What Iraq Taught Us About Just War

From editor in chief Drew Christiansen, S.J., writing for the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog:


If, as common sense tells us, we should learn from our mistakes, Americans have many lessons to draw from our nine-year military engagement in Iraq. Here are three.

Beware politicians employing intelligence to persuade. A long-time, senior CIA official once told me that he never knew an administration to use intelligence to illuminate public discussion of an issue, but only to bend audiences to policies they had already decided on other grounds. The intelligence used to promote the invasion of Iraq, above all Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the UN, was fundamentally flawed.

Even those who have no formal acquaintance with the Just War tradition understand the legitimacy of a conflict depends on having a just cause. In the case of Iraq, serious consideration of the justice of the cause was impaired by erroneous intelligence and tactics of deception.

In the future, the public needs to be far more skeptical of official justifications for going to war.

Furthermore, after Judith Miller’s erroneous reporting in the New York Times, Americans must also be skeptical of major media outlets when armed conflict is in prospect They should test alleged evidence against alternative news sites and foreign sources. As the prospect of conflict grows, the mainstream media ought also to be more attentive to alternative sources, and experts outside government ought to work much harder to get a hearing with major outlets.

Read Fr. Drew's other two lessons here.

Tim Reidy


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Gabriel Marcella
6 years 10 months ago
Fr. Christiansen:
Brilliant piece!
Stephen SCHEWE
6 years 10 months ago
Anyone who's been around since at the least the first Gulf War knows how hard it is to resist the popular tide when the war drummers start. I can well remember feeling emotionally swayed myself by the appeals to patriotism, don't appease an aggressor, don't wait for the enemy to use their weapons of mass destruction, etc.  The next intervention debate will come up in 2012 or 2013 if Iran finally produces nuclear weapons.  Let's hope the national "immunity" of war weariness from the Iraqi debacle hasn't completely worn off when that happens.  Next time, we need to take a long, skeptical look before we leap... 
PJ Johnston
6 years 10 months ago
"Beware politicians employing intelligence to persuade. A long-time, senior CIA official once told me that he never knew an administration to use intelligence to illuminate public discussion of an issue, but only to bend audiences to policies they had already decided on other grounds. The intelligence used to promote the invasion of Iraq, above all Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the UN, was fundamentally flawed."

Paul Griffiths has been telling us this since the Afghanistan war, well before Iraq - under just war theology you cannot go to war without first meeting the epistemic burden of proving that the war is just, the dishonesty of democratic governments in securing public approval for wars is so pervasive that it is impossible for Catholics to discharge this epistemic burden, ergo Catholic just war adherents must not go to war.  I wish we'd listened to him.

"You may think that the U.S. government is a reliable source. But you would be wrong to think so. It is among the functions of government in time of war or contemplated war to combine an active withholding of relevant information from its citizens with the purveying of falsehoods to them. This is as true of democratic governments as of others. Both the British and American governments withheld and lied in a more or less systematic fashion during World War II, for example, and there are no convincing counterexamples in modern times to the generalization that this is simply what governments do in times of war. A judicious mixture of deceit and omission is a proper function of government at such times, and, at least since the post–Westphalian modern nation–state came into being and the technology of information dissemination reached its twentieth–century level of sophistication, there is no effective way for Catholic citizens to find their way to the argument and evidence they would need in order to assent to a rebuttal of the assumption that their country’s use of lethal military force is not justified...So: Catholic citizens of the U.S. do not have and cannot get the evidence and argument they would need to rebut the assumption that lethal military force ought not be used. From which it follows that we ought to continue in that assumption. Quod erat demonstrandum."

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 10 months ago
In October of 2001, on the day the bombs began falling in Afghanistan, our local Pax Christi held a prayer service in a local Catholic Church.  I'm pretty sure this was the only public witness against retaliatory violence that was held in our diocesan Church.  Following this prayer service we began holding a weekly vigil in a public space, expressing our resistence to the violence that was being done in our name. 

At first, we were not popular.  Passerbys shouted obscenities and threw eggs.  But by the time the Iraq War rolled around, we had a couple hundred people joining us.  Thumbs turned up.

As I remember it, there was plenty of press coverage opposing the Iraq war, mainstream and otherwise.  Those who knew were on TV saying that there were no WMD.  There certainly were huge marches in the large cities.  It's as if whatever press was out there, wouldn't have made any difference anyway.

At the prayer service that GWB called shortly after 9/11, there was a lot of ritual, men in vestments carrying around a crucifix on a staff.  It reminded me of the Crusades, a religious call to war.  With this beginning "blessing" of our retaliatory violence, everything was then fixed in stone and there was no turning around.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 10 months ago
Perhaps an even more basic observation than Fr Christiansen's first point about skepticism toward politicians in wartime situations and indeed generally, is the recognition of just how bad US and world intelligence tends to be. Not only were the majority of nations mistaken about Iraq and WMD, when Gaddafi, frightened that he might be the next murderous dictator overthrown by US forces, turned in his WMD program, all the nations of the West were stunned by how advanced Libya's nuclear weapons programs were. We were basically clueless, and so were our allies. Another of our many governmental failures we need to recognize and address.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 10 months ago
The axion that the first thing to go in war is the truth, was never more true than in the Iraq war. Give credit to John Paul II who opposed the war. He was too timid in confronting George W Bush. Even allowing a papal visit without rebuke. Serious error. On the whole the media was quite cowardly in critiquing this war. Only vivid pictures of American cruelty towards Iraqi prisoners broke the ice in a war where the government really managed the news on the war. This war was driven by greed for oil and revenge on sadaam Huseein. Most Americans were morally bankrupt in this process. A truly shameful time in American history. From Hilary Clinton to W. Bush. 
6 years 10 months ago
All three of Father Christiansen's points merit long consideration, but I will confine myself to one comment on the first one, shown above. The government officials who marched us into Iraq hid behind the theory that they knew more than we did because they could see the "intelligence." "Intelligence" has replaced patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. But, under the principle of "fool me twice, shame on me," shame on us.

 The main conclusion we all should have drawn from the Pentagon Papers was that the average person reading the New York Times and using natural street smarts knew more about Vietnam than the leaders because the average person was not encumbered by "intelligence" and groupthink. The Pentagon Papers first came to public attention in 1971, more than 30 years before most of us ignored both our experience and our guts in 2003. So I say shame on us.


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