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Neither a just war nor just the war

James Matthew Wilson | Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sometimes even the most penetrating conversation, the most illuminating ideas, seem mere distraction from a darker truth at which one cannot bear to look. Just when we think we are addressing a grave problem, we find our deepest sorrows hide somewhere else, a few syllables beyond what we are capable of saying. For instance, this last Tuesday, I sat in on a panel discussing “Requiem,” the new exhibit of photographs from the Vietnam War being held at the Snite Museum of Art. The photos included in the exhibit were taken by journalists who died in that war. Throughout the proceedings, for all my interest, I felt something heavy in my gut.

The invited speakers probed the question of how a photograph, an image, relates to the reality of war it represents. David Griffith addressed primarily the photos at the center of the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. In his recent book, “A Good War Is Hard to Find,” Griffith argues that those now infamous pictures of Iraqi prisoners forced to pose in humiliating positions in fact betray an obsession with pornography and violence beating at the heart of American culture. The snapshots do not merely expose the imaginations of a few sick persons. They are not merely symptoms of the frustration and anxiety inevitable to soldiers during wartime. Those prisoners piled naked on top of each other, or leashed to a smirking Lynndie England, Griffith suggests, testify to a culture that feeds on spectacle, the more obscene the better.

The unlooked-for evidence of cultural decay that silently frames the Abu Graib photos provides an analogy to my own discomfort with the panel at the Snite. The panelists had been invited to talk about war and war photography. In the daily news cycle, myriad journalists and politicians chatter of whether the President’s strategy is failing, has already failed, or can be rehabilitated. Sometimes one hears debate over whether a war to topple a longtime dictator was just. Sometimes one hears debate over whether a preemptive war is just. And occasionally one even hears questioned whether any war could ever be just.

From our elected leaders, we hear clumsy or oddly speculative rhetoric. Senator Kerry suggests that poor grades will get one sent to Iraq, and then he apologizes. Senator Obama indicates that soldiers who die there have wasted their lives, and then recants. Senator Reid speaks of this war as a foreign policy “mistake.”

As the war gets worse, the press spins ever faster from its bowels new analysis and rhetoric about certain features of it. As public opinion turns ever more against it, democratic senators stick their polemical toes in the pond to test the waters of opinion, venturing bold statements about the injustice being done to our troops only to retract them in a day or two. The subject of all this talk is of course the war, but what it dances around it much more serious.

Some irrational persons would probably oppose any war any government waged. Some wise persons are particularly able at determining when a country has met the criteria for a just war. And finally, just about everyone now feels comfortable second-guessing the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy in Iraq. These speculations, obvious in importance though they are, have the effect of keeping our minds focused “just” on the war. They keep our minds turning about the war as if it were a photograph to be studied, with one viewer complaining about the exposure and another that it isn’t a painting in oils.

Behind or beyond that photograph is a vision so dim that, as a nation, we can’t look at it for more than a moment. We can talk about this war as often and in as many ways as we like, but most of that talk will remain distraction from this vision: that is, from our suspicion, indeed, our probable cause to believe, that we are at war because the Bush administration deceived Congress and lied to the American people.

One cannot call the Iraq War a “mistake.” To do so, one would have to be in basic agreement with the priorities and goals of the Bush Administration, and to call this or that particular course an “error” that hinders its reaching those goals. More than an error in strategy or one poor executive decision is at stake in Iraq.

We are at war not because our government believed strongly in the just preemption of a madman, or the just removal of an autocrat. We are at war because certain members of our government want to ensure that the United States remains the dominant military and economic power in the world, and to do that we need the support of the Saudi government, Saudi oil and the continuation of an otherwise incapacitated and chaotic Middle East. We are at war because (pardon the crass nomenclature) neo-conservatives believe American interests are the world’s interests, and because executives in the military-industrial complex accept that other Americans need to be sacrificed for their interests. This war is an incidental episode in the long and programmatic expansion of a teetering empire. It is not just the war that is the problem, but the program. And thus, we are at war because of greed and because of lies.

An intrinsic duty of any state is to protect the life and common good of its people. War is sometimes a just instrument for the exercise of that duty. But the Bush administration has rendered such axioms superfluous. War is not the issue. The details of this war are not the issue. What distracted me last Tuesday and sickens me as I write is the fact that no honest philosophical or political debate can matter right now.

I fear that lurking behind every photograph of every fallen American soldier is the dark print of a deceit. Just as a widespread, little discussed, obsession with the obscene lurks behind the images from Abu Ghraib, a narrow and secretive hunger for money and power haunts – and betrays – the portraits of the dead. It is a hunger so vile even Americans will not look at it straight. Some few corporations and persons, to perpetuate a political and economic system that benefits them at the expense of millions, do not care how much ink gets spilled discussing this war, or how much blood gets spilled in it, so long as they are left quietly to profit, just beyond the photo’s edge.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow. He can be contacted at jwilson5@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.