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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Liberating Iraq

(Reprinted from the issue of April 17, 2003)

Capitol BldgIn its April 14 issue, The New Yorker 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 doesn’t yet know that his family has perished, and he is not expected to live more than a few days.

Stories like this don’t seem to change anyone’s mind. I’ve 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 Hussein’s account. That takes care of that.

The phrase minimizing civilian casualties, is odd, when you stop to think about it. It certainly doesn’t mean avoiding civilian 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 extremely strong.

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 innocents.

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 isn’t. 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 “military targets.”

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 Baghdad’s 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 Hussein’s 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 Hussein’s regime forced many to fight by means of threats against them and their families. It’s 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, “That’s logic.”
Hands Full

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 won’t 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.

And observers haven’t 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 administration’s hands full for a while.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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