Were the Wars Worth It?
Asking questions of justice, responsibility, stewardship, and security ten years on.


Ten years after the September 11 attacks, as we ponder questions of justice and responsibility, stewardship and security, National Review Online asks some familiar analysts and veterans to reflect on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many of the goods arising from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan will never be known, as our involvement inevitably prevented evils that would otherwise have happened. But some of the evils that our leaders told us to fear, we now know would never have happened, and were disastrously overestimated, one of them to the extent of falsely rationalizing one of the two wars.

The harms are easier to count: the deaths of more than 6,000 American service members; over a trillion dollars in war spending with no end in sight; civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated at over a hundred thousand; the merciless suppression of Iraqi Christianity; already brittle relationships with Mideast Muslims made more so; etc.

What are we to make of the two wars?

In my judgment, the preemptive war in Iraq was wrongly launched, an unjust war from its start. I do not believe any retrospective glance at belated benefits can change that. Who is to blame? An overzealous commander-in-chief? Hawkish advisers? Faulty intelligence? Bogus informers? There’s enough to go around.

The choice to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 was a different matter. It made sense to everyone because it was retributively just and arguably necessary for the protection of real U.S. interests: dismantling al-Qaeda to destroy its safe haven, and ending the corrupt Taliban regime were just causes to launch a strike. But it is now ten years later. The reasons we’re still there are not so clear.

— E. Christian Brugger is Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

“Tell me how this ends.” Gen. David Petraeus’s famous query remains largely unanswered ten years after the 9/11 attacks. The persistent uncertainty regarding both Iraq and Afghanistan reflects above all the acute dilemma of translating a just war into a just peace in today’s international environment.

What is clearer now is that post-conflict arrangements require as much prudent statecraft and moral reflection as the resort to war (ius ad bellum) and right conduct within war (ius in bello). This is particularly imperative where forcible regime change leaves a political vacuum in a deeply wounded society that is surrounded by hostile neighbors. Unfortunately, there is a lack of readily applicable precedents, since the heavy-handed but successful post-conflict measures once deemed necessary and appropriate — as in the cases of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — are simply unthinkable today, especially in an Islamic context.

Unfortunately, Colin Powell’s rough-and-ready Pottery Barn rules (“you break it, you own it”) don’t come with detailed practical and moral guidance for policymakers. And the back-of-the-envelope adhocery that all too often characterized U.S. policy in Iraq subordinated American interests and values to expediency, atmospherics, and political correctness. Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s stunted political development are reflections of an overall failure to relate ends and means, which distinguishes America’s relative military successes from its diplomatic failures.

To cite just one example, the destruction of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities proceeded apace while two American administrations averted their gaze, indifferent to the critical distinction between doing no harm and doing nothing at all. For Iraqi Christians, it is their enduring misfortune — and our enduring shame — to have learned the hard way just how this ends.

— John F. Cullinan has written frequently about Iraq for NRO since 2002.