The Warping of American Conscience
Abraham M. George
This "Letter to Editor" of the New York Times was sent on the eve
of the land invasion of Iraq, following the air war, by the U.S. led
allies following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990.
As an American, I want to be proud of this nation and what it stands
for. We should be a people who derive our strength not from our military
might, but from our national character and moral position in all matters.
Ultimately, our greatness will be judged by how we help shape the world
even in the face of evil.
The events of the past month have called to question whether our actions
are just and moral, and whether we as Americans can be proud of it.
The most powerful of Western nations have jointly unleashed their ultimate
conventional destructive power on a third world country in the name
of liberation, freedom and civilized behavior among nations. We say
that Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and probably so, and that we have
no quarrel with the people of Iraq. Undoubtedly, Iraq has violated international
laws and caused great harm by invading its neighbor; the Iraqi people
are at least morally accountable for the actions of their national leader.
Our national leaders tell us that we are simply doing what the world
has demanded by way of the United Nations resolutions, and that we shall
achieve our objectives with the least amount of loss of life for allied
forces. Now that the war has begun, most Americans agree that lessons
of Vietnam cannot be repeated, and this war must be won decisively.
The euphoria of our early military successes from allied air attacks
and the possibility of an easy Iraqi defeat have caused a shift in our
national focus from the question on the correctness of our actions,
to the military strategy and tactics for the destruction of opposing
forces with minimal casualty among allied forces. Our military leaders
have promised to "cut the enemy off and kill", while refusing to talk
about human losses on the other side. It has become more comfortable
to use terms such as "collateral damage" and "ordinance" instead of
mentioning civilian destruction and powerful bombs. We have come to
believe that the Iraqi Republican Guards are not simply elite troops
like our Marines or Green Beret but some evil and faceless non-humans
whose lives are not worth the ordinance that fall on their heads.
Our president has taken deliberate pains to emphasize that we mean
no harm to the people of Iraq, and our quarrel is only with Saddam Hussein.
Yet, our air attacks have already caused terrible destruction, and millions
of Iraqi civilians are undergoing severe hardship from a lack of water
supply and fuel for their day-to-day living, and electricity for practically
everything including hospitals. Undoubtedly, thousands of innocent people
shall die and countless more will live with the pain of suffering and
grief. When all this madness is over and we have fully achieved our
objectives, perhaps a good number of Iraqi families would have lost
a son or a father.
The U.S. has clearly stated its position that it shall accept nothing
short of "surrender", and Iraq must begin to withdraw fully before we
any longer consider a peaceful settlement. In fact, this has always
been our consistent position ever since the beginning of the conflict
six months back, and there has never been any meaningful negotiation
between the U.S. and Iraq on the Kuwaiti issue. It should not come as
a surprise to any one to learn at a later time that our government planned
its diplomacy to achieve a war instead of a peaceful settlement.
Most Americans would agree that we cannot allow someone like Saddam
Hussein to possess nuclear bombs or to threaten other nations with chemical
or biological weapons. Hence, it is somewhat understandable, and may
be even justifiable, for waging a war in order to destroy Iraq's nuclear
and chemical facilities, and to restore an independent Kuwait. However,
as a nation that possesses the nuclear capability to destroy the entire
world several times over, and having been the only nation to have used
nuclear bombs against another nation, our moral standing in this matter
is questionable. Similarly, our extensive use of napalm and agent orange
in the Vietnam war, and the subsequent stock piling of chemical and
biological weapons within our military arsenal leave us with very little
persuasive power to justify our going to war with Iraq on the basis
that Iraq may use such weapons in the future. Moreover, when Saddam
Hussein previously used chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds,
supplied by none other than one of our closest allies, Germany, we did
very little to prevent Germany from creating a situation that could
possibly end up in another holocaust.
Despite all the denials by our president and his administration, it
is only an open secret that we would not have gone to war for the "liberation"
of Kuwait but for reasons of oil. Certainly, we did not come to the
defense of Eastern Europe after the Second World War nor did we declare
a war to liberate Afghanistan. We did very little when the Peoples Republic
of China overtook the peaceful nation of Tibet, and we probably would
care very little if one of the poor African nations invades another.
Many historians would argue that Kuwait was simply the recent invention
of the British colonialists, and Iraq's rights are just as legitimate
as ours are when we fought Spain several years after we became independent
to take over Florida.
The legitimacy for our military actions is supposedly derived from
the U.N. Security Council resolutions that have given us the right to
use appropriate means to liberate Kuwait. But it should be remembered
that the Council consists mostly of Western nations who are dependent
on foreign oil, as well as the Soviet Union, which has become economically
dependent on the West. Moreover, nations have ignored the mandate of
the U.N. before on other instances, and we have chosen not to enforce
them. Can a selective enforcement of an U.N. resolution, therefore,
be morally justified when the motives and selfish interests of the enforcers
Even if we assume that the West is given the right under international
law to liberate Kuwait, does it sanction our relentless bombing of Iraq
and the ensuing suffering caused to its people? It is Kuwait that needs
to be liberated, but this end does not justify all the means that we
are currently employing. When the guardians of international law are
themselves parties to the conflict, who is there to check their excesses?
The war has taken an impersonal and non-human dimension, and the marvels
of technology have brought fortunes to companies engaged in the production
of destructive weaponry. Never in the history of mankind has such intense
air attack been executed against a nation in such a brief time. Our
military commanders talk of surgical air attacks as though "collateral"
civilian deaths are justifiable. We make the distinction between intent
and result, even when the result is the same, as though a lack of evil
intent is the license for a terrible result. The military strategy of
the allies is proudly announced as the destruction of fifty percent
of Iraqi military capability before a ground assault, and we are left
to wonder whether this implies the casualty and death of over five hundred
thousand Iraqi soldiers.
Just as in every other war, this war is no exception when it comes
to applying double standard. Our intelligence reports cite terrible
atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers over Kuwaiti population, but
we seem to easily forget Me-Lai and other instances in Vietnam. When
Iraqi infiltrators are caught by Saudi security, they are executed under
Islamic law by our ally; when our pilots who are shot down over Iraq
are brought before Iraqi television, we want to try Saddam for war crimes
for violating Geneva conventions. When Iraq dumps oil into the Gulf
to prevent an allied amphibious invasion, we accuse Iraq of waging war
against the ecology of the area; when we bombed nuclear, chemical and
biological weapons facilities in Iraq, we do not mention about radiation
and other after effects on Iraqi population.
Our president has taken the moral high ground to justify the war and
the way it is executed. The nation is led to believe that what our government
is doing is the right thing, and just as we fought communism before,
we are now fighting in defense of freedom and democracy. We have, however,
allied ourselves with nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria
whose governments are far from democratic, with practices varying only
in the degree of ruthless and inhuman treatment of its dissenting population.
The post cold-war era has given us the latitude to engage in major military
operations to protect our economic interests without having to fear
the Soviet Union. We are told that this will not be another Vietnam
and we are going to get the job done quickly. It now appears that all
that matters is total military victory and minimal loss of American
Sadly enough, we do not seem to have learned the true lesson of Vietnam.
That lesson was not a military one, but one that is deeply rooted in
the moral standing of this nation in the eyes of all the people of the
world. We were hypocritical and we went to war for a cause we truly
did not believe in. It was an immoral war, and we caused terrible human
suffering for the Vietnamese and ourselves.
No one can question our military strength, and we have already proved
it in the first few weeks of this war. We do not need to enhance our
credibility any further by humiliating the "enemy" through a total military
victory. The time has come for us to respect the pride and dignity of
our adversary, and find a way to achieve our objectives without any
more destruction and death. The strength of a great nation lies not
in its willingness to use its military might, but to affect change without
it. A just conclusion to this conflict needs a just ending of this war,
and that ending must come now because it is no longer morally justifiable.
To continue the war on any pretext is like fighting evil with evil.