That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain

Sunday, 4 December 2005

As the American death toll in Iraq topped 2,000 a few weeks ago and continues unabated, I thought about a phrase from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." Like Lincoln, some politicians today, including the president, are pointing to those soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice as an argument for continuing the fight against our adversaries. However, the U.S. Civil War and the War on Iraq have little in common, other than countless dead and maimed soldiers. In the Civil War, the Union knew who it was fighting: the Confederacy. In the Iraq War, the U.S. started off fighting Saddam Hussein's army and is now fighting various insurgent groups, Sunni and Shiite alike. We are fighting both native Iraqis and foreign implants like al-Zaqarwi. In the Civil War, with the exception of a few noteworthy atrocities, civilians were relatively safe from attack. In the Iraq War many thousands of civilians have been killed, by U.S. troops and insurgents alike.

In a speech last week on Iraq, the president said, "I will settle for nothing less than complete victory." But what exactly does victory entail? If our primary goal was to oust Saddam Hussein, then we can indeed declare victory, but the fact that Saddam was overthrown more than two years ago but our troops are still present in Iraq suggests that his overthrow was not the primary goal the U.S. had set. It appears that our primary goal was to establish a stable, pro-Western government in Iraq. So far that goal has eluded us, and I think it very unlikely that we will achieve that goal any time in the near future.

It is patently obvious that we have been unable to set up a stable government. While Americans were ostensibly in control under administrators Jay Garner and Paul Bremer, U.S. and allied soldiers were killed at an alarming rate, and the number of civilians killed by insurgents skyrocketed. When the Iraqis' elected government took over the situation did not improve. Some regions of Iraq have been pacified to be sure, but only after tremendous loss of lives, occupation by huge military contingencies, or both. Reducing attacks on soldiers and civilians by military occupation is not the same as setting up a stable government. In fact, the previous occupier of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was much more efficient at maintaining order than the present occupiers, something that should give the president pause before he thinks about declaring "victory" at some point in the future.

Not only is Iraq unlikely to be stable in the near future, it is also unlikely to be pro-Western. As many commentators noted prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraq's majority Shiite population has religious, ethnic, and historical ties to Iran, so any popularly elected government is more likely to be pro-Iranian than pro-Western. After Abu Ghraib and other atrocities, Iraqi civilians are unlikely to vote to ally themselves with the country that most people see as brutal occupiers.

Those who opposed the war from the beginning have debated the real cause for the war. Did we go to war in Iraq in order to gain strategic access to some of the world's largest oil fields? Did we invade Iraq so that George W. Bush could wreak personal revenge on Saddam Hussein, who reportedly tried to assassinate his father several years ago? Did the administration really naively believe self-serving Iraqi exiles who told them stories about WMDs? Did we invade Iraq in order to move our troops from Saudi Arabia, where they were causing increasing problems for the Saudi dictators, to a new pro-Western Iraq, from which we could dominate the Middle East militarily for decades?

Any or all of these reasons might have been behind the invasion, but another reason, which is often overlooked, also played a significant role in the decision. George W. Bush believed that God had made him president at a crucial time in the history of our country, and he believed that God wanted him to invade Iraq. Where he got this idea is uncertain. Maybe it was the miraculous "victory" he achieved in late November 2000, when his political allies on the Supreme Court overruled the voters and the state courts and put him in office. Maybe it was some theophany he experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Maybe it was a special touch from God that he felt as he read a verse like Joshua 6:16, which says, "Shout! For the Lord has given you the city." If the president had listed to the prophetic voices that were urging caution, that were warning against an unjustified invasion of a country that hadn't attacked us, he would have been better served, and perhaps more in tune with what God actually wanted. Rather than the verse in Joshua, maybe he should have read Deuteronomy 1:42: "Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies."

No American wants to believe that our soldiers are dying in vain in any conflict, but it does no good to hide from the reality of the situation. In the Civil War, soldiers from the North fought to preserve the Union and to end the evil institution of slavery. What are our soldiers in Iraq fighting for? After going to war under false pretenses, they have been asked to establish a government that ultimately will not reflect the desires of the administration that started the war. They have been asked to invade a country and maintain order in the midst of an overwhelming majority of people who want them out. As in Vietnam, they have been asked to fight a war they cannot win, not because of lack of training or commitment or courage, but because their leaders had poor intelligence (of both kinds) and a poor understanding of what was realistically achievable. Under these circumstances, the war cannot end in any meaningful victory (regardless of the spin politicians will try to put on it, as they did after Vietnam), and by definition, all lives lost in such a hopeless cause are lives that have been lost in vain, that is, for no good reason.

For these reasons, it is imperative that the U.S. pull its troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. The president argues that Iraqi troops are not yet ready to take over, but that is just a smokescreen. There may be a civil war in Iraq after the U.S. pulls out, regardless of whether it is in a few months or a few years. Or it may be that the Iraqi government will succeed in suppressing the relatively large minority of the population that will oppose the direction the new government takes. In either case, leaving our soldiers in harm's way any longer than necessary to pull them safely out of Iraq will just increase the U.S. casualty list. There's nothing we can do about those soldiers who have already died, other than praise them for their dedication and thank their families for their profound sacrifices, but there is something we can do to prevent further loss of life. We can begin bringing them home now, so that no more need die in vain.

© Copyright 2005, Progressive Theology

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