Another look at another Gulf war: War, peace and the prospects for moral discernment

By Jerome P. Baggett
Professor of Society and Religion
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley

This article is a condensed version of a lecture he delivered at a conference, "People of Faith Against the War: Reflections on a War With Iraq", Nov. 2, at Holy Redeemer Center in Oakland. It is reprinted from the Catholic Voice, December 16, 2002.

The Religiosity of War

In the light of this country's possible war with the nation - and, let us not forget, the innocent citizens - of Iraq, a moral assessment of war is critical, especially considering that the past century produced mass death to an astonishing degree. According to conservative estimates, 84 million people died in 43 interstate wars and untold millions more perished during conflicts in their own lands.

A moral assessment is also necessary because our acquiescence to this situation suggests that we tend to trade moral prudence and discernment with "smart bombs" and "smart sanctions." It betrays an understanding of the human person as totally expendable or subject to cost-benefit calculations.

Religious considerations are similarly relevant in times of impending war. This is not simply because of the mutually reinforcing relationship whereby religions so often sacralize war-making and war, in turn, can function to enhance religious identities.

It is also due to the fact that war, to put it baldly, is essentially religious. It assumes the deep structure, imprint and fervor of a kind of religion run amok. War demands the unquestioning obedience of the faithful - the citizen-cum-devotee bowing before the "experts" and awed by the "mysterium tremendum" of modern weapons technology.

War is dogmatic. It enjoins in us the recitation of doctrines. "We believe in an 'axis of evil' that is not affixed to the center of our own being." "We believe there is an 'us' that is holy and somehow separate from a 'them' that is wholly other and profane." "We believe we are under threat and can single-handedly eliminate that threat." "We believe in the truths revealed to us prefaced by the words of the prophet: 'Thus speaketh the mass media.'"

War is catechetical in the sense that it is character forming. In our doing it, it does unto us. It creates in us the callousness and cold-heartedness it represents and, in effect, creates us in its own unseen (for us, at least) image.

War is dramaturgical and requires elaborate rituals. The sword-rattling, flag-waving and speech-making prelude; the exorcizing any hint that the singular "enemy" is actually many, many human beings; the stigmatizing of dissenters as "bleeding hearts," "sympathizers," "un-American" or what have you. All this occurs on cue.

So too does the requisite sacrifice, forgetting all the while that it's a sinewy sacrifice, a vital sacrifice. Rather, we think ourselves offering something bloodletted and pale, something to elevate high above the altar of our security like some blanched wafer, emptied and innocent.


Just War Theory

The religiosity of war is overwhelming, and the response of religious groups to war is also noteworthy. Among Christians, this has taken three main tacks: compliance with the state as it pursues military aims, pacifism and the "just war" tradition, which has a twofold set of criteria for assessing the morality of any war, the "justice of war" criteria (discerning the right to go to war) and the "justice in war" criteria (deciding what is acceptable action during a war).

In a time when our government is pushing for war against Iraq, I think that the "just war" criteria can serve as a useful lens for seeing through ideologies of various stripes and demonstrating the immorality of this aggression. The first of these criteria is that war must be a response to an actual or clearly imminent attack, a much higher ethical standard than the many causes cited by the administration.

For instance, the fact that Saddam Hussein is a "tyrant" has been cited. However, he was a tyrant during Iraq's war with Iran, when the U.S. supplied him with weapons of mass destruction, and he remained an American ally after massacring thousands of Kurds within his nation's borders.

His human rights violations are another much-bandied-about reason for war, but this doesn't seem to be a problem for our supporting other regimes with abysmal human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Guatemala.

Nor does it prick the conscience of the Bush administration as it supports economic sanctions against Iraq, which themselves trample human rights with impunity.

Since sanctions began, the economy has shrunk by two-thirds, access to potable water is half what it was in 1991 in urban areas and a third what it was in the countryside, and currently one Iraqi child in every eight dies before the age of five.

Perhaps even more callously, the administration has manipulated the tragedy of Sept. 11 into a cause for war. However, despite robust efforts, they have provided absolutely no connection between Iraq and the Al Qaeda network.

Like a mantra, we hear it said that war is necessary because Iraq is a "clear and present" military threat to the U.S. This is ironic given the fact that none of Iraq's immediate neighbors feels so threatened. It's also incredible since Iraq is far weaker now than it was at the time of the Gulf War, when its armed forces were three times their current size and its military spending ten times what it is presently.

In the absence of a just cause, then, many nations within the Middle East and throughout the world are resentful toward the U.S. because they suspect that America's real motives for overthrowing Hussein to be the desire to gain access to Iraq's oil reserves.

Problems arise also when we look at a second "just war" criterion, that war be declared only by a legitimate authority representing the will of the wronged public. If the U.S has to cajole or intimidate other nations to accede to its will, how legitimate is this authority? And how legitimate is it if many Americans oppose their government's aggression?

Moreover, only the United Nations has the authority to enforce its own resolutions through military action taken by a coalition of member states.

The U.S. also breaches the spirit of the U.N. resolution passed at the end of the Gulf War, which calls for "establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery." Through its supply of weapons to such nations as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, the U.S. is actually ensuring that the Middle East becomes a zone full of such weapons and mitigating the intent of the resolution it claims to defend.

U.S. aggression will almost certainly violate a third "just war" principle, that such a war must have an evident probability of success. So far, Hussein's well-honed instincts of self-preservation have deterred him from using weapons of mass destruction; this might no longer be the case if his government is threatened with extinction.

Moreover, it's hard to imagine a U.S.-sponsored government successfully maintaining stability among Iraq's Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish populations, whose mutual discords could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. Such a government would also have to contend with the suspicions of surrounding nations, which are likely to accelerate their own weapons programs.

And what of the "war on terrorism?" Will America be more or less successful after it diverts its military and tactical resources toward fighting Iraq? Will Americans be more or less safe from attack after it rouses still more resentment throughout the Middle East and far beyond?

I can scarcely bring myself to think about how glaringly unsuccessful we'll be in promoting global peace should the administration's new doctrine of "preemption" set a precedent worldwide.

If a nation possessing weapons of mass destruction can justify preemptive military strike, then India is justified in attacking Pakistan (and vice versa) and China is justified in attacking Taiwan (and vice versa), and every nation in the world, such as North Korea, is justified in attacking the U.S.

Or if it's defiance of the U.N. that warrants pre-emption, then any nation may rightly declare war on Israel or Turkey, both of which are in violation of multiple Security Council resolutions.

The end result of such a precedent is startling and unambiguous: The prospects for success are low; the prospects for terrorism and international turmoil are unacceptably high. The net balance flies in the face of a fourth "just war" criterion, proportionality, that the anticipated costs of a war not outweigh the good pursued.

Even by today's morally surreal accounting standards, the projected cost to Americans defies justification. At a time when nearly 12 percent of Americans live below the poverty line and one in seven has no health insurance, the National Priorities Project estimates the cost of the war would be about $100 billion.

An extended military occupation could cost nearly that much more. These funds would be in addition to the Pentagon's requested $396 billion for fiscal year 2003.

We can calculate the human cost by looking at the Gulf War, when several thousand citizens were killed as well as an estimated 100,000 soldiers, many of them retreating soldiers. Because the U.S. bombed electrical and water purification plants, an estimated 47,000 children under the age of five died of disease and malnutrition within eight months of the war's end, and that total has reached nearly 500,000 children, according to UNICEF.

What is most chilling is not that political leaders do not dispute these facts, it is that they consider such enormous loss of life to be acceptable, to be justly proportionate. "We think the price is worth it," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied during a CBS interview when she was asked about the half million children who have died in Iraq.

Worth what? we might ask. Oil? Electoral success? Political hegemony? In light of a fifth criterion, which demands that war must always occur as a last resort, such questions should never have to be asked. This criterion gives first place to nonviolence. The new policy of military preemption, on the other hand, is immoral because it promotes war as the strategy of first resort.


Peace as a Cultural Possibility

The policy is also profoundly misguided because the U.S. has been able to contain Hussein for the past 12 years and with the cooperation of other nations in the region, it should be able to do so in the future. When applied to the issue of war with Iraq, "just war" theory seems more than sharp enough to tear the frightening notion of military preemption to shreds, but although I could continue in this vein, I'd like to raise another frightening notion.

This is the deeply ironic reality that at a time when communications technology has made remarkable advances, the chances for ethical discourse seem to be moving backward.

But peace is possible only when moral issues are everywhere discussed and debated, and these deliberations can only take place where the culture provides fertile ground for them. So the question concerning war with Iraq becomes part of a larger question: Is peace a cultural possibility in America today?

Peace as a cultural possibility depends on strong networks of discernment and trust, but here we find evidence of decline in our civil society. When people are working and commuting longer hours, watching vast amounts of television in their homes, connecting less to political associations and limiting their obligations to friends and family, should we be surprised that much of the public's attention is diverted from global politics?

And can we expect Americans to be healthy citizens when they are fed such a scant diet by the mass media? Peace requires attending to the complexity of the perspectives, motives and histories of peoples and nations, and to do this we must resist the simplistic images and trite us-versus-them immorality tales dispensed by the mass media.

To make peace culturally possible, we must be ready to question erroneous messages and images. For instance, when we hear the first Gulf War described as an antiseptic operation of "surgical strikes," we need to provide the facts: Less than 10 percent of the quarter million bombs were guided and most were dropped on troops, not strategic installations.

We might also reflect on such facts that the $285 million cost of each B-1 bomber could be used to immunize 575 million children and save hundreds of lives. It's not unfounded or unpatriotic to ask: What is our true homeland if not the entire globe? And, what does security mean when insecurity is the most basic feature of the human condition?

Peace can only happen when we produce cultural symbols that depict the true state of humanity. We are not atomized selves; we are caught up with one another, near and far, and we cannot know ourselves apart from our interdependence with other selves. Peace can only happen when we fathom the power we now have to destroy, to kill and to forget.

In order for peace to be culturally possible, our moral understanding has to surpass or at least catch up to our capacities to do unprecedented harm. Albert Camus once said that our task as human beings is to make ourselves neither victims nor executioners.

American culture today has put us ever on guard against the first of these, and history, I suspect will note this as a cultural achievement. But history most definitely will judge us on the basis of our capacity to resist playing the role of executioner.

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