Was the Iraq War Moral?

An ethicist investigates the rationales offered by both the Bush team and its critics and finds questions to ponder on both sides

By Thane Peterson

The military campaign in Iraq is winding down -- and the occupation beginning. Saddam Hussein's torture and mistreatment of his people appear to be well-documented in the stories of Iraqi citizens and documents left behind by Saddam's henchmen. But where are the weapons of mass destruction that President George W. Bush made the raison d'être of the invasion? Sounds like questions for a philosopher of morality to ponder. So, I spent the last week tracking down a respected professional ethicist with whom I could talk about the war.

That's not so easy. Ethicists and theologians, like everyone else, tend to have political biases, and many of them have come out publicly for or against the war. Also, the ethical debate on the war revolves around the murky "just-war theory," which seeks to distinguish between wars that are justified in moral terms and wars that aren't.

One of the key tenets of just-war theory is that defensive wars -- ones in response to a direct attack or imminent threat of attack -- are just. That's one reason the question of whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction is so hotly debated. Unfortunately, just about everybody on every side of the debate seems to use some aspect of the just-war theory to support their arguments.

To help parse out the philosophy of war, I finally settled on Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Although she works for a Catholic university, Koehn grew up in Kansas in the "Amish-Mennonite tradition." She's not a pacifist either. She's a registered Democrat but says she sometimes votes Republican. She studied ethics at the University of Chicago and Oxford, and holds a PhD in the subject as well as an MBA from Northwestern University.

Koehn has spent a lot of time lately thinking about the nature of evil. Indeed, she's just finishing a book on the subject. And here's an interesting thought: She cautions that people can do evil to themselves if they indulge in illusionary thinking about war itself. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: In his "axis of evil" speech, President Bush justified the war on terrorism as good vs. evil. In your view, is the President's phrase justified in the case of the war with Iraq?


The formulation probably obscures more than it clarifies. Rather than seeing Saddam Hussein as a kind of evil seed or demonic spawn, you can see him as someone in the grip of an illusion. He [believed] he was going to be the new Nebuchadnezzar, the new king of the Babylonian Empire. That was a delusion, so he inflicted a kind of lasting suffering upon himself and, I think, [inflicted] that frustration on other people [in the form of torture, repression, etc.].

If you look at evil this way, as a failure to thrive, there's always going to be evil in the world -- as long as people are capable of deluding themselves and becoming frustrated [in the process]. So, when George Bush says he's going to defeat evil, he's perpetrating an illusion. I don't think evil can be eliminated from the world. That, in a way, is to think that human beings are gods, and we're not.

Q: But isn't Saddam indeed a sort of "evil spawn" -- a leader who has tortured, terrorized, and used chemical warfare? Isn't a more traditional view of evil apt in this case?


Actually, that isn't the traditional view of evil. If you look back at the history of the Judeo-Christian words for evil, they're all related to suffering rather than to malice or malicious intent.

Q: You've said Saddam had illusions of being the next king of Babylon. What are America's illusions?


I don't think we've been very clear about the justification for our attack on Iraq. The claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was the predominant claim used by people in favor of the war. [That's] an attempt to justify the war by appealing to just-war theory. If you can truthfully characterize Saddam as an imminent threat to us, then you can say that the war was justified.

Let's look at that claim. There's certainly evidence that [Saddam] was willing to use weapons. He did it in Kuwait and against the Kurds in his own country. And [the U.S. government] claims it knew he had weapons of mass destruction, as well, because it had intelligence and photos of mobile chemical labs and so forth.

However, if we don't find weapons of mass destruction, I think the argument will shift somewhat. It will become something like, "He had them and destroyed them at the last minute." Or, "even if he never had them, he was an imminent threat because he was always seeking to get them, and it was just a matter of time before he did."

If [that happens] I think it's going to cause some problems for us. How are we going to prove that he had been actively seeking the weapons? Even if we do, it's a tricky argument. If [Saddam] has been seeking these weapons for 15 years and never got them, it shows we were pretty successful at containing him. [In that case,] he wasn't the threat we're claiming he was.

Q: What if the Administration misled the public by saying there was an imminent threat of mass destruction? Would that make this an unjust war, even though a brutal tyrant was deposed?


If it turns out that he doesn't have the weapons, we're going to have a problem with credibility.

Q: But the Administration might simply have been mistaken, rather than misleading anyone. I'm asking, in ethical terms does it matter whether the Administration was mistaken or actively misled the public, as apparently happened with the Vietnam War?


If they were lying, yes, then we have a problem because then they violated the ethical tenets against lying. The just-war theory can only be justifiably used if you apply it in an honest way. There has to be an honest reckoning. If it turns out that [the public was] knowingly sold a bill of goods, then the use of just-war theory would look suspect. By Thane Peterson

Q: So, in the end is this war more or less justified than previous wars?


I guess I think the war has not been as clearly justified as World War II, where the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, and we fought back.... [With this war,] the relative moral causal links are less clear.

The interesting [parallels are with] a case like Bosnia, where you can argue that as a defender of human rights and human dignity we had to get involved.... It's not a claim that fits easily into the just-war framework, which is the predominant framework that has been used over the last year-and-a-half. That doesn't mean it's an illegitimate framework, but it raises some questions: If we're going to get involved whenever you have a murderous regime, does that mean we would have been justified in invading China at the height of the Cultural Revolution? And, if we were justified and didn't do so, why not?

You now have people asking why we aren't invading countries in Africa that have murderous regimes, or why not Iran? I think Americans are going to get very anxious. You begin to wonder as an American: Where does this doctrine take us?

Q: O.K., in ethical terms it seems like kind of a mess.


There hasn't been enough clarity. We don't have the language yet to distinguish among these cases. Frankly, I think that lack of clarity creates a kind of dread and anxiety in people. We're all wondering if there's another war on the horizon.... It stirs up anxiety when [the government] plays the card that all these countries out there are evil and imminent threats. Aristotle noted that that's a very dangerous card to play, because once it's played, it's difficult to retrieve.

Q: The U.S. has some terribly lethal weapons of its own. How about the ethics of using these weapons in war?


I have a couple of thoughts about that. On the one hand, it seems to me that we have tried to limit civilian casualties [through the use of] precision weapons. We also didn't drop atomic bombs, for example.

On the other hand, I think we need to ask ourselves whether we're involved in an honest reckoning [of the damage done during the war]. I've heard it said that this was a relatively casualty-free war. But [some] people in the Administration also have said that they simply aren't going to try to tally the dead on the [Iraqi] side. I think [that] can be dangerous because it can lead us to think that fewer people were hurt than, in fact, were hurt. I understand that it's difficult getting that count, but I still think it's a count we should care about.

Q: What's your take on the TV coverage of the war?


Maybe it has been more intensive and relentless, but it [also] has been less memorable. What strikes me is that many of the photographers did not show death, refused to take certain kinds of footage because they didn't want to show death. Ask yourself: Have you seen anything as memorable as the photos from Vietnam?

My answer is "no," and my theory is that film footage has less impact [than still photos]. The film moves on, and when there's 24-hour coverage, in a certain way you become numb. Nothing sticks with you.

Q: What about the fact that Americans supported this war so strongly. Does that mean that something fundamental has changed in their attitude?


No. I think there have been different levels of support. Some people have been 100% behind the war, and others have more tentatively supported it. I'm struck by how people I know will say they favor the war -- and they may even use some sophisticated philosophical argument for why it's a just war -- but then they'll say, "Thank God my son or my nephew doesn't have to go."

That's interesting. They're saying it's a just war, and maybe even an obligatory war, but [they don't feel] obliged to [help] fight the war. I don't know how you assess that kind of support. It's support for the war as long as you yourself don't have to do any of the fighting.

I've been struck by how inarticulate people are about why they support or don't support the war. You get answers like, "Well, I'm behind the President." Or "We have to stop the Iraqis who were involved in 9/11," which is something of a misstatement. If the support is so almost incoherent and morally mute, then what do we infer from that? Are people speaking from reasoned positions or from an almost hysterical sense of vulnerability?

Q: And you feel that opponents of the war are just as inarticulate?


I'm disappointed by opponents' rhetoric, too. They have an obligation to think about what the alternatives were -- or are. Certainly you can debate whether or not trying to contain Saddam worked. But, at some point you have to ask what happens if containment isn't effective. Suppose, for example, that he did get a nuclear weapon. Are we then really envisioning some elaborate system of deterrence? [Opponents] haven't pushed themselves very hard on what the alternative might look like.

Q: Clearly the U.S. has a disproportionate share of the military power in the world right now. Are there dangers to that?


The demands of justice must still apply. There's a danger that just because we can do something, we will do something. I think Americans are prone to what I call the technological imperative. That has been a continual problem in bio-ethics, for example. We have to [make sure] we don't [slide] from "can" to "should."

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht