The War in Iraq

How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong

H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote that the first question of ethics is not “What should I do?” but “What is going on?” The Baghdad version of that principle might be, “What the hell is going on?” It is a question that comes to me when I wake up to a car bomb or fall asleep to the sound of mortar fire. I was asking it when a Kurdish colleague took me to see the memorial at Halabja, where Saddam gassed five thousand villagers. I asked it again last March when 223 Shi’a pilgrims died in Karbala. And again when, in the late afternoon of August 1, there were two loud thuds and the hotel shook and I saw the plumes of smoke rising over the buildings north of my balcony, buildings occupied by people I work with. I was asking it the next morning when I discovered that two more car bombs had exploded next to a Christian seminary, killing ten, leaving professors and students shaking and looking in vain for loved ones, and burnt car parts spotting the lawn.

Perhaps my confusion and fear were something like what Tolstoy’s Count Bezukhov was feeling in War and Peace when he surveyed the carnage at the battlefield of Borodino. I don’t know. Maybe it is more like the terror felt by a nine-year-old Iraqi friend who for weeks spent the nights crouched by her window, waiting for the U.S. soldiers to come again, heavy metal blasting from their Humvees, blowing up doors to drag her brothers from their beds and take them off to Abu Ghraib.

Bezukhov at Borodino is on my mind because it is the image that introduces an essay, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War,” published in January 2003, in what the mainstream media like to call “the obscure but influential” journal First Things. Of course, in the theological community, both Protestant and Catholic, First Things is hardly obscure. Its founder and editor in chief is Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square (1984) and dozens of other books. Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor, is a Catholic convert, a vigorous champion and personal friend of John Paul II, and a powerful figure in neoconservative circles. He moves easily within the increasingly pietistic Republican Party, and is even credited with helping to teach President George W. Bush how to “speak Catholic.”

“Moral Clarity in a Time of War” was written by Catholic theologian George Weigel, a member of the editorial board of First Things (along with fellow neoconservative Catholics Michael Novak and Mary Ann Glendon)—and perhaps best known for his biography of Pope John Paul II (Witness to Hope). Weigel’s essay declared that “the fog of war” must not be allowed to “suggest that warfare takes place beyond the reach of moral reason.” Weigel argued that the sort of preemptive war Bush was threatening against Iraq could be justified by traditional just-war standards. Those who thought otherwise were derided as milquetoasts or as unwilling to rise to the defense of freedom and democracy in a dangerous world.

War and Peace is full of examples of moral clarity about war. Sometimes it is a delirium-induced clarity that comes after the battle, but most often the clarity is in the run-up to war, precisely the sort of clarity Weigel provided in his essay, and that the First Things editors articulated in an earlier essay “In a Time of War” (December 2001). It was a clarity provided by arguably two of the most influential conservative Catholics in the United States, intellectuals who have the ear of influential American bishops and the Vatican. If they have been wrong, especially if they have been theologically wrong about the justice of this war, it should matter to those who share Weigel and Neuhaus’s belief that religion should play a major role in the public square.

Nothing is easier than moral clarity before a war. It is now, when any day in Baghdad can make one feel like Bezukhov at Borodino, that moral clarity is hard. Weigel, I presume, still believes what he wrote in January 2003: “the proper role of religious leaders and public intellectuals is to do everything possible to clarify the moral issues at stake in a time of war.” I agree. Weigel has spent much of his career doing just that. He has written on the role of the churches in the collapse of communism, and at great length on the just-war tradition in Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (1987). Like much of his writing, Tranquillitas Ordinis is highly polemical, alleging that liberal Catholic theologians and ethicists, under the influence of an “anti-anti-Communist” ideology and a naive pacifism, abandoned a proper understanding of the just-war tradition. Writing in Commonweal (“The Heritage Abandoned?” September 11, 1987), Peter Steinfels, an advocate of the just-war tradition, welcomed Weigel’s attempt to reinvigorate the Catholic debate about the moral necessity of using force. Steinfels also judged “disingenuous” Weigel’s claims to political disinterestedness. “The reader who approaches Tranquillitas Ordinis suspecting a strong political spin on its theological argument will not be mistaken,” he wrote. “Weigel is doing precisely what he accuses, with some justification, many peace activists of doing: using Catholic teaching to support specific prudential judgments that rest not on the teaching alone but on ‘political’ readings of fact and history.”

 

 

Moral muteness in a time of war

 

I fear Weigel has yielded to that temptation again. Before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in its aftermath, Weigel and First Things promoted a reasoned debate about the war on terrorism. While the editors never wavered in their support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they opened the magazine to theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, who all opposed the war. This came as no surprise. First Things can rightly claim a distinct and important place in contemporary American religious thought. Throughout its fifteen-year history, it has, at its best, stood for more than just conservative politics. It has stood for a robust theological orthodoxy around which a great many diverse thinkers, Protestant and Catholic, clergy and laity, academics and nonacademics, were able to gather.

So it comes as something of a surprise, at least to me, that First Things has failed to follow through on another claim Weigel made in that essay. “Moral muteness in a time of war is a moral stance,” he wrote, “it can be a stance born of fear; it can be a stance born of indifference; it can be a stance born of cynicism about the human capacity to promote justice, freedom, and order, all of which are moral goods. But whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment—a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.”

I agree. In fact, a large part of my job as a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, is “advocacy.” I am supposed to write “advocacy reports” to the Mennonite Central Committee offices in Ottawa, Washington, and New York about justice and peace issues in the field. That is why I was in Iraq for ten months. Moreover, since I am a theology graduate student, I hoped to “think and write theologically” about what I had seen in Baghdad. I have done almost none of that. Trained to attend theologically and philosophically to texts, I have not proved a quick learner when it comes to attending to this kind of violence. So I have remained, for the most part, mute. It is a muteness born of fear and cynicism, one that is a deficient form of moral judgment. Contemplating what is happening in Baghdad from a fifth-floor hotel room, listening to the mortar rounds landing across the river, or from the street, peering into the crater left behind by what the security reports call a “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,” will make people beyond bookish theologians too dizzy for clarity in a time of war.

Perhaps contemplating this carnage from New York is similar, and that is why First Things was virtually silent about Iraq between the summer of 2003 and October 2004. But I have serious doubts about that. It took until October 2004 for the most prominent journal of theological orthodoxy in the United States to say something about Abu Ghraib. First Things still hasn’t said anything about the Baghdad bombings of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in October 2003, or the March 2004 bombings in Karbala. Falluja, the Mahdi Army, and the bungled hand­over of authority from Paul Bremer to Iraq’s interim prime minister Ayad Allawi—all have gone unremarked on. (As it happens, on the day this article went to press, I received the December 2004 First Things. In it Neuhaus offers an explanation for why “the war on terror has not been center stage in these pages.” In doing so, he reiterates the just-war arguments in favor of invading Iraq and in defense of the subsequent occupation. In short, he argues that we will have to wait many years before a judgment about the justice of the war can be made. Neuhaus concedes that those opposed to the war have a “legitimate argument,” but cautions administration critics that “leaders do not have the convenience of making decisions retrospectively.” All in all, I think the critique I make of Weigel and Neuhaus in this essay still stands.) Even now, First Things has not conceded the full import of the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were discovered or that there was no link between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Neuhaus, for one, has been preoccupied with other things, such as the lay review board established by the U.S. bishops in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal and the election of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. His monthly column, “The Public Square,” is usually ten thousand-plus words long, sometimes approaching twenty thousand. It is the centerpiece of the magazine’s appeal for many, and often the first and only part I read, if pressed for time. The essays contain frequent moments of brilliance, showcasing Neuhaus’s remarkable range and wit. There seems to be nothing he hasn’t read and read well. One could almost teach a “Theology and Culture” course assigning nothing but his column. Almost. Yet while his essays are wide-ranging, he has been virtually silent on anything to do with Iraq.

Until the October 2004 issue, the last time Neuhaus addressed Iraq was August-September 2003. Even after American soldiers had stood by as Baghdad was looted, he wrote:

Leading up to the invasion and even after its rapid military success, critics were predicting a quagmire, a Somalia-like debacle, a rising of the Arab “street” that would be “a storm from hell,” and, of course, another Vietnam. With reference to civilian casualties, some protesters spoke about a “Middle East holocaust.” None of that happened. In view of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by Saddam’s murderous regime, the war probably saved innumerable lives. So the critics were abysmally wrong on almost every point. That must be clearly established on the public record.

I will point to several such statements by Neuhaus and Weigel. The point is not to play “gotcha.” I remain an admirer of their work. Yet it is precisely as a theologian and a reader—and more broadly as a citizen—that I want answers to questions raised by the arguments Weigel and Neuhaus made in support of the preemptive war in Iraq. Those arguments were made in the public square that First Things, especially in light of last month’s presidential election, has done so much to open up to religious language. What I am most concerned with can be reduced to four points. First, Neuhaus and Weigel, like the administration they support, failed in the summer of 2003 to see that the war was far from over. Second, their faith in the competency of the Bush administration, and their contempt for religious leaders who disagreed with them, can now more easily be recognized for what it was: an attachment to a particular brand of neoconservatism overwhelming their attachment to the just-war tradition. Third, their scant attention to how the war was actually conducted (jus in bello), and their disdain for those who pushed questions about noncombatant deaths and proportionality, suggest the need for a reappraisal of the value they placed on the just causes (ad bellum) of the war. Finally, I would argue that their silence since the fall of Baghdad is more disturbing than their mistakes before and during “major combat operations.” The issue is not only, or not simply, that they were wrong. Perhaps they think they were right. The issue, especially in light of President George W. Bush’s re-election, is their current “moral muteness in a time of war.”

The central purpose of Weigel’s “Moral Clarity in a Time of War” was to reinsert just-war theory into its “proper context within a theory of statecraft.” Weigel insisted that the just-war tradition is alive and well in the Bush administration, the Pentagon, the officer corps. It is the divinity schools, the National Council of Churches, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that have forgotten the tradition. So Weigel and Neuhaus were writing neither to or for those leaders responsible for taking us into war. The public square—now that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al., occupy it—is not so naked. Weigel and Neuhaus were writing to Christian pacifists and liberals to discourage them from getting in the way of this administration. They were trying to clarify the division of labor. Religious leaders and theologians need to admit that there are many things they simply don’t know. They can help “clarify the moral issues at stake.” Still, it isn’t clear that even that is necessary in light of Weigel’s faith in the vibrancy of the just-war tradition in this administration.

 

 

Badgering the Bush administration

 

In the March 2004 First Things, Weigel has this to say in response to criticisms made by Rowan Williams (“War and Statecraft: An Exchange”):

Time and again in recent years religious leaders have been proven wrong in their predictions about the likely consequences of various uses of armed force. There is certainly an ideological element to these failures of prognostication, as more and more of the world’s established Christian leadership has adopted, from the international Left, a functional pacifism whose primary objection to the use of armed force has to do with who is using it—that is, the West, understood as an oppressor culture. But ideological predispositions don’t explain every facet of this global clerical lurch à gauche; something else is also going on here. And that something else is, I think, the presumption against war, which functions like a badly manufactured pair of eyeglasses, distorting the vision of the observer. To return, once again, to the most obvious example of this artificial myopia: in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the Catholic bishops of the United States seriously misread the moral and political dynamics of the last decade of the cold war (insisting that nuclear arms control was the key to peace, not regime change in the Soviet Union and its satellites), not because the (complex) facts of the case were not there to be seen and understood, but because the presumption against war blurred their perception of what they were seeing. The same, I suggest, holds true for the many warnings of catastrophe from religious leaders that preceded the Gulf War of 1991 and the most recent Iraq war.

And the most recent Iraq war. This was published last March. I don’t know when Weigel actually penned it—perhaps late January or early February. Five months after the UN left Iraq with twenty-two fewer people than it had entered with. Three months after the ICRC headquarters was bombed. Right around the time people began calling the entrance to the Green Zone “Assassins’ Gate.” Right around the time sixty-seven people were killed by car bombs at the two Kurdish political party headquarters in Erbil. Right around the time CNN reported the existence of photographs of prisoner abuse and the Army commissioned the Taguba report.

There has been a clerical lurch to the left in the churches, though it is hardly global. And I agree that this ideological movement is a bit disappointing—though probably for reasons different from Weigel’s. And it is true that religious leaders were not always the brightest or most articulate in the months preceding the war. In this case, though, the church’s pacifists and liberals proved right. Not only is it Weigel who was wrong before the war. Weigel is still wrong eighteen months after what Bush called “the end of major combat operations.” And so all Weigel’s claims are turned back on him. There is certainly an ideological element to the failures of prognostication in First Things. Something certainly functioned like a badly manufactured pair of eyeglasses, distorting the vision of Christian supporters of this administration. Something blurred their perception of what they were seeing. Still, people are allowed to be wrong. That First Things was so grievously mistaken is an important but secondary issue. The most important issue is why theologians who argued for the justice of preemptive war in Iraq have yet to give a just-war accounting of the conduct and consequences of this war.

For Iraq is a catastrophe—on all accounts (except perhaps Dick Cheney’s). When I first arrived in Baghdad in January 2004, people were frustrated with the occupation. They couldn’t understand a great many actions of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), but they were starting to call it “Can’t Provide Anything.” They couldn’t understand why the electricity was, at best, still three hours on, three hours off, and why sewage still lay in the streets. But most were still able to say they were better off than under Saddam. And many more held out hope that they would be better off soon. By August, in the mosques, they were calling the new interim prime minister “Saddam Allawi.”

If I had to date the point when things began to change, it would be March 2, 2004, the holiest day of the year in Shi’a Islam and the bloodiest day of this ongoing war. Six bombs in Karbala left 223 worshippers dead. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the Shi’a world had come to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, assassinated in Karbala in 680. In the year before the U.S. invasion, when Saddam was trying to look a bit less like a tyrant, the pilgrimage had been permitted for the first time in decades. This year the pilgrims were able to walk the pilgrimage. I had seen them the week before on the highway south of Baghdad, small groups of devout Shi’a walking dozens, sometimes hundreds, of kilometers to Karbala. The morning after the terrorist attack on the pilgrims, my driver—a Shi’a who had been among those walking, and who is usually irrepressibly cheerful—arrived at the house and, reeling from the carnage, crumpled into a chair, speechless and traumatized.

How did First Things respond to such events? Start by returning to Neuhaus’s giddy proclamations of the end of the war, and his criticism of religious leaders, in the May 2003 First Things:

Ranking ecclesiastics took up the time of U.S. decision makers, badgering them about whether they had thought of this possible consequence or that. What about Muslim reaction? What about civilian casualties? The simple answer is that such consequences are unknowable and therefore unknown, except to God. I know that possible consequences have been considered, day and night for many months, by competent parties. I know there is a determination to minimize damage to innocents, and a reasoned expectation that successful action will weaken Islamist enemies of civilization and strengthen the Muslim forces of decency and freedom. The U.S. plans for changing the politics and culture of the Middle East, including Palestinian-Israeli relations, are indeed ambitious. Nobody can know for sure what will happen, but religious leaders should bring more to the discussion than their fears. Nervous handwringing is not a moral argument.

For religious leaders to raise questions about civilian casualties and Muslim reaction was, according to Neuhaus, “badgering.” Concerned religious leaders were taking up the politicians’ valuable time. It was as if the only thing for religious leaders to do was to get out of the way and let the responsible parties do their thing. Even Neuhaus and Weigel weren’t really needed. They were simply agents of the ground clearing, trying to minimize the influence of those whiny pacifists so that Bush and the neocons could have a clear and unobstructed path to war. What is striking here is Neuhaus’s apparent faith in the “competent parties,” the same faith proclaimed by Weigel when he wrote of the politicians’ “charism of responsibility.” But sentiment—“I trust my government to try really hard”—is not any kind of argument. “Nobody knows what will happen” is not an alternative to so-called nervous handwringing. Cheerleading is not an alternative to badgering.

 

 

Trusting the government?

 

The possible consequences of war had in fact been considered day and night for many months. (See, for example, James Fallows, “Blind into Baghdad,” the Atlantic Monthly, January-February 2004.) The competent parties were the Army and the State Department. Their conclusions were rejected, their committees silenced. Of course, we know now not only that the Pentagon ignored the conclusions of the Army (which was preparing for conditions predicted by those naive hand-wringing ecclesiastics), but that the whole invasion and occupation were based on a set of dubious claims, if not outright lies, about weapons of mass destruction and the link to Al Qaeda.

So, what was functioning—like a badly manufactured pair of eyeglasses—for these two Catholic theologians who take rightful pride in their otherwise often clear-eyed view of things? Can there be any doubt that what blurred their perception was their faith in the current administration? Weigel and Neuhaus are right to remind us that there are many things religious leaders don’t know that the government does know. But the lack of resources among those outside of government is, finally, obvious. What is not at all obvious is why this disparity in access to information is a reason for trust instead of skepticism, or even mistrust, toward even democratic governments. If the events and revelations of the last sixteen months have not been enough to tilt the balance toward mistrust, there are also good old-fashioned theological reasons to side with skepticism, and not just toward this administration or other Republican administrations. Still, I remain curious why Weigel and Neuhaus are so oblivious to some other good reasons why conservatives should question what their government says. Since when are conservatives not suspicious of government? Since when is a deep mistrust of state bureaucracies not a defining characteristic of conservatism? These conservative suspicions are not just about the relative expertise of those making prudential judgments. As George Will wrote in the April 5 Washington Post:

Speaking of culture, as neoconservative nation builders would be well advised to avoid doing, Pat Moynihan said: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Here we reach the real issue about Iraq....The issue is the second half of Moynihan’s formulation—our ability to wield political power to produce the requisite cultural change in a place such as Iraq. Time was, this question would have separated conservatives from liberals. Nowadays it separates conservatives from neoconservatives.

Weigel’s exchange with Rowan Williams in First Things addressed whether the just-war tradition, Aquinas in particular, had a “presumption against war.” Williams thinks it does, as do most Catholic theologians and ethicists. Weigel thinks it doesn’t. While I side with Williams on the issue, I also think there are good conservative reasons to act with a presumption against what governments in general say and do. Such a presumption would demand nothing less than the encouragement of as much “badgering” as possible from as many unruly corners of the demos as can be found. The issue is no longer one of the justice or injustice of the war or the rightness or wrongness of the religious leaders. At issue now is the nature of democracy. What kind of democracy doesn’t entertain dissent, doesn’t even find it tolerable? I fear we are about to find out.

 

 

Abu Ghraib was no fluke

 

Despite Neuhaus’s misguided euphoria in May and June 2003, it is important to acknowledge that both he and Weigel were aware, in their prewar writing, of the “contingency” and “unpredictability” of battle. Still, by acknowledging such contingency Neuhaus and Weigel were able to minimize the importance of jus in bello questions. They had two basic approaches to addressing questions about noncombatant deaths and proportionality. First, they were confident that new weapons technologies would keep civilian casualties at a minimum. Second, they lost sight of the contingency that comes with “the fog of war.” Weigel, for example, wrote “There is a theo-logic—a theological logic—that gives priority to the ad bellum questions, for these are the questions on which we can have some moral clarity.” I will consider each of these views in turn.

First, Neuhaus and Weigel were right about the new weapons technologies. I, for one, was wrong. I remember my surprise when I arrived in Baghdad and realized that it is now really possible to bomb with “surgical precision.” This is not to minimize the thirty-four hundred civilian deaths that, according to the Associated Press, did occur in the initial stages of the war. It is only to acknowledge that far fewer civilians were killed than would have been in a similar invasion just a decade or two ago.

The new weapons technologies, though, were useful only in the very beginning of the war. Those who feared a “Somalia-like debacle” were predicting bitter street warfare against Saddam’s fedayeen. If there haven’t been more Somalia-like debacles in Iraq, and there have been enough, it is because the coalition forces have chosen—at least until the recent second assault on Falluja—to avoid street fighting as much as possible, opting instead for aerial bombardment that has had to sacrifice precision. Weigel maintained in his “Moral Clarity” essay that “in the nature of the case, we can have less surety about in bello proportion and discrimination than we can have about the ad bellum questions.” But there is really nothing uncertain or unpredictable about the decision to preserve the lives of combatants by endangering civilians, which is what the choice for aerial bombardment over ground warfare amounts to. We can be sure that it is civilians who will bear the brunt of such a decision.

So Weigel makes two claims. One is that “every human action takes place within the purview of moral judgment.” The other is that some measure of moral clarity is possible only with regard to questions about the justification for war, not questions about the conduct of war. He seems to suggest that just-war thinking no longer simply begins with just cause, but that its purview-at least the purview that can offer any clarity—is restricted to ad bellum. I am curious about the implication that when it comes to the conduct of war, moral clarity is out of reach. It is one thing to say that there is a lack of, say, strategic clarity—that it is difficult, for example, to predict how even the best—disciplined soldiers will react under pressure. Or difficult to predict the direction any particular battle will take. These contingencies, after all, are what Tolstoy was describing. I am not sure if Weigel means that moral clarity will have to wait on events that are strategically unclear: discussions of proportionality will have to wait until we know how many civilians have been killed in Falluja. Or if he means that even when we do know how many civilians have died, there can be no ready algorithm for determining when violence can be declared disproportionate. What about now? What about the possibility that one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians may have already died in this war? (Or say that estimate is way off.) What if fifty thousand civilians have died? Does Weigel have any clarity regarding whether that death toll is justified?

What about Abu Ghraib? There was little that was contingent, in Weigel’s sense, about the abuses that happened there. Those abuses were the predictable result of massive random arrests, denial of fair trials, poorly trained guards, and power shrouded in secrecy. The laws and mechanisms of inspection instituted by the Geneva Conventions are not primarily meant to detect abuses after they have happened. They are meant to foster an environment of transparency and accountability that discourages abuse. They are meant to make impossible the sort of Newspeak spouted by the lawyers of the Justice and Defense departments explaining why Bush’s “inherent constitutional authority” over war made the obligations of the UN’s Torture Convention “inapplicable.” The policies of the officials in charge of military prisons from Guantánamo to Baghdad—random arrests, denial of fair trial, secrecy—are jus in bello issues about which we should have a great deal of clarity. Shouldn’t Christian theologians have great clarity about the injustice of such methods? Contrary to Weigel, that clarity must come before questions concerning the just conduct of war. Or, at the least, the debate about the rules governing the treatment of prisoners suggests that there can be no clear line between the questions of just cause and just conduct. Weigel calls the question of “competent authority” an ad bellum criterion. But one of the lessons of the war in Iraq is that the Bush administration was and is an incompetent authority because of its disregard for the customary rules governing the conduct of war. The refusal to appoint an independent inquiry into prisoner abuse is further proof of this administration’s disregard for just-war teaching.

Neuhaus finally did address Abu Ghraib in the October 2004 First Things in an essay called “Drawing the Line Against Torture.” His comments, though welcome, still strike me as problematic. Here is his opening paragraph:

The outrages committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq justly sparked worldwide protest. Never mind that much of the protest was motivated by opposition to American policy or generalized America-bashing. We handed them the bat with which to bash us. The pictures of what happened and the failures of policy that permitted what happened will long be cited as evidence against the claim that America is the champion of human rights and dignity. The damage is grave.

Neuhaus seems to be saying that, while Abu Ghraib was a terrible thing, it isn’t enough to constitute the sort of evidence needed to counter American claims to be “the champion of human rights and dignity.” That raises the question, What would constitute such evidence? But his defense of U.S. intentions sits uneasily with other things he says. Rightly and unequivocally, he rejects the “few bad apples” argument, writing that the Justice Department’s own Office of Legal Counsel was trying to find loopholes in the prohibition against torture as early as 2002. Thus, Neuhaus is open to, even persuaded by, the possibility that the blame for the horrors of Abu Ghraib extends high up in the chain of command (though he is clear that it doesn’t go as high as the president). But if high-ranking Justice Department officials are implicated, doesn’t that constitute evidence against “the claim that America is the champion of human rights and dignity”? If it doesn’t constitute such evidence, what kind of evidence is it?

In Neuhaus’s remarks, Abu Ghraib is treated as an isolated event, not a problem pervading the entire war on terror in prisons across Afghanistan, Iraq, and at Guantánamo. There is no sense in Neuhaus’s condemnation of the “outrages committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib” that the events in that now notorious prison have wider implications for the war on terror, the competence of the current administration, and the moral character of the American people. Neuhaus says nothing about the massive random arrests or the denial of fair trials. (Such injustices fall, presumably, under “failure of policy which permitted what happened.”) There is nothing about the reaction in the Islamic world, unless “worldwide protest...motivated by opposition to American policy or generalized America-bashing” counts. Nothing about the way the photographs of torture have become virtual recruitment ads for Al Qaeda. I don’t mean to suggest that Neuhaus doesn’t think these things are important, only that I am curious why he doesn’t think they are important enough to explore in any detail. For Neuhaus, Abu Ghraib presents an opportunity to condemn torture, but not an opportunity to think about this war.

“We dare not trust ourselves to torture,” writes Neuhaus. He is right. We dare not. But we have. And so now what we need is not generalities about the evils of torture. That is what we needed two years ago when First Things was brushing off in bello questions. Now we need a long close look in the mirror and at those photographs, to see if they show the same thing.

 

 

Is Iraq a just war?

 

Abu Ghraib presents a dilemma for Christian defenders of Bush’s “war” on terror. The argument that Abu Ghraib was just the work of “a few bad apples” might have convinced some, but it should give pause to theologians who spend so much time telling Americans how corrupted we have become because society has turned away from religious truth. I am sure George W. Bush meant what he said when he reacted to the photographs of tortured prisoners with “their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.” But you don’t have to spend much time reading First Things or other “orthodox” critics of secularism to wonder about that. Christian conservatives regularly tell us how “barbarian” and “nihilist” we as a culture have become. Over and over again we are told about how debased American sexual practices are. War has always created its own horrors, but when you add soldiers produced in a culture as debased as First Things thinks this one is, Abu Ghraib should be no surprise at all. Surely, when seen through the lens of the conservative Christian indictment of American culture, the events at Abu Ghraib must raise the question of whether America can produce soldiers capable of jus in bello.

One of the curious things about “Drawing the Line Against Torture” is the way Neuhaus concedes that the responsibility for the abuses goes all the way up to higher officials, but he still manages to throw in a jab at the America-bashers. Elsewhere, Weigel claimed that the recovery of the just-war tradition entailed nothing less than “the public moral hygiene of the Republic.” Abu Ghraib shows that he was far more on target than he knew.

Alternatively, it could be said that the torturers were not debased before they got to Iraq. Iraq debased them. Perhaps Abu Ghraib tells us more about modern war and occupation than it does about American culture. I don’t believe that Abu Ghraib reveals how debased we are. It does not confirm the jeremiads of the cultural critics. It is a symptom of war, especially of those aspects of war conducted in defiance of jus in bello, in secrecy, behind doors closed to the ICRC, beyond the Geneva Conventions. The administration’s failure to discourage such abuses, and its pathetic attempts to account for torture after it was exposed, are not needed to confirm the corruption of our political culture. We already knew that, already knew that we live in an America where the speech of politicians is as necessarily manipulative as anything coming from Madison Avenue. Abu Ghraib tells us little we didn’t already know about war, occupation, and the modern state.

That particular view may just be willful and irresponsible optimism in light of an ABC News/Washington Post poll last summer, which found that 35 percent of Americans think torture is acceptable in some cases. Still, I know a few of the soldiers in Iraq. I have chatted with them in Baghdad and Erbil, on the streets and in the fortress of the Green Zone, or waiting in line at the concrete and razor-wire jungle of a checkpoint at Baghdad International Airport. I rather like them. I can easily imagine grabbing a drink with them. We can talk about things I can’t talk about with my Iraqi friends, or my European humanitarian friends, things like college basketball, or golfer Phil Mickelson’s finally winning a major, or (with one guy) the Mother’s Day caddis hatch in the Yellowstone River Valley. And I pity them. I don’t mean to be patronizing, but of all the many people currently occupying Iraq—soldiers, administrators, contractors, journalists, and NGO workers like myself—our soldiers are the most vulnerable.

Last June I was on a flight from Erbil to Baghdad. As is often the case, the book I was reading served as the catalyst for a conversation with the person sitting next to me. He was a Department of Defense contractor with an interest in theology. (The book was Rowan Williams’s On Christian Theology—one can imagine what would happen if only more contractors in Iraq were interested in Rowan Williams.) Like so many American participants in this war, whether soldiers or contractors, he didn’t take long to begin to complain. He told me with baffled amazement that many of the army’s Humvees are not fitted with armored windshields. He asked me how an administration that can’t even protect its soldiers from insurgents is supposed to protect the American people from global terrorism.

Here is Neuhaus in March 2004:

Quite suddenly, it seems, there are four imminent developments of most particular interest to a magazine of religion, culture, and public life. Each has the potential of being a benchmark of historic change. Not necessarily in order of importance they are the response to Mel Gibson’s The Passion, the campaign for the marriage amendment, the report of the National Review Board on the Catholic scandals (and the responses to it), and the prospect of John Kerry being the Democratic nominee....All very interesting, all of potentially historic significance, and on all four developments there will be much more in forthcoming issues.

None of these things is remotely as important as what was going on and is going on in Iraq. Yet Iraq is not a benchmark of any kind or a “development of most particular interest” for what is arguably this country’s most influential conservative theological journal. For those of us who lean more naturally to the “orthodox” rather than the “liberal” side of church issues, this has been experienced as a profound loss. When will this president’s most theologically articulate supporters admit that the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the absence of compelling evidence of a link with Al Qaeda mean there was no just cause for this war, and that the incompetence and duplicity of the current administration mean that there was no competent authority for this war? If, alternatively, the war’s agile Catholic defenders think getting rid of Saddam counts as a just cause, they have some serious rewriting of the tradition to do. Most of all, as George Weigel reminds us, they must explain their moral muteness in a time of war.

 


Related: Installing Democracy by Bruce Russert

Published in the 2004-12-03 issue: 

Peter Dula is assistant professor of Bible and religion at Eastern Mennonite University. He was Iraq Program Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee from 2004 to 2006.

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