The Case Against This Monstrous War

I have never recommended a book as strongly as I am recommending Neoconned and Neoconned Again, two new collections of essays that make just about every argument you can think of against the war in Iraq. Now if you’re thinking that you’ve read enough about this subject already, or that such books just aren’t your cup of tea, or that you have too much to read as it is, I urge you to abandon such thoughts right away. These books need to be purchased by everyone, right away, this minute, and need to be circulated just as far as possible.

I was asked early last year to contribute an essay to these volumes. At that time I was consumed by the task of writing The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, along with my usual dozen other projects, and unfortunately had to decline. All I can say is, they sure didn’t need my essay. Light in the Darkness Publications has assembled one of the most impressive lineups of scholars and commentators I have ever seen on any subject. Many of the names will be familiar to LRC readers; see the list for volume 1 here and volume 2 here.

Worth the price of the two volumes alone is the very lengthy interview with the late, great Jude Wanniski, the supply-side theorist who had such influence on President Ronald Reagan (and who therefore cannot be dismissed so easily as a leftist peacenik). In recent years Wanniski had become — along with all too few other conservatives — skeptical not only of government intervention on the domestic front but of its foreign interventions as well. (Recall Joe Sobran’s amusing dictum: if you want the government to intervene domestically you’re a liberal, if you want the government to intervene abroad you’re a conservative, if you want the government to intervene both domestically and abroad you’re a moderate, and if you don’t want the government to intervene either domestically or abroad you’re an extremist.)

It may sound like an exaggeration to say that just about every major claim made about Iraq and Saddam by the U.S. government since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has been misleading or simply false, and that the mainstream media has bought into these distortions with nary a peep of opposition, but that’s just about the only conclusion one can draw from Wanniski’s case. If you think it’s an open and shut case that Saddam “gassed his own people,” not to mention countless other episodes routinely cited to work us into a frenzy for war, you need to read this. (Saddam did brutally suppress uprisings against his regime, but violence in the service of nationalism seems to disturb the neoconservative conscience only selectively — China and Iraq bad, Russia and the United States [under Lincoln] good.)

Although not every essay touches on the issue explicitly, the first of the two volumes is organized around Catholic just-war theory and what it has to say about the war in Iraq. Now hold on a minute before you say you’re non-Catholic and just move along. The principles of Catholic just-war theory, long appropriated and developed by a great many non-Catholics, are widely regarded as useful tools for moral reflection, and you’ll be surprised at just how satisfying it is to see how dramatically short the war in Iraq falls on the basis of every one of those principles.

Wanniski also reminds us of the real history of the past 15 years. He recalls the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure, including the deliberate targeting of water treatment facilities (followed by a sanctions regime that forbade the entry into Iraq of equipment needed to repair them) and other installations vital to civilian life. This was all necessary, say the shills, because Saddam was such a bad person. The sanctions, too, which led to half a million children dead — “worth it,” according to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who did not question that figure — were routinely defended on the same grounds. (Wanniski also addresses the “if Saddam hadn’t built so many palaces he could have fed his people” argument.) A prosperous, secular country that was liberal by regional standards, and which could boast one of the finest health care systems in the Middle East, was reduced to an economic basket case, and plagued by a nightmare of disease, malnourishment, and sick and deformed children — all as the result of a vain effort to dislodge its leader. If the “Saddam was bad” defense strikes you as insufficient to justify the infliction of this degree of suffering — of which this is the tip of the iceberg — welcome to the human race.

That people who describe themselves as Christians supported this policy is but the icing on the cake. As I recall, there was a Christian theologian of no small importance who condemned the idea that we should “do evil that good may come.”

A surprising contributor to these volumes is Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, who headed what in his day was known as the Holy Office of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Ottaviani was known for his outspoken opposition to the new rite of Mass, which he considered an intolerable liberal innovation, so it would not be easy to accuse him of “liberalism.” And yet the editors include for us a wonderful and compelling essay of his called “Modern War Is to Be Absolutely Forbidden.” Let’s see pro-war Catholics wiggle out of this one.

Professor Peter Chojnowski, another traditional Catholic, contributes a surprisingly radical essay on the right of conscientious objection. He reminds us of an important statement by the Ethics Committee of the Catholic Association for International Peace six decades ago. That committee included distinguished and orthodox scholars such as Msgr. Fulton Sheen (who wrote scholarly books early in his career) and Msgr. John A. Ryan. It concluded:

Practically speaking, the task of deciding the justice or injustice of any particular war devolves upon the conscience of the individual conscript or soldier. It is his conscientious duty to decide, as a matter of concrete fact, whether any particular war is aggressive or defensive, and, if defensive, whether it is justified or unjustified, and, in consequence, whether he is free or obliged or forbidden to participate formally in it, whether he is free or obliged or forbidden to be a conscientious objector.

That’s another small taste of the hidden history that these books have made available.

Volume 2 is, if anything, more impressive still, and features a wider variety of ideological perspectives. No, I don’t much care for some of what Noam Chomsky says, but I am prepared to give a respectful hearing to anyone with the intelligence and the strength of character to denounce wickedness and folly, especially this particular case of wickedness and folly. Featuring an introduction by former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, volume 2 includes dozens of essays by such authors as Claes Ryn, Kirkpatrick Sale, Alexander Cockburn, Gordon Prather, Mark and Louise Zwick, Justin Raimondo, Robert Fisk, and Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski.

Like many Americans, I’ve grown sad and frustrated at the triumph of neoconservative foreign policy. It was sold to Americans not merely on the basis of lies, but also by means of bumper-sticker slogans trotted out — and dutifully absorbed and repeated by shills determined to live down to every caricature of conservatism ever devised — by a White House that cynically exploited ordinary people’s patriotic inclinations in order to prosecute a war whose aims remain obscure to this day.

These books, a small victory in themselves, actually lifted my spirits. It was a great pleasure to see how many serious, intelligent observers were keeping a watchful eye on the Bush administration well before criticism of the Iraq misadventure became fashionable, and to see their case against it laid out with such devastating precision. That case is so powerful and overwhelming that it will leave you more dumbfounded than ever that anyone ever fell for it, that anyone got away with denouncing skeptics of transparent White House propaganda as “unpatriotic,” or that so many people believe conservatism involves no higher value than giving intellectual cover to a series of ever-changing, ad hoc rationalizations for war.

These books deserve to become bestsellers. To those who opposed the Iraq war, think of purchasing these books as casting a vote against the War Party, against the war-war choice of Bush/Kerry that we got in 2004, and against a cowardly, servile mainstream media whose mea culpas about pre-war intelligence came, well, rather too late.

If you have friends on the left or the right, or even in the center for that matter, please forward this column to them. The same supposedly “liberal” media that brazenly repeated White House fabrications that a simple Google search could have refuted are unlikely to showcase these books. (Can someone please remind the major conservative publications that the “liberal” media supported this war with a vengeance?) They belong not only in Americans’ homes but also in classrooms, libraries (buy a set and donate it!), and wherever intelligent Americans may be found.

Ordinary Americans who were too busy with their own lives to investigate the administration’s claims too closely may come to see they’ve been had, if they haven’t realized it already. But the most outspoken of the war’s supporters are all but impossible to persuade. Some of them are simply venal, eager to curry favor with the regime no matter how idiotic or intellectually insulting the line they are expected to tow. Others, whether they realize it or not, look at the world as a giant baseball game, with the U.S. government as our team. They’ll rush out of the dugout to protest an obviously sound call at first base or a called strike that was in fact well within the strike zone. When in matters of foreign policy their team sets forth a barrage of propaganda they would have laughed at had it come from the Soviet Union in the 1980s or Syria today, they cannot defend it enthusiastically enough. Go, team.

Such a juvenile mentality would have been considered utterly beneath conservatism in, say, the 1940s. At that time, you could find major conservatives who were willing to hold their own government to the same moral standards they applied to others. Even a man known as “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert Taft, could cast a skeptical eye on the Truman administration’s early Cold War foreign policy as — no, this isn’t a misprint — gratuitously provocative.

Today, even to look for motivations behind 9/11 is to invite accusations of “blaming America” for the attacks, as if a detective seeking a killer’s motive should be accused of blaming the victim for his fate. It is next to impossible to render serious judgments about foreign policy when public discourse is dominated by anti-intellectual hysterics calling themselves patriots. These two books do the best job yet.

It may be worth noting, if only in order to underscore the intensity of my feelings about these volumes, that not only do I have no relationship to Light in the Darkness Publications, an imprint of IHS Press (no relation to the Institute for Humane Studies), but I have actually had some public and contentious exchanges with J. Forrest Sharpe, one of the editors of Neoconned, on unrelated matters. I am happy to let bygones be bygones. Sharpe has done his country and the cause of truth a valuable service and deserves only the most enthusiastic support.

It is not possible to do these books justice in a single column. All I can say is that they are of the utmost importance. I cannot urge readers of this column strongly enough: put aside any inclination you may have to let these volumes pass you by, or even to put off buying them until a later date. Buy them right now. You will not regret it.