The Iraq War Was a Huge Ethical Leap Backwards

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The Iraq War memorial in Santa Monica, California (Photo: Kevin Dooley / Flickr)

This commentary is extracted from testimony from CodePink’s Iraq War Tribunal, happening December 1 and 2 in Washington, DC.

There are always multiple factors shaping the ethical climate of a society at any given moment. Yet there are discernible major processes that have such huge impact that they reach almost everyone in the society and shape their worldviews.

World War II, for example, with its shared sacrifices across all sectors of society, created an ethos of solidarity and mutual connection, a sense that there was a “we” that transcended individualism and selfishness in the name of a higher purpose. That ethos, already under attack in subsequent years, was totally and finally pushed out of public consciousness by the war in Iraq.

Instead, the Iraq War seemed the final step in solidifying an ethos of “looking out for number one.” The larger community of nations and solidarity within the U.S. would no longer have much of a claim on the American people.

There are four key elements in this process.

First, there was the reality that our highest public officials pressured those responsible for providing accurate information about the threats to the U.S. to cook the data. Whatever the truth of it, they wanted to convince American citizens that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was planning to use them against U.S. interests.

Those who objected to this assessment were ignored, their alternative analyses buried and shunned, or else they were pushed out of their positions in government altogether. In the process, truth tellers and whistle blowers — sanctified in the Bible by the prophet Nathan, who confronts King David with his sins — were cast as criminals or betrayers.

The consequence? Over the subsequent 13 years, truth in government became a peril to those who sought it — and an oxymoron. Instead, public discourse became increasingly about shaping imagery rather than about uncovering truth. This is a violation of one of our key moral responsibilities — to testify to the truth as a civic duty.

Second, lying to get one’s way, already a tool in the hands of corporate and political leaders at least from the time of Machiavelli, got transformed into a regular and highly rewarded behavior.

The first consequence of this was to undermine the few remaining constraints on America’s culture of mass delusion, which reached even greater heights this year in the way Donald Trump won the White House through repeating the strategy of the “Big Lie” — repeating falsehoods enough times that people began to think the lies were true.

Similarly, when Wall Street professionals in 2007 began to see signs of the impending collapse of their various get-rich-quickly schemes, instead of feeling any obligation to share this truth with the public, they instead lied to their investors while trying to find ways to make big personal fortunes on the developing crisis of the capitalist market.

Third, closely related to this was the blurring of the distinction between private self-interest and the obligation to serve the larger human community.

Those who knew him testified that George W. Bush felt a personal animus against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he believed had dishonored his father former president George H.W. Bush by invading Kuwait in 1990. The younger Bush proceeded to use the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 as another reason to overthrow Saddam — even though there was overwhelming evidence that Iraq had nothing to do with that attack, whose roots were connected to the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban of Afghanistan.

When people act against the common interest to promote a private agenda, and then insist that their motivation and actions serve the common good, they create a moral crisis for the society by essentially discrediting the very possibility that there could even be such thing as the common good. Yet without that, we are back into the Hobbesian notion of the “war of all against all” which Hobbes claimed could be overcome by the Sovereign, namely a national government, but which requires the justification of something actually being the common good. If our leaders are willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives and millions of other people’s lives for the sake of their own narrow self-interest, soon you get the kind of politics that produces a Donald Trump.

Fourth, there was the elimination of the hard-won distinction between acts permissible in war and those that are war crimes. The U.S. engaged in waterboarding and other forms of torture in the Iraq war, justified it in the name of saving other lives — even after extensive testimony showed that there was little usefulness to torture in actual practice — and then lied about it.

Perhaps worst of all, when people voted for a president who boasted that he opposed the war and the torture, President Obama declined to prosecute anyone who had been involved in the legitimating of torture. And that opened the way for Trump to promise to re-introduce torture.

A society that legalizes torture, as the U.S. started to do in the Iraq war and may do outright in the Trump presidency, has lost sight of the fundamental holiness of human beings, and now sees them only as a means to ends. It is this ethical blindness that leads to the overthrow of any ethical standards — and back to the logic of “might makes right.”

Finally, the Iraq war was accompanied by a purge and assault on most of the Sunni Muslims who had been part of Saddam Hussein’s government and army. Suddenly finding themselves powerless, these people became a core element of an ongoing insurgency against the U.S. puppet government we installed in Iraq. It was elements of that insurgency which turned themselves into ISIS and other quasi terrorist groups that continue the fight against the U.S., the Iraqi government, and the Syrian government to establish a new Islamic state governed by their version of Shari’a law.

That struggle has often involved assaulting Shia Muslims and practitioners of other faiths, including Sunnis who don’t share their hardline views. This is simply “identity politics” armed. The radicalization of religious communities in this way has given militarists around the world a new justification for the escalation of military spending and military responses to local critics — the claim that dissenters may be in some way associated with terrorists.

To protect themselves, the U.S. and other countries expanded domestic and foreign surveillance of hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens. And the path of nonviolence has been largely discredited in popular culture.

The elimination of privacy, the discrediting of nonviolence, and the support of struggle between religious or national identity groups all point to the same ethical crisis: the inability to give value to each human being as fundamentally deserving of caring and respect regardless of their religious, racial, national, gender, sexual, or social identity.

When the capacity to see the other as fundamentally valuable devolves into seeing them as objects, what Martin Buber called the move from I-Thou to I-It consciousness, the possibility of an ethical order disappears and we are back in the jungle.

The Iraq War led humanity take a major step backwards in that direction.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun Magazine.