War II: Costs, Benefits, and Ethics
By Bucky Rea
We've still not seen the end of the consequences of this
war with Iraq. The invasion by the US and Britain is still
potentially a recruitment boon to al-Qaeda. During May, over
30 American service personnel have been killed by Iraqi resistance
or by accidents. But I have other concerns about the human
and political costs and the value of any claims of "benefits"
that may arise from the war.
The human cost is not just the 200 or so coalition dead.
Since the war's supporters want to include the humanitarian
benefits of the war, it's only honest to count the full human
costs, as well. The civilian death count, as of May 31st,
5500 and 7000 Iraqis. The numbers will almost certainly
go much higher. Iraqi military deaths are still officially
uncountable, but best estimates "start at around
Compared to the 200 coalition deaths, almost 20% of which
resulted from the inevitable accidents of large-scale troop
movements, the thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis speak
to exactly what sort of "threat" Saddam Hussein ever really
posed to the US and Great Britain.
Well, if Iraq wasn't a military threat, perhaps it was a
terrorist threat? Not according to Hans Blix, who, among others,
is starting to wonder whether
Saddam Hussein ever had any WMDs. Every time we
hear about possible new finds of terror weapons, it turns
out to be a false alarm. Or rather, after the initial reports
of possible finds, the stories drop from the air, leaving
only the vague impression that something must be there.
Perhaps some illegal weapon stores will still turn up. But
two other scenarios are much more likely: (1) Saddam Hussein
may have (as months ago), handed over any weapons he had to
terrorists in response to an imminent American attack. If
this is the case, attacking Iraq was amazingly stupid.
Or, (2) Saddam Hussein never really had the weapons that
the Bush Administration claimed he held. If the White House
suspected this, they would be wise to keep the trained UN
inspectors out and rely upon only American inspectors (even
if the less experienced US military inspectors are prone to
the occasional false
alarm). This is, of course, exactly what the US has done.
The reasons for keeping UN inspectors out and relying on
neophyte American inspectors is spurious and facile - it amounts
to little more than the assertion that, because we did the
killing, we get to do the looking. The most logical fear in
the world community is that, without trained UN oversight,
the US could ensure that terror weapons are "found"
in Iraq, which would be necessary because of US assertions
before the war. The lack of an emergence of actual WMD stores
since US inspections began, however, belies the fear that
the administration is willing to plant evidence on Iraq. But
the absence of evidence also continues to belie our claims
of how necessary the war ever really was. To be less gentle,
the facts at present seem to suggest that the 15-20,000 deaths
were for nothing.
In either case, the US administration has begun to shift the "emphasis"
away from the security aspects of the war, which were either
fallacious (if are no WMDs) or bungled badly (if there are
some which Saddam has now squirreled away to the next bin
Ladin), and away from the legal justifications for the war
(which never existed) and shift emphasis toward the humanitarian/world
No one can doubt that the world is a better place without
Saddam Hussein in power. Perhaps his demise will serve as
an example to other office-holding thugs in the third world.
For instance, he's probably inspired Iran, North Korea, and
who knows who else to develop more credible threats to American
invasion plans. Sadly, US actions are based solely on a simple
"ends justify the means" argument - unless and until we can
provide some legal foundations for the war. But such foundations
simply do not exist.
Iraq was no threat to the US. Evidence of links between Iraq
and any "al-Qaeda-like" organizations does not exist. The
authorizing body for action in Iraq, the UN and its Security
Council, specifically refused to support the US-British invasion
of Iraq. The war itself blatantly violates the UN Charter,
which as a treaty holds a higher authority of law in America
than even the US Constitution. The invasion itself violate
s international law.
But it is not just what the war violates that we
should think of. For people to whom such things matter, there
is also the problem of the legal precedents that the US has
established by this war. What tinpot dictator won't
jump onboard to share in the policy of "pre-emptive war"?
In light of the war against Afghanistan in 2001, even the
9/11 terrorist attacks could be spun as a preemptive strike,
after all. What international bully doesn't benefit from the
US's refusal to adhere to the voice of the Security Council
- thus making the principal voice of peace in the world seem
We can flatter ourselves, claiming that it is a moral country
like the US that has the power to ignore world opinion and
that we will only attack bad guys like Saddam Hussein. And
certainly no rational person can look at the US military's
performance in Iraq and say this was not the behavior of an
honorable nation. There was little looting by our soldiers.
As individuals, as the sons and daughters of a democratic
nation, they instead were punctilious about avoiding, wherever
possible, causing civilian casualities. The high numbers of
civilian casualties easily could have been higher and the
responsibility for the deaths is to be shared by Bush's poor
policy choices and Saddam's willingness to sink his nation
along with his own corrupt career. Impolitic displays of "conquest"
as with the display the American flag atop Iraqi buildings,
were quickly corrected by superior officers.
But with the selection of Iraq as this year's whipping boy,
while North Korea, Nigeria, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, the Democratic
Republic of Congo, Cuba, Bangladesh, and Guatemala go unmolested,
we cannot escape the impression that it is simply a matter
of Saddam having his sand on top of our oil. The 2003 Amnesty International report
provides a convenient checklist of countries with equally
vicious regimes equally worthy of being deposed. This is not
even to count the abuses of more powerful countries, like
Russia's behavior in Chechnya, Israel's toward the Palestinians,
and China's occupation of Tibet.
Instead, the ties between the Bush Administration and the
oil and construction companies who have been awarded multibillion
dollar reconstruction contracts in Iraq - without the normally
required bidding process - only exacerbate the impression
that this was a war about profits, not human justice. If these
cozy relationships are not evidence of corruption, they are
at least acts of cronyism by men and woman with a remarkable
apathy toward avoiding the impression of being corrupt.
Justifying the war with Iraq requires us to base the rules
of international military behavior on who men are, not on
laws, principles, and the covenants between nations. The selection
of Iraq for a take-down is either arbitrary, or based on political
convenience - not based on law. But Machiavellian ethics is
a two-way street. If we base the permissibility of our own
actions solely on the facts that (1) we think it's OK for
us to do it in this situation and (2) everyone else can be
safely ignored, then we empower every terrorist in the world
to make the same assumptions. This is the very definition
of the law of "might makes right," the law of the jungle.
I want us to be better than that. I know our principles expect
us to be better than that. Certainly the maintenance of world
peace requires us to do better than that.
But because the US has embraced this philosophy of "the ends
justify the means," the Bush Administration has instead championed
the exact opposite of a peaceful world order. They have laid
the foundation for a more competitive, violent, and turbulent
international system. We have not felt the last of the ripples
of this war. I'm very much afraid that we have not felt the
worst of the ripples either.
Bucky Rea is a high school teacher in Texas and writes
an online history column, Alternative History,
for Suite 101.com. He can be reached for comment at foolscourtpress-at-hotmail-dot-com.