Great words from W

Posted: May 05, 2003 12:00 AM
The speech on Thursday by President Bush was admirably staged. He chose for it the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. It is perhaps coincidental that the carrier was the Abraham Lincoln. It isn't accidental that it was selected having traveled l00,000 miles on perhaps the longest sustained mission in U.S. naval history, and the arrival on the scene with the commander in chief in the co-pilot's seat carried forward the intended symbols.

There were other symbols of continuing life, and of life's endings. One hundred and fifty crew members would be seeing sons and daughters for the first time. One American Marine who was not there had telephoned to his parents five days before his death. Sadly, he missed that boat.

The president held up to national honor the achievements of the returning military. He spoke of the tradition in which they figured, recalling Normandy and Iwo Jima. He spoke then of the advances on the Taliban dictatorship in Afghanistan, and of course on the regime of Saddam Hussein, promising that the United States would not forsake the mandate on which we had acted. This moved George W. one stage beyond what George H.W. had reached in his own war, too hastily abandoned, its geopolitical purposes unachieved.

Came then, from President Bush, a critical re-evaluation of the modern mandate for military action. He moved directly into the question of the just war, and its singular modification by objectives now achieved. He built on this theme carefully.

"In the images of fallen statues we have witnessed the arrival of a new era. For a hundred years of war, culminating in the nuclear age, military technology was designed and deployed to inflict casualties on an ever-growing scale.

"In defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today" -- the call of the rhetorical inversion was irresistible -- "we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime."

The moral force of the objections to this war, raised so sharply in the months preceding the first strike, invoked the criteria for a just war. It had to be that the offense was critical, that the defense was appropriate, that the violence was proportional.

The question will be asked in theological seminars for centuries, Was the deployment of the Hiroshima bomb morally defensible? In World War II, constraints had been cast aside, with only the relic of a ban on the use of nerve gas. This interdiction had a singular life, because unlike the millions destroyed by artillery fire in World War I, there were hundreds not quite destroyed by mustard gas, and their agony was the kind of thing statesmen and generals came upon year after year, on the streets, in hospitals and in sanatoria. The convention against the use of it in war materialized, in ironic contrast with the discovery of such things as blockbuster bombs and, finally, atomic bombs.

But the goal of unchecked destruction of war in the model of the 20th century is now drastically reshaped. "With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians," said the president. "No device of man can remove the tragedy from war. Yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent."

The challenges to conventional moral criteria by which the just war is defined are distinct. "Nineteen months ago I pledged that the terrorists would not escape the patient justice of the United States. ... In these l9 months that changed the world, our actions have been focused, and deliberate, and proportionate to the offense."

That said, the president renewed the commitment he made after the 9/ll massacre. "Any person, organization or government that supports, protects or harbors terrorists is complicit in the murder of the innocent, and equally guilty of terrorist crimes."

Nothing in the barrage of criticism that followed his declaration of September 2001 has affected the president's thinking or vitiated his commitment. He has now history itself to point to, to the effect that what needs to be done to target terrorists and their supporters, we can do without open, or unspoken, or furtive fear that superseded canons of moral restraint will enfeeble our resolution, and distract our purpose.