Christian ethicist Shaun Casey, who served as a religious liaison in the 2008 Barack Obama campaign, recently reflected on the “legacy of the immoral misadventure in Iraq” for Christian Century magazine.
With help from famous pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Casey helped organize 100 ethicists in 2002 to warn against any U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Citing more than 4,000 U.S. dead, over $1 trillion in cost, and many more Iraqi dead, Casey understandably now feels vindicated in his dire warnings.
“We ethicists couldn’t stop the war, but we did help jump-start a conversation,” concluded Casey, who teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “President Bush had effectively intimidated most Democrats into silence by questioning their patriotism. But eventually the country came to see, as it did with Vietnam, that the moral folly of the whole exercise rendered it unjust.”
Unlike Hauerwas and others who joined him in 2002, Casey does not profess to be a pacifist but does advocate an arguably narrow view of Just War teaching. He credits Obama’s “early and principled stand against the Iraq War” for his election to the presidency. And he commends Obama for having kept his “major election promise to end this misbegotten war.” Casey describes Obama’s stance as motivating his own activism for Obama in 2008, when he saw firsthand how “hungry Americans were to bring this nightmare to an end.”
Casey’s glad the “country’s realization that it was a fiasco has tamed a fair amount of my cynicism about our politics.” Urging withdrawal from Afghanistan, he concludes it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home.”
Whether the religious ethicists and others who opposed the Iraq war are truly vindicated is known completely only to God. History will eventually come to some settled temporal conclusion long after the current heated memories have faded. The generation who resisted the Vietnam War has ensured a consensus among cultural elites about the ostensible futility of that struggle. There America lost, with over 50,000 dead, more than 10 times its terrible losses in Iraq. And though Casey cites the belief by some that 1.4 million Iraqis died, almost certainly an inflated number, Vietnamese dead probably exceeded even that figure. And unlike Iraq, the Vietnam War concluded with an enemy victory over former American allies.
Ronald Reagan, during the 1980 presidential campaign, famously provoked cultural elites with his proclamation of Vietnam as a “noble cause.” The U.S. defeat there was followed by communist genocide, reeducation camps, decades of avoidable poverty, millions of refugees, most notably the boat people, and surging global adventurism by an emboldened Soviet Union, whose victims included Angolans, Nicaraguans and Afghans, among others. In his 1999 book, The Necessary War, Michael Lind defended the legacy of liberal anti-communism by asserting the Vietnam War was, at least for a time, strategically necessary in the Cold War even if not ultimately politically winnable.
Whether or not America was able or willing to win in Vietnam, our adversaries there were unsavory, and the consequences of our defeat and departure were hideous for the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. Even though defeated, America’s exertions there arguably bought time for other Asian nations to build eventual democracies and prosperous economies.
What would leaving Saddam Hussein in power have meant for America, the world, and Iraq? Religious and other critics of the Iraq War typically seem unconcerned with that question. Under one of the most murderous regimes of the late 20th century, possibly exceeded only by communist Cambodia, how many more Iraqis would Saddam have killed over the last eight years? Critics of U.S. policy often cited the pre-war U.S.-supported international sanctions against Iraq as ostensibly responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths from malnutrition or curable disease. How many more would have died absent removal of Saddam, who brutally manipulated those sanctions for his own enrichment and repression of his enemies?
And how would Saddam’s remaining in power have affected the U.S. war on terror, the stability of U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or America’s ongoing confrontation with Iran, particularly its nuclear program? Where would all of the jihadists who flocked to fight America in Iraq have instead gravitated? And as international sanctions against him collapsed, what ambitious weapons programs would Saddam have resurrected? As in Vietnam, America’s foes in Iraq were unsavory and murderous. Their defeat, or at least momentary suppression, would seem good news, however transitory.
Treating Iraq, or Vietnam, as a simple morality play of arrogant American imperial overreach is grossly simplistic and leaves too many questions unanswered. Christian ethicists, relying on a rich 2000-year tradition, are called to help unravel the moral complexities of a deeply fallen world where God’s redemptive love is still active.
During World War I, a bishop explained to a Methodist seminary in Chicago God’s purposes in permitting war to dethrone the German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian monarchies so as to spread democracy. Such hopes were soaringly optimistic obviously, though democracy of a sort did eventually reach most of these countries, if only after decades of further war and brutal tyranny.
At least the bishop, still suffused with the confident optimism of an earlier age, believed history moved in a providential direction. With more subtlety, he also discerned that redemption sometimes follows suffering, and that Heaven’s purposes transcend human intent.
Faith should indicate that Providence also has a plan for Iraq, and for Vietnam, in which miserable wars played some mysterious purpose. We can hope that all who paid a terrible price for a better day will, in God’s own time across history’s crooked course, merit thanks from future generations.