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Thursday, December 9, 2004

'Commonweal' blasts 'First Things' on the war.

The cover story of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal this week is extraordinary. I've been so preoccupied with it that I haven't yet read Peter Beinart's New Republic cover story that has liberal foreign policy circles buzzing — even though, as a Wes Clark guy and sometime liberal hawk myself, I'm probably predisposed to agree with large portions of it. However, theological reflection on just war principles comes before political grand strategy in my book, and so I've been reading "How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong" by Peter Dula, the Baghdad-based Iraq program coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee. You should print out a copy and set aside some time for it: This is one compelling theological quarrel, well-written and thought-provoking.

Dula takes papal biographer and just-war theologian George Weigel, smarty-pants theology editor Richard John Neuhaus, and their influential neoconservative theological journal First Things to task for theological error on the war in Iraq. Dula identifies more with theological orthodoxy than with theological liberalism, which makes his disappointment with First Things all the more acute. He grants Weigel's contention that "religious leaders [like the National Council of Churches] were not always the brightest or most articulate in the months preceding the war. In this case, though, the church’s pacifists and liberals proved right." Here's the main point:

Before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in its aftermath, Weigel and First Things promoted a reasoned debate about the war on terrorism. While the editors never wavered in their support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they opened the magazine to theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, who all opposed the war. This came as no surprise. First Things can rightly claim a distinct and important place in contemporary American religious thought. Throughout its fifteen-year history, it has, at its best, stood for more than just conservative politics. It has stood for a robust theological orthodoxy around which a great many diverse thinkers, Protestant and Catholic, clergy and laity, academics and nonacademics, were able to gather.

So it comes as something of a surprise, at least to me, that First Things has failed to follow through on another claim Weigel made in that essay. “Moral muteness in a time of war is a moral stance,” he wrote, “it can be a stance born of fear; it can be a stance born of indifference; it can be a stance born of cynicism about the human capacity to promote justice, freedom, and order, all of which are moral goods. But whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment-a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.”

I agree. In fact, a large part of my job as a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, is “advocacy.” I am supposed to write “advocacy reports” to the Mennonite Central Committee offices in Ottawa, Washington, and New York about justice and peace issues in the field. That is why I was in Iraq for ten months. Moreover, since I am a theology graduate student, I hoped to “think and write theologically” about what I had seen in Baghdad. I have done almost none of that. Trained to attend theologically and philosophically to texts, I have not proved a quick learner when it comes to attending to this kind of violence. So I have remained, for the most part, mute. It is a muteness born of fear and cynicism, one that is a deficient form of moral judgment. Contemplating what is happening in Baghdad from a fifth-floor hotel room, listening to the mortar rounds landing across the river, or from the street, peering into the crater left behind by what the security reports call a “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,” will make people beyond bookish theologians too dizzy for clarity in a time of war.

Perhaps contemplating this carnage from New York is similar, and that is why First Things was virtually silent about Iraq between the summer of 2003 and October 2004. But I have serious doubts about that. It took until October 2004 for the most prominent journal of theological orthodoxy in the United States to say something about Abu Ghraib. First Things still hasn’t said anything about the Baghdad bombings of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in October 2003, or the March 2004 bombings in Karbala. Falluja, the Mahdi Army, and the bungled hand­over of authority from Paul Bremer to Iraq’s interim prime minister Ayad Allawi-all have gone unremarked on. . . . Even now, First Things has not conceded the full import of the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were discovered or that there was no link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. . . .

What I am most concerned with can be reduced to four points. First, Neuhaus and Weigel, like the administration they support, failed in the summer of 2003 to see that the war was far from over. Second, their faith in the competency of the Bush administration, and their contempt for religious leaders who disagreed with them, can now more easily be recognized for what it was: an attachment to a particular brand of neoconservatism overwhelming their attachment to the just-war tradition. Third, their scant attention to how the war was actually conducted (jus in bello), and their disdain for those who pushed questions about noncombatant deaths and proportionality, suggest the need for a reappraisal of the value they placed on the just causes (ad bellum) of the war. Finally, I would argue that their silence since the fall of Baghdad is more disturbing than their mistakes before and during “major combat operations.” The issue is not only, or not simply, that they were wrong. Perhaps they think they were right. The issue, especially in light of President George W. Bush’s re-election, is their current “moral muteness in a time of war.”

It's a remarkable essay. Do read it. ("The War in Iraq: How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong," Peter Dula, Commonweal 12.6.04)

I must confess to feeling implicated in Dula's moral judgment because, although I never endorsed Bush's war on Iraq, it would be fair to say that I was more focused on errors in judgment on my left than I was on the president's profound moral error. (I could also say that before the war, I had a total readership of ten.) If I were to offer a belated self-defense, I would only say that I had concluded that Bush couldn't be stopped with the left's conventional tactics, and so was trying pragmatically to urge my own tiny faction of the liberal community to take a different approach. I believed that an antiwar argument that had any chance of swaying public opinion in the United States had to be rooted in a worldview that could see war — even this war — as having some moral justification. But that's a pragmatic rather than moral argument. One thing you would search in vain for on this site, I'm sorry to say, is a crisp religious or moral denunciation of Bush's goals or overall policy in Iraq. It's implicit in many places, but I was always too generous with the benefit of the doubt before the war, and too cautious in judgment after the fact, and for that I do feel that I have been morally mute.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 9 December 2004 at 8:42 AM

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Doug Muder:

December 9, 2004 11:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

We live in the shadow of one of the great propaganda machines of all time. It's no shame to be slow to catch on.

I was skeptical at the start the Afghan War, not about the morality of going after Al Qaeda, but about the effectiveness of it. When the Taliban was pushed out of Kabal with so many fewer casualties (American and Afghan alike) than I expected, I felt chastened. Maybe these Bush guys were better than I had given them credit for.

In the build-up to Iraq, I was willing to cut the administration a lot of slack. Maybe they knew more than I did. Maybe we could end Saddam's reign as easily as we had defeated the Taliban. Wouldn't that be a good thing?

It was the fall of 2002 before I realized that the Afghan War wasn't over, and that the Taliban wasn't defeated. And I started to notice internal inconsistencies in the administration's claims about Iraq. On one day they'd claim to have absolutely rock-solid evidence that Iraq had banned weapons, and on the next they'd say that if we waited until we were certain, it would be too late.

Through it all, I've been amazed at how easy it would be to believe that everything is fine. A lot of people still don't know that the Afghan War isn't over. And the story in Iraq has consistently been that there are a few problems at the moment, but things will start getting better when X happens. X has been the capture of Saddam, the handover of sovereignty, retaking Fallujah, and now the January elections. After January, we'll start hearing that this is just an assembly to draft a constitution, and that things won't really get better until the constitution is in place -- but then they'll be great.

Anyway, my point is that major quantities of smoke have been blown in front of our eyes for a long time. You shouldn't be too hard on yourself for not seeing through it right away.

Jim F.:

December 10, 2004 06:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the reference to the article. It is an excellent piece.

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