It is easier to lead men to combat, stirring up their passion, than to restrain them and direct them toward the patient labors of peace.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Turning the Page on a Tragic Mistake
On Sunday, February 23, 2003, less than one month before U.S. military forces invaded Iraq, I stood before the congregation of Reformation Lutheran Church in Philadelphia and asked everyone present to pray for peace. The war with Iraq was a near certainty, I said, and “while all of us are patriotic Americans who oppose the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, as Christians we are also called to be peacemakers and justice-seekers. We have a responsibility to weigh the ethical concerns raised by this impending war and to make a faithful response.” I asked everyone there that morning to join in a collective petition for peace urging the President to “Drop Rice, Not Bombs” on the people of Iraq. “This is a symbolic gesture, of course, as rice is a symbol of life and sustenance, but it is an important gesture, to let the President know that there are many patriotic Americans (and people of faith) that are not convinced that this war is being conducted as a last resort or that all possible alternatives to war have been pursued.” Following the service, over 100 congregants signed the petition for peace and it, along with a hundred packets of rice, were delivered directly to the White House.
I am certain that President Bush never saw our petition or our packets of rice, and I am under no illusions that our symbolic action had the slightest affect on U.S. policy. But I am proud of the stance that we took that Sunday and I continue to believe that we were right to oppose the war. For me, it was not an easy gesture to make, for I love my country and I feel nothing but honor and respect for the men and women of our armed forces. No one knew for certain how things would turn out. But in the words of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., former Chaplain of Yale University and Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, “There are two kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.” And while my brand of Christianity may be heretical to the likes of Glenn Beck and many conservative Christians, I am drawn to the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, who in the end sacrificed his own life in resisting Hitler: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but make it. To that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods.”
From the oval office this past Tuesday, President Obama formally announced that the “American combat mission in Iraq has ended” and that “the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.” The president acknowledged that he was opposed to the War in Iraq from the start – it was a key reason I supported him over Hilary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 – but he said this week, rightfully, that it was “time to turn the page.” Our efforts must now be on helping Iraq to secure a future of stability, peace, and self-rule that permits a nation of extremely divergent sects to achieve a semblance of democracy.
The future of Iraq remains volatile and uncertain; disenchantment is rife and its various factions of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds remain deadlocked over forming a government. It may be decades before a full accounting of the war may truly occur, but an interim reckoning seems appropriate before we as a nation, once and for all, can truly “turn the page.”
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the stirrings of democracy in Iraq, however feeble at present, are the two positive outcomes of the war. But do the ends justify the means? And at what cost?
The human cost of the war has been tragic. So far, over 4,400 Americans have died in the Iraq War. This is not just a number, but a heartbreaking reality for the families and friends of loved ones who paid the ultimate price. All were the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of loving families; many also were husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who have left a lifetime of heartbreak in their wake; most were children themselves, so young and vibrant, with decades of life and potential taken from them, often in an instant. The pictures and dates of those who died can be viewed on a Washington Post website, which helps to personalize, in a small way, the tragedy of war and the profound nature of our losses in this conflict.
Not to be forgotten are the more than 35,000 Americans who were wounded during the Iraq War. Many lost arms and legs or were forever disabled or scarred, physically and mentally, their young bodies broken, their emotional and mental health damaged. They return to the “normality” of life in the United States suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, a sense of lost purpose, and uncertainty as to their self-worth. The Army Times reported in April that there are 18 suicides each day among returning veterans, which should constitute a call to action in itself.
Often overlooked is the human tragedy and devastation that we inflicted, directly or, in the nuance of military jargon, as “collateral damage.” Conservative estimates report that we killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians in the past seven years. You won’t find a website with their individual pictures and, for most of us, it is just a number. But allow your conscience to imagine the tragic truth, that each person killed by us was a mother, father, brother, and sister. And how many people did we maim and injure that survived our carnage?
We have spent, to date, nearly $800 billion on the Iraq War (well over $1 trillion counting Afghanistan) and we did so without requiring any sacrifice of non-military families. We not only spent the money without paying for the war, we combined the heightened military spending with huge tax cuts for our wealthiest citizens and turned what was a budget surplus into the largest deficits in U.S. history.
The Iraq war disastrously shifted attention away from the more important fight in Afghanistan and cost us years in our fight against those who attacked us on 9/11. Whatever successes and gains we made in the search for bin Laden and the destruction of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan following the tragedy of 9/11 was lost for several years once we shifted attention to Iraq in March 2003.
Our intervention in Iraq made Americans less safe. It left Iran, a far more dangerous threat to American interests, free to pursue its nuclear program, to finance extremist groups, and to meddle and wreak havoc in Iraq and elsewhere. Moreover, only after we invaded Iraq did it become a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, something it was not before Saddam was ousted. Iraq is a Muslim country in a region steeped in deep resentment of western occupation. Throughout the Muslim world, leading Islamic clerics, such as those at Al Azhar University in Cairo and the Lebanese Shiite scholar, Sheikh Fadlullah, each of whom condemned what happened on 9/11, gave their blessing to fight against the occupation of Iraq, which they believed was justified by the Koran’s prescriptions of “defensive” jihad, when a Muslim land is under attack by non-Muslims. Essentially, a growing global movement was energized by the war in Iraq, with jihadists flocking to the country from places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen. As U.S. forces violently bombed and destroyed much of Baghdad, the entire world watched on CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Internet. A less effective counter to terrorism could hardly be imagined.
Much damage was caused to U.S. credibility by the Bush Administration’s attempted oversell of the war and its embellishment of the Iraqi weapons’ threat (with the complicity and silence of most Democrats). On March 16, 2003, Vice President Cheney said, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly. . . [in] weeks rather than months.” On February 7, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the war “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Bush’s Budget Director, Mitch Daniels, told media outlets in early 2003 that the war and post-war reconstruction would be an “affordable endeavor” not likely to cost more than $50 to $60 billion.
The justification for war was never convincingly made, and all subsequent rationalizations still fall short morally and ethically. President Bush initially attempted to use Iraq as a test case for the administration’s doctrine of pre-emption, which called for early unilateral action against enemies suspected of posing a threat to the United States. The administration implied that Iraq had some undefined connection to 9/11 – something that was not true, which President Bush himself later acknowledged – yet at the time of our invasion, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that Iraq had been complicit with Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks. The administration also pushed hard the notion that Iraq possessed a large number of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), that it was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, and that Saddam was likely to hand off such weapons to terrorists. Yet the evidence is now clear that Iraq’s weapons’ threat was not urgent, if one even existed. In March 2003, the only possible danger lay in the distant future, when U.N. sanctions against Saddam would eventually be removed. But this was hardly justification for seven-and-a-half years of war, as less forceful alternatives were always present. Unlike some on the left, I believe President Bush acted in good faith and was convinced that Saddam possessed WMD’s – indeed, most all of us did at the time – but it is now well established that the intelligence data was manipulated and inconvenient truths selectively discarded.
It was not a just war. We attacked a country that posed no imminent threat to the United States. This was not a defensive war or even a legitimately pre-emptive war. While deposing Saddam was a worthwhile objective, it was contrary to all standards and norms of international law to invade a country solely because we thought its leader a brutal dictator or violator of human rights. If one country can justifiably attack another simply because it believes the other country’s leadership immoral, or evil, or worthy of removal, there would be no reliable notion of sovereignty, chaos would ensue, and many countries throughout the world would be legitimate targets of hostile aggression. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the War in Iraq, suggested in late July 2003 on Meet the Press that the lesson of 9/11 is “that you can’t wait until proof after the fact.” But as Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “According to this logic, it didn’t matter if there were proof of Saddam’s imminent danger. Follow that logic further and the White House could remove any foreign leader without proof of imminent threat.”
Our actions also fell short of just war theory because they were disproportional to the perceived harm. Deposing Saddam was one thing; killing more than 100,000 civilians, wounding and maiming hundreds of thousands more, causing widespread destruction, and occupying the nation for seven plus years, was far beyond what anyone anticipated or could ever have been justified. The global faith community was right for opposing this war from the outset and the government of the United States was wrong for fighting it.
But it is time to move forward and to take lessons from the past. As the President said in his oval office address last Tuesday, one such lesson “is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power – including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example – to secure our interests and stand by our allies.” We should honor and take pride in the service provided by our men and women in uniform. Long gone are the days of Vietnam, when blameless soldiers were derided and scorned for the unwise decisions of misguided politicians. “Our troops are the steel in our ship of state,” the President reminded us, “And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the predawn darkness, better days lie ahead.”
Wars are sometimes necessary, but they must always be a last resort, for the costs of war are astronomical, the burdens of war often too great to bear. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, we must in the end always “seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.”