The Moral Case against the Iraq War: Viewed in the Light of Our Own Ideals, the Right to Life Is So Fundamental That Killing the Innocent to Advance Any Purpose, However Worthy, Is Wrong

By Savoy, Paul | The Nation, May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Moral Case against the Iraq War: Viewed in the Light of Our Own Ideals, the Right to Life Is So Fundamental That Killing the Innocent to Advance Any Purpose, However Worthy, Is Wrong


Savoy, Paul, The Nation


   Let's look this thing in the eye once and for all.

   ---Arundhati Roy

As the Iraq war continues into its second year, the Bush Administration's reasons for being there are more indefensible than ever. Prewar claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have all proved to be wrong; the number of terrorists in Iraq has increased rather than decreased; more American troops were killed in April than were lost during the entire invasion phase of the war; the systemic and barbarous abuse of Iraqi detainees contradicts the most basic values the Administration claimed it would bring to Iraq; and the uprisings in Falluja and at least half a dozen other cities portend a nationwide insurgency by both Sunnis and Shiites against the US presence. Yet the latest polls--including one conducted after the revelations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners--show that about half of Americans remain convinced that the war was morally justified. President Bush, in a speech on March 19 marking the first anniversary of the conflict, articulated a moral defense of the war that has been repeated many times: "No one can argue that the Iraqi people would be better off" with Saddam Hussein's regime "back in the palaces." Even those who opposed the war have, up to now, found the President's moral argument difficult to answer. The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, in a speech to this year's session of the World Social Forum in Bombay, lamented how "plenty of antiwar activists have retreated in confusion since the capture of Saddam Hussein. Isn't the world better off without Saddam Hussein? they ask timidly" [see Roy, "The New American Century," February 9].

The problem opponents of the war have had in responding to President Bush's claim of moral legitimacy, as University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff suggests, is that they have addressed the moral issue in the terms the President has framed it rather than reframing the issue in their own moral terms. Talking about the world, or at least Iraq, being "better off" avoids confronting the civilian carnage caused by the war. As the late Robert Nozick cautioned in his classic work on the moral basis of freedom, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, we should be wary of talking about the overall good of society or of a particular country. There is no social entity called Iraq that benefited from some self-sacrifice it suffered for its own greater good, like a patient who voluntarily endures some pain to be better off than before. There were only individual human beings living in Iraq before the war, with their individual lives. Sacrificing the lives of some of them for the benefit of others killed them and benefited the others. Nothing more. Each of those Iraqis killed in the war was a separate person, and the unfinished life each of them lost was the only life he or she had, or would ever have. They clearly are not better off now that Saddam is gone from power.

There is only one truly serious question about the morality of the war, and that is the question posed more than fifty years ago by French Nobel laureate Albert Camus, looking back on two world wars that had slaughtered more than 70 million people: When do we have the right to kill our fellow human beings or let them be killed? What is needed is a national debate in the presidential election campaign that addresses the most important moral issue of our time. It is an issue we are required to face not only as a matter of moral obligation to all those Iraqis killed in the war, but to the 772 American servicemen and -women who, as of May 10, had lost their lives and the more than 4,000 US soldiers injured in Iraq. The debate should begin by moving beyond the narrow factual focus on WMD intelligence to an examination of the broad moral principles and values governing the use of deadly force against other human beings. Those principles are to be found in the basic precepts of our more than 200-year-old constitutional tradition and criminal jurisprudence, and in widely accepted standards of international humanitarian law. …

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