Politics & Policy

Civilian Casualties & Turmoil

Lay responsibility re: Iraq.

Not that it matters to most people, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church lays down as a fundamental principle of its method of thinking about morally obligatory wars that, in the end, the last responsibility for making decisions falls on public authorities — lay persons, not clerics. Weighing the circumstances of whether to go to war or not falls upon the prudence of those responsible for the common good [See #2309]. In republics, these are the elected public authorities, that is, people like Berlusconi, Blair, and Bush, along with their parliaments, according to law. This is one more instance of “the age of the laity” announced by the Second Vatican Council of 1965.

That was a muted point in the statement issued on the war in Iraq by the U.S. Catholic bishops last November. In fact, the bishops delivered themselves of a number of prudential judgments about key circumstances regarding Iraq, on which they have no particular grace, as bishops, to be certain they are right.

We need to review a few of those circumstances in a new light. But let us first note that war is not always to be evaded. Sometimes it is morally obligatory.

It would have been morally wrong, for instance, for the United States to have fallen back and defended only the continental United States during World War II. Agreed?

In any case, the Vatican itself encouraged the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, and has expressly approved the war against the terrorists, although not the war against Iraq.

But in what way is the regime of Milosevic in Kosovo less horrific than the barbaric practices of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? (There are many personal testimonies to the unendurable tortures Saddam has inflicted on tens of thousands of families in Iraq.)

What are the differences between Iraq and Kosovo? For one thing, it is very important that war against an Arab sovereign such as Saddam not be construed as a religious war. It is actually far better for the Pope in advance to be visibly opposed to a war in Iraq, even while pleading for Iraq’s compliance with the U.N. resolutions.

The present point is that war can sometimes be morally obligatory, to defend the weak and the defenseless against remorseless aggression.

As a matter of prudential judgment, on this narrow issue of whether there are more reasons to intervene in Iraq on humanitarian grounds than in Kosovo, the evidence points hands down to weightier reasons to intervene in Iraq. In Italy, the Left (which led the intervention in Kosovo) is deeply embarrassed by this evidence, in the face of its refusal to support a humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The Italian Left is willing to allow the poor and tyrannized and tortured of Iraq to suffer indefinitely. The Italian Left’s greater passion is to upbraid the United States. In Kosovo, they needed the United States to bear 90 percent of the fighting load, while they lightened their own consciences of the sufferings borne by the victims of Milosevic.

Now they oppose the United States more than they love the Iraqi, who suffer under Saddam, bitterly and unaided.

The reasons why the U.S. may have to go to war against Iraq do not expressly include this humanitarian motive. But they could. The fact is, however, that there are even more weighty reasons. Nonetheless, the objections against war fly. Like these:

What about the effects of an Iraq war on the Muslim and Arab street? Won’t there be horrible turmoil? Do the Americans want to anger one billion Muslims?

That may be the fear of the bishops. But as a matter of fact, the New York Times (no friend of the Bush administration, and no friend of the war in Iraq) reports (Feb. 16) that leaders of the Arab nations supporting an intervention of the U.S. in Iraq (there are at least five of them) are predicting that great jubilation will welcome American and allied troops, and great victory celebrations, and dancing in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Masul, and other cities. These sights, they say, will change the perception of the Arab streets. The joy of the Afghani after their liberation certainly did.

Perhaps this prediction is wrong. But since these Arab leaders are staking their reign and even their lives on it, it would seem to have at least as much validity as the much more pessimistic fears of the bishops of the United States, faraway.

A lot about this judgment depends on knowledge of the brutality of Saddam Hussein and the fear and loathing of him within Iraq.

Who is correct?

What about immense civilian casualties? Such casualties are inadmissible.

It would be absurd to predict no civilian casualties. War always brings pain (even if it is only to combatants) and family grieving. But what if there are surprisingly few? What if, at any rate, the rules of engagement of the United States forces, like those for all of NATO today, insist that troops must never fire deliberately upon civilians or civilian centers? In that case, any civilians that do happen to be casualties are purely accidental, usually because of weapon malfunction. At any rate, such rules of engagement can be promised, because they are in effect. There will be no deliberate casualties. And there are unusually powerful motives to keep collateral ones exceedingly low by unprecedented care in selecting targets; and there are military reasons why this might be the best of all tactics.

Without knowing anything about the secret planning for the upcoming war (upcoming, at least, unless Saddam suddenly disarms and proves that he has done so), we can figure out what is likely to happen. The whole point of this intervention is to side with the Iraqi people against this most cruel torturer and tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Wouldn’t it make sense to design a war that causes minimal injury, even inconvenience, to civilians? Don’t we want most civilians, and even the army, even elements of the Republican Guard, to turn against the monster who tyrannizes them?

Such a war needs to be quite different from the first Gulf War of 1991. Saddam’s forces are one-third their former size. He knows that most of them are disloyal to him, anxious to see him go. He knows how many tens of thousands of Iraqi families he has turned against him by torturing or murdering their relatives. He knows that many of those close to him (even within his own family) have defected, or “had to be” murdered by him before they did, and that more than one attempt has been made to poison him, etc. He is even less than in 1991 a much loved leader. He is actually much hated.

The best thing the U.S. forces could do is to support the will of the Iraqi people to be free of Saddam Hussein, and the worst thing they could do is to injure in any avoidable way the well-being of the Iraqi people.

My own judgment is that there will ensue the most extraordinary efforts in military history to protect a people, while trying to topple their brutal tyrant, and that civilian casualties will be surprisingly few. For certain, that is bound to be the strategy.

I read in many news reports that Saddam Hussein is doing is best to raise civilian casualties, by planting weapons systems and soldiers in the midst of the civilian population, and forcing other civilians to ring military installations so that they might become victims (for showing on television). In other words, Saddam understands the logic of U.S. strategy, too. Americans want no Iraqi casualties, while he wants many. Heavy civilian casualties are his only hope.

But there is no provision in just-war theory for “preventive war.”

Well, there is no provision for war by non-state actors such as al Qaeda, either. For future purposes, just-war theory needs some work, to account for suddenly existing realities. For instance, the capacity of non-state organizations to inflict grave and lasting (even unprecedented) damage to civilian populations. And to do so in total secrecy, clandestinely, without a single sign of “imminent” attack (“imminent” is a condition that looms large in traditional theory).

But all that future work-to-be-done is not needed today in the case of war in Iraq. The moral grounds for this war are quite traditional. Legally, the United States is operating under international law, under Security Council Resolution #1441 (and its 15 predecessors, to the same effect), which have kept the Gulf War of 1991 not quite closed. In international law, Saddam has been obliged to disarm, and to prove that he has disarmed (as other nations have been, from South Africa to members of the former USSR), simply as a condition of his remaining president, and as a condition for closing the first Gulf War.

It was the solemn obligation of the U.N. and of the United States to oblige him to disarm by force, if he did not do so willingly, even before the dramatic events of September 11, 2001. One of the reasons for going to war under traditional just-war theory is to restore the rule of international law. For peace is not a feeling. It is the work of political action, mediated by law, to secure the minimum conditions of international justice and order. War is sometimes morally obligatory to restore the tranquility of international order.

September 11, 2001, provided another traditional reason: self-defense. We know from captured files and film in Afghanistan how eagerly al Qaeda has been seeking chemical and biological weapons that would wreak maximal destruction on civilian populations. We know from defectors and past admissions of Saddam and past work of U.N. investigators that Saddam had immense stores of such weapons, many of which have never yet been accounted for. Even before one has any knowledge of actual cooperation between Saddam and Osama bin Laden’s forces (or other terrorist groups), one can form a realistic judgment of probabilities. What Saddam has is the weapons, but not a delivery system; what al Qaeda has is the delivery system but not the biological weapons.

The restoration of international law, and self-defense, are two traditional motives for going to war. There are other conditions, of course. Ticking them off one by one is the way prudent persons count down to a conclusion.

The costs of getting reality wrong can nowadays be very severe, indeed.

Many practical statesmen in many countries are wagering their political fate that they are reading reality correctly. They must answer for their judgment both to God and to the people of their nations.

Paragraph 2309 of the Catechism insists that that judgment belongs in the end to the prudence of public authorities, not to anyone else. Lay responsibility cannot be evaded.

— Michael Novak, winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, was an expert witness for the defense in Glassroth v. Moore. His latest book is On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.


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