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The Truth About Iraq

Telling the Truth About Iraq STML


Mark Tooley - published on 07/02/14

The post-9/11 atmosphere offered a rare political opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein.

Recently I heard a prominent Catholic priest and ethicist denounce America’s war in Iraq as "stupid." A room full of religious leaders and activists reacted with appreciative laughter.

Such cynicism over the Iraq War recalls a scene in 1946’s Academy Award winning Best Years of Our Lives, which profiles three returning World War II vets adjusting to civilian life in their Midwestern city. One vet named Homer lost both his hands in the war, replaced by hooks. At a drug store soda fountain a suited gentleman seated next to him respectfully asks what happened, later commenting that the vet’s loss had been a waste. Gesturing at his newspaper, he earnestly insists America fought on the wrong side.

Here’s the dialogue, which today sounds familiar:

Customer: You got plenty of guts. It’s terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself — and for what?

Homer: And for what? I don’t get’cha Mister?

Customer: …We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.

Homer: Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis so we had…

Customer: No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the Limies and the Reds. And they would have whipped ’em too if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.

Homer: What are you talkin’ about?

Customer: We fought the wrong people, that’s all. Just read the facts, my friend. Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.

Their exchange escalates, with the gentleman repeating, "Just read the facts." Before an enraged Homer can strike him with his hooks, his vet buddy who mans the soda fountain, having overheard the tense exchange, jumps the counter and whacks the offending customer, losing his job.

Such views from the soda fountain customer were not wholly unusual in the late 1940s. America had ostensibly fought to liberate Europe, yet half of it was left to a new totalitarian tyranny. In the Pacific, Japan’s defeat cleared the way for communist conquest in China, where Mao’s killing of his own people eventually would outpace even Japan’s savagery. 

We rightly now recall World War II as the justified good war, but the results were not unequivocal. All wars, even very necessary ones, always engender tragedy and unintended consequences. No war, or any major geopolitical decision, even if peaceful, ever neatly promises a clear choice between justice and evil. Instead, our nation, and every nation, in pursuing policy goals, must choose typically among options each of which, in our always troubled world, carries its own capacity for enlarged mischief. 

Too many harsh critics, in fact most, don’t typically acknowledge the limited means for geopolitical justice among fallen humanity. Every major policy direction for an especially powerful nation, by definition, entails likely suffering and even death by many. There is almost never a policy option guaranteeing, peace, prosperity and good health for all. Even in the best circumstances there are still winners and losers, hopefully more of the the former than the latter. And there is always moral hazard. Good intentions and moral objectives can still precipitate disaster, especially if pursued naively.

Believing Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein, could quickly adapt to a nonsectarian democracy was arguably naive. But leaving Saddam in place was also grossly unsavory. It’s absurd to recall his militant terror regime as a stabilizing alternative to the current conflict. Stalinist Soviet rule may just as well be portrayed as the stable alternative to the current Ukraine imbroglio. Saddam had effectively remained at war with the U.S. since the Gulf War, necessitating large ongoing U.S. troop deployments in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the later of which Osama bin Laden cited as a motive for 9/11. For a decade the U.S. and British air forces had to maintain no-fly zones over Iraq, to prevent Saddam’s further slaughter of the Shiites and Kurds. Such exertions could not sustain indefinitely.

Neither could the sanctions regime against Saddam, intended to prevent his serious rearmament, have much longer lasted. Critics claimed the U.S.-backed UN sanctions were responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and illness that imports could have prevented. Their professed concerns largely disappeared after the U.S. led invasion, when they mostly pivoted to oppose the war, usually ignoring the discovered evidence of Saddam’s predictably shameless exploitation of sanctions to enrich himself while starving his people.

Arguably, knowing subsequent events, a permanent U.S. led military containment of Saddam, if in fact sustainable, might have been preferable to war, similar to the now over 60 year containment of North Korea by U.S. troops in South Korea. But such a long term commitment contained its own considerable military and political risks. And in the moral equation, there was Saddam’s ongoing mass murder, torture, rape, and robbery of his own people. The post-9/11 atmosphere offered a rare political opportunity to remove him.

Critics of the "stupid" overthrow of Saddam, especially if speaking from a faith perspective, would be more serious if they at least admitted that all the policy alternatives were extremely dangerous and nasty, entailing death and suffering on a large scale. Such is our fallen, sin-filled world, always so full of demons aiming to destroy. 

A recent Washington Post poll of veterans found only 44 percent thought the Iraq War was worth fighting, but 90 percent would volunteer to serve again. This combination of ambivalence and defiance, similar to the defiant crippled veteran portrayed in Best Years of Our Lives, perhaps better captures the ambiguity of all wars compared to sanctimonious condemnation from some religious critics.

Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church and Methodism And Politics in the Twentieth Century.

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