Virtual Talmud

In recent months, public opinion has increasingly been turning against the war in Iraq–and for good reason, as body counts for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians continue to soar, as the situation on the ground becomes increasingly chaotic, and as each successive justification proffered for the war proves false.

Of course, we all know that hindsight is 20-20 and so it takes no particular wisdom to say that, in retrospect, invading Iraq was a mistake. The question is, does Jewish tradition offer any insights that could have helped us avoid the situation beforehand? The answer is a resounding yes.

The Talmud (Sotah 44b) places great constraints on milchemet reshut (elective wars, as opposed to mandatory wars of self-defense) and also enshrines the religious leadership as a check on power-hungry sovereigns wishing to rush to war (Sanhedrin 20b). In Deuteronomy 2, we see Moses commanded by God to make war on the Amorites and nevertheless offering them terms of peace. The rabbis take this passage to mean that one must always offer peace and that engaging in war is a last resort (Sifrei Bamidbar 42). The current administration appeared to have little interest in finding non-military solutions to the real problem of Saddam Hussein and his supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction. The uncertainty over their existence combined with a lack of immediate threat demanded that the U.S. continue to work through the United Nations to let the arms inspectors do their job–a job they were in fact doing remarkably well when they reported no evidence of WMD’s.

Once at war, our tradition also places strict limits on the conduct of soldiers and the treatment of prisoners of war. Our religious and ethical obligation of k’vod ha-briot (respect for the dignity of all creatures)–to say nothing of our legal obligations–make it incumbent on us to treat prisoners humanely. This is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do; the backlash against the United States has grown in no small part from the torture at Abu Ghraib and similar facilities, and the ongoing degrading treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. When we violate the dignity of others, we diminish our own humanity as well and risk losing the moral core which can lend our actions clarity and rightness.

There is no question that we must support our troops–the vast majority of whom are serving their country with the utmost professionalism. So too we now have an obligation to Iraqis to help return their country to stability at a very minimum. But these obligations are best served not by blind compliance with a war-mongering administration whose values in justifying and executing this war run contrary at every turn to the dictates of both morality and common sense. Instead, we need to reassert the invaluable ethical lessons we learn from our tradition–the reluctance to go to war, and the demand for proper conduct when we do–so we can begin to repair the damage and move toward a stable future.

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