What we have yet to hear from Republican presidential candidates or the habitual hawks is the appropriate spiritual response to the war in Iraq — repentance. Instead, we hear this defensive language: “Everybody got it wrong.” Well that’s not true. The people who ultimately made the decision to invade, occupy, and completely destabilize Iraq did indeed get it wrong. But so far, they have been unwilling to admit their incredible mistakes that we all now have to live with: the enormous number of lives lost or permanently damaged; the extremely dangerous exacerbation of the sectarian Sunni/Shia conflict that now rules the entire region; and the creation of the conditions that led to ISIS. Except for Rand Paul, none of the Republican candidates has been willing to admit that ISIS is a consequence of our complete devastation and destabilization of Iraq — leaving us with the greatest real threat the international community has faced for some time. Yet we’ve heard not a word of apology for mistakes or any spirit of repentance from the neoconservative hawks.
war in iraq
That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.
I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.
Wars usually end in one of two ways – victory or defeat.
World War II ended with a ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri, with Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signing a document of surrender, which U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted.
On the other hand, the war in Vietnam ended with a frantic two-day evacuation of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel from the Embassy in Saigon, culminating in the final helicopter leaving the roof with Vietnamese civilians hanging from the skids.
The “official end” of the war in Iraq was neither of these
President Obama spoke Wednesday afternoon in Fort Bragg, N.C., to a crowd of returning veterans from Iraq.
To loud applause, the president declared: "We’re here to mark a historic moment in the life of our country and our military. For nearly nine years, our nation has been at war in Iraq. … So as your commander in chief, on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words – and I know your families agree: Welcome home.”
It’s a sentiment we all can share.
Obama acknowledged the huge human cost of the war. “We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded and those are only the wounds that show," the president said. "Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice … so today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family. We grieve with them.”
Today’s veterans are suffering through the current recession. They have a higher unemployment rate are are more likely to be or become homeless than the rest of the U.S. population.
Thankfully, the Senate yesterday unanimously passed jobs for veterans legislation that should begin to help.
But other problems remain. As many as 25 percent have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides are rising. Forty-six-thousdand have suffered devastating physical injuries, and as many as 360,000 may have brain injuries.
With this set of problems, the Veterans Administration doesn’t have the necessary resources to meet the profound need.
Christians are called to be peacemakers and healers. Disagreement on policy does not excuse us from a responsibility to help those who come home broken and in need of help.
You might call yourself a pacifist, a just-war theorist, a pragmatist, a dove or a hawk but today (and every day), you should be a good neighbor to a veteran.
Many people remember "O God, Our Words Cannot Express," a hymn written on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. The hymn was quickly shared by email and Web postings (it is still on over 10,000 websites); it was used by many churches on that evening and in the days that followed. The hymn was featured in newspaper stories, radio programs, twice on national PBS-TV, and on BBC-TV in the United Kingdom. YouTube has the Church World Service music video by Emmy winner Pete Staman of this hymn being sung by Noel Paul Stookey (of "Peter, Paul & Mary") with the Northfield Mount Herman School Choir.
The new posting of this interfaith hymn includes a revised version for the 10th anniversary. Also included is "God, We've Known Such Grief and Anger", a hymn lifting up Christian hope in the face of disaster that was written for the first year anniversary of 9/11. Last week I wrote a new hymn for the tenth anniversary of September 11 with an emphasis on working for peace and justice for all.