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 Justifying War 

May 29, 2003

A few weeks ago, during the Iraq war, I wrote about Ali Abbas, a 12-year-old boy who lost his entire family and both his arms when a U.S. rocket struck his Baghdad home. His case has attracted international attention and sympathy, though the American media have largely ignored it.

Now the Washington Times reports that Ali is recovering about as well as could be hoped for. Because of his injuries, including extensive burns, doctors expected him to die. But after surgery and skin grafts, he is now walking and even joking. He has received many offers of help; he will be equipped with prosthetic “arms” and an Iraqi family in Canada wants to adopt him.

Despite his agonizing losses, the boy may learn to cope with what most of us would consider a bleak life. Perhaps the worldwide outpouring of love and concern will be some consolation to him.

How many other innocents were killed and maimed by the American invasion? I have seen no figures or even estimates. It doesn’t seem to matter to most Americans, for whom military victory seems to be sufficient justification for any “collateral damage,” as we have learned to call it. Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” — the chief pretext for the war — appear to have been fictions, if not fantasies.

The notion that Hussein ever posed a serious threat to the United States, or even Israel, now sounds like a paranoid crackpot theory. The Bush administration was merely groping for excuses to crush him like a bug. Actually doing it turned out to be easier than justifying it to the civilized world.

More to the point, how do you justify what happened to people like Ali Abbas? It was quite foreseeable that bombing and shelling Baghdad would have such results.

One reader, who usually agrees with me, says that I set a standard for war that is virtually impossible to meet. Don’t all wars, he asks, claim innocent victims?

[Breaker quote: Today, it's peace that needs excuses.]Well, yes. At least virtually all military invasions do. That is why they are nearly always immoral.

Consider the U.S. war for independence. Were any English children killed? Probably not, because the British troops didn’t bring their families over, and the war was fought on American soil. Any “collateral damage” inflicted by the American forces would have been freakishly exceptional.

In the U.S. War between the States, the North caused many civilian deaths in the South, especially during the Shenandoah Valley campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea. This was deliberate policy; it shocked Europe and left bitter memories in the South for generations. How many Northern civilians were killed by Southern troops? Few, if any. It was the North that invaded the South, while accusing the South of aggression.

After that war, some of the Northern generals waged a war of “extermination” — their word — against the American Indian. Few distinctions were made between Indian combatants and noncombatants, the guiding principle being that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

During World War II, the Roosevelt administration deliberately targeted civilian populations in Japan and Germany for aerial bombing, killing millions of noncombatants. This too was strategic policy, by no means unintended “collateral damage.”

Principles of just war and civilized warfare were formulated many centuries ago, beginning, as far as I know, with St. Augustine. But the modern state has reverted to barbarism and the logic of total war. The U.S. Government has played a large role in this development, and it’s no accident that this has largely occurred under presidents who led the way in expanding the domestic powers of the Federal Government and in destroying constitutional limits on government action.

By now war has become an American habit, a sort of tradition. Americans have come to regard war as a more or less normal activity. It’s not the hawks but the doves who now have to offer justifications, and criticizing war is widely felt to be nit-picking, if not unpatriotic.

As a young congressman, Abraham Lincoln found his patriotism under severe attack when he challenged President James Polk’s war on Mexico. Lincoln learned his lesson. By the end of his life, he could justify his own war on the South as part of God’s plan.

American presidents still find lofty reasons for war. If only they could settle for modest excuses for peace.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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