Friday, January 07, 2005

Homework time

[I have a feeling this is going to be a long post, probably boring to most readers. It will require both reading and thinking, two scarce commodoties in the age of internet surfing. I have posted this sort of thing before and got zero comments, so it will not hurt my feelings if none appear here. The reader is free to move on now to the next soundbite.]

First of all meet Peter Dula. His short essay, Apocalypse now: Dispatch from Iraq, appears in Christian Century, cited in the next post about Real Live Preacher. He writes a first person account of life in Iraq before both he and his protagonists left for safety in Jordan. It paints a picture of everyday life that is consistent with many of the descriptions that I have been reading. Here is a snip...

I suddenly realized why Nadia had never let me walk the half-mile home from her house. She always had her husband or son drive me. That was back in the spring. Now they have fled to Jordan because of a series of phone calls from someone asking for her son but refusing to leave a name. Nadia now lives in Amman, with her son, who was a university student, and her young daughter. Because they have very little money, her husband went back to Baghdad, where he has been an accountant for a firm in the city for many years. But a couple of weeks ago his company was threatened by a simple note that read, "Give us $1 million or there will be a car bomb at your door."

At the end of the article is this: Peter Dula is the Iraq program coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee. He has spent the last ten months in Iraq and Jordan. His article The War in Iraq: How Catholic conservatives got it wrong, can be found at .
That link led me to Peter Dula's analysis of the war in Commonweal Magazine.

He describes how some prominent theologians, with the best of intentions, lent their influence to the waging of this war in Iraq, not by vigorous support, but by simply remaining mute, even as moral questions multiplied. Even now, by his opinion, Richard John Neuhaus and First Things Magazine is falling short of speaking with moral clarity against what has become one of America's most savage and out of control modern quagmires. He says, parenthetically...

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.

This essay is too long to be summarized, but it is worth the time it takes to read and study.
Here are a few snips that may pique the interest of someone who wants to examine more closely the war in Iraq, seen through the lens of someone who is more interested in moral clarity than political or military "success", whatever that may be...

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.

Before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in its aftermath, Weigel and First Things promoted a reasoned debate about the war on terrorism. ...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"...

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."

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.

He quotes Neuhaus: 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. ...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.

And responds: 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. ...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.

He goes on to discuss prison abuses and the insidious way that the environment of war corrupts those surrounded by it. He points out that the evils that have been reported are more the result of what happens to people (soldiers) after they arrive than systemic moral flaws they may have had before. 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.

This is a soul-searching piece of work.
The sad part is not what is presented, but the fact that those most in need of reading and digesting it will dismiss it before they ever allow themselves to consider that what he says may be correct.


Caroline said...

Excellent, EXCELLENT post. Thank you.

Hoots said...

Thank you.
I am encouraged to discover that at least one other person thinks so. You know, sometimes that's all it takes. One word of encouragement.

Once again I revisited the Commonweal article. The final sentences are really quite pointed:

"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."

Caroline said...

Agreed. Hopefully, this is at least a step in amending that trend: Cardinal says Bush broke Iraq promiseI hope the good Cardinal's statements were encouraged by a larger contingent of the Church. And hopefully, a louder one in the future.