When President Bush told The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that he consulted a “Higher Father” before going to war in Iraq, he unintentionally offered what has always been one of the most common and revolting rationalizations involved in one war after another. “God wills it.” “A mighty fortress is our God.” How do you argue with that?
I do not believe that wars are ever “just.” On rare occasions, war is necessary. It was absolutely necessary that the Nazis be defeated. It was necessary that the Civil War be fought in order to bring an end to slavery in America (even though half of the nation, of course, was fighting to preserve slavery, as its God had so decreed).
If I had thought there was any possibility that invading Iraq could help end terrorist attacks, I probably would have supported the war. I say that with no pride and with the absolute conviction that most justifications for war, whether religious or secular, are ultimately self-serving.
Most wars are stupid wars, and stupidity is responsible for as much injustice and suffering as evil intent. Consider the Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, conducting another round in a dispute that originated over who has bragging rights as the true descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Stupid. Their stupidity piled atop our stupidity. Oh, the Higher Father is apparently hard at work, pouring devilishly stupid advice into the ears of so many of his devoted adherents around the world.
The war in Iraq is, in my view, both stupid and unnecessary, and we are now beginning to suffer the consequences. I suppose there would be a rough justice in that, except that the people of Iraq are the real inheritors of our wind.
To their credit, many religious leaders have opposed this war and done so on moral grounds. Others, however–especially the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who form the president’s political base–have strongly supported the war. The American public has finally turned against this war, as it did against the Vietnam war, not for any moral reasons but because we are losing.
We certainly should be having a moral conversation about this subject. Our indifference to the hundreds of thousands Iraqi lives lost since we launched a war on their soil speaks volumes about American values. So too does the behavior of the American upper middle class, unwilling to offer its own sons and daughters to the military, in letting the sons and daughters of urban and rural poverty bear the brunt of the sacrifices being made in this war. I wonder how politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves reconcile their religious values with the absolute insulation of their own families from the violence of war. I wonder if the pundits at right-wing think tanks, who provided the intellectual rationale for the war, are the least bit concerned about their role in launching a rich man’s war that is truly a poor man’s fight. Probably not. It’s the “market economy” at work, after all.
To anyone who really believes there is such a thing as a just war, I recommend a look at the Summa Theologicae by that patriarch of “just war” theory, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas–who constituted his own right-wing think tank–sets forth a number of conditions for a just war. These include a righteous cause, righteous intent, means proportional to the end, sanction by legitimate governing authorities, etc., etc. The problem immediately becomes clear. Who defines righteousness? Who sets the standard of proportionality? In America, we have apparently decided that 3,000 American deaths is a disproportionate price to pay. Who decided that the loss of several hundred thousand Iraqi lives was proportional?
Finally, I do not believe that religion offers any special insights into the morality of war, that age-old evidence of human folly. Poor human judgment got us into this war, and wiser human judgment will have to prevail to get us out.