War or no war, innocent people are likely to die

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
One reader, Randy Yelverton, asked some good questions from a biblical perspective about support for the Bush administration on Iraq. Yelverton notes, "If we believe in the sanctity of life, then we must seriously scrutinize any action that will take so many lives." He's absolutely right. We should listen to liberals who raise thoughtful, critical questions. We should not applaud some conservatives and neo-conservatives who seem gung-ho about the prospect of throwing others into the hell that is war. The only reason to fight this war is that doing so will save lives -- and that type of calculation is dangerous. If the United States attacks Iraq, even though our intent is only to take out Saddam Hussein and his soldiers, it is certain that some innocent people will suffer alongside the guilty. If the United States gives Saddam more time, it is likely that many more innocent people will die from terrorism in this country and Saddam's terror against his own people in Iraq. But comparing a certainty to a probability is difficult. Other factors add additional permutations. It seems likely that regime change in Iraq will make for less terrorism, as terrorists lose a patron and a haven, but we cannot be sure. Yelverton is right to raise numerous objections about past U.S. policy: "We abandoned rebelling Shiites and Kurds to whom we had originally offered support and instructed to rise up against Saddam. We stood by and watched Saddam punish them." Sad but true -- and our sanctions have hurt innocent Iraqis more than they have hurt Saddam or his soldiers. I love the United States, yet if we ever think of our country as above wrongdoing, we are fooling ourselves. Some like the idea of the United States pre-emptively striking threatening nations whenever we choose. That's a very risky general proposition, given the presence of sin in our own ranks. What to do? We do not have the luxury of simply saying that we shall do no harm. Many on the left emphasize an ideology of multilateralism in international relations. Many on the right emphasize American autonomy and even spin abstract theories of pre-emptive war. But a biblical position that I'd suggest starts with an emphasis on the specifics of this particular situation and the realization that there are no good answers. Whether we choose war or temporary peace, we do some harm. President Bush had laid out well the specifics of this particular situation. He has noted that Iraq has stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and is racing to gain nuclear arms. "So what?" we might say: Other countries also have weapons of mass destruction. But, as the president said, Saddam Hussein has already "used these weapons of death against innocent Iraqi people, and we have every reason to believe he will use them again." Saddam has "ordered the torture of children and instituted the systematic rape of the wives and daughters of his political opponents." Saddam not only has the weapons but has vowed to use them -- on us. That makes him different than other blusterers, and puts him in a league with the two most barbaric European dictators of the 20th century: Hitler and Stalin. Aha, we might say: We didn't engage in pre-emptive war against those two. But wouldn't it have been better to stop Hitler early? Stalin was unstoppable because the Soviet Union was too big and, at the end of his life, he had atom bombs. Do we want to dither until a nuclear-tipped Saddam Hussein is untouchable? So, my sense is that President Bush's policy is the one most likely to minimize the loss of innocent life. We should go into this conflict with much sadness and humility. We'll use smart bombs, but smart bombs are not omniscient. Innocent Iraquis will die. Americans will die. But Saddam is a murderous tyrant, and he has left us only with bad choices.