Until the October 2004 issue [of First Things], the last time [Fr. John] 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.” ~Peter Dula, Commonweal
I hesitate to add many comments to this, not least because Mr. Dula does such a fine job of exposing the flaws of Neuhaus and Weigel as theologians, particularly regarding their general silence about questions of ius in bello. These flaws emerge because policy advocacy and partisan attachment have come to unbalance the moral equilibrium and conscience of these gentlemen, which is all the more tragic when they seem unwilling to perceive how much the war they endorse feeds off of the culture of death that they otherwise deplore and denounce. The reason I am hesitant to say more is that I had seen the particular remark made by Neuhaus, cited above, when it was first published, and I was already far from “mute.”
In fact, I was offended, perhaps intemperately so, and wrote what was an unfortunately far too impassioned letter to Fr. Neuhaus that expressed what can only be called my visceral and angry response to this unfortunate example of moral indifference–at nearly two years’ remove, I cannot see that my judgement of it would be any different today, though I hope my response would be more restrained. I found it hard to grasp how someone could appear to dismiss the deaths that result from a war of aggression by claiming, more or less, that there weren’t very many or that it ‘saved more lives’ in the end. This is an ugly moral calculus that still strikes me as strange.
In fairness to Fr. Neuhaus, he responded decently to my angry critique, but I never had the impression that I had misunderstood him in the first place. The deaths of those who have died in this war were acceptable to prevent probable future deaths, even though by the time of this article–the fall of 2003–the rank injustice of the war had to have been clear to anyone committed to a Christian just war tradition. The arrogant condemnation of opponents of war as having been “abysmally wrong on almost every point” now stares the neoconservatives at First Things in the face, and to their errors of judgement they indeed seem to have nothing to say.
At its core, the question becomes this: can an otherwise illegal war, by secular standards (and it was a violation of international law), to overthrow by acts of invasion and aggression the established government of another country, justified in the end only by the erstwhile humanitarian goods that destroying such a government can bring, be considered just? Very simply, in every major Christian tradition, the answer has always been no. Moreover, can it be just when the authority waging that war is not even legally justified to wage such a war by its own basic law? Obviously not. But, then, the gentlemen at First Things have an even poorer appreciation of constitutionalism than they have of just war theory.
Tyranny delegitimises an authority with respect to its own subjects, but it does not actually give a foreign authority carte blanche to attack him. Also, the definition of which authorities are tyrannical and which are not is usually entirely opportunistic and not based in deep moral concerns about the injustice and misrule of tyranny: it is a useful propaganda tool that allows those in power to quell opposition (after all, who would support tyranny?), and is thus a mechanism for abusing its own power.
The bottom line is that so-called humanitarian wars are unjust: they presume to redress grievances that the warring party has not suffered, and inflict suffering and wrongs on people who have done the warring party no wrong. This places the warring party clearly in the wrong: he has struck first, caused suffering and death of his own volition and then cheerily congratulated the corpses at his feet that he has saved them. It is but a small step, easily made, from this erstwhile defense of the weak or oppressed to a hackneyed excuse of tyrants to start wars or aggrandise their territories (at the risk of invoking the most tired parallel in political writing, I would remind everyone that Berlin cited the ‘oppression’ and injustices committed against Germans in Czechoslovakia, which were not fictional, as one of its legitimate causes in taking that land, which paved the way to the general conflagration that followed).
It is not appropriate and it is not given to the authority of one land to seek after the welfare of subjects in another land, and I would suggest that this is, in fact, neglect of that authority’s proper role and its proper place in the world and is therefore a kind of impiety. If that authority is Christian, or purports to be, it cannot in good conscience start a war. That is an inescapable truth that no amount of pacifist-bashing and liberal-baiting can overcome.