The pitfalls of a moral war (National Post, May 12, 2004)

The graphic evidence of the horror show at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has dealt a savage blow to American morale.

And to mine.

I fully approved of the war in Iraq. Saddam was the Middle East's Stalin with expansionist plans he never disguised. Iraq was a charnel house of mass murder and torture. Once in his possession, there was no question he would have used nuclear arms. Containment rather than invasion would only have given him time to achieve his horrible goals.

I have defended America's policies since 9/11. My support is grounded in the moral vision George W. Bush brought to the battle against terrorism. His eloquent call to arms and the moral clarity of his doctrines -- those who harboured terrorists would be treated as terrorists and "I will not wait on events while dangers gather" -- make perfect sense to me still.

In this monstrous joust whose outcome is pivotal to the future of the world, I pledged allegiance to the side I consider right. If my side wins, the world will be a safer place for democracy, peace and prosperity to flourish. If the other side wins, Israel will be incinerated first, then the rest of the world will be plunged into regional holocausts and global convulsion. America's determination alone stands between the first and second outcomes. Of course, to feel as I do, one must believe that there is an objective "right" and "wrong", that "evil" and "good" can be both recognized and quantified.

Because I am in sync with Bush's values, I have not second-guessed the war, even when the initial victory proved illusory, when the predicted cheering throngs turned out to be sullen ingrates, when post-war logistical strategies seemed non-existent, and when pockets of resistance proved more intractable than foreseen. None of these setbacks bore on the war's moral purpose.

But the events of Abu Ghraib were so patently and gratuitously immoral that they threw my certainties and allegiances into question. For more than two years my indignation and anger have been fueled by reports of atrocities committed by tyrants and fanatics. Suddenly I feel the particular shame by association that descends when a repository of your own community's values is exposed as a pervert.

Herein lies the problem with decisions taken on the basis of morality rather than interests. Amoral, interests-based allegiances can shrug off any number of inconvenient or compromising revelations. Consider the UN, where duplicity, greed, political correctness, hypocrisy, the cowardly appeasement of evil, scapegoatism, and corruption run rampant and unchecked. Kofi Annan and his entourage have skirted responsibility for the monumental Oil-for-Food scam, in which they are incontrovertibly implicated. Where is the outrage and the condemnation in the media? UN multilateralists obviously have no moral expectations of the institution in which they place their allegiance.

Initiatives undertaken for moral reasons place a terrible burden on the leadership. The purity of their motives is the torch that passes from one hand to the other of their followers. If several torches are suddenly quenched between mine and my leader's, my own may seem too dim against the threatening darkness.

My task now is to reignite my faith in first principles by discounting the media hysteria, contextualizing these terrible images, and setting them against some positive realities.

I have to pray that the incidents at Abu Ghraib are not representative of the American military's conduct, which seems to have been exemplary on the whole. The events took place last fall and only came to the media's attention because the Army, to its credit, itself immediately began an internal investigation and produced a detailed report on its findings.

There was no attempt at a cover-up -- rather the opposite. The chain of military command responded to events by the book, and those directly involved will be punished. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield has taken full responsibility for the damage, and will hopefully resign.

I take heart from the fact that George Bush was revolted by the revelations and apologized without reservation, knowing that his apology would be received by his enemies as weakness. Cultural values are only superior in the aggregate. The Abu Ghraib guards were virtually untrained. Irresponsible supervisors encouraged excesses. Ethically rudderless, isolated from the community from which they would normally draw their moral bearings, they fell prey to the debased inclinations described in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which civilized British schoolboys, cast away on an island without adults, descend into tribal savagery. Morality rarely survives in a vacuum.

I am saddened beyond words by this public relations calamity, but the very worst thing I could do with my sadness is concede a moral victory to those for whom such acts are not an aberration but the norm. I continue to believe this was a planning and process failure, not a failure of ideals. I will not allow my incidental disgust to impeach the moral vision to which I am pledged.

© National Post 2004