The Iraq war: How our nation lost its soul

The Iraq war was not a Just War. It has been a moral, fiscal and geopolitical disaster for the United … Continued

The Iraq war was not a Just War. It has been a moral, fiscal and geopolitical disaster for the United States. Ten years after the attack on Iraq, it is critical to understand all that we have lost in engaging in this war. The true legacy of the Iraq war is a loss of our moral compass on engaging in war.

The Iraq war has first of all been a moral disaster because we broke the rules of war by ignoring them or so completely “re-defining” them that they lost their meaning.

Nothing so typifies this moral breakdown as much as the attempt to redefine torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and claim, despite the evidence of the horrible photos and videos of the systematic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example, that such torture is not torture.

This is how we as a nation really started to “lose our soul.” In May of 2004, when this evidence of torture first appeared, I asked, “Can a Nation Lose Its Soul?” and I answered “yes.” I wrote:

“The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises; it is the basis of any desire to behave according to our collectively expressed values. And we, as a nation, have lost this. We are a nation that tortures prisoners. There is a breakdown between our expressed values of democracy and human rights and the torture of Iraqis.”

The American people have been morally damaged by this torture program as many now accept torture as sometimes justified. Astonishingly, the more you attend church, the more likely you are to believe torture can be justified.

According to a Pew study of 2009, more than half of people who attend worship at least once a week, or 54 percent, said that using torture on suspected terrorists was “often” or “sometimes” justified. White evangelical Protestants were the church-going group most likely to approve of torture. By contrast, those who are unaffiliated with a religious organization and didn’t attend worship were most opposed to torture — only 42 percent of those people approved of using torture.

Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Christians, for example, might ask themselves ‘who would Jesus torture,’ and realize the answer is ‘nobody.’ But instead, nearly half of Americans of faith nor no faith now have come to culturally accept torture. This is due, in my view, because of the torture during the Iraq war.

This torture of prisoners and especially its corrosive influence on religious values in particular is emblematic of a loss of American core values overall. This is not, however, the only way the legacy of the Iraq war is corrosion in our national values, and thus a loss of “soul.”

There are others:

The Iraq war was a war of choice, a pre-emptive war, and violated the principles of Just War theory on Just Cause.

Just War theory was developed, in large part, by two Christian saints, Augustine and Aquinas. It was an attempt to answer questions about whether Christians could even wage war, given the pacifist history of the early church, and how, if war were to be justified, Christians should conduct themselves.

One crucial criterion for being able to justly engage in a war is the reason, that is, the cause for doing so. Self-defense, or defense of the “vulnerable other” as Augustine wrote, gives a nation just cause. Iraq did not attack us, so the Iraq war was not in “self-defense.” The Bush administration put forward the idea of “preventive war” or “pre-emptive war” as a substitute.

Gerard Powers, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, in a joint monograph we did for the United States Institute of Peace asking whether an attack on Iraq would fulfill the criteria of Just War and found that the concept of “preventive” war is not inherently just. “Preventive war,” he argued, is at most to be used to defend against an imminent threat. Instead, the Bush administration used it to try to justify “merely potential or gathering dangers… Justifying preventive war in this way would represent a sharp departure from Just War norms.” Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger, who then became Pope Benedict, said that “unilateral attack on Iraq” was not justified.

The leaked Justice Department White Paper on the drone program makes almost the same error in justifying killing individuals with drones as did the Bush administration to justify attacking Iraq. The “White Paper” makes reference to Just War criteria, and argues it is acceptable to kill individuals with drone strikes who pose an “imminent threat.” The problem is, the memo doesn’t limit the legality argument to what would be commonly understood as “imminent threat” and thus the justification of “self-defense,” but in fact so expands “imminent” as to redefine it completely and undercut the notion that the targeted killing is in self-defense.

The “White Paper” states, “First, the definition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

The “immediate future” is the very definition of “imminent.” How can it mean anything else? But this twisting of definitions to fit expediency is now a familiar refrain in justification for the use of lethal violence by the U.S. abroad in the last decade. We saw it in the redefinitions of “imminent” threat in the Bush administration’s justification for the attack on Iraq.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

It has become increasingly clear President Bush and others in his administration knew Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. “On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers,” wrote Sidney Blumenthal for Salon in 2007.

The “WMD” were a pretext, in my view, as merely saying ‘we want to reshape the Middle East’ would not have been a sufficient reason to convince Americans to attack a country that had not attacked us.

The idea of pre-emptive war has been subtly corrosive, and, I believe feeds the American public’s acceptance (83 percent) of the drone program as pre-emptive violence.

This is what happens when you have such hubris, such blind arrogance, that you think the rules don’t apply to you. The documentary, “Hubris: Selling the Iraq War” thoroughly documents this. “Hubris,” of course, is a religious or philosophical term and means pride or arrogance.

The Iraq war cost $3 trillion dollars and accounts for a large amount of our national debt.

The Bush administration systematically underestimated the cost of the Iraq war. Instead, ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and shortly afterward, “a number of officials, including former Defense Secretary Donald and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz suggested the war could be done on the cheap and that it would largely pay for itself.”

Instead, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has documented, the Iraq war is “The Three Trillion Dollar War.

I believe precisely because the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost so much in terms of American lives and dollars, drone warfare is very appealing. Drone warfare can seem particularly attractive to Americans, as the use of these automated weapons is presented as “cheaper,” more efficient, and “saves American lives.” This tempts us to make war because it is cheap, easy and seems to pose little risk.

David Cortright, the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has argued persuasively that this is exactly what is immoral about drones: they are a “license to kill.” “Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine.”

“Easy and cheap” are not words you should apply to engaging in the horror of war. And war is always a horror. War is, as General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “hell.”

If you want to keep losing your soul, continuing to march down the road to the “hell” of war is a way to do that. Drone warfare is war.

I also believe that the Iraq war helped create more terrorists.

As the Iraq war unfolded, it became clear to more and more analysts by early 2005 that it was providing terrorists with “a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills,” according to David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats in a CIA briefing. “There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries.”

We often say in the peace movement that you “create the enemies you need.” In truth, this is what happened as the United States pursued the Iraq war as a war of choice. We created more enemies instead of reducing the threat to our nation from terrorism.

It’s time for rigorous self-examination.

Ten years is a long time and it is long past time for the people of the United States, and our leaders, to engage in self-examination in how we got to such a state that we are willing to unilaterally attack another nation, engage in torture, deceive about the pretext for war, and count the real costs, morally, fiscally and geopolitically.

That is the path to healing the national soul and resisting the temptation to make these same mistakes over and over again.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • bocca

    I (and many people I know) knew war in Iraq would lead to this before it happened.

    While the debate went on and Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld, etc. did their lying on TV, how many of us knew we were being lied to but opted to be obedient partisan hacks rather than true patriots?

    This is where our morality as a Nation is falling: Where we love a political party, a cable news network, or an extreme philosophy over moderate ideals of equality and justice.

  • alamanach

    Those “partisan hacks” included then-Senator Hillary Clinton and many other prominent Democrats, and the drone wars are part of the current administration. If we try to look at this thing through polarized lenses, then we’re going to be blind to fully half of what is going on. This isn’t a partisan thing, it’s a morality thing, and leaders on both sides have plenty of culpability.

    In diplomatic circles, realism seems to be the only philosophy of foreign relations that carries credibility. Realism teaches that morality applies only to individuals, not to states; states are free to do anything that their physical might allows them to do, and it is only the power of other states that keeps things in check. But realism makes wars inevitable because of the way it balances powers against each other. If countries refrain from war only because they are too evenly matched, then evolutions in military tactics and technology will slowly render the old balance obsolete, and a new war is the only thing that can restore balance. It’s a horrible system.

    We have lots of people in the State Department who read the Melian Dialogues– an episode from the Greek classic, History of the Peloponessian War. The debate between Athens and the small island of Melos was the birth of realist thinking. Lots of our diplomats read it, and feel smart for having done so. They ought to read the rest of the book. Athens strong-armed its way onto Melos, seemingly vindicating the realist philosophy. But to anyone who cares to read further, Thucyidides shows how the Athenians then went on to be ground into hamburger by the Syracusians. Realism destroys great powers, and morality most definitely does apply to states. A lot of our diplomats learned the wrong lesson.

  • alamanach

    Silly me, I mis-spelled Peloponnesian. Sorry. :)

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