John F. Kavanaugh

By the time this column appears, the war in Iraq may be, for the time being, over. But as I write, we are in the thick of it. It started with bad omens: early prisoners of war, deaths by friendly fire, colliding helicopters, an American seemingly killing his fellow soldiers by hand grenades. A wild sandstorm was raging.

There is no longer talk of Saddam’s military collapsing “at the first whiff of gunpowder,” as Richard Perle put it last July. Nor is it Ken Adelman’s “cakewalk.” Yet one still hopes for quick victory without terrible casualties or massive loss of civilian life.

To be against a war in Iraq is not to be against our troops or to be for Saddam Hussein, as difficult as it is for some hawks to understand that. True, there are a few protesters, very few, who are against this war because they are against America or just cannot stand President George Bush. But most who opposed going to war because it was reckless and unjustified now hope that it ends fast, that Hussein is ousted, his people freed of his brutal tyranny, and that it is won by the United States and England with moral restraint.

So far, such restraint is evident. There is no attempt to destroy the country’s infrastructure. The bombing seems to be meticulously directed only at military and political command centers or Saddam Hussein’s grotesque collection of palaces.

Our hope must be, however, that no chemical or biological counterattacks are launched against our invading coalition army. If we were to lose 1,000 soldiers in such an attack, one shudders not only at our loss, but also at the possibly horrendous response our political leadership might entertain.

There is reason to worry about what our response would be, because the process of going to war in the first place seemed unfettered by any evidence that could challenge the president’s “choice” of Iraq. There are other cruel dictators, some even putative allies. There are other countries that not only possess but also have likely marketed weapons of mass destruction. There are other countries that are greater threats to us. There are even two other nations enrolled in the “axis of evil.” Iraq was not chosen because it had some connection to the mass murders of Sept. 11. Iraq was chosen because, with the prodding of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it was the president’s choice.

President George Bush, by all evidence I see, is a sincere man. Those who have ridiculed him as superficial, even stupid, are wrong. Nor is he a ruthless oil baron mounting conspiracies. I hope and suspect, moreover, that he is a man of conscience. But that is not enough. It is his conscience, his moral judgment and the data upon which it is based, that are the problem. For when you join a sincere conscience with unwillingness to consider any data that might challenge it, you have a dangerous situation. You may be sincere and certain that you are right, but if you are incorrect in your judgment and you have almost unlimited power to implement your choices, you can be a menace. Sincerity and choice are not enough. This is why the formation of conscience and the informing of it are so crucial. And this is why refusal to entertain any challenge to personal conscience is a danger sign.

These observations are not offered to suggest that a rationale cannot be offered for the present war. Saddam Hussein is one of the world’s vicious dictators who hate us with a hatred that was expressed in the destruction of the World Trade Center. True, there is no evidence that Hussein was connected to Sept. 11 (there were more suspicious connections to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but they would be highly problematic targets), but he could serve as an example to all others who would attack us or collaborate with terrorists. This great show of power and resolve will supposedly make for a safer world.

Whether this is the theory or not, whether it works or not, however, there are some important questions we must ask ourselves—if we are willing to submit to any questioning that challenges our choice.

Is our relationship to Islam or China or North Korea to be indefinitely based upon fear and overwhelming force? If so, will they think that the only thing we understand is terror and the threat of violence? What kind of geopolitic are we creating, what manner of international code of ethics are we underwriting?

Is democratic capitalism the model that we are to impose on the world? If that is true, have we become the very thing we hated about Communism? After all, what we were taught to be most reprehensible about Communism was that it was an ideology willing to invade and control countries to impose its will.

Are we willing to face the rumors of Empire? And they are not just rumors. For some, even in our government, they are delusions of grandeur, of a new world order ordered by and for the United States of America. This is why for some the United Nations is irrelevant and NATO is passé. Instead of the risks of collaboration, we are tempted by the security of total control. Instead of solidarity we seek exceptional singularity as the only country of unassailable power and unsurpassable wealth.

I hope my own judgment in these matters is incorrect. Yet if we do not attempt to address such issues we may find that in our desire to recast the entire world in our own image and likeness—free market, free choice—we will have created a global Palestine writ large and called it peace.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.