The Warping of American Conscience

January 1991

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 are questionable?

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 lives.

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.

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