Commentary

Is it insane to be engaged in Iraq?

A Lutheran pastor responds to Paul Harrington

Permit me to offer some reactions and alternative perspectives on what my colleague, Pastor Paul Harrington, calls the “insane” war in Iraq. But first, let me say that I agree that war is hell, and expensive, and causes pain and suffering on a vast scale.

I grieve over the deaths of fallen soldiers. (I have to believe that Paul does as well, though he never directly says so.) It was my painful duty during my years as a military chaplain to knock on doors to inform parents and spouses that their son or husband was killed in action. So vivid are those memories, that I relive them every time I read about yet another war casualty. I have been too close to the personal chaos resulting from war not to abhor it.

Yet, it is my belief that a vast majority of soldiers, in this and previous wars, believe in what they are doing. Soon after reading Harrington‘s commentary, I noted a Star Tribune article featuring a local couple burying their soldier son at Arlington National Cemetery. We learned that they and their son were fully supportive of what this country is trying to do in Iraq. “He died honorably, for a reason, for a cause,” they said.

Are they, and others like them, insane? If the war is insane, those who fight it must also be insane. And should we assume that the 3,200 AWOL soldiers were the sane ones? (By the way, I have no idea if that number is correct. Harrington cites numerous remarkable figures, some of which, he admits, may be off by two or three times. And nowhere is any source whatsoever cited for these numbers.)

To say — as Harrington does not, but others of his ilk do — that one supports the troops but regards their mission as insane is a non sequitur.

Harrington cites the “irrefutable and damning” things that did not turn out as expected — with perfect 20/20 hindsight. Consider what the editors of Newsweek (April 2, 2007) wrote in this regard:

“Hardly anyone believed Iraq’s claims that it no longer possessed any weapons of mass destruction — untold piles of lethal biological and chemical agents — and there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein would use whatever he had. Hadn’t the Butcher of Baghdad already gassed entire Iraqi villages when they defied his rule?”

To demand prescience of our leaders is utterly unrealistic. What human endeavor was ever undertaken with an assurance of success? Not surgery, not sermon-writing, and certainly not war. So we go with probabilities. And sometimes we are wrong — wrong, but not necessarily insane.

As I have noted, this entire diatribe is constructed totally devoid of any geo-political context. There was no reference to September 11, 2001, as part of a larger terrorist threat, nor to the unprovoked attack on the marine barracks in Beirut, nor to the earlier attempts to blow up the Trade Center. This context is, at least in part, what moved the Senate to vote its support for the Iraq incursion. Does that make every Senator who voted in favor — even the ones who have since backtracked — insane?

In short, to consider and judge the war in Iraq without its context noted is misleading at best and dishonest at worst.
Finally, may I suggest that “the government’s call and the call of Christ” are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as is implied in the Harrington commentary? When Jesus encountered the Roman centurion, he did not even suggest he might find another profession. Rather, he lauded a faith found not even in Israel.

The apostle Paul, and Luther as well, regard the maintenance of order as a government function to be legitimate and necessary. Luther called it the Kingdom on the Left, and supported it. To the pacifist, a position I respect but do not share, this is all quite beside the point. But we all make mistakes.

And so, in Harrington’s words (I assume he includes himself in the prayer), “May God forgive us for our ignorance and arrogance.”

To that I say, Amen.

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Valen is a retired ELCA clergyman. He lives in Plymouth, Minnesota.