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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Looting Iraq

(Reprinted from the issue of April 24, 2003)

Capitol Bldg“Culture? What culture? They’ve never produced a single automobile!” This was Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to the looting of Iraq’s museum of antiquities, which until the other day contained some of the oldest, most priceless and irreplaceable artifacts of human civilization, now stolen or smashed. His colleague Sean Hannity likewise dismissed those artifacts as mere “stones.”

And for some reason, other countries think Americans are crass! Query: In what sense can men who are indifferent to the obliteration of the past — in this case, a heritage not just of Iraq, but of all mankind — be called “conservatives”? By Limbaugh’s standard, I suppose German culture peaked not with Bach, Kant, and Goethe, but with the Volkswagen.

Of course we don’t want to divinize human culture — which so many people nowadays adopt as a secular substitute for religion — but it is, after all, a precious thing. And as Christopher Dawson taught us, it flourishes under the influence of religion and mingles with it. Is there even such a thing as a great atheistic culture, based in a materialistic denial of the divine? Nothing was ever more drab or dismal than the arts under Communism. (Even a Soviet performance of Handel’s Messiah had to explain to the audience that that glorious work was an allegory of the “proletarian struggle”!)

My own horror of war began when I read the casual remark of a literary critic that for all we know, the Mozart of the 20th century died in World War I. That brought the meaning of war home to me better than any statistics or atrocities could. Of course there are better reasons to hate war, but that was the one that woke me up.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but culture is always another. Those who are indifferent to its destruction are apt to be indifferent to the destruction of life itself. Apparently the Rumsfelds and Wolfowitzes who planned this war didn’t think the preservation of the most ancient tokens of civilization was worth budgeting for.

But others are realizing what has been lost. The looting mobs have taken some of the bloom off the claim that the Iraqi people are celebrating their liberation by U.S. forces. Certainly the vandals have been liberated. As a friend put it, “We’re hearing from the happy ones today. We’ll hear from the others in the years to come.”

It could be soon. One rumor has it that if the public knew about the terrorist plots the FBI has already foiled, millions of New Yorkers would flee the city. The FBI is like a goalie in a sudden-death hockey game: It has to block every single shot. Imagine, say, one suicide bomber in the Lincoln Tunnel. Isn’t it just a matter of time before something like that happens?

And, as if to prove its most cynical critics right, the administration is already threatening Syria!
There Are Countless Others like Him

I’ve recently been writing about the now-famous case of Ali, the 12-year-old boy who lost his entire family, both parents and six siblings, as well as both his arms, in a U.S. rocket attack. Ali’s case has harpooned the consciences of many defenders of the war, and their reaction has been fascinating. One reader of my syndicated column suggested that Ali might have grown up to be a terrorist! Not much danger of that now; it’s hard to make bombs when you have no hands. Other readers have argued that Ali’s tragedy was all Saddam Hussein’s fault, or that it couldn’t be helped, or that these things happen in wartime, et cetera.

A few have added that I am a dirty so-and-so for bringing it up at all!

But whatever my sins are, however scarlet they may be, I didn’t make Ali up. He is real.

And there are countless others like him, according to the Red Cross, which describes a literal truckload of corpses and body parts in Baghdad. The blast that apparently killed Saddam Hussein left a 60-foot crater, near which were found a child’s body and a young woman’s torso and severed head. We have no way of knowing how many others were killed. Only four of Baghdad’s 30 hospitals are functioning, trying to care for the wounded despite a woeful lack of medical supplies (some reportedly have only aspirin).

Well, yes, these things do happen in wartime. That’s an excellent reason for avoiding war whenever possible, and this “war of choice” was certainly avoidable. And given the immense U.S. military superiority at every level (the Iraqis couldn’t even get a single fighter plane off the ground), why was it necessary to fire rockets into thickly populated areas?

Our Lord tells us that what we do to the least of His brothers, we do to Him. He doesn’t add “— except, of course, when the acceptance of collateral damage is warranted.” A Catholic friend observed the other day that though our Lord also tells us to pray for our enemies, such prayers are conspicuously absent at Mass, even during this war. Of course Americans don’t really regard Iraqis as their enemies (though I doubt that the reverse is now true). But who has been praying for Ali? He was certainly not our enemy, but we are, just as certainly, his.
A Constitutional Republic or a Superpower?

It’s remarkable how many people feel that the U.S. victory has proved that opponents of the war were wrong. Since when does the triumph of overwhelming force prove that force is morally right? We all expected that superior U.S. machinery would, as usual, prevail. The Iraqis couldn’t even put a plane in the air, as bombs and rockets rained down on them. Many of their soldiers fought to the death, defending their country against impossible odds. It seems a bit smug to gloat over the defeat of such men, especially from the safety of the living room.

There was a time when Americans could honor the valor of a fallen foe. That would seem appropriate now. But graceless gloating is the style today, a barbaric legacy of total war. We actually take pride in the fact that our machines are stronger than their brave men. We think a mechanical victory proves our cause righteous — even that it proves us courageous! Listen to the Limbaughs and Hannitys.

This is patriotism? Shouldn’t patriotism mean pride in your country’s honor — and a corresponding shame at its disgrace? A true patriotism is not at all the same thing as mere national vanity, of which we are seeing all too much these days. The spirit that boasts “We’re Number One” isn’t patriotism. It’s group egotism. The severest critics of ancient Israel were the holy prophets who loved it most. Our Lord wept over Jerusalem.

“To make us love our country,” in Edmund Burke’s famous words, “our country ought to be lovely.” I wish I could say that America is lovely today. I wish the world would refer to it admiringly as a “constitutional republic” rather than as a dreadful “superpower.” I wish we were envied and imitated for our laws instead of our bombs.

And I wish Ali could grow up loving America.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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