When is war justified ...

I am no fan of war. I find that most people approach war with reluctance. I can't imagine my killing another person or depriving them of fundamental rights. That is one of the primary bases on which I declared myself a conscientious objector 35 years ago. Neither can I imagine tolerating other people doing so. That is why I can support my countries participation in wars that help to ensure that people are not killed by those who simply lack regard for the lives and rights of others.

It was easy to oppose the Vietnam war 35 years ago. The true morass of Vietnam was that we had inserted ourselves into a civil war in a manner that made it easy for both sides to label us as just another colonial power. The politics of the situtation, in which the Vietnamese people wanted to rule themselves and simply couldn't agree on the form of the government, was one which we made worse by creating a dictatorship where there might have been a democracy. But as much as I thought our participation in Vietnam was a bad thing 35 years ago, I respected the decision of good people to serve in our armed forces there. I have friends, and parents of friends, who never came home from that conflict, and I believe they were trying to do the right thing in a situation that defied doing so. Indeed, it is easy to see that, at the very least, we delayed something worse from happening. The many American lives that were lost during that war are very few when compared to the many millions that were killed in Vietnam and Cambodia after we left.

It was just as easy to support the war against Iraq twelve years ago. The invasion of one sovereign state by a country that increasingly showed the same impulses and lack of conscience that Hitler's Germany had displayed in the 1930's demanded a response, and those who protested that the conflict was only about oil ignored just how uncommon this kind of invasion has been since the end of World War II. Our response in Kuwait was probably the response we should have had when Germany entered Austria-Hungary. Appeasing bullies only enboldens them to become bigger bullies: a reality that Europe only faced squarely when Germany invaded Poland. The U.S. only faced it squarely when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And of course it isn't just invasions of other countries that were at issue in 1930's Germany or 1980's Iraq. It was a willingness to systematically exterminate both political enemies and innocents that just happened to have the wrong religous or family background. We did most of the job we needed to do in Iraq back in the first Iraq war. The only big objective we missed was in not removing the dictator, but he was certainly no worse than perhaps a half dozen others around the world. We did, however, put him in a box that made it difficult to do a lot of the nasty things he had been doing, and trying to do, before.

The existance of that box has made this war harder to justify. Inspections really did seem to work through much of the 1990's, and if the Republican party had been less intent on trumping up bogus charges against an otherwise pretty good president, Iraq might never have been emboldened to throw the inspectors out. One of the persistent problems of the post-Nixon Republican party has been its absolute inability to understand just how shortsighted its actions and rhetoric can be, or to take responsibility for the results of their own actions. This is true at many levels, and their culpability in allowing Saddam Hussain at least a little bit out of the box, is probably the least of them. Their willingness to back out of treaties and other international agreements (Global Warming, World Court, and, especially, ABM) is perhaps the worst of them, especially when we insist that others observe those treaties. Such behavior delivers nothing but the wrong messages, starting with the notion that it is OK for anyone to back out of such treaties and ending in what many around the world appropriately see as bullying behavior. This may be exactly what many Republicans want (they so often speak of the "bully pulpit" being a good thing), and there is a sadness in the inability of conservatives to see just how foolish they make themselves look when they say, in effect, that we are obviously the good guys, so we don't need to follow the rules we agreed to. Power comes with responsibility, and one of those responsibilities is to not throw ones weight around.

But in the end all of this, and other things, are red herrings. Oil is not the issue. Halliburton is not the issue. The event lack of ethics on the part of the president and many members of his administration, especially in financial dealings, is not at issue. The issue, quite simply, is trust. Any relationship, personal or international, is built on the same fundamentals: trust, investment, commitment, and self-disclosure, and 9/11 has made it much harder to tolerate regimes that are untrustworthy. Those who point out that Saddam Hussein had twelve years to disarm may be ignoring the significant possibility that he did get rid of his "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (what a badly selected name: Weapons of Mass Murder (WOMM) seems so much more descriptive), but they are absolutely right to point out that he showed a lack of commitment to the process when he expelled the inspectors; that he failed the trust of his office when he failed to make any consistent investment in any kind of infrastructure improvement aimed at improving his country or the prospects of its citizens; that he failed the trust of the international community when, given one last chance to disclose what happened to weapons that everybody knows he once had, he did not. Trust is built on a base of appropriate self-disclosure, an obvious commitment to relationships, and a clear investment in the goals of a relationship. When we persistently fail such tests we can hardly expect people to trust what we say. Whatever else might have been right or wrong in Saddam's Iraq, his regime could not be trusted.

I was among the first on the anti-war picket lines. I suppose I was also among the first to abandon them. I was there in New York in the summer and early fall when the first demonstrations were ignored entirely by media that sat in mass two blocks away waiting for the latest news of a contract negotiations and a looming baseball strike. Inspections seemed like the right path, and the only redeeming value I could see in the rush to war was the pressure it put Iraq under. Clearly the inspections were only working as well as they did because the military buildup put pressure on Hussein. Still, it seemed to be working, and one can understand why people would see the slowly growing self-disclosure as a harbinger of a possible future trust.

As I watched Colin Powell, himself a late arrival to the view that war was probably necessary, lay out the case against Iraq at the United Nations, I understood that there really wasn't time to build up a slow trust. Maybe Iraq had eliminated its WOMM. Maybe it hadn't. But it was clear that weather they had them or not that they were acting acting like a country that did have them, at least in terms of their military activity, their backdoor movement of what might have been WOMM materials, and their attempts to prevent the inspectors from talking to the people who might really know. It was equally clear that, whatever relationship Iraq might have had to Al Queda in the past, that the country was tolerating them and perhaps engaging actively in technology transfer of WOMM to terrorists in the present. The risks of that potential technology transfer for future 9/11 events made the continuation of the Iraqi regime intolerable.

I understand why France and Germany, among many others, favored a continuing inspection regime to war. I do not understand why members of the Bush administration felt a need to insult our allies and push them into a corner when they expressed that view. Bully behavior is as intolerable from us as it is from Iraq. It is only rarely that bullying behavior provokes passive subserviance. Usually it results in people getting their back up. That is what Rumsfeld and others did with France and Germany with their ill-considered rhetorics.

But I don't understand why the leaders of France and Germany refused to see that something more had to be done. If Iraq had actively invested in its disarmament, we might have found a way to peace via inspections, but it did not. If Iraq had fully disclosed the disarmament it had done, we might have found a way to peace via inspection, but it did not. If Iraq had shown commitment to the process by making all known participants available, we might have found a way to peace via inspection, but it did not. Something more had to be done, and flat refusals to even consider the possibility pushed France, Germany, and others into a position where their opinion became irrelevant. The post 9/11 world has no more more room for appeasers than the post WWII world did, but that sword cuts both ways, and we need to be careful that we don't become the very thing we have fought against.

Context shift: Fights were a fairly common thing when I was in elementary school. Kids fought for all sorts of reasons, none of which made any particular sense to me. This made me, of course, an easy target for those for whom fighting was about status and power. It was easy to gain status, if there was any to be gained, by trying to pick fights with me, as I simply refused to fight. But of course fights aren't always about power. Sometimes they are about frustration, and every once in a while one of my alpha-dog-wannabe classmates would succeed in frustrating me to the point where I would lose it. It only happened a few times. The first and third time I successfully dislodged a tooth from the mouth of my opponent (the third time I got suspended from school for it). The second time worked out to a sort of a draw when teachers seperated us. The last time the kid (a friend) couldn't walk for two weeks aftewards.

Some might have gotten some sort of pleasure from these results. I didn't. I just thought the whole thing was stupid, and quite honestly, it was. What I learned from it all was that no good ever came from fighting, even when one "won" the fight, and that the bad that came from it frequently exceeded anything one intended. I never entered any fight wanting to remove teeth or paralyze anyone, but these things happened anyway. I never entered a fight desiring power, and all winning a fight ever got me was another opponent who wanted to show how powerful he was.

The same can be said of war. Nobody ever "wins" wars. The act of fighting them inevitably results in bad things happening that no-one intended. The so-called winner, in most wars is usually the combatant that took the least damage, and there is always plenty of damage to go around. For most countries, most of the time, much of that damage is fairly direct. People - most often people who are guilty of nothing more than being born in the wrong place, are killed. Buildings and other infrastructure are destroyed. Schools are closed. Children who were learning to read one day have no hands to turn pages with the next. All of the things on which a civilization is built, from people to infrastructure to intelligent decision making, disappear, and they are generally hard to rebuild.

But the more considerable damage is indirect, and the "winner" is often the "loser" by these measures. Iraq may not have a foreign policy, but ours is in tatters. Many countries that already distrusted the Bush administation because of our ill-conduct relative to such treaties as global warming or our insistence that the U.S. be exempt from world court action are looking at our U.N. dealings as two faced and double dealing and our rush to war as bully behavior. Many in the Arab world distrusted us before. Now we can add large portions of western europe to the list of places that don't trust us. That may seem like a small thing, but our balance of payments is far more dependent on their willingness to buy our products than their balance of payments depends on ours. French wine makers may suffer some if we don't drink their wine, but we are only one of their many customers.

We have also made ourselves the butt of considerable laughter with our attempts to rhetorically distance ourselves from allies who simply disagreed with us. Ignore the "Pomme Frites" nonsense. "French Fries" are an American invention made with American potatoes in American factories. We would have been more effective (and accurate) if we had renamed the "French Kiss" the "Freedom Kiss".

There are other costs of war for us, starting with a considerable inflation of our national deficit by people who don't seem to understand that the more money the U.S. government owes, the less money there is for people and companies to owe or that cutting government jobs to reduce those deficits creates far more unemployment than any tax cuts are likely to create. The war has distracted our attention from this, and in the process we have wandered into the longest economic downturn since the 1930's. Its hard to get a job right now, and whatever effect the last tax cut had, it wasn't to create employment.

Other costs are found in freedoms suspended and lost. I'm less concerned about patriotism here (we are almost all patriots) as I am about Patriacarthism that marginalizes voices of protest and effectively blacklists those that dare to voice concerns about our government policies. .It appears that the professor who recently lost his job here because of a portion of a non-profit organizations charity went to people in Iraq may have done nothing more than be of Arab-descent and associated with an organization that failed to file some beaureaucratic paperwork. There is no evidence, as yet, that any money went to terrorists or weapons, and it appears there may not be. U.S. citizens are being denied the counsel of a lawyer because of their alleged involvements with no trial and no prospect of trial. In many cases they have lost productive careers in the process.

As we look forward from a war "won" we need to look carefully at the damage we have done both to our "enemy" and to ourselves. I don't question that this war was probably unavoidable, but I question the need to rush into it, and I grieve for the thousands of Iraqi's who lost their lives in the process.

One of my favorite professors in college, the late Robert Sobel, was once quoted as saying that "there are no lessons in history, except that there are no lessons in history, and not even that." There is a warped truth to this quote. It is certainly the case that there is peril in ignoring history, but it is also true that history never unfolds the same way twice, and that the overapplication of the lessons of history can blind us to the reality of the present. It is easy to forget, in looking at the glories of Caesar's Rome, that Caesar's decisiveness was the end of a true Republican democracy and the beginning of a decline into oblivion. It is easy to forget that the legacy of England's victory over Ireland are millions of dead and a century of terrorism. It is easy to forget, in looking at the hard fought victory of the U.S. and its allies in WWII, that the victory was at the cost of the civil liberties of many American citizens, and that the victory reverberated in the next decade into McCarthism and black lists. It is easy to forget that the legacy of Israeli victories is millions of Palestinians forced from family lands and homes and a third generation of hate and distrust.

We need to be careful of our victory. We can easily turn it into our own defeat. War may well be justified when it is no longer possible to trust another country to not misbehave, but it remains that nobody really wins wars. We need to remember this when administration officials say things like "Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran."

Here is the real question: How can one prevent the Saddam Hussein's of this world from happening to begin with, and can you possibly do so without an international body that has oversight on the ways in which countries are governed. I don't think so, and our willingness to run away from a now "irrelevant" U.N. that "can't make hard decisions quickly" will not help us to acheive such prevention. Our willingness to say that such bodies can exist, but only if we are exempt from their decisions, is even worse, as it makes us appear as a country that has something to hide. I know that we have nothing to hide. I know that the U.S., as a country, takes responsibility for its actions. So why not embrace a world court with real power. I can't even guess at the thought processes of those who would turn away from such a treaty.

Davis Foulger