Just War Returns

It's as if the circumstances were designed to force the United States to fight a just war. The situation in the Mid-East and central Asia could hardly be more volatile as U.S.-led forces target the al-Qaeda by attacking the Taliban regime that harbors them. It has, as its “worst case scenario,” World War III.

Despotic regimes are the norm in these regions. Outside Israel, with the possible exception of Turkey, democratic government is almost unheard of. Poverty (which, in Iraq, U.S. embargoes help perpetuate) and severe human-rights violations combine with a radical form of Islam to make many people willing to turn to anti-U.S. violence in reaction to their dire straits. Oil, history and its geographic centrality could bring the largest global players into the web of conflict: Russia, China, Europe.

To go in with guns blazing indiscriminately, killing civilians and worsening their humanitarian situation, would be gravely immoral. It would also be suicidal.

So what the United States is doing instead — so far — is to target the Taliban regime and take pains to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.

Would that we had always done so.

One of the darkest stains on America's history is the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. When we dropped the bomb and vaporized Japanese civilians — women, children, the elderly — we set a precedent that has haunted us since. The use of the A-bomb was roundly condemned by the Church at the time. Archbishop Fulton Sheen called our use of it the father of moral relativism in the United States. In order to justify the A-bomb, he said, we had to stop believing in right and wrong.

Warfare after 1945 didn't vastly improve, either. The sad circumstances of the Vietnam War saw many civilians targeted. As recently as Kosovo, the United States use of strike-from-a-distance attacks left civilians dead and their survivors angry.

And our previous attacks on Osama bin Laden are known mostly for destroying a pharmaceutical factory and for suggestions that the scandal-beleaguered 1998 White House may have had political motives for launching it.

War is always tragic. But many U.S. military actions have been unnecessarily so.

We are seeing a welcome change in our military tactics today. There is little question that our cause in attacking Afghanistan is just. This cause came uninvited and unwanted to America. War was not chosen, but thrust upon us.

A terrorist network and its loosely affiliated allies have declared a special kind of war on America. It's a war that considers every American a target — that doesn't distinguish between postal clerks, World Trade Center workers, or the uniformed defenders of the United States now amassing near Afghanistan.

In its response, the United States has hit all the right notes. Yes, it seems that more aid to the Afghans was stopped by our attack than was delivered in our food drops. But to precede our bombing campaign by dropping aid packages was a significant gesture of good will to the oppressed people of Afghanistan. And, as Donald Rumsfeld said, it can't be said that the destruction of the Taliban regime will be anything but a long-term benefit to Afghans.

President Bush's call for each American child to send a dollar to the children of Afghanistan is also more than a nice P.R. gimmick. It teaches an object-lesson in civilized combat to children and their parents. Yes, we are bombing Afghanistan. No, this is not “total war” against a people. It's a necessary retaliation against a very bad and dangerous group of men, with unavoidable, regrettable consequences.

We should insist that our leaders continue to wage war in this way. And we should pray that America's rediscovery of principled defense lasts long after the horrors that continue to haunt our country are just a frightening memory.