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The Moral Arguments Against War

For the moment the great debate about going to war with Iraq is cast almost exclusively in the dark shades of realpolitik–will it achieve its objective and disarm Iraq once and for all? Will it lead to the introduction of a pro-Western democratic regime? Will it open the way for a realignment of dictatorial Arab regimes that tolerate, even encourage, anti-American feeling? But the morality of war is given very short shrift.

This week Pope John Paul 11 spoke out, saying war in Iraq “would be a defeat for humanity”. Many people, of many different cultures and persuasions often tack to a common standard when it comes to the making of war–at least in principle. Buddhist teaching asks, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hateful”. Confucianism asks, “Do not to others what you would have them do to you.” Hindu teaching says, “This is the sum of duty: Do not to others what would cause you pain if done to you.” Islam preaches, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself”. Judaism, although it is known for its precept of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” also talks of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men”.

All these admonishments have been pulled part and broken to pieces by the adherents of all religions. The most bellicose of the great faiths is Christianity whose European followers were nearly always at war until finally they were awoken from their folly by the two biggest wars of all time and created in the aftermath the European Union to bind them together. Christ’s teaching rejecting an eye for an eye and asking us to “turn the other cheek” has rarely been taken at face value.

What is perhaps extraordinary is that occasionally someone who has been steeped in realpolitik and some of its most bloody compromises should emerge as a spokesman for moral principles being applied to the making of war.

I am thinking of Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was responsible for many of the decisions that led to the prolongation of the terrible war in Vietnam.

One of his closest friends told me, “he bleeds inside for deeds done in Vietnam”. I am sure he does, but perhaps no other high official who has commanded a war machine has done more to raise the level of the moral debate. One after the other, over the years, his articles and books have given us insights that have shown that it is possible to be concerned with the security of one’s country without the reflex of always preparing for war.

McNamara is convinced there is a way to achieve a radical reduction in the killing of human beings if we think morally, rationally and with empathy toward those we are in conflict with. “Might war–especially Great Power war–be relegated, perhaps like slavery, to a cruel and primitive past?”

This is the total opposite of the way the great scholars of realpolitik and “realism” have argued it, such men as Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer is convinced that “there have been no fundamental changes in the nature of international politics since World War IImilitary competition between sovereign states will remain the distinguishing feature of international politics.”

But are these “realists” in fact unreal in their analysis of our world? Perhaps they are blind to the danger of trying to intimidate, humiliate or coerce a nation whose self-image is that of an important power? We may intimidate them to do what we want in the short run but the memories of the humiliated tend to be long ones.

McNamara is convinced that current US policy which sees China and sometimes Russia as aspiring to challenge and defeat the US as perverse. “It creates enemies where there need not be enemies and it leads to missed opportunities for sustainable peace that may never come again.”

It was the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin who wrote that in addition to knowing the mind of an adversary we need empathy to grasp “the particular vision of the universe which lies at the heart of his thought”.

McNamara, who sat at Kennedy’s right hand during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came their closest to nuclear war, believes only Kennedy’s empathy of what was going on in Khrushchev’s mind saved the world from catastrophe.

We need this empathy with Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il today. The US needs to talk to these men face-to-face at the highest level and see what it is that makes them feel so threatened that they lash out at all around them. It won’t solve every problem, but it might avoid the recourse to a murderous and unnecessary war.

JONATHAN POWER is a columnist, film-maker and writer. M.Sc in economics, trained as a geographer, and agricultural economist. For the first ten years after graduate school community work in slum neighborhoods in Chicago and London. Worked for Martin Luther King 1966-1967. He is an associate at the Transnationl Forum for Peace. Power can be reached at: jonatpower@aol.com

 

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