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The scenes are as vivid in my mind as though they were yesterday: crowds of antiwar demonstrators circling the White House in a haze of spent tear gas and marijuana smoke. Watching from my office, I was struck by the large number wearing clerical collars, symbolic of the active role played by the mainline churches. The biggest march was led by the Episcopal bishop of Washington.

These memories flooded back as American pilots began bombing Belgrade. As we write, U.S. troops, escorted by Apache helicopters, are massing on the Serbian border.

Is it Vietnam redux? The parallels are disturbing. But there is one conspicuous difference: Churchmen are strangely silent. Bombers even flew raids on Easter Sunday with nary a word of protest. The church's earlier call to conscience has been muted.

Yet a military engagement this serious raises moral questions that the church should address. Moreover, the war in Yugoslavia highlights a profound shift in U.S. policy toward military engagement in the post–Cold War era. Here, as in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, America is not defending vital national interests but seeking to halt ethnic cleansing and terrorism, brought to our living rooms in full color by CNN. The military is being employed as a humanitarian rescue unit, dispatched to halt other nations' internal conflicts and help troubled peoples get along.

But is this a morally justifiable use of force? I'm no isolationist, but this new role for the U.S. needs to be examined and debated. And Christians have the best tools for doing so in traditional just-war theory. First articulated by Augustine in the fifth century, the theory has informed Western reflection on the ethics of war and peace for 1,500 years.

Armed force is justified, according ...

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In the Magazine

May 24, 1999

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