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The ethics of rebuilding Iraq

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Bear in mind that there was a peculiar threat that Saddam Hussein posed ... There's a logic in the administration's reasoning. You can't make [weapons of mass destruction] WMD in any amounts that matter in a cave in Afghanistan. You must have a sophisticated military-industrial factory. A fly-by-night, nomadic terrorist group can't get its arms around it. You need a nation state willing to do this. The only nation state that was deeply invested in bio-chemical stuff was Iraq.

Skip to next paragraph A common line holds that since Napoleon, no two "mature" democracies have ever fought a war against each other. Why don't democracies typically fight each other? If they don't, how does that affect the ethics of shaping the world in the American image and likeness?

Kidder: I think what happens is that first of all, the essence of democracy, there are controls and checks and balances... [They] make it difficult for a country to get itself in a situation of tyranny that would [lead it to] say "Yes, we're going to fight this war no matter what."

Now, that doesn't speak to the short term. One of the things that critics of the Bush administration have pointed out: We've come close to that now. It's as though the military and political apparatus has been taken over by a group that said "We're going to fight no matter what." But then you look at the polling data. Most people in this democracy are in favor of that.

I also think probably war is the last and most stupid and idiotic of the methodologies whereby one resolves conflict .... Most democracies are sophisticated enough to realize the cost of war, and they realize the need for compromise.... I want to read something to you. This is an excerpt from a recent Monitor article:

"There were waves and waves of people coming at them, with AK-47s, out of this factory, and they were killing everyone," says Lieutenant Colonel Radcliffe. "The commander called and said, 'This is not right. This is insane. Let's hit the factory with close air support and take them out all at once.'"

For some soldiers, trauma is already sinking in. "For lack of a better word, I feel almost guilty about the massacre," says one soldier privately. "We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?"

Can you comment on the ethical situations these young soldiers are facing? How do they make sense of moral courage in these situations? Are they being trained for this kind of dilemma?

Kidder: We've not done a good job raising the next generation to understand the need for a meaningful philosophy of life. There's some polling data suggesting that younger people aren't interested in a philosophy of life. They're looking for success.

Suddenly in these [war] situations, these metaphysical questions confront you. As Americans, we're not very prepared for this. We're not a very introspective culture. It's as if we say: "We don't think great existential thoughts, we're not French. We get the work done."

Suddenly, though, in doing the course of work in war, we're coming face to face with the heart of darkness. These are profound wrenching questions.

Imagine, if just two weeks before they had ... bombed Jacksonville, Florida. Well, these soldiers wouldn't hesitate in fighting. They'd say, "It doesn't matter, they're not innocent." But these days, there's such an asymmetry, our weapons are so darn good, we have the luxury of asking those questions.

Look at casualty counts from WWII, even Vietnam. They were orders of magnitude higher. Nobody in Vietnam was raising those questions. Soldiers were saying, "If I can save a few more soldiers by mowing down these 500, by God, I'll do it." In a sense, and I don't want to celebrate this fact, that are our soldiers are in anguish is a kind of privileged philosophical position. That's been unavailable in previous generations.

Our question is: How do we deal with that? It may be harder and harder to find young people willing to do the work of war. It may not be a bad thing. That's what commander on ground [in the story excerpt] is responding to. War has become a bit sterile and antiseptic. We're bombing people you can never see, from hundreds of miles away with a Tomahawk missile. The old-fashioned warfare, where the enemy sets at you in waves, causes you to suddenly think there must be a better way to treat this. Do it all at once with a bomb from distance. The problem there is then you don't have to think about it. I suppose I'd always want people to think about it.