US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Missing in action: Guilt for U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

As I listened to the president frame his address last night around the "successful" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I couldn't help but ask myself: What about the war crimes? What about torture, Abu Ghraib, drone strikes, "collateral damage," Guantanamo Bay? What about the Haditha massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians? What about the most recent video of U.S. Marines desecrating the bodies of the Taliban they had presumably killed? What about the estimated 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, and the millions more displaced?

I shouldn't be surprised that our politicians are unable to lead us in a national examination of conscience for our war-making these past 10 years. But it is a further sin to deny the moral mistakes our nation has made. While the vast majority of U.S. service women and men have conducted themselves honorably, some have not, and some have failed spectacularly. No commander has accepted responsibility for the atrocities committed under his or her command, nor have any of our intelligence agencies or operatives been charged for what are surely violations of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. The fact that Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich received a merely suspended 90-day sentence and a demotion (without reduction in pay) for the deaths of 24 people in Haditha is breathtaking, and It sends a troubling message to the rest of the world: We expect everyone else to adhere to the laws of war, but when we break those same laws, we won't be held accountable.

War is always morally degrading, and the "war on terror" has been no different, if not worse. As always, most victims are the youngest of adults, men and women often barely out of high school. Their youth relieves them of some culpability, but what about the rest of us?

We are doing ourselves no favors by quickly rewriting history, as the president did last night, papering over the diminishment of our moral standing in the world. The now-general acceptance of the moral legitimacy of torture, which has penetrated even primetime television, is a serious and profound blow to a hard-won common commitment to human dignity and human rights. Just war theory, designed to be a major obstacle to the use of force, has been grossly contorted to justify it instead. More common than ever is the morally revolting claim that if a "terrorist" does something wicked to "us"--the murder of innocents, torture--we are morally free to do it to the broadest possible definition of "them," whether "they" are guilty or not. In the minds of many, "they" don't even deserve access to the due process of law.

As the remaining tens of thousands return to our shores (thousands fewer than we sent), we must begin the long process of facilitating their healing--physical, emotional, and spiritual. But we must all do some work of our own, beginning with a serious examination of conscience, lest we again make the same mistakes and commit the same sins, and so wound the world further.

To quote the late Pope John Paul II when he warned against the invasion of Iraq: "War is always a defeat for humanity." This war has been a defeat for all of us--American, Iraqi, Afghan, British, French, whomever--no matter who leaves the battlefield "victorious."