Guest Column: Evading the moral implications of the Iraq War

In a short editorial, the Detroit News asked an interesting question:

“Some war critics are suggesting Iraq terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi should have been arrested and prosecuted rather than bombed into oblivion. Why expose American troops to the danger of an arrest, when bombs work so well?”

Here’s one possible answer: In order not to send a 5-year-old Iraqi girl into oblivion with the same 500-pound bombs that sent al-Zarqawi into oblivion.

Of course, I don’t know whether the Detroit News editorial board, if pressed, would say that the death of that little Iraqi girl was “worth it.” But I do know one thing: killing Iraqi children and other such “collateral damage” has long been acceptable and even “worth it” to U.S. officials as part of their long-time foreign policy toward Iraq.

This U.S. government mindset was expressed perfectly by former U.S. official Madeleine Albright when she stated that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Iraq had, in fact, been “worth it.” By “it,” she was referring to the U.S. attempt to oust Saddam Hussein from power through the use of the sanctions.

It’s no different with respect to President George W. Bush’s war on Iraq and the resulting occupation, which has killed or maimed tens of thousands of Iraqi people, including countless children. (The Pentagon has long had a policy of not keeping count of the number of Iraqi people, including children, it kills.) In the minds of U.S. officials, the deaths and maiming of all those Iraqi people, including the children, while perhaps unfortunate “collateral damage,” have, in fact, been worth it.

Some would argue that such “collateral damage” is just an unfortunate byproduct of war. War is brutal. People get killed in war. That argument, however, misses an important point: U.S. military forces have no right, legal or moral, even to be in Iraq killing anyone. Why? Because neither the Iraqi people nor their government ever attacked the United States. The Iraqi people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Thus, this was an optional war against Iraq, one that President Bush and his military forces did not have to wage.

The attack on Iraq was akin to, say, attacking Bolivia or Mongolia, after 9/11. Those countries also had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and so it would have been illegal and immoral for President Bush to have ordered an invasion and occupation of those countries as well. To belabor the obvious, the fact that some people attacked the United States on 9/11 didn’t give the United States the right to attack countries that didn’t have anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.

That made the United States the aggressor nation and Iraq the defending nation in this conflict. That incontrovertible fact holds deep moral implications, as well as legal ones, for U.S. soldiers who kill people in Iraq, including people who are simply trying to oust the occupiers from Iraq. Don’t forget that aggressive war was punished as a war crime at Nuremberg.

Moreover, what people often forget is that the United States is no longer at war in Iraq. This is an occupation. The war ended when Saddam Hussein’s government fell. At that point, U.S. forces could have exited the country. (Or they could have exited the country when it became obvious that Saddam’s infamous WMDs were nonexistent.) Occupying Iraq, like invading Iraq, was an optional course of action, one that has led to the deaths of countless more people, both Iraqi and American.

All too many Americans have yet to confront the moral implications of invading and occupying Iraq. U.S. officials continue to exhort the American people to judge the war and occupation on whether it proves to be “successful” in establishing “stability” and “democracy” in Iraq. If so, U.S. officials will argue that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, including countless Iraqi children, none of whom had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks on the United States, will have been worth it. It would be difficult to find a more morally repugnant position than that.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation ( in Fairfax, Va.

From the July 26-Aug. 1, 2006, issue

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