A Great and Noble Thing?
When will America face up to the terrible truth about the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Every day the casualties mount. The number of American soldiers killed since Bush declared victory now outnumber those killed in the invasion itself. For every one soldier that comes home in a body bag at least another ten come home horribly wounded. If the first Gulf War gives us any indication, many times more will come home with devastating illness, most likely caused by our own depleted uranium weapons. On top of that of course there is the astronomical cost of the war and the occupation–some hundred billion dollars already gone and a billion a week and counting.
And what do we get for this tremendous sacrifice? In Iraq we get the daily humiliation and devastation wreaked upon the Iraqi people. Of course the Bush Administration and the American media are not at all interested in the numbers, but we can be sure that the number of innocent Iraqi citizens killed is already many times more than the number of innocents lost on September 11, 2001. It seems most Americans couldn’t care less about that or the fact that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 911. With such completely unprovoked slaughter, it should be no surprise our troops are greeted with bombs and bullets instead of carpets of rose petals and jasmine. One thing we can be sure of: our sacrifice has not brought freedom and democracy to Iraq. We’ve set up a puppet government operating under our military dictatorship, a dictatorship which, unlike the previous one, has not been able to provide any semblance of order. The Iraqi people are faced with daily critical shortages of basic necessities and must live in constant fear, not only of being ‘accidently’ shot up and killed by our troops, but now even of being blown up in front of their holy places by bombs of unknown origin. No, it’s not freedom and democracy our great sacrifice has brought to Iraq–it’s terror; and thus, it’s a seething hatred our sacrifice has earned, not only in Iraq but all across the Islamic world. Our sacrifice has certainly not made us any safer, it’s only poured gasoline on the fire that is the problem of terrorism and thus made the whole world a much more dangerous place.
All around the world our sacrifice has earned not respect and admiration, but fear and enmity. All the sympathy and good will that came after 911 has evaporated. In the eyes of the world America’s standing has never been lower than it is today, just two years after millions around the world expressed their sympathy and solidarity with America. The reason for this is that the rest of the world can see what America, blinded by a shallow patriotism, has been unable to face. Bush’s poll numbers have been dropping and now stand at the lowest point since before 911; and yet the reason for this has to do more with the failing economy that the war and occupation of Iraq. According to polls last week, some 60 to 70% of Americans still think we were justified in invading Iraq. Apparently, the majority of Americans still agree with Paul Bremer, who recently referred to the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a “great and noble thing.”  Now Bush has asked for another 87 billion to burn upon this funeral pyre and Congress will no doubt comply. And if some estimates that it will likely take 3-5 more years (at a billion a week) are accurate, then this is still obviously only the tip of the iceberg.
The terrible truth that America cannot face is that the whole thing was never justified in the first place and is thus certainly not a “great and noble thing.” If the invasion of Iraq was not justified, then our continued occupation of Iraq can only make things worse. Of course it is a terrible, terrible thing to subject the Iraqi people to the horror they have been subjected to if the war was never justified to begin with. Of course it is a truly terrible thing (and thus a mockery of the slogan–“support the troops”) to send our troops into this nightmare if the war was never justified to begin with. Certainly the majority of Americans can recognize what a terrible thing this war and occupation are if the whole thing was never justified to begin with.
Despite unprecedented protests around the world prior to the invasion of Iraq, protests which included respected statesmen, philosophers, and religious leaders including the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury among many other religious leaders, America, as a nation, never adequately examined the case for war against Iraq. Despite ample evidence that the Administration’s whole case for war proved to be based on lies and distortions and never amounted in the first place to anything more than a fig leaf for the neo-con agenda, Americans have not been able to face the terrible truth. America can never hope to even begin to try to set things right until she faces the terrible truth. As a nation we can never begin to really confront the problem of terrorism until we face the truth about America and this war and occupation of Iraq.
Why the War was Unjust
What is it that would justify war, if indeed anything ever justifies it? There is a long tradition in the history of Western Philosophy that is concerned with this philosophical question.  The principles that are the result of this 2000 year quest were key elements of both the UN Charter and the Charter of the International Military Tribunal used at Nuremberg. There are a number of different ways of summarizing the basic principles that are the result of this tradition of just war theory, but the one principle that is always the starting point is that of just cause. The only just cause recognized by international law has meant self-defense, either on behalf of oneself or an ally. A pre-emptive strike may be considered justified, but only if it comes in response to an imminent threat, and that means a real and certain danger of attack. To launch a pre-emptive strike based on anything less than an imminent threat amounts to an initiation of a war of aggression and is thus a violation of international law and a crime against peace–a war crime according to the Nuremberg Charter.  If it is just for any nation to strike pre- emptively against any nation just because they might be a threat in some undetermined future, then any war could be justified and any hope of stability and peace in the world is lost.
The Bush Administration has made a number of different attempts to provide a just cause for attacking Iraq. The one that stands out the most, that is perhaps what has led most Americans to still believe it was justified, is the attempt to link Iraq with 911. If there really was any evidence at all that Saddam Hussein had indeed masterminded or provided assistance to the hijackers there would have been an obvious case for self defense and there is little doubt the United States would have gotten UN authorization for a military response. Only the most dedicated pacifist would have not found just cause to attack Iraq. But there was never any connection between Iraq and 911. Intelligence analysts and Middle-East experts had long pointed out that there was no connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, and it was well known that there was long-standing mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  There were no Iraqi’s–not one–among the hijackers that were identified as responsible for 911. And yet the majority of the American people still believe that Iraq was somehow behind the attack against America. Most of our troops in Iraq still think they are there as a response to 911. In his address to the American people the other night, Bush mentioned 911 at least a dozen times and referred to Iraq as the “central front” in the war on terrorism. And yet no connection has ever been established between any of the hijackers and Iraq. It has all been a monstrous distortion. When will Americans wake up and face the truth that Iraq was not a part of 911?
The other major deception the Administration used to provide a just cause was the idea that Iraq was indeed an imminent threat to the United States. Here the means of that distortion was the relentless allegations, exemplified most in the lead up to war in Bush’s State of the Union address and Secretary Powell’s presentation before the United Nations, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. What the American people never understood was that possessing weapons of mass destruction was never, in itself, an imminent threat and enough to constitute just cause for war. If it were, then any number of countries would have just cause to attack the United States, which undeniably sits upon the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. For Iraq to have been an imminent threat it would have to have been demonstrated that it not only possessed weapons of mass destruction, but that it also had the delivery systems, as well as the intent and likelihood to use such weapons in the imminent future. Even if Iraq did have some weapons of mass destruction as well as the delivery systems, it never made sense that Iraq would have used them in a first strike against either the United States, or even Israel, as such a strike would surely have resulted in Iraq’s obliteration. Sitting on the second largest oil reserves in the world it never made sense that Saddam Hussein was a suicidal terrorist. He might have once been a brutal dictator, but that’s not the same thing as a suicidal terrorist even if Americans were never quite able to see the difference. In any case, the UN weapons inspectors, as well as intelligence analysts and Middle-East experts, were adamant before the war that Iraq’s weapons program had pretty much been completely dismantled, and that if it did have any remaining weapons of mass destruction, they would most likely have been for deterrence only.  Iraq was thus not an imminent threat even if there were some weapons of mass destruction. Now we know that the inspectors and experts were right all along and that Iraq really didn’t even have any weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the delivery systems or the likelihood of intent. Now we know the Bush Administration ignored the conclusions of the inspectors and their own intelligence analysts, and used distortions and, even in one now infamous case, forged documents to suggest that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When will Americans wake up and face the truth that Iraq was never an imminent threat?
It should also be noted that the Administration tried to use as a just cause for attacking Iraq the enforcement of UN resolution 1441 calling for Iraq to submit to UN weapons inspectors and disarm. In the first place, one of the other principles of just war theory is that of right authority, and it was quite clear from the beginning that the United States did not have the authority to enforce a UN resolution. According to the UN Charter, which the United States has signed and is bound by Congress to uphold, only the UN Security Council has such authority. But now we know that it is all a moot point anyway, for as Hans Blix, the former UN disarmament chief in Iraq, has recently commented: “I’m inclined to think that the Iraqi statement that they destroyed all the biological and chemical weapons, which they had in the summer of 1991 may well be the truth.”  It turns out that Iraq may well have been in compliance with the UN resolution all along. In any case, the Bush Administration certainly denied the UN inspectors the chance to complete their work of determining whether or not Iraq was in compliance.
Without either an imminent threat from Iraq or a connection to the attack against America on 911, the Bush Administration has been forced to invent some new just cause not previously recognized by just war theory and international law. One strategy along this line is evident in recent statements from the Administration that the reason for our attack was not that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction, or that they even had an active program of building weapons of mass destruction, but simply to prevent them from resuming such a program in the future. This line of thought is not just a response to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or a link to Al-Qaeda, but has been there all along. It was not just the 16 words concerning the forged documents in Bush’s State of the Union address that was so disturbing. In that speech Bush simply dismissed the notion that we need to wait for an imminent threat: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?”  Capitalizing yet again on the fear and hysteria generated by 911, Bush led America into a clear violation of international law.
Underlying those remarks is, of course, the whole doctrine of “pre-emptive strike,” announced by the Bush Administration in September of 2002 as the New National Security Strategy.  This strategy, as Chomsky has recently observed, amounts to preventive, not pre-emptive war: “Whatever the justifications for pre- emptive war might be, they do not hold for preventive war, particularly as that concept is interpreted by its current enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate an invented or imagined threat, so that even the term ‘preventive’ is too charitable. Preventive war is, very simply, the ‘supreme crime’ condemned at Nuremberg.”  It is easy to see why such a war was condemned at Nuremberg at the end of the most devastating war the world had yet known. The doctrine of preventive war is simply a recipe for endless war and thus a crime against peace. When this doctrine was first drawn up by Paul Wolfowitz in 1991, it is not at all hard to understand why it was so quickly rejected by the first President Bush. But after 911, the neo-cons saw their opportunity and made it the official doctrine of the United States foreign policy. It’s simply shameful that the fear generated by 911 blinded Congress and the American people to the truth about this doctrine. Before the war broke out, Wendell Berry summed up this doctrine as “a childish hypocrisy” that had assumed “the dignity of a nation’s foreign policy” and I doubt anyone could have put it any better.
There is finally one remaining justification for the war that the Administration has trotted out, and this one came only late, after the war had already begun, and after it started to become apparent that there might not be any discovery of weapons of mass destruction. If this had been the only justification for the war all along its hard to imagine that the American people would ever have supported such a venture. If Bush had stood there during the State of the Union and made no mention of 911, the war on terrorism, the “25,000 liters of anthrax,” the “38,000 liters of botulinum,” the “500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent,” the “aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production,” if he had stood there and made no mention of any of this, and said instead that we need to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, at a cost of billions and billions of taxpayer dollars, not to mention the lives of many good young Americans, all just to–get this–bring democracy to the Middle East, I think there is no question that he would have been hauled off right then and there to the nearest insane asylum. And yet, once we set aside the childish hypocrisy of preventive war, and now that its clear that there was no connection between Iraq and 911, no weapons of mass destruction and no imminent threat, that’s all that we are left with as a justification for the terror we’ve inflicted upon the Iraqi people and the tremendous sacrifice asked of the American people.
This justification is, of course, a truly abhorrent hypocrisy by an Administration that, on the one hand, is the direct heir of past administrations that supported the most brutal dictatorships, and, on the other hand, has only shown contempt for democracy in the international community as well as here at home. Nevertheless, as so many Americans think the war was justified just to get rid of the evil Saddam Hussein, it might perhaps be worthwhile to pause and consider for a moment, purely as a philosophical question, whether it would make sense to extend the notion of just cause for war to include the idea of removing a brutal dictator in order to install a democracy.
Another important principle of just war theory is that of last resort. This principle holds that war must be absolutely a last resort, all peaceful means of dealing with the problem must be exhausted before resorting to war. The idea behind this principle is, once again, to try to set the conditions for war at an appropriately high enough level that a world at peace can become a real possibility. Not exhausting all peaceful means is a crime against peace and thus a war crime. In a world community that is becoming ever more tightly connected there are peaceful means of responding to brutality. In addition to being a violation of the UN and Nuremberg Charters and thus a violation of international law, it degrades democracy to abandon the principles of self-defense and last resort and find in democracy a justification for a war of aggression.
In the case of Saddam Hussein, there is no question that he was a brutal dictator. However, most of that brutality, which the American people have been constantly reminded of over the last few years–that he gassed his own people for example–happened while he was supported by our government. Without that support, and with the presence of the UN and the focus of international attention, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Saddam Hussein to act as he pleased. The point is that there were peaceful means available for dealing with the problem of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was certainly far less a threat to its neighbors, and Saddam Hussein far more constrained within his own country as a result of the pressure of the international community. It was certainly not the case that the United States had exhausted all peaceful means of dealing with the problem of Saddam Hussein. There is every indication that the Bush Administration, rather than doing everything in their power to avoid war and find a peaceful solution, did in fact everything in their power to avoid a peaceful solution and find a reason for war.
It is so transparently obvious to so many here at home and around the world why the Bush Administration went to such extremes to find a reason for war and avoid a peaceful solution. Two years after 911, billions of dollars later, thousands of lives lost, and Americans are not really any safer–but we do now have a pipeline across Afghanistan and control of that vast resource beneath the sands of Iraq. Another important principle of the just war is right intention. Even if there were a just cause, that cause would be undermined if there were really an ulterior motive behind the war. With no real justification for war it is hard to deny that the intention all along was control of oil and a strategic foothold in the Middle East. It was certainly revealing during that NPR interview in which Bremer referred to that “great and noble thing” when he also referred to “our oil” in Iraq.
It is obvious to so many, but not yet to the majority of Americans, that all the justifications for war provided by the Bush Administration were never anything more than a cover for the neo-con agenda outlined in the Project for the New American Century.  The war against Iraq had been planned long before 911 and the Bush Administration simply callously used that terrible tragedy to mislead Congress and the American people into supporting a war of aggression.
Finally, there is the principle that if all other conditions are met, a war might be considered just, yet only if there is a strong likelihood that it will lead to an emergent peace rather than leading to a cycle of endless war. One day soon I imagine the American people are just going to wish that they had listened to all the voices of protest against the war and that we had never invaded Iraq. They’ll realize that we never had it so good when we had Saddam constrained and UN inspectors crawling all over Iraq. Now the future is darker for all of us as the prospects for peace are dim at best. It was a crime against peace to launch a war of aggression against Iraq.
The Bush Administration has not taken one step in the right direction in facing the problem of terrorism. Quite to the contrary, they have used the problem of terrorism to push through a reckless agenda that has only compounded the problem of terrorism. In inciting a hatred of America throughout the Islamic world many times over what had already existed, the Bush Administration has just about practically guaranteed that America will experience more terrible days like 911.
It is only another of the Bush Administration’s “weapons of mass deception” to suggest that Iraq is the central front of the war on terrorism. The terrible truth is that, since the war was unjust to begin with, the resistance to the occupation forces in Iraq cannot really properly be understood as terrorism. A Middle East scholar has recently observed: “Like most Americans, I am deeply distressed at the attacks on U.S. soldiers. However, the Fourth Geneva Convention–to which the United States is a signatory–is quite clear that a people under foreign military occupation have the right to militarily engage armed uniformed occupation forces.” The central front of the war on terrorism will always be right here at home in the United States of America. It is only in confronting the policies that have engendered so much hatred of the US throughout the Islamic world that we have any hope of putting an end to the problem of terrorism. Initiating a war of aggression is not only a war crime, in this case in particular, it is also a disastrous blunder in responding to the problem of terrorism.
An Indictment of America
The terrible truth is that the war on Iraq is an indictment of America. That indictment begins, of course, with the Bush Administration and the neo-con agenda that has taken over the levers of government in Washington. But the indictment certainly does not stop there. This disastrous war is perhaps an indictment of the Republican Party itself. They brought us Mr. Bush and the neo- cons. They were the loudest voices clamoring for war. They should never be trusted to lead the nation again. But the indictment goes even beyond the Republican Party as there were many Democrats as well who fell in line in the march over this abyss. There were so many millions of voices including many respected statesmen and religious leaders who spoke out strongly and cogently against the war that any member of Congress that did not heed the call for caution and conscience should never be trusted with power again.
The indictment, however, certainly does not stop with government. That America was led into an unjust war is surely an indictment of the media as well–the nightly network news programs, the newspapers, the radio talk show hosts, the Washington pundits, all who so shamelessly cheered on the march to war and did their best to silence an adequate discussion about the justice of war and the case for war against Iraq. Some, which think of themselves–and in one particularly well-known egregious case–as “fair and balanced,” have to be more honestly considered as only the most blatant propaganda apparatus, a tool of a political party and a governing administration which clearly have now led America into a disaster.
Let’s not forget the military establishment. One thing this war proves is that the nation with the most powerful military in the world cannot be trusted with that power. What has to be questioned now is the whole military culture that has had such a pervasive influence in shaping American culture. The military knows plenty about the value of courage in war but apparently nothing about moral courage. One simply has to follow orders–the call of conscience, the voice of dissent is just forbidden. This undoubtedly has had a powerful impact on the shallow patriotism that blinded America to the terrible truth about this war. Support the troops? I feel so badly for those brave young men and women who had no idea what they were signing up for, who never imagined their country would send them into an unjust war and force them to kill innocent men, women and children. Those that don’t come back in body bags, horribly wounded, or sick from depleted uranium, will still be scarred for life when they find out the terrible truth about the war. This war will turn out to be some recruitment poster. For the military establishment and culture it may turn out to be worse than Vietnam.
This indictment goes deep down into the fabric of American culture. It’s an indictment of the perverse American preoccupation with entertainment and sports. These are fine expressions of a healthy culture, but when they become forms of escapism which distract the people from adequately examining issues of the gravest importance, then they are easily degraded. The war on Iraq has soiled and disgraced everything about American culture which served to distract the nation from a sufficient discussion about the war.
That so many Americans were so easily misled by lies and distortions is surely an indictment of our entire educational system. It has long been recognized that education is the key to democracy, but rarely if ever has it dawned upon Americans just what sort of education is that key. When the politicians and pundits go on and on about education it’s clear that they think the underlying purpose of education is simply to gain some scientific or technical knowledge and the skills to find a job and make money. That’s all fine and good, but it’s not the key to democracy. All the success in business and scientific and technological advancement cannot save democracy when its crumbling from within. Perhaps democracy is a foolish idea to begin with. Certainly there have been great philosophers, beginning with Plato, who thought so. Plato thought it no better than mob rule to trust the ignorant masses. That Bush is even President–that the Republicans have had such power and influence at all–seems to be a confirmation of Plato’s indictment. The only defense of democracy against Plato’s indictment has always only rested upon the hope that the people can become in some measure wise. It’s only an education that stresses the development of philosophical questioning and critical thinking skills that can be the best hope of saving democracy from the dustbin of history.
This indictment goes all the way down, deep down to the very soul of America. Perhaps most of all, the war on Iraq is an indictment of the religious life or spirituality of America. If it were not for prominent religious leaders who did speak out so strongly against the war, I would almost be tempted to suggest it was an indictment of Christianity itself. I don’t pretend to know whether God exists or not; but I cannot imagine a God blessing America after America has committed such a grave injustice. I remember during the 2000 election campaign hearing some Republican politician going on about how America is such a “profoundly spiritual nation.” Well, if only her spirituality were at all profound then maybe we’d have something. One thing seems to be made crystalline clear by this war–the whole question of whether God exists or not has got to be the most overrated and irrelevant question in human history. So many Americans express such a devout faith in God, yet that faith did not keep them from supporting an unjust war and thus becoming agents of injustice. I cannot imagine a loving God caring one bit about “faith” if that faith couldn’t prevent such injustice.
As a nation we failed to adequately have a discussion about the justice of war and the case for war against Iraq. We remained blinded by a myth about America–that God blessed America and thus America was just. Too confident that we were on the side of justice, we turned our back on justice and have done irreparable harm to the soul of the nation.
We have some dark days ahead, that’s for sure. What can we do to begin to set things right? What do we do about Iraq? There is obviously no easy answer here. We’ve created a real mess in Iraq and certainly it would be irresponsible to just abandon the place to chaos and a civil war. But we cannot continue as an illegitimate occupying force and have any hope of bringing peace, security, and freedom to the Iraqi people, to say the least about making any headway in dealing with the problem of terrorism.
We certainly bear a heavy responsibility for the rebuilding of Iraq. But it is absolutely absurd for American companies to profit from this effort. There is a rather remarkable weblog written by a young Iraqi woman living in Baghdad. An eloquent writer, she demonstrates better command of written English than most Americans seem to be capable of. All of America should read her blog for a first- hand account of the reality of what we have done in Iraq. She tells a story about a cousin of hers that is a civil engineer. This man was responsible for rebuilding some thirty or so of the bridges bombed in the first Gulf War. He got his team together and they did a study and put in a bid to rebuild one of the bridges blown up in the recent invasion. His bid came to something like 300,000 dollars. Well they didn’t get the bid. Of course, it went to an American company. Now I don’t know if there is any truth to this story or not. Someone sure ought to check it out. But, according to her story, the winning bid came to 50 million dollars! 50 million dollars! We’re spending a billion a week, and Bush just asked for another 87 billion of taxpayer dollars–and Dick Cheney’s Halliburton was handed the contract to rebuild Iraq. Bush gave huge tax cuts to his corporate backers, destroyed Iraq on the orders of Cheney and the other neo-cons, and now gives Halliburton the contract to rebuild Iraq. This scenario is so completely beyond absurd–a real test to see just how completely blinded and asleep the American people can be.
At the very least, no American company should be allowed to profit from Iraq, especially one with close ties to the Bush Administration. If they really went to war to “liberate” Iraq, then they should prove it by relinquishing any designs on profiting from either the rebuilding or that vast reserve of oil. America should have to pay the Iraqi people to rebuild their own country. Thanks to us they have a lot of experience in that regard and don’t need Halliburton to do the job.
It seems to me there is no solution to the problem of Iraq without first facing the terrible truth that we should never have initiated this war of aggression in the first place. Certainly, those responsible in Washington need to be held accountable.
There is not much hope of dealing with the problem of terrorism until we really begin to address the underlying causes of terrorism. Americans have been manipulated by fear and led down a path that will only make the problem of terrorism much worse.
Perhaps our only hope is in abandoning forever the politics of fear, abandoning forever the economics of inequity, abandoning forever the course of unilateral military domination, abandoning forever the doctrine of preventive war, and for once really embracing the goals of peace and justice, not just for Americans, but for everyone.
Now that, truly, would be a great and noble thing.
TIMOTHY J. FREEMAN is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. The University of Hawaii–Hilo. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. National Public Radio, Morning Edition, August 26, 2003.
2. A brief summary of just war theory can be found in An Encyclopedia of War and Ethics, Donald A. Wells, editor, pgs. 255-259. For an online summary go to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . For just war theory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church go here.
4. See, for example, Stephen Zunes, “Seven Reasons to Oppose a U.S. Invasion of Iraq,” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 2002.
5. See, for example, this statement by the Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, February 7, 2003.
6. Hans Blix, Agence France Presse, September 9, 2003.
7. President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January, 28, 2003.
8. U.S. National Security Strategy, Electronic Journal of the Department of State, Volume 7, Number 4, December 2002.
9. Noam Chomsky, “Preventive War ‘the Supreme Crime,” Le Monde diplomatique, August, 2003.
10. Wendell Berry, “A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The New York Times, February 9, 2003.
11. The Project for the New American Century. See Bernard Weiner, “How We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer.”
12. Stephen Zunes, “Bush’s Speech: The War in Iraq is Not Over and Neither Are the Lies to Justify It,” September 8, 2003.
13. Baghdad Burning, August 28, 2003.