War on Behalf of Noncombatants?

LCDR John Carlson, USNR


The status of noncombatants is central to moral discussions about war and the use of force.  Usually, concern for noncombatants centers around the conduct of war—on limiting “collateral damage” and unnecessary loss of life.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, US tactics sought to avoid bombing population centers and relied heavily upon precision strikes to limit the damage inflicted on the civilian infrastructure.  Tactics such as these, along with respect for noncombatant immunity, were not only moral calculations but crucial for winning the political support of Iraqi civilians.  Remarkably, for some time, US strategy even refrained from targeting many Iraqi soldiers, such that many combatants themselves enjoyed noncombatant immunity.  The rationale for such restraint was that, underneath their uniforms, Iraqi soldiers were little more than coerced noncombatants eager to claim their deserved immunity if given the chance. 

Rarely, though, has the status of noncombatants been so fully absorbed into the casus belli.  Rarely, that is, until more recently years.  Consider that the suffering of noncombatants in the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia spurred decisions to launch US air strikes and to conduct NATO’s sustained humanitarian intervention.  US-led military action against the oppressive and brutal Taliban was championed widely as a liberation of the Afghan people, a perception reinforced by the post-war adoption of restrictions to end many cruel and abominable practices, especially against women, and by measures to rebuild a democratic government, the constitution of which assures respect for religious freedom and basic human rights.  In Iraq, as the war gathered momentum, building to the heady days when crowds gathered in the streets to bring down statues and smash pictures of Saddam Hussein, and especially in more recent days in which weapons of mass destruction have not been found, the US administration has capitalized on the elation of a stunning “liberation” in the Muslim world, with all the hopes, new found freedoms and promise of democracy it afforded to everyday citizens of Iraq.  Iraqis who were noncombatants throughout the war have since become the principal reason for the continued coalition presence in Iraq. 

What these observations suggest is that noncombatants increasingly play into jus ad bellum—not just jus in bello—considerations; this may well complicate our understanding—or our shared memory—of the reasons for undertaking war.  There are some precedents we might consider: the indubitable moral victories of other American wars such as the abolition of slavery following the Civil War or the end of the Holocaust precipitated by World War II?  Clearly such moral outcomes would not have been achieved without resorting to force.  In all of these cases, US administrations and many Americans have legitimized and remembered these wars for the moral gains they achieved, particularly on behalf of the noncombatants in the nations at war. 

But the well being of “noncombatants”—whether African-American slaves, European Jews, Afghan or Iraqi citizens—was not the ostensible reason for entering into any these wars.  Rather, security and other national interests were the stated causes for war.  In Afghanistan, for example, the US administration, which had taken few aggressive overtures against the Taliban before September 11, 2001, expressed publicly its intent to refrain from attacking Afghanistan if only the Taliban handed over Osama bin Laden—a statement which makes clear that the liberation of Afghan citizens was not the foremost objective.  In Iraq, under UN-led and US-enforced sanctions, the lives of Iraqis were crippled for twelve years under Saddam Hussein’s pitiless circumvention of UN resolutions and their enforcement.  Many were content to let the sanctions regime continue for quite some time—until, that is, Saddam Hussein’s regime of weapons of mass destruction were deemed an imminent security threat, which demanded preemptive military action.  Clearly, if the United States had been foremost concerned with the flourishing of the Iraqi people, it might have taken other measures to ease their plight—up to and including use of force and regime change—before they formally assumed noncombatant status during the 2003 Iraq War.

This paper explores some tensions between morality and politics by seeking a deeper understanding of the relationship between, on one hand, our moral memory of war (and here I’ll be focusing upon war’s impact for noncombatants) and, on the other, the political realities that historically have driven US entry into war.  From the Civil War and World War II to current campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American experience of war has often been characterized by a disparity between the ostensible reasons for waging war and the ways wars are culturally and morally remembered years later.   Since there are deep moral values at stake both in the political deliberation that anticipates war and the historical reflection upon war in the years that follow, this ironic disparity warrants careful investigation. 

With a nod to the great Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, what makes this dynamic ironic is not simply to the incongruity of seemingly contrary elements—a disparity between moral and political affairs—but the quite intimate relationship between them that a closer inspection of war reveals.[1]  My argument is that without an understanding of the irony of American war, we are unlikely either to recall in morally sophisticated ways the role of noncombatants in the wars of distant and recent past or to exhaust the full range of moral deliberation concerning noncombatants and many other considerations when undertaking future wars. 

This paper explores an apparent moral-political gap by proceeding along two paths.  Part one provides a retrospective frame for viewing the misalignment between the root political causes of war and our moral and cultural memory of them years later through an exploration of historical precedents in the Civil War and World War II.  Part two explores the deliberative dimension of force by contrasting “moralism” and political realism in the run-up to war.  By realism, I mean realpolitik—a longstanding tradition with its attendant vernacular of states, their interests, and the balance of powers among them.  Moralism, by contrast, sets noble intentions over and against limitations that realists accept as perduring features of political relations.  I will close the distance between morality and politics and also draw together the two parts of the paper by demonstrating that, in war, politics triumphs over moralism yet remains indispensable to moral change. 

Put differently, this paper contends that moralists should reluctantly accept—for moral reasons—the untidy business of politics that governs how wars come about; and for political reasons, proponents of realpolitik should embrace certain ethical concerns that moralists champion.  I argue for a third way—a reinvigorated brand of “moral realism,” that is greater than the sum of the parts when moralism and realism are decoupled and a position that helps answer the question, “Shall we wage wars on behalf of noncombatants?”  Moral realism better postures us to take the long view and consider how wars will be morally remembered, valued, and incorporated into our American ethos—and how noncombatants figure into our moral memory.  At the same time, the lessons of moral realism also counsel us to think more deeply about the irony of American use of force as we deliberate about entry into future wars, particularly when such wars are waged, in whole or in part, on behalf of noncombatants.


I.  Moral Memories and Political Realities: Historical Recollections of War

            Memory is a means of teaching the truth to others.  Memory is often selective as it strives for clarity and coherence—no less germane to the remembrance of war.  We generalize, simplify, and cull the moral lessons that war teaches us; they are usually assured by the victors of war—by the force of military might, the persistence of their values.  Consider the U.S. Civil War.  While we accept the war’s political successes—stamping out secession and preserving the Union (no doubt there are ethical dimensions to this)—the war’s great lasting moral legacy remains the demise of slavery.  It was the first battle of a long-running struggle for justice and racial equality that extended through the civil rights movement and continues today. 

Lincoln is oft remembered as the great emancipator, distinguished by the moral clarity with which he branded American slavery “a monstrous injustice.”  Launching his illustrious Gettysburg Address (1863) by gesturing to the eternal yet unfulfilled promise of the Declaration of Independence, he spoke movingly of “the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Two years later, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address declared that slavery was somehow the cause of the horrific and bloody war that would eventually claim the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers and at least 50,000 civilians.  But if the cause of that war would cease even before the war ended, as Lincoln himself asseverated, was slavery really the cause of this gruesome confrontation?  Lincoln’s own deeds vitiate the very idea.  So do his words:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.  What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union…I have here stated my purpose according to my official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.[2]


Such realist pronouncements, which sever political duty from personal moral conviction, help locate Lincoln’s decision to deliver the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation as an issuance of total war against the South.  Applied only to slavery in the rebel states, the Emancipation served well to ratchet up the rhetoric of war and support for its escalation,[3] while, not coincidentally, depleting the Confederate adversary of numerous reserve recruits and enhancing the Union cause abroad.

            Historian David Blight, eloquently describing Lincoln’s gracious yet ambiguous relationship to Frederick Douglass, displays just how far apart Lincoln, at times, stood from Douglass and other abolitionists in his commitment to use the war to end slavery.  Prior to the Proclamation, Blight reminds us, Douglass had denounced Lincoln’s policy of returning refugee slaves to their owners and his plans to recolonize freed slaves.  In oration and in print, Douglass had referred to Lincoln as “the most dangerous advocate of slave-hunting and slave-catching in the land”; as “an itinerant colonization lecturer”; and as a “genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred.”[4]  That Lincoln distanced himself so starkly from abolitionists and defenders of Negro equality lifts any moralist veneer to reveal that the “great liberator” was a political realist through and through.  In the words of revered historian Harry Stout, Lincoln “eventually turned emancipationist largely as a ‘war measure’ to promote a Northern victory.”[5]

A final vignette, taken from Stephen Oates’ biography of Lincoln, illustrates the political tight wire that Lincoln, as realist, walked in his efforts to keep abolitionists at bay.  Following a devastating Union defeat in Missouri under his command, General Fremont, an abolitionist and Lincoln rival, issued an edict declaring freemen of all slaves in Missouri (rather than simply those enlisted in the war effort).  Lincoln immediately perceived the threat that even such a localized proclamation would pose to the Union cause, particularly among Union supporters in the Border States.  With abolitionists in the East cheering Fremont’s decision, the emboldened general forced a confrontation. He first sent his wife as an emissary to the White House, whereupon Lincoln rebuffed Mrs. Fremont: “This was a war for a great national idea, the Union…General Fremont should not have dragged the negro into it.”[6]  In symbolic defiance, Fremont, as moralist and abolitionist, then asked—indeed demanded that—Lincoln denounce publicly Fremont’s act.  He backed Lincoln into a corner.  Thus, to the chagrin of many abolitionists, Lincoln ordered Fremont to “revise the slave provision so that it conformed to the [existing] confiscation act.”[7]  This was a personal and political defeat for Lincoln who sought the favor of the North, but a lesser defeat, he believed, than alienating the Border States by allowing Fremont’s proclamation to stand.  Fremont pressing his moral cause ahead of the political exigencies confronting Lincoln illustrates the moralist-realist dynamic to which I will return later.

One could apply similarly skeptical readings to US entry and action in World War II.  In discussing the morality of the Second World War, we need not dismiss many US political war aims—to defend the nation against direct attack; to counter aggressive regimes threatening and conquering other nations; and to thwart fascist and totalitarian menaces that espoused inhumane values inimical to liberal democratic ideas.  Indeed, there are strong moral stakes in these quite legitimate and just causes for war.  And, in the clarity of hindsight we can agree that ending Hitler’s odious campaign to exterminate the Jewish race, too, was a significant moral victory.  Yet, with the same clarity, we can also discern the trifling place this superlative atrocity occupied in the overall American war effort.

The sprawling literature on the relationship among Franklin Roosevelt, the allied war effort, and the “Jewish question” manifests an unambiguous reluctance to implicate the Jewish genocide into U.S. plans to defeat the Nazis.[8]  I draw here from Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors, a commendable new wartime biography of Roosevelt and Truman.  Notwithstanding efforts to minimize the Jewish tragedy unfolding in Europe, we now know that President Roosevelt was tuned into Hitler’s genocidal scheme as early as late 1942.[9]  Officials across FDR’s administration resisted the idea of integrating the Holocaust into the allied cause from General Eisenhower, to the Secretaries of State and War, to the President himself.  The charge of anti-Semitism provides only limited insight into this resistance, since the reasons for relegating the Jewish question to the margins were political in nature.  At base, all of these leaders believed that extending the allied cause to rescuing Jews would simply complicate matters.  For political and personal reasons, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his Undersecretary Breckinridge Long actively obstructed “the flow of money, information, and passports that might save Jews from Hitler.”[10]  Long’s presidential ambitions drove him to conceal his wife’s Jewish heritage to stave off accusations of being a Jewish sympathizer; actively seeking refuge for displaced Jews would, Long fretted, play right into this perception.  War Department Secretary Henry Stimson and his Assistant Secretary John McCloy insisted that efforts to employ military forces to provide succor to Jews in or bound for concentration camps would siphon off resources essential to achieving victory against the Nazis.[11]  And, summing things up quite matter-of-factly, General Eisenhower dubbed the whole problem of Jewish refugees “a damned nuisance.”[12] 

Finally, all of these figures united behind President Roosevelt who offered the consummate consolation: that the best strategy for ending the plight of the Jews’ was to win the war.  This claim has some integrity to it.  As Professor Henry Feingold has explained, Roosevelt’s administration feared

that making the fate of Europe’s Jews central to the Allied war effort, as Berlin had done, would interfere with the mobilization of the requisite passion in the public mind to defeat the enemy and absorb the loss of lives that required.  It is not that Allied leaders were anti-Semitic, as some would claim; they were probably less so than the general public… But to allow German propaganda to make points by arguing that it was a Jewish war and that Allied soldiers were being asked to sacrifice their lives to save the Jews might have had a deleterious impact on the Allied war effort.  Instead, the Jewish aspect of the war was fudged.[13]


Like Lincoln before him, Roosevelt had taken note of the moral stakes of the war, and then duly set them aside for fear that becoming moralistic in this way would jeopardize necessary support for the war not only in his own country but also among key allies like Russia and Great Britain.[14]  In the grand scheme of things, slowing the slaughter of innocent Jews would not help win the war.  Throughout, Roosevelt’s administration viewed the inhuman drama as just one of many malicious consequences of Nazi rule that an Allied victory would arrest.

            Upon the strident urging of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (whose moral outrage at the genocide and at American obstructionism drove him to circumvent the Secretary of State), Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, albeit belatedly in January of 1944.  To its credit, the Board provided safe haven in the United States to some 200,000 Jews.  (Of course, critics promptly accused FDR of placating the Jewish vote on which he would depend later that fall.)  In March 1944, well after learning of Hitler’s iniquitous scheme, Roosevelt publicly acknowledged the Final Solution—“the wholesale, systematic murder of the Jews”—and issued a passionate plea to the world to provide assistance to these victims of “crimes against humanity.”  But to be clear, Roosevelt’s moral outrage emerged from within a realist framework that sought to win the war.  To wit, he first cleared this statement with Churchill and Stalin.[15] 

Finally, there is the proposal to bomb Auschwitz.  For years, Undersecretary of War McCloy was accused of shelving the proposal and shielding the President from a plan that might have terminated or mitigated the Jewish genocide.  But sources recently made available note that McCloy personally briefed the president on the proposal in June 1944.  Roosevelt thundered back, “Why the idea!  They’ll say we bombed these people, and they’ll only move [the camp] down the road a little way and we’ll bomb them all the more.  If it’s successful, it’ll be more provocative, and I won’t have anything to do [with it]…We’ll be accused of participating in this horrible business.”  Clearly, FDR viewed this rescue plan as contrary to the overall war aims and inconsistent with, to use Lincoln’s language, his “official duty,” no matter his “personal wish” or concern about the fate of millions of helpless Jews.[16] 

Let’s fast forward a bit.  I’ve already alluded to the would-be moral legacy of the military actions in Afghanistan.[17] Throughout the war in Iraq, recall, the administration spared no effort to remind the world of the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime—torture, execution, the withholding of basic necessities from the population, political repression, use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, and the deaths of some 300,000 citizens in the southern marshlands through ethnic cleansing.[18]  Yet in the months prior to the invasion, US officials maintained—and some still maintain—that Iraq was a primary battleground in the international war against terrorism, initiated because Saddam’s Iraq directly threatened US security interests.

The intent of this discussion is not to disparage Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Bush or their war aims, or to accuse them of moral cynicism.  This survey in irony is simply intended to offer a few leavening reminders, particularly to those of us who concern ourselves with the morality of war.  First, the moral causes we cherish are often inextricably bound up in the security interests of states.  Slavery had a direct bearing on secession.  Nazis who threatened US and allied security threatened the sheer existence of the Jewish race.  Tyrannical regimes in Central Asia that inflicted atrocities against their own people threatened geopolitical stability as well.  Moreover, the ethical stakes are more complexly imbedded than the political discourse may reveal.  War often brings to light lurking, undervalued moral issues; and it may take military victory to resolve them fully.  Second, the political refusal to embrace certain moralistic outlooks may be necessary to achieve wider political and moral ends; as our consideration of Roosevelt and Lincoln suggests, this doesn’t always make for a pretty picture.  But let’s move now to consider why moral reasoning, absent realist sensibility, may be more problematic than adherents of moralism appreciate.  This helps illustrate a reciprocal point: that moralists who take rigidly principled stances—a kind of perfectionist ethic—may, ironically, undercut the moral causes they so passionately and nobly seek to defend. 


II.  Moralism and Realism

Moralism has been a recurring feature of American deliberation about war.  When I speak of moralism, I am actually talking about a diverse family of ethical viewpoints, the varieties of which I lump together here for heuristic purposes.  Moralism involves at least three elements.  First, such ethical reasoning is inspired by a sense of authentic moral concern—even indignation—grounded in “pure” or disinterested motives often differentiated from political interests.  Moralism issues a statement about the way things ought to be, political realities notwithstanding.  Second, moralism is often articulated through coherent ethical frameworks with deep roots in religious traditions and moral beliefs.  When the question of war emerges, moralisms will often take an explicit stance—for or against.  Third, moralism often strives to check the interests and actions of states—to become an extra-political standard against which the behavior of states can be measured, or by which they are influenced.  My argument is that the extent to which moral reasoning bridges the chasm with states’ realist deliberation will be the measure of its effectiveness. 

We considered in passing nineteenth century abolitionism, which was nurtured by the evangelicalism and revivalism of the Second Great Awakening.  Morally courageous abolitionists set themselves apart from many northern unionists who, despite their own contempt for slavery, profited from it or feared its end.  For many abolitionists, there were two tenable choices:  abolish slavery or let the South secede.  With their rallying cry, “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,” they set themselves apart from the economic and political force that would ultimately end the mighty scourge throughout all the territories, as other abolitionists like Frederick Douglass had sought.  Ultimately, it was not ethics but incursion into and attacks upon the North drew Unionists into war.[19]

Another moralism we might identify was a nascent political humanism evident during the first half of the twentieth century, among Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Sr.  Both father and son were morally outraged by horrible acts of genocide committed against minority populations during the respective world wars in which they served as statesmen.  Going against the grain, both men became deeply frustrated by the political constraints that limited the United States from taking further action.  Their religion (Judaism) was, they claimed, irrelevant to their indignation.  So was the victims’ ethnicity.  The Morgenthaus spoke as Americans, “on behalf of humanity.”[20]  If abolitionism reveals the ineffectiveness of a moralism that refuses to engage the force of political realities, then the Morgenthaus’ political humanism illustrates the unfortunate limitations of a moralism that struggles mightily against a deeply entrenched realist outlook. 

            During the run-up to the recent war in Iraq, several varieties of moralism were on display.  Liberal internationalism or a certain variety thereof is one;[21] but just war rigorism is the one I will engage here.  Both issued stern warnings against a US-led invasion.  The just war tradition, we know, draws from the wisdom of a long line of religious thinkers including Augustine and Aquinas.  Today, some would describe something of a schism in how just war thought is both conceptualized and applied—between those who contend that just war begins with a presumption against intervention and those who believe it begins with a presumption against injustice.[22]  The former cluster of thinkers, whom I am here calling just war rigorists (others dub them “functional pacifists”[23]), impose more stringent conditions for war than the perhaps more permissive latter group of thinkers who glean that so-called “peace” can be a wonderful companion to injustice.[24]  The rigorist perspective is encapsulated well in the 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace—a document that has impressed and influenced many ethicists (myself included).  Authored by the distinguished US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the document also has been appropriated widely by many other denominations and their leaders.  The letter calls for “extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war,”[25] a line repeated in the Bishops fall 2002 statement against intervention in Iraq.  The Iraq statement begins by recognizing the quite real threats that Saddam Hussein’s government posed.[26]  However, they conclude, “lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature,” intervention was unjustifiable.  So far, so good.[27] 

The bishops go on to rehearse the criteria for a just war.[28]  They also rightly express deep concern for Iraqi civilians laboring under thirteen years of sanctions.  Yet, despite Iraqi tyranny and repression, they resist calls for force, instead proposing “effective enforcement of the military embargo and maintenance of political sanctions” albeit more targeted sanctions.  Here the rigorist argument begins to unravel.  To understand why, we need to back up a bit, at least to 1999 when the Bishops invoked just war thought to denounce sanctions:

The comprehensive sanctions against Iraq have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy, because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people. They violate a fundamental principle of engagement in conflict—states may not seek to destroy a government or a military by targeting the innocent.  It is incumbent on the United Nations Security Council and the United States, as the chief proponent of sanctions, to terminate promptly the economic embargo against Iraq.[29]


I agree entirely with this statement.  The bishops also rightly urged “fresh thinking and new approaches to the ongoing crisis in Iraq,” while again reiterating Iraq’s duty to work toward peace.[30]  That same year, in a letter to President Clinton, twenty-four denominational leaders (including head of the Catholic Bishops) pleaded—and this is crucial—“The international community cannot pursue its legitimate goals of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction by threatening the lives and livelihood of innocent people.”[31]  The authors of this ecumenical letter were issuing a normative statement.  Yet, the force of their claim is all the more hard-hitting when we recognize that this was empirically true as well:  Short of force, there simply were no other options that would not have directly targeted the Iraqi population.  The Bishops’ repeated calls for “fresh thinking” suggest as much.  Yet given Saddam’s willingness to interdict and deploy dual-use materials for WMD production, the threat was too grave to lift economic sanctions. [32]    

We can and should blame Saddam Hussein for exploiting the sanctions for his benefit.  He withheld needed medical supplies, resold them to other nations, or redistributed them to Baathist loyalists, which contributed to the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi children in the 1990s.  By tightly controlling food rations, Saddam portrayed himself as benevolent bread-giver, yet by forcing all citizens to register for ration cards, the UN oil-for-food program became the apparatus of a repressive police state.[33]  Yes, Saddam remains explicitly culpable for the sins of commission involving “internal sanctions” he imposed; but, after thirteen years of UN-sponsored “external sanctions” with no end in sight, the international community assumed, as the Bishops suggest, implicit culpability for sins of omission—for finding no better solution.  Political experts who carefully studied the problem concluded that no effort to reform or realign sanctions would have deterred Saddam’s relentless intentions to develop WMD.[34]

Lacking any clear resolution to the crisis in Iraq, the Clinton administration adopted “regime change” as official policy in 1998.[35]  The argument for intervention in Iraq would have been morally perspicuous had President Clinton begun making the case for war then, or had President Bush tired before September 11th, 2001.  This rationale might have garnered the support of some just war moralists motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns for the Iraqi people.  But I am not sure that either president could have roused the will of the international community or the American people.  We will never know; certainly they should have tried.  As it turned out, the early unwillingness to consider publicly the need for a military alternative to sanctions prepared the ground for a terrible irony: when the case for war finally was put forth, just war rigorism became an obstacle to ending the very suffering that it had so roundly condemned for years. 

My earlier discussion of moral memory suggests that we ought not be surprised when the moral stakes of war turn out to be more deeply rooted and complexly entwined than the political dialogue intimates.  An ethically grounded realist alternative to just war moralism might have reluctantly accepted the necessity of war in Iraq—for moral reasons—despite the honest recognition that the case for invasion was made on political grounds of national security, and may not have fully conformed to the rigors of just war guidance.[36]    With reservations, we might recognize that war was the only realistic and feasible way to break the deadlock of an endless containment policy—even though the war was not couched in these terms.  The moralist’s expectation that politics will conform to ethical principles may ask more of states than they have shown themselves willing to oblige given states’ general inclination to use force only to preserve their interests.  In the case of Iraq, it seemed regretfully necessary for moralism to engage such political realities if it hoped to curtail human suffering, which is central to its belief.  But clinging to rigorism may entail abandoning possibilities for effecting concrete moral change.

            Let me now turn to the failures of the US administration, which I explore critically along the same realist lines.  Many will be inclined to think that the US was too realist in its foreign policy outlook.[37]  I believe just the opposite, that it was not realistic enough.  The shortcomings of the US-led war in Iraq flow from the administration’s unwillingness to take seriously some vital lessons of political realism.    Here is one: there is nothing necessary about hinging national sovereignty to national interests.  Hans Morgenthau appreciated this:

While the realist indeed believes that interest is the perennial standard by which political action must be judged and directed, the contemporary connection between interest and the nation state is a product of history, and is therefore bound to disappear in the course of history. Nothing in the realist position militates against the assumption that the present division of the political world into nation states will be replaced by larger units of a quite different character, more in keeping with the technical potentialities and the moral requirements of the contemporary world.[38] 


While the US administration played by the rules of twentieth century realism and its resolute commitment to unimpeded sovereignty, it neglected the changing realities of international politics in the twenty-first.[39]  Nation-states increasingly rely upon international governmental organizations and institutions to do the things that classical realists have always said polities will do:  advance their interests and maintain a balance of powers.  In many cases, states will use international organizations to do their bidding for them.  Consider how certain nations parlayed the mantle of UN legitimacy to protect tens of billions of dollars of financial contracts in Iraq.[40]  The political reality today is that many nations will voluntarily share or pool their sovereignty and make political concessions that they were often unwilling to do before.  They will form international treaties and praise internationalism; they will espouse global norms and transnational ideals—not simply for moral reasons but because it serves the interests.  To no one’s surprise, not all nations will see their interests directly preserved in such trends.  But these nations should not openly flout these new trends, publicly denounce them, actively undermine them, or rub others’ noses in the dirt of one’s defiance of them.  This just invites the charge of “unilateralism,” however unwarranted it may be.  This also erodes US “soft power”— the ability to persuade others through the appeal to, and appearance of, US legitimacy, which is needed to achieve vital national interests.[41]

            The counsel of another influential realist, that famed Medici-courting bad-boy and Italian child of darkness, Machiavelli reminds us of another enduring lesson of realism: the pivotal importance of perception.  Machiavelli keyed in on the enormity of perception, for how one appears in the eyes of others becomes a crucial reality that a prince must seize to his advantage:  “Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are …”[42]  To this end, a little guile, flattery, gamesmanship, and finesse are essential tools of the realist kit.  As Niebuhr recognized, in the sticky web of political affairs, children of light may shrewdly have to put such instruments to ethical use.  I judge that had the US administration followed some of this sage counsel in its diplomacy—publicly praising if privately sidestepping the Kyoto or Rome (ICC) treaties; engaging behind the scenes diplomacy and exhausting appeals to the UN before publicly calling for regime change; abandoning extraneous talk of preemption[43]—it would have encountered far fewer obstacles waging war in Iraq. 

What can explain the inattention to perduring lessons of realism realism?  One explanation is that the current administration is every bit as suffused by a moralism of its own, what we might recognize as a foreign policy pietism.  Note the robust and quite genuine efforts to safeguard peoples’ God-given freedom; the calling out of evil where one sees it; initiatives to thwart sex trafficking, stem the tide of HIV/AIDS, and stop modern-day slavery; bold and novel efforts to end the civil war in Sudan and to preserve religious liberty abroad.[44]  These endeavors commit the President to a politics of evangelical humanism, which is clearly a moral agenda.   But what makes this a brand of moralism is that he may  be so convinced of his cause—indeed as he ought to be—that he, unfortunately, does not see with a clear-eyed view some of the realities of the global political order I’ve desrcibed.  The irony is that this moral strength is also a liability.  That is, I am not sure the President fully appreciates the indispensable role of worldwide perception, that few can touch him and see the moralist he really is, or at least how he sees himself.  Like other moralists, he believes that followers will readily come to his side because his framework is morally compelling, independent of political interests.  His moralism may be mistaken as the window dressing for a crude realism.  To the contrary, foreign policy pietism will suffer the same fate as other variants of moralism unless it engages political realities head-on and embraces the full scope of realist resources needed to bring about its moral agenda. 


III.  “How to make a strong moral argument without sounding moralistic”[45]

This paper has sought to demonstrate that many enduring moral victories of wars in America’s recent and distant past have involved noncombatant populations who were not implicated in the ostensible political causes for war.  This would seem to suggest that we ought to take the noncombatant factor more fully into account, integrating it into the deliberative criteria for using force, as we mull the political causes of current and future wars. 

The subtitle of my conclusion, taken from the section heading of William Lee Miller’s ethical biography of Lincoln, returns us to the moral possibilities of a figure like Lincoln.  For all of his realism, Lincoln was as equally convinced of the evil of slavery as he was of the moral possibilities of politics to end it.  He foresaw that over time there could be no lasting political order—there could be no union—so long as this “monstrous injustice” endured.  Yet he knew full well that the suffusion of moralism in politics and war would not end slavery, establish justice, or preserve the union.  A great admirer of Lincoln, the great twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, argued similarly and carved out a comparable middle ground position between moralism and a cynical raison d’etat; he enjoined combining the ideals of the former with the wisdom and means of the latter.[46]  It’s a position that helps us appreciate the contributions and limitations of figures like Lincoln and Roosevelt (and perhaps, some day, President Bush as well).  The result, what I am here calling moral realism—the engagement of political reasoning as a central feature in the moral outlook on war—recognizes that justice comes about in imperfect, limited forms and in ironic ways. 

Irony, recall, is the apparent disparity between two incongruous elements that are in fact quite deeply related.  Given the irony of how America deliberates about war and remembers it, where we do we go from here?  For Reinhold Niebuhr, recognition of such irony would presumably dissolve it, eliciting first embarrassment followed by contrition.  But it seems to me there are at least three other possible responses to this irony.  First, we can ignore it, though this risks Niebuhr’s prognostic that we will harden our vanities “to the point where irony turns into pure evil.”[47]  Second, we can consider the irony of war yet thoughtfully reject it (e.g., World War I and Vietnam do not exactly fit the mold I’ve described).  Or, third, we can reluctantly embrace the irony.  We can appreciate the moral ambiguities of politics and war, yet, as Niebuhr also counseled, resist becoming frustrated by them.  In short, we can adopt the irony of moral realism that discloses the interrelationship of contrasting elements.  Unlike moralists and cynical realists—each of whom see ethics and politics distinctly—the moral realist perceives their inextricability, thus embracing power and self-interest for the sake of justice; stratagem for the sake of ethical commitment; and grim political realities for the sake of a braver moral order.



[1] For Reinhold Niebuhr’s poignant discussion of irony, see The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), vii, 151-5.

[2] Quoted in Harry Stout, “‘Baptism in Blood’: The Civil War and the creation of an American civil religion,” Books and Culture July/August 2003, pp. 33-4.

[3] Ibid., p. 34.

[4] David Blight, “Race and Rebirth: The Relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in Language, War, and Memory,” lecture delivered at conference on “Lincoln and Democracy,” The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, May 10, 2003.

[5] Stout, p. 16.

[6] Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: HarperPerennial, 1977), 260-1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Michael Beschloss, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002); Michael J. Neufeld & Michael Berenbaum, eds., The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); and David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[9] Beschloss, The Conquerors, 38-40.

[10] Ibid., 53.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 54.

[13] Henry Feingold, “Bombing Auschwitz and the Politics of the Jewish Question during World War II,” in The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?, 198.

[14] Feingold points out the incongruity of the Royal Bomber Command’s refusal to use air assets to bomb some civilian targets but not others.  Unlike the terror bombings conducted against Berlin and Dresden—which sought to sap the morale of the enemy by killing German noncombatants—bombing concentration camps, crematories, and rail lines which supplied them with their daily hordes of human victims had no military value.  See Feingold, 195.

[15] FDR also briefly entertained the idea of negotiating secretly with famed Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann who offered to save the lives of a million Jews in exchange for trucks and other military assets.  Suspecting that Eichmann was trying to divide the alliance, FDR understood the necessity of vetting this proposal with Stalin and Churchill.  To no one’s surprise, Russia and Great Britain vetoed the plan, which was promptly dropped.  See Beschloss, 62-3.

[16] There are other examples, past and present, which further ground the disparity between the causes of war and our memory of them.  We often recall the Nuremberg Trials of key Nazi leaders as the inaugural triumph of international legalism: perpetrators of the Holocaust were individually tried in an international venue (rather than giving over to “victors’ justice”) and afforded the full rights of due process, in spite of which they were still convicted and punished.  The Nuremberg trials issued a definitive, historically momentous statement to the world condemning genocide and “crimes against humanity.”  We know, however, that even after war’s end, punishing crimes of genocide was instrumental to the Allies’ primary efforts to seek retribution for, and future deterrence of, international aggression.  See Gary Jonathan Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 203-4.

[17] Children may one day read in their history books of the Taliban’s oppression of women and the regime of fear over which it presided.  Some will no doubt wonder why no action was taken against the internal reign of terror before September 11, 2001.  As one example of the Taliban’s domestic embrace of terror, recall the hideous routine of rounding up citizens and forcing them into the national stadium to witness the ghastly executions—the lopping off of hands and heads—of traitors of the faith and other “criminals.”

[18] Jim Hoagland, “Wolfowitz on Wolfowitz and saving Iraq,” Chicago Tribune, July 25. 2003, p. 25.

[19] I am thinking here of the encroachment of southern slave-hunters into Northern territory and, eventually, the sudden attack on Fort Sumter.  On the politics of slavery, abolitionist views of war, and the events which consolidated the Union cause, see Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of American Ideas (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001), 4-16; 31-2.

[20] We remember Henry Morgenthau, Jr. who used his political leverage with President Roosevelt and pleaded passionately to provide succor and refuge to European Jews.  Contra the criticism of administration rivals, Morgenthau fervently maintained that a general concern for humanity, rather than a specific empathy flowing from his own Jewish roots, motivated his moral sincerity.  He spoke as an American, not as a Jew.  He likely also recalled a similar dilemma from an earlier world war when his father Henry Morgenthau Sr., then US ambassador to Turkey, was learning of the Turkish massacre of a million Armenians.  Morgenthau the elder, was similarly incensed and inspired by a generic humanism and concern for the suffering of the Armenians—a point brought home by the incredulity of Turkish interior minister Mehmed Talaat’s retort: “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway?  You are a Jew, these people are Christians…”  Like his son, Morgehthau Sr., had spoken “on behalf of humanity.”  He sought, to no avail, to leverage influence with President Wilson to intervene at least diplomatically.  But, all of this took place prior America’s entry into World War I, and Wilson the isolationist would stick to strict protocol of non-interference to avoid any pretext for US engagement in the war.  See Samantha Power, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, (New York: HarperPerennial, 2002), 1-16.

[21] To some extent, nearly all of us are “liberal internationalists” of one stripe or another in that we strive to support international institutional fora and arrangements in which nations can convene to negotiate and collectively work out their problems, preferably through diplomatic means.  The moralist strand of liberal internationalism, however, perceives international organizations as neutral, disinterested, and, “supra-political” bodies that transcend politics and speak on behalf of the human community.  Viewing an international governmental organization such as the UN in this way fails to notice that the UN is a highly realist institution through which states pursue their interests and achieve a balance of powers.  The more influential and prominent international governmental organizations become, the more they will develop political interests of their own.  The moralist strand of liberal internationalism also embraces a perhaps sentimental view of international law and treaties, which are seen to transcend and uphold “universal”  moral norms rather than reinforcing the interests of states.  Finally, the belief that such law possesses a global authority comparable to domestic law, even though no comparable enforcement mechanism exists, overlooks the limitations of policies that are based upon self-enforcement.

[22] James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 1-70.

[23] Peter Steinfels, “Meeting a Moral Standard for War,” The New York Times, March 1, 2003.

[24] For arguments in support of the Iraq War from a just war perspective, see Jean Bethke Elshtain, “A just war?” Boston Globe, October 6, 2002; “Will It Be a ‘Just War’ or Just a War?” Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2003; and “Thinking about War and Justice”

http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/052003/commentary.shtml accessed 18 January 2004.  For other thoughtful just war readings of the Iraq War, see John Kelsay, “‘Just war’: The details,” Chicago Tribune, November 10, 2002, sec. 2, p. 1 and Michael Walzer, “What a Little War in Iraq Could Do,” New York Times, March 7, 2003.

[25] US Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, #83 in Jim Castelli, The Bishops and the Bomb: Waging Peace in a Nuclear Age (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 217.

[26] “The Iraqi leadership must cease its internal repression, end its threats to its neighbors, stop any support for terrorism, abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and destroy all such existing weapons.”   US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Statement on Iraq,” November 13, 2002, www.nccbuscc.org/bishops/iraq.htm, accessed November 19, 2002.  See also, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Wilton D. Gregory’s “Letter to President Bush on Iraq,” September 13, 2002, www.nccbuscc.org/sdsp/international/bush902htm, accessed November 20, 2002.

[27] Though I judge Iraq was an ongoing danger to US and regional security interests, it remains unclear that there was an imminent threat that Iraq posed to the United States.  Those terrorists who might have found sanctuary in Iraq were located in areas under UN oversight and patrol; focused strikes could have eliminated them without a full-scale regime change.  On the matter of WMD production, the reinsertion of weapons inspectors did seem to fairly neutralize or deter further production of Saddam’s production capabilities.  Given Iraq’s poor compliance with full disclosure, though, that seemed hard to confirm.  Preliminary post-war investigations in Iraq have not produced large caches of WMD, but they have confirmed, no one contests, Saddam’s ongoing intent and desire to develop them.  For those who supported the strategy of containment, I judge that inspections could have continued relatively effectively for several more decades until Saddam and his sons died or were overthrown. 

[28] Per just cause, they cite the legitimacy of changing the unacceptable behavior of Iraq’s government but not the overthrow of that government as a “preventive” or “preemptive” measure.  Regarding legitimate authority, only the United Nations may provide the framework to achieve such legitimacy.  See “Statement on Iraq.”  For a full discussion of these criteria, see The Challenge of Peace, par #86-110.

[29] See U.S. Catholic Conference President Joseph Fiorenza’s “Statement on Iraq,” November 15, 1999, http://www.usccb.org/bishops/iraqfio.htm, accessed November 18, 2003.

[30] Ibid.  See also U.S. Catholic Conference President Joseph Fiorenza’s “Statement on Iraq,” November 15, 1999, http://www.usccb.org/bishops/iraqfio.htm, accessed November 18, 2003.  For a later statement, see US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Sanctions,” February 2001, www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/international/econsancback.htm, accessed November 20, 2002.

[31] “Letter to President Clinton Urging End to Iraqi Embargo,” September 27, 2002, www.nccbusc.org/comm/archives/clintonletter.htm, accessed November 20, 2002 (italics added for emphasis).

[32] Such basic supplies as medical syringes, chlorine disinfectant, fertilizers, insecticides, plastic bags for blood transfusions are considered “dual use” items that could be used in the production of chemical and biological weapons.  See Mueller and Mueller, 49-50.

[33] See David Rieff’s blistering critique “Were Sanctions Right?” The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2003. 

[34] Ibid.  See also Walter Russell Mead, “Deadlier Than War,” Washington Post, March 12, 2003; Rachel Bronson, “No Containing Iraq,” Newsday, March 13, 2003; John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs 78 no. 3 (May/June 1999), 43-53; David Cortright, “A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions,” The Nation, December 3, 2001; US Department of State report, “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” September 1999, www.usia.gov/regional/nea/nea.htm, accessed October 15, 2003.

[35] This ensued Saddam Hussein’s eviction of effective UN inspectors.

[36] Apply just war principles, I judge the criterion of “right intention” would have been compromised if one understands that to mean that the stated purpose—disarmament, regime change, elimination of WMD or any of the other ostensible causes the US put forth—must be the authentic reason one is undertaking force.  (The shifting causes for war also compromises crucial principles of democratic transparency.)  There is, though, another reading of rightful intention, one advanced by Augustine and Aquinas, which dictates that belligerents “should intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.”  On this reading, US intentions in Iraq were not wickedly motivated by aggrandizement or cruelty characteristic of unjust wars.  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, q. 40, a. 1.

[37] At an elementary level, the US administration maintained a highly realist profile.  A basic lesson of realism is that we can explain the behavior of states by analyzing what they take to be their national interests, and the current administration has certainly pursued its national security interests in Iraq and elsewhere.  One need only consider the designation of the “axis of evil” as the vivid identification of threats to US interest.  Realism also asserts that states will take the necessary actions and measures to preserve their power and predominance, with military and economic prowess being the most pivotal resources.  Again this holds true of the current administration.  Consider some steps that the administration took to safeguard its powers: the renunciation or withdrawal from numerous international treaties that allegedly undermined its sovereignty; the announcement of the right to engage in preemptive attack against potential threats; the open willingness to act, if necessary, independently on its own behalf.  See generally the national security strategy of 2002. 

                All of these strategies reveal a professed adherence to realist strategies, at least at a basic level.  Indeed, if the United States openly proclaimed unwillingness to take such measures, that would be reckless and perhaps disastrous.  However, the explicit announcement of national security priorities, given the current climate and realities of global politics, was anything but wise or consistent with US interests.  The naming of the “axis of evil,” coupled with the preemption doctrine, may have actually hastened new efforts and incentives by North Korea and Iraq to acquire nuclear weapons, which increase potential threats to national security.  The open willingness to act alone and the announcement during summer 2002 by key administration officials that regime change in Iraq was clearly in its sites alienated many potential allies and undermined the administration’s later appeals to the United Nations.  The die was already cast by the time that US began toning down talk of regime change and shifting the focus to disarmament and enforcement of UN resolutions.  In this light, the preemption doctrine became a contentious and extraneous red herring that drew attention away from the internationalist cause that made Iraq everyone’s problem, not just the United States’.  The US might have been more successful arguing that war in Iraq, to borrow Joseph Nye’s words, “was the last chapter of the twentieth century rather than the first chapter of the twenty-first” “U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq,” Foreign Affairs 82, no. 4 (July/August 2003), 63.

[38] Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, fifth ed., revised, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), p. 9(?).

[39] See generally, John Carlson & Erik Owens, The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003).

[40] Rieff writes “[Former Clinton National Security Council member] Nancy Soderberg states flatly that the French and the Russians allowed their eagerness to develop business deals with Iraq to affect their work on the [UN Security Council] 661 Committee.  ‘The French and Russians wanted to make money…By the time of the second gulf war, the Russians had $40 billion in prospective deals with Saddam Hussein’s regime’…Saddam Hussein and the Baath elite got rich off the sanctions, and a great many international businessmen, notably in the Arab world, in France and in Russia, made handsome profits as well.” 

[41] “Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce…Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.  When U.S. policies appear legitimate in the eyes of others, American soft power is enhanced.  Hard power [military force, coercion, etc] will always remain crucial in a world of nation-states guarding their independence, but soft power will become increasingly important in dealing with the transnational issues that require multilateral cooperation for their solution.” Nye, 66.

[42] “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands…Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many…” Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 71.

[43] By its own admission, the US has always maintained the right to preempt military attack.  What need is there to publicize it in an unclassified national security plan?

[44] See, for example, Elisabeth Bumiller, “Evangelicals Sway White House on Human Rights Issues Abroad,” The New Your Times, October 26, 2003.

[45] William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 286.

[46] See generally, Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness  (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).

[47] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, viii.