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 Justifying War 

March 1, 2005 
War is bad. Everyone agrees on that, so why do wars keep happening?

Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Because man keeps thinking up ingenious justifications for them. In the first act of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king of England contemplates invading France to stake his claim that he’s the rightful king of France too. He asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to judge his claim, warning him to judge scrupulously, because a war would mean the deaths of countless innocent people. This is sheer hypocrisy on Henry’s part, because he has already decided to make war on any pretext he can come up with; but never mind that for the moment. His words are excellent, even if his motives are rotten.

A wave of democratization in the Middle East — in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iraq — is now encouraging supporters of President Bush’s Iraq war. “The president has been vindicated,” they say; “his critics were wrong. He has indeed brought democracy to the Arab world, just as he said he would. When will the opponents of the war admit it?”

But this misses the point. Spreading democracy was only one of the reasons Bush gave for war, and he offered it rather late in the game. The chief reason he cited was the “threat” posed by Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who turned out to be further from having nuclear weapons than the other two members of the “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea.

And since when is imposing democracy a justification for war? The Founders of this country never suggested such a thing; neither did the Christian thinkers who formulated “just war” theory, nor any of the great political philosophers. The idea originates in modern propaganda.

Countless Iraqis, tens of thousands at least, have been killed by American forces. The dead posed no threat to us at all. If the war was wrong in the first place, it isn’t made just by the fact that surviving Iraqis are voting. Assuming that democracy is a big improvement on dictatorship, it remains true that the end doesn’t justify the means. If mass murder results in free elections, it’s still mass murder.

War is chiefly an abstraction to most Americans, who have never lived in a city where bombs were falling, children were killed and maimed, water and electricity were disrupted, most families had lost sons in combat, and normal life was only a memory. How can elections warrant inflicting such evils? Would Christ have blessed this war? The answers are only too obvious. “Render unto Caesar” doesn’t exempt Caesar from the law of God — even if Caesar is a professed Christian.

[Breaker quote: Asking the wrong questions]Let’s suppose that Henry V, “the mirror of all Christian kings,” was in fact the rightful king of France, and even that an ancient document had turned up to validate his claim. Would that have justified him in committing the evils he clearly foresaw — creating many thousands of widows, orphans, bereaved mothers?

Somehow the numbers themselves obliterate the horror. If we knew the name and saw the face of a single actual child who would die in the event of war — let’s call her Fatima, age six — we’d find it unbearable to wage it. But if we know that thousands of unseen Fatimas will die, we ask only whether the war can be justified abstractly, in utilitarian terms. As Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

It’s endlessly frustrating to reflect on, but civilized people tolerate in government acts that, if committed by individuals, they would condemn as crimes — not only murder, but robbery, extortion, counterfeiting, and fraud. The stupendous national debt is only one index of the government’s habitual criminality.

When we talk about government, we are usually, whether we realize it or not, talking about organized crime. Will “society” benefit from higher taxes, new programs, even killing innocent people overseas? How rarely policy questions are recognized as moral decisions. How rarely we see ourselves as implicated, by government, in collective immorality.

Whether a war succeeds in its stated goals isn’t the right question. The real question is seldom asked: What could possibly excuse the deliberate destruction of thousands of lives? The modern state itself is a “weapon of mass destruction.”

As long as we glorify the wars of the past — particularly the American Civil War and World War II — we can look forward to still more wars, supported by an insensate population.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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