In its April 14 issue, The New
published a harrowing article by Jon Lee Anderson
describing the horrors Iraqi civilians are enduring. I note a passage about
a 12-year-old boy who was badly scorched in a rocket attack; both his
forearms had to be amputated. His father, mother, and six siblings were
all killed; he is conscious, but he doesnt yet know that his family
has perished, and he is not expected to live more than a few days.
Stories like this
dont seem to change anyones mind. Ive already heard
from readers who support the war arguing (without pausing to express
much pity for the boy and his family) that the civilian casualties are all
the fault of Saddam Hussein for bringing this war on them. So whatever
the U.S. forces do can be charged to Husseins account. That takes
care of that.
minimizing civilian casualties,
is odd, when you stop to think about
it. It certainly doesnt mean avoiding
casualties; it means a policy of trying not to kill and maim people unless
in the course of striking military targets. This presupposes that the war
is justified on other grounds. If it is unjustified, then not only the
civilians but the soldiers who defend their country are victims of mass
murder. So it behooves us to make sure the arguments for war are
That seems pretty
doubtful, when most of the world, including the Pope and many orthodox
moral theologians, thinks otherwise. Let us consider an analogy.
Let us posit that
killing an abortionist is justified by arguments like those for toppling
Saddam Hussein (who may have been killed in a recent attack the
fact is still in dispute as I write). Since the civil authorities refuse to
act, I decide to blow up his home in order to save the many lives he would
otherwise take. But I can only do this at risk a near certainty
of also killing his wife and children. Can I justify the act on
grounds that their fate will be his fault?
Clearly not. The
argument is too tortuous. We may not commit crimes against some
innocents in the hope of preventing other crimes against many more
The same moral
principles apply to states. Yet in this age of state-worship, it is widely
assumed that legitimate governments, however legitimacy
is defined, may do things it would be criminal for individuals to do. This is
the essence of the heresy of statism: The belief that the state is
somehow above the moral law.
That is why we are
now far less shocked if shocked at all when, say, a
President Bill Clinton orders the bombing of Kosovo, which is sure to kill
many civilians, than by a suicide bombing in Israel that kills far fewer.
Both are murder, but one is authorized and the other
isnt. Our state-conditioned moral reflexes tell us that
authorized killing is tolerable, but that an individual
decision to kill is anarchic, and wrong for that reason.
During World War II,
Allied bombing campaigns resulted in maximum civilian casualties with
the aerial bombing of cities. Ironically, one of the justifications the
government offered for the war in the first place had been that the
Japanese had bombed Chinese cities. We soon became so inured to war that
we forgot how horrifying this practice had once been. The airplane was
still a wondrous new invention, most people had never flown in it, and its
use as an instrument of death seemed a diabolical and terrifying
perversion of human ingenuity.
But by now we take
aerial bombing for granted. It seems downright humanitarian for a
government at war to promise not to overdo it. We are comforted by the
assurance that the latest weapons are so sophisticated that any bombing
will be surgical and precise, confined to
Once the hostilities
commence, however, such talk is quickly forgotten. The entire enemy
population may be considered a military target; Harry Truman called the
cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki military targets. In any case, military
targets become so broadly defined that nobody is safe.
American tanks have
now fired on Baghdads Palestine Hotel, killing several foreign
journalists. An Army spokesman said there was sniper fire from the hotel,
but no witness heard it, and tank fire against rifles is a bit
disproportionate, especially against a hotel known to be full of civilians.
As the American
forces advance victoriously, more and more Iraqis are welcoming them.
The hawks claim vindication from this fact, saying it proves that
liberation is the real purpose of the war and not just a
hollow propaganda slogan. That remains to be seen. No doubt many Iraqis
are glad to be rid of Husseins thuggish rule; but victorious armies
always find eager collaborators, as well as people who are simply
relieved that the worst of the fighting is over and, liberated or not, are
grateful just to be alive and unharmed.
We have also seen
that many Iraqis are willing to fight to the death against a foreign
invader. And of course Husseins regime forced many to fight by
means of threats against them and their families. Its too early to
say that the Iraqi people have a single opinion, let alone a
positive one, of their putative liberation.
But it is necessary
to repeat an elementary moral principle. A war is not justified solely, or
chiefly, by its results. No triumph can restore the dead, or atone for them.
Victory parades will only help us forget them.
Can anyone imagine
our Lord cheering a parade of conquering soldiers? Yes, I suppose some
people can namely, those who have been coming up with inventive
applications of Just War theory in order to defend Operation Iraqi
Freedom. It is a great comfort to me that they have received a cold
reception from the Vicar of Christ himself. Not that they are likely to
question their own position now; victory rarely begets humility. In their
minds, the U.S. success will prove that they were right and the Pope was
wrong. As Humpty-Dumpty says, Thats logic.
But at least the
debate on the war has focused sharp attention on the designs of the
neoconservatives who for decades have been striving for war between the
United States and the Muslim world. It wont be so easy for them to
get the wider war they still thirst for. They are being watched, not only in
this country, but all over the world.
havent failed to note that there are more women than
neoconservatives out on the battlefield. Did anyone think these men were
about to shed their own blood for their propaganda?
Occupying Iraq will
also keep the Bush administrations hands full for a while.