Why War? Why Not?

by Ethan Richards | 4/22/03 5:00am

As a concerned citizen and a card-carrying whiny liberal, I find Michael Weiss's frank discussion of the moral underpinnings of the war in Iraq refreshing ("Give War a Chance," Monday, April 21, 2003).

Mr. Weiss's article is well crafted, clever and succinct. It is historically conscious and literate. The case for war as a stimulator of great artistic minds certainly isn't a new one, but in mentioning the "Arab Solzhenitsyns, Skharovs and Havels who emerge from a postwar Iraq," Mr. Weiss makes especially effective and subtle use of an old argument while simultaneously strengthening the parallel between Hitler and Hussein that seems to be prevalent in some circles. Most importantly though -- in all earnestness -- I think that he does an excellent and wholly credible job of shedding some light on the motive force behind our New Crusade.

"The real would-be Sun Kings of Greater Serbia and Croatia are spoken of as noble anti-imperialists by people who don't know a struggle for civilization when they see one."

This is what the war in Iraq is really about. It is not about oil, religion, terrorism or any of the other oft-spoken buzzwords of recent days. And let's face it, "Civilization"

is a compelling concept, albeit a difficult one to define. I am just as scared of threats to my society as anyone else, and I do think that civilization is worth defending. I don't doubt that Rumsfeld, Cheney and company feel the same way. The Bush administration is not merely using terrorist-created political capital to raise the bar for American crony capitalism. After all, Wolfowitz has been champing at the bit for more than two decades

In accepting the existence of a perceived moral imperative for war, I have certainly eased the pain in my heart. Cheney, Haliburton and friends aren't capitalist warmongers who kill Iraqis for oil money. They are actually profiteers, in the illustrious tradition of J.P. Morgan, who sold dangerous, improperly crafted rifles to Union troops during the civil war for a tidy sum. If American forces remain in Iraq, using it as a military base for further operations in the Middle East (as some radical doomsayers have predicted), it will not be done in order to protect access to vital oil supplies in an age of dwindling fossil-fuel reserves. No, the oil will be little more than a fringe benefit -- like free pastries at a business meeting -- and our great nation's leaders will sleep soundly knowing that they are protecting the liberty of the "Free World."

Unfortunately, I don't sleep so soundly. This whole discussion of justifiable reasons for waging war in Iraq begs the question (one which can never be asked enough): is our reasoning sufficient to justify war, and more importantly, does it apply to the situation at hand? The unfortunate shortcoming of a high-minded ideological intercourse is that it fails to acknowledge the very real consequences of resulting actions. A war waged by those who believe themselves righteous may sound all right to St. Augustine, but I'd hazard a guess that the average dead Iraqi civilian has never heard of him. Even if she had, she probably wouldn't spend too much time thinking about what he has to say while looking for a safe place to hide from the smart bombs of justice.

It's easy to understand why the question of whether or not attacking Iraq was necessary for the welfare of Western civilization hasn't been frequently asked. The media shies away from hard questions -- too often, they lack answers. And politicians, as well as politically motivated journalists, find it much easier simply to sling invective. I certainly don't feel qualified to propose a comprehensive answer to such a prickly conundrum. What I will do, though, is inventory my knowledge of the situation and question my own ability to judge.

"Just once I'd like to hear a peacenik utter a self criticism," fumes Weiss. Well, here goes: I am not qualified to pass judgement, especially where the lives thousands, or millions, are concerned. I do know a thing or two, though. I know that Saddam Hussein never attacked the United States or one of its major allies. I know that comparisons between Hussein and Hitler (or Stalin) ring no truer than comparisons between Bush (who did, after all, attack a state which had never threatened him) and Hitler. I know that theocracy and dictatorship are anathema to our concept of civilization. I also know that our present government is blurring the lines between church and state, and disregarding habeas corpus, a basic right in every free society since Roman times. I can't argue that Saddam was in no way dangerous, but I can say that his arsenal of inaccurate, short-range missiles posed little threat to the United States, and that I have seen no evidence of ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

In his rush to pinpoint the shortcomings of standard liberal arguments, Mr. Weiss ironically forgets to look for areas where he might find the opportunity to criticize himself. I have heard the argument of late that leadership is not about questioning oneself, it is about making decisions. Well then, is a bad decision better than no decision? I appreciate the central arguments of the pro-war constituency; for the most part, their frightened hearts are in the right place. Maybe, if they were to spend a few sleepless nights sifting through the moral gray areas involved in justifying war, they would stop the blitzkrieg and focus on the fact that the end does not justify the means.