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January 3, 2007

what should we say to our soldiers in Iraq?

What should Americans who oppose the current war say to men and women who have served in Iraq, or to their families and close friends? I think the standard response is to sympathize with them, on the ground that our civilian leaders made a colossal mistake by sending them into danger and hardship with a foolish plan and insufficient justification. In a word, our service-people are victims.

That attitude must strike almost all troops--even those who oppose the decision to invade Iraq--as patronizing. If the whole war is nothing but a mistake, and our troops are mere victims, then everything they strive to accomplish from day to day is pointless. It doesn't matter whether they do their job excellently or perform it negligently. If such pity prevails on the left, we may face a long period of division and backlash.

I suggest an alternative view. In my opinion, the war was unjustified and its conduct was atrocious. However, it is crucial that the United States possess a lethal, efficient, professional, volunteer military under civilian control. Sometimes our elected leaders (with perhaps some help from the top brass) will make big mistakes in deciding how to use lethal force. Their mistakes may be strategic or moral; they may be sins of commission (e.g., Iraq) or of omission (e.g., Rwanda). The proper response is always to criticize our leaders and to offer persuasive alternatives in elections--something that the Democrats failed to do in 2004.

Meanwhile, by doing the best possible job under the circumstances, the professional military serves our democracy. Our officers and enlisted people learn; they develop experience. They save one another's lives. Through their daily choices, they can mitigate the harms caused by the elected leaders to whom they must defer.

Isn't there a point at which a person in uniform must nonviolently resist his or her government? Shouldn't an officer's conscience obligate him or her to resign? The answer is yes, but only in extreme circumstances. Hitler's General Staff should have resigned, even if that meant death to them personally. But there is a fundamental, categorical, moral difference between invading Poland and invading Iraq; between Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib. While I oppose the Iraq war--more clearly in hindsight than ex ante--it wasn't an infamous act. It reflected poor judgment, worse execution, and a questionable mix of motivations, but not a giant war crime.

In any case, I would set the bar for civil disobedience rather high for uniformed officers in an all-volunteer military that serves a democracy. Otherwise, every time the civilian leadership makes a moral mistake, the officer corps must all quit and we will have to start over. We need them to develop experience, to look out for their troops, to obey military ethics, and to improve the institution of the military.

In considering whether to use civil disobedience--for example, whether to resign a commission--one must consider the consequences, all things considered. It is not clear to me that resignations would shorten this war, especially since the public has already awakened and is demanding peace. (By the way, a military resignation need not be accepted.)

When the United States is judged for its decision to invade Iraq, it will not count in our favor that our soldiers learned from their experience there. We have no right to hone our own institutions at the expense of another people. But the blame must fall on our elected officials, on us for electing and re-electing them, and on the political opposition for its poor leadership. Our soldiers who do the best possible job under the circumstances may take genuine pride in their service; and we owe them a full measure of respect and gratitude.

January 3, 2007 7:31 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


I always think things happen for a reason and look at the positive aspects of war. And I would emphasis that to those who have served in Iraq even though I believe that war was a big mistake.

For instance, to my way of thinking the war in Vietnam was a fiasco but then, look at Vietnam today. Today Vietnam is a participating member of the world community and one of America's best trading partners. I am inclined to think that it took a war like that, even though it was executed badly, to bring Vietnam on board. I use the same argument for Iraq. Perhaps, then, this fiasco war is the only way to bring Iraq and the Islamic world on board, so to speak.

Perhaps some day we will discover more pragmatic and wise ways of bring on side those who refuse to do so. Perhaps this war will induce a new wisdom like it has induce new and marvelous medical procedures.

January 3, 2007 4:01 PM | Comments (1) | posted by airth10

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