The simple truth is that war is never good. Indeed, I believe that one of the principal uses of the Bible is to serve as a powerful counterweight to the ancient Homeric legends of Odysseus and Achilles which glorifies war and lionizes generals. while many patriarchs of nations - from Romulus all the way to George Washington - were generals who defeated their enemies on the field of battle, the three patriarchs of the Jewish nation were humble shepherds, with Abraham even defending the immoral inhabitants of Sodom, his nemesis.
The prophet Moses defeats the tyranny of Egypt through the power of the spoken word rather than pike-wielding legions or invading Mongol hordes. Indeed, one may search the length and breadth of Israel and still not find a single triumphal military arch remaining from ancient times. Unlike Rome which built the Arch of Titus and Trajan's Column, the Jews never treated war as anything but necessary.
Indeed, in the same ancient world where Alexander of Macedon and Caesar of Rome sought greatness and immortality on the battlefield, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah was proclaiming that real bravery involved the attempt to live side by side with our fellow man in harmony. He famously predicted a time when the classical heroism of brutal combat would be replaced by a Biblical heroism of valiant men who beat swords into ploughshares and never teach their sons the art of war.
Everything which arises in life may be easily classified into the three neat categories of the good, the bad, and the necessary. War is never good, it is usually bad, but it is sometimes necessary.
A woman friend of mine who was in a loveless marriage for fifteen years threw a party for her friends when she finally got divorced. Insulted that I did not attend, she called me up and asked me if I would have preferred that she remain in a miserable union. "Of course not," I said. "Tragic as it always is, divorce is sometimes necessary. But no divorce is ever the cause of celebration." The same is true of war.
War is like chemotherapy. The good and innocent cells are going to be killed along with the bad. But where there is a cancer that threatens to snuff out life, what is one to do but fight back?
Far murkier morally is a preemptive war like the one being advocated President Bush and Prime Minister Blair against Saddam Hussein. Can we really risk allied soldier's lives, as well as civilian collateral casualties, when we are not yet sure that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction, or that even if he does, that he has plans to use them?
To this very legitimate question I respond that the most moral of wars are not even those fought in self-defense, but those fought to defeat tyranny and genocide. If a war of self-defense demonstrates an appreciation of our own lives, a war to defend our neighbor's existence manifests an appreciation for all life.
Imagine for a moment that Hitler had abided by the agreement he forged with Neville Chamberlain in Munich in September 1938. Say Hitler had bsatiated himself with the Sudetenland, and had not later taken the rest of Czechoslovakia or invaded Poland. Had the Second World War not broken out, Hitler likely would have completed the final solution, gassing all Jews and gypsies in his realm.
Would the allies have launched a war against him? Or could European nations, as in the old Bob Dylan line, "close their eyes and pretend that they just don't see." Would the nations of the world have watched in silence as Hitler killed millions of Jews? Whatever the answer to that hypothetical question may be (although an indication of probable inaction may be surmised from the lack of a military threat to Hitler after the passing of his Nuremberg laws and the pogrom of Kristallnacht), what is certain is that now that the world has witnessed one Hitler, we must never another to grow in his shadow.
Saddam Hussein has gassed more than 100,000, and murdered approximately 300,000 Kurds by other means--roughly ten percent of the Iraqi Kurdish population. In 1988, in the town of Halabja, on the southern fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan, wave after wave of Iraqi Migs and Mirages dropped chemical bombs. Along with the sickly stench of rotting humanity, what greeted rescue workers the following morning defied belief. The city was strewn with corpses. Men women and children had died suddenly and without warning. Babies, frozen in death, still lay at their mothers' breasts. Lifeless boys and girls held their parents' hands. In a single day, 5,000 innocent people died. They were buried mass graves.
The use of chemical weapons is banned by the Geneva Convention of 1925. Only Benito Mussolini, in Italy's war against Abyssinia, had ever defied the ban. Now for the first time ever a state was using chemical weapons against its own people.
Ali Al Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and head of the Northern Bureau set up to deal with Kurdistan, convened the Ba'ath Party leaders on 26 May 1987. "As soon as we complete the deportations," he informed them, "we will start attacking [the Pershmega resistance] everywhere... then we will surround them in a small pocket and attack them with chemical weapons. I will not attack them with chemicals just one day; I will continue to attack them with chemicals for 15 days...I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? The international community? F--k them!" This is the same man who was later promoted by Saddam to governor of Kuwait and subsequently minister of defense of Iraq.
That Saddam has been allowed to continue as the merciless and tyrannical ruler of Iraq after his mass slaughter of his own people is a stain on humanity and disgrace to the more powerful nations of the world. That a miniature Hitler is coddled by American lawmakers and British MP's who travel to Baghdad to take pictures with him is disgraceful and unforgivable. That this is being done in the name of protecting Iraqi civilians is an affront to the intelligence. Is there any sane individual who would really argue that the leaving a murderous tyrant in power, when he has already liquidated thousands of political opponents, is the safest thing for Iraqi citizens? When I lived in England between 1988-99, I witnessed the gradual erosion of the reputation of Winston Churchill. The first to go were his great wartime speeches. Were we aware that many of them were read by professional actors? Next, his virtue in defying Hitler was presented as irrational stubbornness. John Charmley in his Churchill: The End of Glory, contended that Churchill had squandered the British Empire by insisting on continuing the fight against Hitler. Many other authors have told us of Churchill's extraordinary impetuosity, egotism, insensitivity, and abrupt ideological shifts.
And yet, amid this vociferous assault, Churchill is still nearly universally admired as the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Why? Because he stared evil in the eye and, with unswerving determination, refused to compromise with a bloody and murderous tyrant. While war is, at times, highly immoral, the knowledge of when it is necessary to fight is perhaps the single leading determinant of greatness.
On May 10, 1940, Hitler's armies were overrunning Holland, Belgium, and France. The government of Neville Chamberlain fell and Winston Churchill was asked by the king of England to accept the position of prime minister. As noted historian John Lukacs chronicles in his book, Five Days in London: May 1940, the fate of the Western world was determined during this period, with the issue being: Would Great Britain carry on the fight against Hitler, even if alone, or would it accept defeat and a political compromise that would leave Germany in control of the European continent?
Lukacs illustrates how Churchill was determined to resist every suggestion of negotiation with Hitler. Churchill had an adamant vision that there was no solution to Nazism, either in Germany or in Europe, other than absolute resistance by Great Britain and the complete destruction of Hitler, even while Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Minister, advocated conciliation. The commitment to the destruction of despotism so that freedom might flourish established the Churchillian legend.
Some will argue that these words recklessly commit nation-states to permanent intervention in the affairs of others. Others will say that the Western states cannot play the role of global policeman, watching their sons and daughters die fighting other people's wars. To them I respond with the ancient Jewish aphorism, "It is not for you to finish the entire enterprise. But neither are you free from beginning it." While we cannot liberate every country from tyranny, we can remove from power the world's foremost executioner.
Peace and tranquility are the dual blessings to which all the earth's inhabitants rightly aspire. But a just war is often, ironically, the only guarantor that we will ever attain them.