Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let's Be Honest about War

"Guernica" by Pablo Picaso
     "Anyone who advocates for war should 
first take into account what war truly entails"

Amazingly, there are voices in the news media who are once again drumming up a case for U.S. military action in Iraq. Iraq should be “Exhibit A” in the case against war. Military invasion resulted in chaos, the loss of thousands of lives, and the destruction of social infrastructure. At a cost of over 2 trillion dollars and  4,800 American lives (plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths), the result is continued misery and increased instability in the Middle East. We as a country were drawn into military conflict on decisions based upon fear. The public was still fearful and uneasy following the 911 attack in 2001, and the politicians who authorized military involvement in Iraq were fearful that they would not get votes back home if they did not go along with the drums of war being sounded by the chief executive. Today, with Iraq once again in turmoil, some are suggesting the need for more military action. Before entering into a new war, we need to be completely honest about all of the details. 
First, we should be clear about why Iraq and the Middle East are “vital to U.S. interests.” It is not a desire to “spread democracy,” it was never about “weapons of mass destruction,” and it is not even about the security of Israel. The reason we have a vital interest in the region is oil, which even President George W. Bush admitted we have an addiction to. Back in 1973 our country experienced an oil crisis. Some astute leaders said that it was time to invest in alternative energy sources. If we had launched such a national effort then, we would not be nearly so concerned about the Middle East region now. There would be little question that they should just work out their differences among themselves – without U.S. interference. There were, in fact, many who questioned invasion of Iraq at the outset, saying back in 2003 that there should be no blood for oil. Almost half the country, in fact, were opposed to entering into war.
Second, and most important, we must be honest about the nature of war. We have a long history of glorifying war and making it seem noble and honorable on national holidays. We look to World War II as the grand example of a justified war. Even with that war to end an evil regime, few people then or now could grasp the true horror that is unleashed in wartime.
Perhaps the two arguments most often heard to justify military action are national security and the just war theory. These arguments overlap, as one could claim both arguments in a situation of national defense. In reading modern justifications for armed conflict, I notice that not many people are referring to the just war theory, but for some it is important to use that concept to measure the need for military action. My own view is that war is never a moral choice and that we must find other means for settling our differences. Too often, the just war theory is simply one more attempt to justify war. If one is to make the argument for war, however, it is crucial to acknowledge the full reality of the nature of war.
Realities of War
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, Paul Fussell wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly titled, “The Real War.” In that article, Fussell made the case that most Americans have no notion of the true horrors of war. When we were engaged in WWII, reporters had an unwritten understanding that the true nature of war would not be stated for the sake of keeping people back home optimistic as well as for the purpose of not jeopardizing the war effort. Such a widespread lack of understanding about what front line troops were facing, Fussell points out, led to immense cynicism on the part of American military personnel reflected verbally in such acronyms as SNAFU, TARFU, and FUBAR.
No one wrote about conditions on the front line where soldiers had no latrines, lived in filth, saw the internal organs of their buddies scattered about, and faced the growing knowledge that they would likely not make it out alive. Fussell quotes General Eisenhower who wrote a rare explicit passage on the carnage of war in Crusade in Europe, describing the battlefield at the Falaise Pocket: "It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh." Fussell goes on to tell of why the public was so unaware of the realities or WWII:
How is it that these data are commonplaces only to the small number who had some direct experience of them? One reason is the normal human talent for looking on the bright side, for not receiving information likely to cause distress or to occasion a major overhaul of normal ethical, political, or psychological assumptions. But the more important reason is that the news correspondents, radio broadcasters, and film people who perceived these horrors kept quiet about them on behalf of the war effort, and so the large wartime audience never knew these things. As John Steinbeck finally confessed in 1958, "We were all part of the War Effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. . . . I don't mean that the correspondents were liars. . . . It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies." By not mentioning a lot of things, a correspondent could give the audience at home the impression that there were no cowards in the service, no thieves or rapists or looters, no cruel or stupid commanders. It is true, Steinbeck was aware, that most military operations are examples of "disorganized insanity," but the morale of the home front could not be jeopardized by an eyewitness's saying so. And even if a correspondent wanted to deliver the noisome truth, patriotism would join censorship in stopping his mouth. As Steinbeck noted in Once There Was a War, "The foolish reporter who broke the rules would not be printed at home and in addition would be put out of the theater by the command.”
Anyone who advocates for war should first take into account what war truly entails. “The Real War,” by Paul Fussell is one excellent source, describing conventional war in stark and unromantic terms (that article can be found here). Those religious leaders and politicians who support national military action must make themselves aware of the “disorganized insanity” of battle. They must acknowledge the practices of rape, mayhem, bodily dismemberment, civilian death, and community destruction that are unleashed in wartime. We as a people must acknowledge that many soldiers we send into battle will return badly damaged in body and spirit. They will never overcome the personal horror they witnessed, to which we are blithely oblivious. We as a nation must realize the immense destruction that we leave in our wake when we choose war, as evidenced most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result of more than a decade at war in the Middle East, we have brought debt to ourselves as well as our children and grandchildren. We have also brought about the destruction of infrastructure and the impossibility of a normal life to hundreds of thousands of people. We have made new enemies and bought at least another generation of ill will. We have forgotten about being a country that welcomes “the tired, the poor and the weary” and have focused on being an empire protecting energy sources. The democracy we pretend to be trying to export is becoming less and less recognizable here at home. In short, our military actions in recent years have brought horror to people abroad and a poverty of national purpose at home. These are only a few reasons why continued military action would be ill advised. The public has little appetite for more war, and if we truly saw the realities of war, most of us would be absolutely repulsed by the notion.

“A Defeat for Humanity”
I cannot get out of my mind the dissonant voices that were heard at the outset of the Iraq War, which was dubbed, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Pope John Paul II urged restraint from the U.S. stating that war in Iraq would be a defeat for humanity. To me, that was a true prophetic voice from the community of faith, yet there were others from that same community of faith that were easily justifying military action. One example came from George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the official biographer of Pope John Paul II. Weigel wrote editorials stating why war in Iraq was justified. I know that Weigel is an intelligent man and a faithful Catholic, yet on the matter of war, he seemed to bend intellectual theory like a contortionist to make Operation Iraqi Freedom comply with the just war theory. On the one hand, his words sounded clean, antiseptic, intellectual and distant when he argued for military action. On the other hand, I wonder if George Weigel, like many others at the time, was speaking as an American living in fear rather than looking to the standards set by a community of faith. Or perhaps he just put the ideals of empire ahead of the ideals of faith.

The scandal at Abu Ghraib demonstrated how quickly military action can degenerate into unspeakable acts of inhumanity. Any time we advocate for military action, we must be willing to face the harsh realities, the inhumanity, and even the evil that is unleashed in wartime. Perhaps the difference between Pope John Paul II and George Weigel is that the Pope lived through the horrors of war in Poland while in Weigel's case the concept of war is discussed from the halls of academia, far removed from the realities of war. That is the problem that most of us Americans face when war is discussed – we are far removed from the bombing, maiming, and desolation of war.
When Pope John Paul II warned against war in Iraq, he was speaking from a long standing view toward peace. In his message at the celebration of the World Day of Peace in January of 2000, he stated:
The twentieth century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people's dignity and rights. Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.

My hope is that we may come to realize that peace is gained through peace and that war will always be a defeat for humanity.


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