The Common Good
May-June 2003

The Lessons of War

by Jim Wallis | May-June 2003

The American-led war against Iraq has begun.

The American-led war against Iraq has begun. Over the past six months, tens of millions of people, including churches and religious leaders from all over the world, undertook a powerful campaign to stop this war and offered serious alternatives to confront the real threats posed by Saddam Hussein. But now the fighting and killing has begun. As I write, the early American military confidence has run into serious Iraqi resistance and casualties are mounting—both civilian and military. It is not too early to begin to assess the lessons of war.

1. Nobody should be surprised that a vastly superior American fighting force will vanquish a vastly inferior Iraqi army. But one of America's worst characteristics is hoping that success wipes away all the moral questions. In the long run, it won't. War is always ugly, and this one will be too.

2. There are many more civilian casualties in modern warfare than military casualties. Smart bombs are never as perfect as boasted, and not all Iraqis may want to be "liberated" by an American occupation. Above all, we must remember that "collateral damage" is never collateral to the families and loved ones of those killed in war. Don't accept the first reports on casualties from governments (on either side) or "embedded" journalists—many of whom now sound more like cheerleaders than reporters. Be sure that technology does not ultimately usurp theology or morality. Find alternative sources for information. Watch and wait for the real story.

3. Humanitarian aid must never be co-opted by the military as "force enhancement" (as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now terms it). Assistance to the victims of war must never become another arm of military power. Instead it is the painful task to be taken on after the destruction caused by war. Many predict that the aftermath of this war could be far more dangerous and costly, in human terms, than the military campaign. Listen to the non-governmental relief organizations as we move forward.

4. If an evil, dangerous, and unpopular regime does collapse quickly, that is not an endorsement of war as the answer but a sign that a better way to resolve the threat might well have been possible. The best wisdom of most church leaders, Nobel Peace laureates, and a majority of international political figures and diplomats around the world was that alternatives to a full-scale military assault on Iraq were not adequately tested. This was not a war of last resort.

5. A pre-emptive war of choice, rather than of necessity, fought against overwhelming world opinion and without approval by the United Nations, will not create an atmosphere of cooperation for post-war reconstruction nor, most significant, for the crucial international collaboration needed to defeat the real threats of terrorism.

6. A new world order based on unilateral rather than multilateral action, military power rather than international law, and the sole decisions of the world's last remaining superpower over the deliberations of the community of nations will not create a framework the world can or should trust for peace.

7. Unresolved injustice—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, feudal Arab regimes protected by oil, and globalization policies that systematically give advantage to wealthy nations over poor countries and people—remains a root cause of violence and will not be overcome by the imposition of American military superiority.

8. Dissent in a time of war is not only Christian, it is also patriotic. A long and honorable record of opposition to war in church tradition and American history puts dissent in the mainstream of Christian life and American citizenship. Rather than acquiesce to the war, prayerful and thoughtful dissent is more important than ever.

9. The churches have demonstrated the most remarkable unity in our history in opposition to a war, even before the war with Iraq started. The American churches didn't just say "no" to war, but offered compelling and credible alternatives. These alternatives were seriously considered by many political leaders around the world, but not by our own government. An American president who increasingly uses the language of Christian faith refused even to meet with American church leaders for discernment and prayer as he made momentous decisions to go to war. The American churches are now in deep solidarity with the worldwide body of Christ and may have to choose between their Christian alliances and the demands and policies of their own government. We must learn to be Christians first and Americans second.

10. The onset of war with Iraq does not demonstrate the failure of the peace movement, but rather the failure of democracy. Tens of millions of people around the world have become engaged in active citizenship against the policies of pre-emptive war for resolving the greatest threats to peace and security. It is time to build on that movement, rather than withdraw from collective action. We must learn the differences between grief and despair, between lamenting and languishing, between hope and hostility. We are stronger now, not weaker. Our action has just begun.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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