to die instead, but because it becomes much more real when it is an American, one of our own. A no-fly zone is being considered for the Turkey-Syria border to protect refugees from Syrian airstrikes, but that would require Syria’s air defense system to be taken down, which would in turn endanger Syrian civilians.

No matter what decision is made, there will be pros and cons. Innocents will die. Soldiers will leave home and not return. Risks will be taken, some successfully, others not. But something must be done, and soon. ISIS cannot be allowed to continue.

As we enter the fray, we are all thinking the same thing, the sentence President Obama used at the end of his statement on ISIS:

May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.