Attack on Iraq: Military Must or Moral Mayhem?

[Title given to September 10, 2002, panel
at Western Kentucky University by the organizers of the panel.]

Comments by Dr. Jan Garrett
Department of Philosophy and Religion,
Western Kentucky University

The title proposed for tonight rightly recognizes that this projected war might be a moral issue.


Prof. Richard Falk writes (The Nation August 19/26, 2002, p. 5): "To go legitimately to war in the world that currently exists can be based on three types of consideration: international law [self-defense as set forth in Article 51 backed by a UN mandate], international morality [e.g. intervention to prevent genocide] and necessity." The last means that the survival and fundamental interests of a state are genuinely threatened and not really covered by international law.

"The Administration's argument . . . rests on . . . the [last of the three], the alleged risk posed by Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and the prospect that such weapons would be made available to al-Qaeda for future use against the United States . . . Such a risk, to the scant extent that it exists, can be addressed much more successfully by relying on deterrence . . . than by aggressive warmaking. All the evidence going back to the Iran/Iraq War and the Gulf War shows that Saddam Hussein responds to pressure and threat and is not inclined to risk self-destruction."


The war on Iraq would be a preemptive, offensive war rather than a defensive war -- it would not even be a response to aggression against another country, the justification given for the Gulf War. This time Iraq has invaded no other country and nobody has provided evidence of which I am aware that it has short-term plans that involve invasions.

A major development in thought about war in the twentieth century was general agreement that offensive, preemptive wars are immoral. The UN Charter, which the U.S. helped draft and then signed, says as much. This war would be a giant step backward, encouraging other preemptive wars. See Note below.


If there is a single principle that should guide human conduct it would probably be this: Most important is not to injure other beings deserving our moral consideration. Closely related is the principle that it is also important, when we can, to prevent injury to others.

Now, the pro-war side might appeal to the second principle and argue that surgical removal of Saddam is justified because it could reduce the threat of injury to many people, such as the Kurds. There are several fantasies in this idea. One is that it could be surgical, i.e., with little so-called collateral damage, that is, harm to innocents. Another is the fantasy involved in forgetting that Saddam's successors would be left with roughly the same political, social, cultural, and religious context that produced Saddam in the first place. In another ten years, the world might be faced with Saddam II.

Reflection on right conduct is not only for the occasional ethics lecture or Sunday sermon. Its principles apply to every moment of our waking lives, even when we ignore them or proceed on moral autopilot. Looking at this proposed war ethically we must think of the consequences not only for American lives or interests but for everyone likely to be affected. Indeed, the short-term effects for U.S. citizens might be small, if sources of resistance in Iraq are softened up by fighter planes raining bombs from the sky before ground troops are sent in

Over a million Iraqis, half of them children, have already died from economic blockade since the Gulf War. Many more will be injured, sickened, or die as a result of an intensive bombing campaign, some directly from bombs less smart than claimed by weapons industry public relations, many indirectly from further destruction of the economic and public health infrastructure of Iraq. The likelihood of this result is accepted by the war hawks even if they do not directly wish it to occur.


Are residents and citizens of Iraq less deserving of moral concern than U.S. citizens? In drawing up plans to occupy Iraq, surely the Bush administration assumes that it will have to deal with Iraqis who have their own beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears. Thus, in its own practical assumptions, the administration cannot avoid assigning Iraqis to the class of persons. It is thus radically inconsistent and morally indefensible if the administration makes decisions as if only or primarily perceived U.S. interests count. The same is true for citizens like us debating the issue.

September 10, 2002

Notes prepared for but not necessarily used
in discussion following the opening statements

First Strikes

William Galston, The American Prospect (p. 24) explains:

Just war theorists sometimes justify first strikes. Michael Walzer says that first strikes can . . . be justified before the moment of imminent attack if we have reached the point of "sufficient threat." This has a precise definition:

"[a] a manifest intent to injure,
[b] a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and
[c] a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk"
plus (Galston adds) "the potential injury must be of the gravest possible nature: the loss of territorial integrity or political independence." (TAP 9/23/02, p. 24)

Saddam Hussein does not pose this kind of risk to the United States. As Galston says, "complicity in a 9-11 style terrorist attack on the United States would . . . evoke a regime-ending response." Saddam has reason to know this. Deterrence works much better with dictators who have territory to lose than with stateless terrorists.

Surely the reason that Pearl Harbor was deemed a "day that will live in infamy" was not that it was a military action or attack, but that the Japanese, anticipating an eventual conflict with the U.S., launched a preemptive attack.

Divisions among the Republican Elites

"The War of the Bushes," The American Prospect 9/23/02, p.7.

This anonymous article suggests that the debate over Iraq has become an all-Republican affair because the dividing line cuts right through the Bush family, between father and son. GB senior, along with Scowcroft and Baker, is a man of the world, comfortable with working through the UN, cutting deals with foreign powers or for oil companies, etc. Younger GWB is comparatively a provincial, never mastering foreign languages, not up to diplomacy or complexity. Life will work for GWB only if it is simple, good guys (us) v. bad guys (whoever we designate at the moment).

* * * * *

"The Wimp Factor"

Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal 9/5/02, Maureen Dowd provides insight into debates going on now in the Bush administration. One side (the side to which Bush seems to be listening) implies that Bush senior "wimped out in Iraq" at the end of the Gulf War and "Junior has to fix it. . . . You might think," she says, [that] "the United States would have an elevated debate before deciding to launch a major war against another country. But we've simply had a childish game of Chicken, with different factions sneering at one another: 'You're a wimp!' 'No, you're a wimp!'"

The War on Terrorism

The War on Terrorism is constitutionally absurd because it cannot be declared by Congress since the wars of the sort Congress can declare are wars against states. On the other hand, a war on Iraq could be declared. Yet in an apparently unconstitutional bid for executive power that has precedent in many undeclared military operations over the last several decades (under both Democratic and Republican Presidents), President Bush does not seem (as of 9-10-02) to want to share power with the Congress on this vital matter.

* * * * *

It is mistake to ask whether a war is militarily necessary. [A comment on the title of the panel: Attack on Iraq: Military Must or Moral Mayhem?] To do so is to confuse the question of whether the means used are justified as being necessary to victory with the question whether one is justified in going to war in the first place. Before launching a war, we must ask whether the proposed war itself is, all things considered, the right activity. If we ask whether a war is militarily necessary, we must assume that it is not really a war at all but a skirmish in a larger war. You can guess which war this larger war might be -- Bush's war on terrorism. He announced this war after September 11, 2001, but it has never been declared by Congress and never will be. We were told that it would go on for a long time and the enemy, the forces of evil, would constantly shape-shift.

As a dramatic story this has its attractions-if the current shape of evil has been defined for you, you know what you must do. Life is now meaningful, and humans would rather suffer than live without meaning. But maybe this is the wrong story. Maybe there are other, better stories, closer to the real experience of people and to concern for justice and human rights.

* * * * *

Aerial bombardment, incidentally, comes very close to the definition of terrorism. Terrorism can be defined as the intentional targeting of innocent civilians with violence for political purposes (i.e., so as to coerce through fear). If this is correct, then surely it is not much less reprehensible if one willingly accepts large numbers of innocent casualties as "collateral damage" in a military assault and takes solace in the thought that it is all right if the belligerent is not loved so long as she is feared. Indeed, political "realists," as they are called, may consciously follow Machiavelli in saying that a ruler (or an empire) need not be loved or admired for its goodness so long as it is feared. (Political "realists" are quite at home in high places in Washington.)