The demise of conscience among the American people is even more pronounced in the context of the warfare state than it is in that of the welfare state. The best example of this phenomenon can be seen in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. By examining Iraq, we can see how embracing the warfare state has stultified the conscience of the American people.
An examination of conscience with respect to Iraq requires an analysis of two things: first, the various rationales for the invasion and occupation and, second, a focus on the Iraqi people who have been killed or maimed during the entire operation.
Fundamental to any moral philosophy is that it is wrong to take the life of another person. An exception to that rule, however, at least for those who are not complete pacifists, involves the concept of self-defense. If Person A threatens Person B with deadly force, Person B has the right to defend himself by using deadly force against Person A.
Most nations codify the injunction against murder (and the concept of self-defense) in their criminal laws, making it illegal to wrongfully kill another person. But whether they do or do not is irrelevant from a moral standpoint. Even if the state fails to criminalize murder, the act continues to be immoral and continues to violate God’s commandment against killing.
These moral and legal principles apply to war as well. The people of one nation, operating through their government, have no moral or legal right to attack and kill the people of another nation. But if Nation A attacks Nation B, the citizens of Nation B have the moral and legal right to defend themselves from the attack. Moreover, the defense that the citizens of Nation B put up to Nation A’s invasion cannot serve as an ex post facto moral or legal justification for killing on the part of troops belonging to Nation A.
These principles were applied at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal following World War II. The Allied Powers charged German officials with the war crime of waging a “war of aggression.” What the charge meant was that Germany had initiated war against other countries, including militarily weak ones, killing inhabitants of those countries in the process. The inference drawn from Nuremburg was that while the countries that had been attacked could kill German soldiers in self-defense, German soldiers, as part of the aggressor force, had no right to kill people in the countries that Germany had invaded.
Conscience and aggressive war
Everyone agrees that neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi people ever attacked the United States. Everyone agrees that no Iraqi participated in the 9/11 attacks. There is no question but that in the Iraq War, the United States is the aggressor nation and Iraq is the defending nation.
In the run-up to the invasion, I recall reading an article in which U.S. soldiers were asking military chaplains whether God would forgive them for killing Iraqis. It was obvious that their consciences were bothering them. I suspect that they were wondering whether it was consistent with God’s law to kill people whose government had not attacked their country.
I’ll never forget reading what some of the chaplains told those soldiers. They told them that they need not concern themselves with what lay ahead. They said that they could place their trust in the judgment of their commander in chief. In other words, they could go into Iraq and kill people without having any crisis of conscience.
One cannot help but wonder whether those chaplains, in reaching their judgment, confronted the critical moral question: How could the killing of any Iraqi be morally justified, given that the U.S. government was going to be the aggressor in the conflict? How could killing people while serving as part of an aggressor force be reconciled with God’s laws? I can’t help but wonder how many U.S. soldiers who were struggling with their conscience before the invasion are bedeviled by it today.
A reflection of the demise of conscience that has accompanied the warfare state is the fact that, as far as I know, only one U.S. soldier refused to deploy to Iraq on the grounds that to do so would involve the wrongful killing of people. He was an officer — Lt. Ehren Watada. Watada pointed out that not only was the war on Iraq illegal from the standpoint of U.S. law (because the president had failed to secure the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war against Iraq), it would also constitute the war crime of waging a war of aggression. Watada’s conscience would not permit him to kill people in such a conflict.
How was Watada treated by U.S. officials? As a criminal. The U.S. military prosecuted him for refusing to obey orders to deploy to Iraq. He was ridiculed for following the dictates of conscience. The Pentagon’s mistreatment of Watada was a powerful message to any other soldier who might be struggling with his conscience — that this is what happens to people of conscience in the U.S. army.
While several civil libertarians came to Watada’s defense, it would be safe to say that most Americans didn’t know about or didn’t care about his case. Conscience, it is widely assumed, can play no role once the nation is at war, at least not with respect to whether one’s own government is in the right or the wrong. All that matters is victory. It was the same mindset that guided most Germans in World War II.
The WMD rationale
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush and other U.S. officials tried mightily to cast the war within the “self-defense” category, no doubt so that both the American people and U.S. soldiers could feel at ease with the killing that was about to occur. If they could convince people that the United States was the defending nation and Iraq the aggressor nation, then most people would have no qualms about killing Iraqi attackers.
This attempt was first manifested by trying to tie Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks and, later, to the anthrax attacks. When those attempts failed, Bush resorted to his now-famous WMD claim. What he and other U.S. officials were suggesting was that, while Iraq had not yet attacked the United States, there was no doubt that Iraq was preparing to attack the United States with WMDs.
While Bush never expressly said that an Iraqi attack was imminent, that was clearly the implication. That’s what Condoleezza Rice’s famous smoking-gun, mushroom-cloud assertion, along with Colin Powell’s ominous WMD charts before the UN, was all about — to scare people into thinking that this was going to be an urgent war of self-defense. That way, they could feel at ease about killing Iraqis.
One of the most significant outcomes in the history of the Iraq invasion, especially from the standpoint of individual conscience, was that the WMDs failed to materialize. By the time that confirmation was made, there had already been countless Iraqis killed. At that point, many Americans, including U.S. soldiers, may well have said to themselves, “Well, President Bush thought that Saddam was about to attack the United States with WMDs, and I put my faith in President Bush. It’s obvious that our president just made an honest mistake. Nobody is morally responsible for all those deaths.”
But there is one big problem with that position, from a moral standpoint: the circumstantial evidence leads inexorably in one direction — that Bush’s WMD rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was fake and false. Yet, most Americans still don’t want to confront that horrible possibility because to do so would involve confronting their own support for a conflict that has now taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. After all, how many people have called for congressional investigations into whether President Bush intentionally misled the American people prior to his war on Iraq?
Recall that Bush spent several months unsuccessfully trying to secure a UN resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq. If a nation was really in the process of preparing to attack the United States, would the president actually spend any time at all going to the UN and asking for a resolution to permit him to defend the country? Of course not.
Second, in the run-up to the invasion Bush repeatedly claimed that he was authorized to invade to enforce UN resolutions requiring Saddam “to disarm.” But Bush knew that legally only the UN, not the United States, could enforce its own resolutions. Moreover, if Iraq actually was about to attack the United States, would the president really be looking for UN resolutions on which to base his defense of the country?
Third, throughout the 1990s the U.S. government had imposed on Iraq and enforced what were arguably the most brutal set of economic sanctions against a nation in history. Contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, the sanctions had even resulted in the resignation of two high UN officials — Hans von Sponeck and Dennis Halliday, who, out of conscience, could not participate in the “genocide” produced by the sanctions.
What was the purpose of the sanctions? To encourage the Iraqi people, including their government officials, to oust Saddam Hussein from power and replace him with someone more acceptable to U.S. officials.
Thus, the circumstantial evidence led strongly to one conclusion: The real purpose of the invasion of Iraq was not to protect the United States from a WMD attack or to enforce UN resolutions but rather to simply achieve what the sanctions had failed to achieve throughout the 1990s — a change in the regime governing Iraq.
So what would be wrong with that? What’s wrong with it is that it’s morally wrong and a violation of God’s laws to kill the people of another nation simply to achieve a change of administrations within their government. The government that is seeking the regime change through an invasion is the aggressor nation. In fact, an invasion for the purpose of regime change is also illegal under the UN Charter, to which the United States is a signatory.
This article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Freedom Daily.