All Wars Are Crimes

The past couple of days, I’ve been involved in a number of discussions regarding how we (as liberals and lefties) respond and react to Iraq War vets. Some of us, regrettably, have chosen to personalize their displeasure against the war by criticizing and demonizing those of us (like me and others) who have fought and will fight in Iraq.

I happen to think that’s the wrong answer;  for one, it’s how we ended up getting painted as a bunch of wimps after we lost in Vietnam. For another, it’s entirely too easy and facile an argument to make, and one which leaves your hands feeling squeaky-clean: I oppose the war. Therefore, I won’t join the military.  Those guys over there are fighting in a war I oppose. They can choose to disobey the orders I think are immoral. Since they won’t, they’ re war criminals.

First of all, it’s a volunteer military, but there’s volunteers, and then there’s volunteers. I didn’t have to join–I had a wonderful family supporting me, and had lots of opportunities to go a different route. But I made a number of bad decisions, and with the advice of my family, I chose to join the military in order to develop a sense of discipline.

But others didn’t have the opportunities that I did, and the military was their one sure route to a better life. And in most cases, they’ve done better. But keep in mind the next time you make a broad criticism of us, that many of us didn’t have the choices you had.

Second of all, and this is the more important point–criticisms like the above are the political equivalent of Tuesday morning quarterbacking. You’re sitting safe at home, in Athens, OH, or Madison, WI, or Eugene, OR. You have the luxury of seeing an event taking place after the fact, and thus being able to calmly make a decision based on an different set of facts. Would you make the same decision if you were pinned against a wall, under a hail of fire from a sniper, any one of whose shots could cause a man in uniform to appear at your wife’s doorstep? There’s no way to know.

So here’s what I wrote in response to one such criticism:

You’re entitled to your opinions.

But that’s a very simplistic stand to take, and one which allows you to feel virtuous and free of moral taint.

The fact of the matter is, the world isn’t made up of stark blues and
reds. Like that popular map, it’s more a shade of purple. And within
that shade, it’s probable that a whole continuum of moral and ethical
decisions can be made.

I envy your stark moral clarity, but I can’t help but wonder if it
doesn’t have an element of fear in it–the fear that comes from not
knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how you would act if you were
placed in a similar situation, having experienced similar things, over
a period of time.

I suspect–no, I know–that within all of us, there’s a savage beast,
clawing at the fragile shells of our civility, and that only a sense of
discipline, and the humility that comes in knowing that we’re sinners
all, keeps the beast at bay.

I have seen the beast in me. I did things there that I’m not proud of.
I ask forgiveness of my God every day. That’s all I can do–that, and
continue to be the best man and husband that I can hope to be.

Obviously, when there’s clear war crimes–like the situation in Abu Ghraib, and the mosque execution in Fallujah–I’ll say so. But we need to keep everything in context, and I’m a lot more likely to be conciliatory towards the Marine in Fallujah than towards the creeps in Abu Ghraib. The Marine was in the midst of a battlefield, and had been himself wounded in a similar situation only the previous day, for example.

All this to say this: all wars are crimes. Which is why we should only go to war not as a first resort, but as a last resort. With all that, I’m proud of much of what I did in Iraq. But I’m not proud of much of what’s taken place, either. And that’s a debate I’ll always have with myself, and always have to live with. And hopefully, someday I’ll be in a position to apply the lessons I’ve learned thus far and save a younger generation from the mistakes we’ve made.


4 responses to “All Wars Are Crimes

  1. Hear! Hear!

    I’ve been lucky, in that most of the people I’ve been dealing with are fair, they know that wars are ugly, and that soldiers are not evil, per se.

    Heck, the only problem I have is that people get upset with me because I don’t agree with them that the Marine did nothing wrong. That I think the situation had mitigating factors isn’t enough, I am supposed to commend him.

    I had one guy tell me I didn’t understand what it was like over there. I wish I could have laughed, broken out into guffaws, but I didn’t.

    There, but for the Grace of God…

    And that is something most people can’t bear to face.


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  3. Well of course I supported the war, and voted for Bush without a second’s hesitation, so much of what I say tends to be dismissed out of hand by some. But I would have voted for the right Democrat this year. Believe it or don’t, but I would have.

    When you say that all wars are immoral, you’re right and wrong. I always thought the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said it best:

    “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

    All wars will involve war crimes–no venture involving hundreds of thousands of peoples using deadly weapons will wind up without some. All wars involve civilian casualties, and innocent lives lost. Thus the question with war is not, “will this war be moral?” but “will it be more moral than not going to war?”

    It strikes me that something that’s been tragically mising from much of the left has been something that Democrats and liberals in general used to understand implicitely: the decision to go to war is a national one, not one made by one man. Yes, the President did make a case for going. But it is ultimately the Congress who makes the decision, and in the case, it was the Congress who made the choice to go to Iraq, not Bush.

    And further, what infuriated and disgusted so many people (me included) was the willful refusal of so many on the left to simply admit: if Bush lied about WMDs, then Kerry and Edwards and Clinton lied too. Otherwise, Bush, and the Congress when they debated the issue, were simply wrong, and we as a country all bear responsibility for that.

    Because ultimately they’re all our legitimate leaders.

    I still don’t regret, in the least little bit, supporting going to Iraq. And most of the people who’ve fought there that I’ve talked to (and I’ve talked to a ton) don’t regret it either. Most are proud–and we know now that over 70% of our National Guard and Reserve troops voted for Bush. Take the remaining 28% or so who voted for Kerry and I’d imagine that a good chunk of them don’t regret it either, they just have different reasons for disliking Bush.

    We need to stop treating people who sign up for the military as helpless.

    And what I’d also like to see more on the left saying is, “I know how to say when I think a war is wrong, but not treat those who differ with me as immoral monsters.”

    Because I will say that those who DO treat those who differ as immoral monsters help keep Democrats in the minority. Those who know better should lead, and show their fellows a better path to somewhat more patriotic and tolerant (i.e. truly liberal) attitudes.

    I would really, really love to see more Democrats like the folks at the Truman Project, and I wish them all kinds of luck.

    My closing thought, for whatever it’s worth: you don’t have to believe in a war or think a war is a good idea in order to be patriotic and thoughtful and tolerant in your dissent.

    For whatever that’s worth.

  4. Oh, er, and before someone argues that it wasn’t Congress who ultimately made the decision to go to war in Iraq: yes it was.

    They debated. In fact, they debated over a year. They had a right to ask any questions they wanted, from anyone they wanted and not just the administration. And finally they voted a war resolution that authorized the President to do whatever he wanted to, pretty much whenever he wanted to, in Iraq.

    Which is ultimately the same thing: they gave him permission. Which makes it their responsibility too.

    Including John Kerry’s and John Edward’s.

    And if you ever read that war resolution, they gave lots and lots and lots of reasons–not just WMDs. For whatever that’s worth. Read it some time if you never have. It’s here on the C-Span page.

    At some point I’d love to see the left declare a cease-fire, admit that Democrats are culpable and that they were no more or less dishonest as a party than the Republicans, and that it’s time to put this all past us and figure out the best way to move forward.