Sunday, May 21, 2006

Baghdad ER – The Cost of War

Here is last Friday’s On Point radio program, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, on the HBO special Baghdad ER, which will be broadcast tonight and on Memorial Day. It’s a documentary about the doctors and medics working on American and Iraqi casualties in Baghdad.

The On Point program was powerful and very difficult to listen to (for example, a prayer by a chaplain over a marine that the doctors had labored to save for over 13 hours), but I feel that more Americans need to listen to it, or to see the HBO program. Almost 2,500 American troops have been killed in Iraq. Almost 18,000 have been wounded. The deaths and injuries suffered by Iraqi civilians are much higher and difficult to calculate. It’s important to note that the number of dead would be much, much higher if not for the expert care at the trauma units. Over 90% of the casualties delivered to them survive.

I’m currently in the process of struggling with the Just War Theory, and whether a just war is even possible with today’s weapons and technology. I have close friends who support the war in Iraq. In all honesty and candor, they haven’t known me over the years as a dove. I also have close friends who do not support the war. I think that most of the people who’ve been looking at this blog are emphatically and unequivocally against it. I bought into the WMD and Al Qaeda-connection hype. I supported the action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I have admiration for those serve in uniform. I admire their discipline, their dedication, and their ethos of selflessness and loyalty. I hate to see them ill-used, as when they are driven around Iraq in humvees like ducks in a gallery, waiting for IED’s to take them out. I look at the Honor the Fallen casualty list every day. It is an endless litany… “So and so was killed in Anbar province when an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle”. What a waste.

Although I have always admired the principle of non-violence, I have not always held to the position that it was a practical ideal in reality. I've always believed that although war is never a good thing, it sometimes is regrettably necessary to protect the innocent. I've also held that fascism needs to be actively resisted whenever it arises.

I am starting to wonder however, if the time has come to change my views on that. The world cannot continue going the way it is going, both in economic terms and with the consensus on non-proliferation falling apart. We cannot kill our way out of the current problem. I'm a bit conflicted right now.

For those who support the war in Iraq, I think they should at least accept this fact if there is a necessary war on terror: Iraq was a tactical mistake. The neo-con team, and Dick Cheney in particular, were sold on taking a big risk on Iraq by academics like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. The president seems to think that all you have to do is introduce elections and free-trade zones into a region like this, and that inside every one of these people a red-white-and-blue-born-again-christian will struggle to get out. Generals and politicians always fight the last war. This team did not realize how much the Middle East has been radicalized since 1991.

We went into Viet Nam with a good army and came out with a bad one. Even if you support the war, you have to admit that we are running the same risk here. We are going to use these wonderful men and women up. They are bearing this burden alone. The president does not have this country on a war footing. No sacrifice has been asked of anyone other than to keep on shopping. In the meantime, men who’ve lost feet or taken shrapnel behind their eyes have been returning to combat duty for another tour. It isn’t right.


crystal said...

I guess there are no easy answers to the questions you bring up. My feeling is that a christian just war is an oxymoron. Is the just war theory an invention of Augustine? It seems to be a case of the ends justifying the means.

Liam said...

The just war theory is usually traced back to Augustine, though it probably has earlier philosophic roots and was most elaborated by Aquinas. I think to a certain extent it is an inevitable consequence of Christianity being not a minority sect but the religion of an entire and imperfect society. Very few, if any, of the wars of the past 2000 years have been just according to the theory.

I am for the most part a pacifist, but I realize that complete pacifism not only creates problems for self-defense, but for addressing some of the most severe injustices, such as genocide.

The Iraq war was far from meeting the requirements for a just war from the moment the Bush administration proposed. The way the war has been managed has been criminally incompetent. I feel terribly for all of the soldiers involved, all of the Iraquis whose country has been thrown into a murderous chaos, and for the rest of us, for we live in a much more dangerous world.

Sorry to be so gloomy -- this issue gets me very upset.

Jeff said...

Hi guys,

Right, the Just War Theory is largely attributable to Augustine. You know, I admire Augustine’s intellect and powerful rhetoric, but I have to say that I’m not always his biggest fan. I tend to prefer what he wrote in the early part of his ecclesiastical career. Late in his life, he was in apologetics-combat mode all of the time due to his constantly being pressed hard and challenged by younger eloquent men. He grew more and more pessimistic about human nature as time went on, and the empire started to collapse around him. He may have started falling back onto some of his old Manichee rhetoric. In my view, a lot of what he wrote was mis-used later on by other people to form some of the most obnoxious theological principles ever held within Christianity.

The whole issue about war and Christian principles is very difficult. It seems clear that in the early Church, pacifism was the order of the day. It seemed that they were much more ready to accept martyrdom than to ever even entertain the idea of using violence under any circumstances. This became more complicated as Roman soldiers and generals started to convert to Christianity. I can’t research it at the moment, but I think it was Origin who said that under no circumstances should a Christian ever take up a sword. The Just War tradition has a long history, but there has been a parallel Peace tradition that is even older.

The question for me is, what do we owe to the innocent? We may respond non-violently to what is done to us personally, but what about when there are other innocent lives at stake? Take WWII as an example. The Jews of Europe responded non-violently for the most part to their Nazi persecutors, but it appears that they would have been wiped off of the face of the earth completely if it wasn’t for violent intervention from other parties. Their dignity and moral courage meant nothing to the Nazis. Take Genghis Khan and the Mongol armies as another possible example. Non-violent witness may have carried no power to confront them. History seems to bring up these groups now and then that will gleefully slap the other cheek no matter how many times you offer it.

It’s a tough issue. I fully respect pacifism as long as it doesn’t mean "passivism". Non-violence is not the same thing as doing nothing. The evil still needs to be resisted and confronted. What the non-violent resister needs to be aware of is that he needs even more courage than the soldier does. He needs to be aware that this stance probably will lead to certain death, as the Christs, Kings, Ghandis, and Romeros of history have found out. I don’t know if I have that kind of courage, but I do know that these are the kinds of people who really have the power to change the world.

You guys are right. This war does not fit the criteria, and even from a practical point of view, it was foolhardy. It’s a lot easier to get into a war than to get out of one. It makes me angry too. Sorry about that. I’ll try to lighten up and come up with some less heated and controversial topics.

Kimberly said...

It's hard to know whether to be a supporter of the war or not when the information we get is not always accurate. I have taken a stance to support the troops and not neccisarily all the decisions made by the government. As I was reading in the old testament of the Bible today I saw a lot of similarities between those times and ours as far as wars are concerned. All we can do is pray for our leader's and hope that they make the right decisions.

Jeff said...

Hi Kim,

Thanks for visiting.

You make a good point. What I'm really interested in is hearing from the men and women who've actually served over there, rather than just pundits, reporters, and politicians. We are just now starting to hear their stories as they do interviews, write their books, and run for office. I'm always struck at how devoted and loyal they are to each other. Their expressed views about the war itself and this administration, for the most part, haven't sounded so positive.

Thanks again.

Mike McG... said...

Three comments:
1. "We can't kill our way out of this war." So true; a profoundly helpful reframing. Thank you.
2. My wife and I saw Bagdad ER last night. Incredibly moving. We need to see the wages of war. Only regret: too little focus on Iraqi casualties.
3. While observing the stirring recent marches on behalf of undocumented immigrants, I reflected that we haven't seen such a massive outpouring on behalf of a peace and justice issue since the end of the Vietnam war. Commonalities, then and now: there were concrete, personal consequences for not marching. The House bill would criminalize the undocumented; the draft put middle class boys' lives at risk.

I seriously doubt we'd be in Iraq today if there were a draft. Middle class Americans wouldn't stand for sending their children, but somehow the economic conscription of the poor is tolerable, even to us progressives.

Jeff said...


My apologies! I hadn't noticed your post down here. You make a fabulous point regarding the draft.

I'm going to bump it up to the top in a new thread.


Joe said...

Crystal says it so succinctly: cristian just war = oxymoron. Thanks Crystal. If you don't mind I will use that. I've been banging the stump on this one for years. I suppose that deep down I do it with the hope that people will actually listen and be convinced (there's likely an "ego factor" at play here as well, I'll have to admit it...) But mostly it reverts back to Christ and His definition of Love. He defined it, not in terms of mushy hugs and kisses for our friends and family, but in terms of how we deal with our ENEMIES. If we asked ourselves if Christ could ever justify war, the answer is a no brainer (and no, we cannot equate Christ's "violent" temper tantrum in the temple market to war.) As a follower of Christ I would have to say that there was no greater or more noble cause to fight (and die?) for than for Christ Himself that night in the garden. Yet He was very clear in His example and in his instruction. Have Faith! Have Faith especially in those moments of greatest injustice when all seems lost! Have Faith, though logic tells you to act otherwise. Among His last battles was the urge to give in, to let the cup pass Him by when all seemed lost. What MAN would not feel it?! Yet ultimately He peacefully (not passively) opened His arms to embrace Faith in His Father in the form of death on the cross, pehaps not fully knowing what it would lead to a few days later. It was only through His hideous and unfair death (no doubt perceived as a moment of failure in the eyes of many that witnessed His life and death), that the resurrection could occur.

There's no satisfying answer for us in this life to the injustices inherent in the killing of the innocent (either through abortion or through the pornography of war), yet Christ showed us that killing is not the answer. Killing is an act completely void of Love albeit a logical human reaction in certain circumstances. Sometimes we are lured away from Faith by our emotions and our desire to SEE justice done (yes, see it with our own eyes, in this life, before death.) This is the case with the "Just War": we are hoping to see justice done, with our own eyes by own own hand. But for all its noble intention, it too is an act that lacks Faith. Having said that, turning our backs is not the peaceful alternative here. We need to pursue other active options that don't include killing, but may in the end include laying down our lives.

Clearly Love is the answer. Hope is the answer. Faith, which is illogical by definition is the answer. But Faith requires enormous patience. So much so that we might not SEE the payoff in our lifetimes. But then again, neither did Christ! (Though big dividends came in just a few days later.)

In short War has all of the logic that Faith lacks. I'm confident that I know what Christ would choose (its what He chose!). I only pray to find the strength and courage to do the same.

un abrazo fuerte