Virtual Talmud

Today many schools and government offices are closed in observance of Veterans Day, a time to honor and thank those who have so bravely served their country. Veterans Day is always a solemn occasion–and never more so than when members of our armed forces are fighting and dying abroad.
At latest count, 3,858 Americans have been killed since the beginning of our invasion, to say nothing of nearly 30,000 more confirmed wounded (to say nothing at all of the estimated 80,000 Iraqi civilians killed since we went in – including the latest instance yesterday of a private security firm opening fire with impunity on an unarmed Iraqi).

It is clear that the Iraq War is a failed policy–not through any shortcoming of our brave men and women in uniform who have valiantly struggled to accomplish the impossible, but because of a massive failure of planning and understanding by those in command. What is most terrifying is that many of the same players who brought us this disastrous and entirely unnecessary war are now rattling their sabers against Iran–seeking to divert attention from the messes they have made in Afghanistan and Iraq by opening a third front.
Judaism is by no means a pacifist religion–the reality and even justice of war is acknowledged under certain circumstances. However, limits are put on the conduct of war to prevent precisely the sorts of tragic mistakes that are so evident right now in Iraq. The rabbinic tradition calls on us to exercise k’vod ha-beriot–treating captives humanely and recognizing that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Ignoring this command has led to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Maimonides, following the Book of Deuteronomy, says peace must be offered before an attack is launched. Paying mere lip-service to this idea and circumventing the United Nations brought us into Iraq with mere nominal support from the so-called “coalition of the willing.”
The Torah tells us that soldiers who have misgivings about participating in an elective war should be excused from participating, yet the government mocks State Department employees who are understandably reluctant to serve in what may amount to a death sentence in Iraq.
Ultimately, the tragedy that lies at the heart of this war, and the tragedy that Jewish law tries to circumvent, is the age-old sin of hubris–of human beings thinking they can play God, can ignore morality and ethics, and pull the string just right to achieve the desired outcome. By now, we should have learned the humility to recognize that we as humans do not have that kind of control, and that when we try to use the ends to justify the means, we will reap what we sow. Tragically, in this time of voluntary military service and zero accountability for those in charge, it is mostly our brave military personnel who are doing the reaping.

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