Our Moral Obligation to Iraq? We Need to Know What the Iraqis Think

[1] One striking feature of the continuing U.S. debate about the Iraq War is that the Iraqi civilian victims are absent from the discussion. We-the U.S. voting public-simply don’t know very much about what they want, and particularly what they want from us. We occasionally hear the cries of victims in news reports, and often see their blood, but we really have little clue as to what Iraqis-as Sunnis, Shias, or Kurds, as collaborators or resisters to Saddam Hussein’s reign, as allies or enemies of the U.S.-led coalition-think we owe them.

[2] But should their wishes enter into our reflection about our moral obligation? Today’s hardboiled politics gives us several reasons to ignore the wishes and moral sentiments of Iraqis, even in the absence of actual debate. Neoconservative idealists might argue that our version of democracy is good for Iraq, even if the people being liberated don’t clearly signal their willingness to pay the price. Hardheaded realists might argue that the only opinions which count are our own, since the war is about protecting U.S. interests. Advocates of electoral nation-building might argue that consent to the U.S.-led war was secured in the ballot box, when Iraqis ratified the post-Saddam constitution. Advocates of the military might argue that Iraqi thinking and feeling follow sectarian lines, and that we learn all we need to know by separating those Iraqis who are trying to kill our soldiers from those who aren’t.

[3] Whether for these or other reasons, we have neatly escaped any sense of responsibility to ascertain what Iraqis themselves consider the continuing obligations of the U.S. to be. Now, I don’t feel competent to offer a pronouncement on what kind of continuing military, political, and economic engagement we owe the Iraqis. I abstain partly because the consequences will be trivial for me, and therefore I have no right to speak, but partly because I don’t know enough of what the Iraqis themselves want in order to craft and put forward a morally objective claim.

[4] What I am certain about, however, is that we need more knowledge about what the Iraqis feel we ought to do-both as a matter of moral obligation (!), and as a counsel of prudence. Without such consultation, I doubt we could achieve a sense of the what Iraqis will regard as morally meaningful, and that as a result, any further (unilateral) decisions by us, even robustly moral decisions, will be doomed to failure. As evidence for this claim, consider one apocryphal report from early in the war. After Baghdad was taken, U.S. soldiers sometimes accidentally killed civilians while patrolling the streets. Now there apparently is an appropriate way to handle such accidents: The soldiers responsible should have appeared at the house of the deceased to render apologies-and offer cash settlements. Such a gesture might have assuaged the wounded honor of the families. But fearful of ambushes and reprisals, U.S. officers declined such opportunities. The grieving families therefore were put in the position of having to avenge the wrongful deaths. Ironically enough, it may have been the Iraqi honor code which contributed materially to the rising curve of violence towards U.S. soldiers, at least in the early phase of the occupation.

[5] I can’t vouch for the source or truth of this tale, but it seems both plausible and raises a troubling question: How can we help restore order to a shattered moral universe if we never know the cultural architecture of that universe? Our general understanding of Iraqi culture is no greater than the day we invaded Baghdad-no matter where we stand in the debate. Those of us who remain imbued with the fervor of mission are likely to underestimate U.S. responsibility. Those of us who feel a share of guilt (like me) are likely to overestimate that responsibility. Thoughtful U.S. politicians try to avoid both extremes, by eschewing the extremes of immediate pullout and permanent commitment of troops, but the thankless work of discerning the way forward is rendered enormously difficult by the unilateralist solipsism that taints our policy and thinking.

[6] After all, crusading unilateralism got us into the desert sands, and moral unilateralism will extricate us at no lesser cost. If we continue along our current course, we mostly likely will edge ourselves out of Iraq bit by bit. Such a policy will resemble, in its continuing carnage, the four years (1969-72) of continuing destruction it took for us to withdraw from Vietnam.[1] Consider the ongoing carnage. According to Iraqbodycount, an independent association of researchers who tally news reports of civilian casualties, the number of civilian deaths per day has climbed from 20 immediately following the U.S. invasion to over 70 currently. The most recent year (March 2006 to March 2007) has been the bloodiest by far. Mortar attacks, bombings involving suicide, and automobiles and improvised devices all have doubled over the previous year. The entire city of Baghdad, with a population of some 7 million, has experienced as many deaths per capita as did Fallujah during the 2004 siege.[2]

[7] We need to hear from Iraqis if we want to achieve any significant degree of moral objectivity in determining what our continuing obligations are. More exactly, we need to hear from a broader spectrum than those who currently have access to the Green Zone, however courageous their commitment to the emergence of a functioning Iraqi state. Surely, those who favor Western democracy are most to be admired and pitied in Iraq, but the other and more sectarian voices also must be heard.

[8] It may seem odd to counsel listening and moral objectivity at this point. Any sense of playing by the Western rules of war has been shattered by vicious attacks on U.S. soldiers and civilians-attacks far exceeding in technological sophistication and sheer brutality what I recall from living for two years in one province of southern Vietnam during the war. But only for nihilists does sheer brutality becomes the end (in the senses of telos and finis) of politics. Our peril is that it will become an excuse for further unilateralism. We need to find our way back from the abyss of chaos that is destroying not only our soldiers, but Iraqis as well. Unilaterally abandoning Iraq therefore is not morally tenable; we are not excused from listening and consulting, however unlikely it is that the current administration will do so.

[9] This categorical claim should be qualified in one respect. If at some point in the future, Iraqi sentiments about our moral obligation actually enter into public discourse, our listening need not and should not generate simple acquiescence to whatever claims are made. Our sense of moral obligation is not to be dictated by others but rather negotiated. It may well be that a large proportion of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds see no alternative to a strong continuing U.S. military presence. It may also be that such a large proportion wants a complete stand-down of U.S. forces-so tells me a local Kurd refugee. At present we simply don’t know. In the absence of such knowledge, I don’t think we are in a position to define (unilaterally) what exactly we owe to the people-the nation-of Iraq.

End Notes

Some 15,000 of 55,000 U.S. military deaths occurred during this period.(http://www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html, June 29, 2007). I couldn’t find yearly estimates of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths, but with a total number of 1-3 million, the deaths after 1969 surely amounted to hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties, June 29, 2007).

http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ , June 29, 2007.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a (remote) visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, retired from teaching ethics in the Religion Department at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN.  In 2019-2020 he was first drafter of the social message on government and civic engagement for the ELCA.