Confessing the sin of an unjust war

By George Clifford

Is confession necessary for healing and reconciliation? If not, then much of Christian theology is wrong and Anglican liturgy desperately needs revision.

However, if confession is the essential first step for healing and reconciliation, then the United States needs to confess that it was wrong to invade Iraq. In plain theological language, the invasion was sinful. Christian ethicists since St. Augustine have used Just War Theory to measure a war’s morality. Analyzing the Iraq invasion against that benchmark illuminates the invasion’s immorality.

First, Just War Theory requires protagonists to have a just cause. U. S. leaders advanced three justifications for a preemptive strike: Iraq had or would soon have weapons of mass destruction (WMD); Iraq supported al Qaeda terrorists; and Iraqis wanted help replacing their brutal dictator with democratic freedoms.

Events have proven that no just cause existed. New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon and retired general Bernard Trainor in their book Cobra II have carefully documented the doubtful intelligence and politically motivated analysis that produced the claim that Iraq had or would soon have WMD. Extensive searching for evidence of a viable WMD program in post-invasion Iraq discovered nothing. Iraqi government files revealed that initial contacts between Saddam and Osama bin Laden went nowhere, a foregone conclusion given that bin Laden is an Islamic extremist and Saddam was a secular Muslim. Pre-invasion Iraq met none of the well-established conditions required for democracy to thrive. A majority of Iraqis prefer an Islamic state to a secular democracy, an easily predicted preference since Shiites comprise 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and Islam does not distinguish between sacred and secular spheres of communal life.

Second, Just War Theory requires that legitimate authority wage war only when a reasonable chance of success exists. Leaders in the U. S. displayed an arrogant “we know best” attitude, confident they could solve any problem. This hubris quickly became a single-minded commitment, especially in the Bush administration, to finish what they perceived as the unfinished business of the first Gulf War. Officials regarded regime change as the only solution to Saddam Hussein’s brutality, his incessant saber rattling, and the regional instability he caused. They desired international advice, authority, and assistance only if supportive of U. S. policies.

A study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University estimated that approximately 650,000 more Iraqis have died since the invasion than if it had not occurred. More than 3400 members of the US armed forces and hundreds of coalition contractor employees have also died in Iraq. The financial cost of US operations in Iraq now exceeds $300 billion ($2 billion per week). Those deaths and monies have not reduced the terrorist threat or brought peace. Instead, al Qaeda terrorists seized the opportunity in the invasion’s ill-planned aftermath to ignite a self-sustaining spiral of increasing sectarian violence in Iraq. Consequently, chaos now reigns in Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds are further polarized, animosity towards the West has dramatically increased, and Middle East stability is more elusive than ever. Iraq’s swift, certain, and reasonably easy defeat by U. K. and U. S. forces cannot mask the fact that the long term prognosis according to knowledgeable experts for the invasion’s aftermath was always poor, a prognosis exacerbated by the lack of widespread international support.

Finally, Just War Theory requires that nations fight with the intent of establishing peace. Some contend that the primary reason for the Iraq invasion was to secure access to Iraq’s petroleum. These critics observe that the U. S. has not intervened in nations ravaged by genocide that lack substantial petroleum reserves. Ironically, U. S. government figures show that Iraq today produces less oil than prior to the invasion, a production level insufficient to pay, contrary to pre-invasion anticipations, for rebuilding of Iraq or the cost of the military occupation.

Christianity teaches that those who make wrong choices should acknowledge – confess – their mistake. That holds for nations, not just individuals. Jesus’ message has profound social and political aspects. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke God’s word of judgment to nations, both to the Jewish nation and to its pagan neighbors.

President Bush publicly identifies himself as a Christian. He should therefore appreciate confession as a necessary first step in setting a wrong right. Christian citizens of secular democracies appropriately encourage their leaders to act courageously in taking responsibility for national mistakes. In response to efforts by Christians and others, U. S. leaders have taken steps towards national healing and reconciliation by apologizing for slavery and the detention of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II.

Arguing that the U. S. publicly acknowledges the immorality of invading Iraq does not imply a lack of support for personnel in their armed forces. Armed forces in a democratic society implement policy not make it. Personnel in Iraq need and deserve our prayers, our ongoing concern for their families at home, assistance in reintegrating into society when they return, and our bold, vigorous advocacy of moral policies that have a reasonable chance of success.

Defeating the Iraqi insurgency can succeed only by winning the hearts and minds of the people, an expensive lesson learned from multiple failures elsewhere. The current occupation alienates Iraqis and consequently represents a failing policy. Even as can happen in relations between individuals, the U. S. confessing its sin has the potential to introduce a helpful and healthy humility and honesty into their relationships with Middle Eastern nations. Those nations, Islamic and Jewish, share common teachings with Christianity: only God is without sin; sin results from failing to submit to God; sin causes brokenness; healing and reconciliation can only begin with confession. Humility and honesty provide an essential foundation for trust, allowing reconciliation and healing to develop.

If the gospel message is true, then healing and reconciliation in Iraq can begin only with the necessary first step of confession. Defeat and confessing to sin are not synonymous by any stretch of the imagination. Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists have not defeated the U. S. President Bush clearly has the resolve to continue his current policies for the remainder of his tenure in office. The U. S. has the resources to continue occupying Iraq indefinitely. However, as evidenced by the results of the ongoing troop surge, pursuing an immoral, failed policy to avoid creating any false appearance of defeat is at best foolish and at worst criminal.

Truly wise leaders will recognize that confession necessarily precedes any possibility for healing and reconciliation in Iraq. They will dare to name the invasion of Iraq as sin and will admit their nation’s hubris. With humility and honesty, these leaders can then responsively and supportively dialogue with Iraq’s people, beginning the journey towards healing and reconciliation.

The Rev. George Clifford of the diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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