In war, what is the 'nearest right'?

When Britain, after long months of appeasement, finally declared war on Germany in 1939, I was a small boy living in London.

As World War II gathered intensity, and more soldiers were needed, my father, then 39 years old, was conscripted for the Army. I can remember tearfully protesting the injustice of this. I asked my father whether he might have to kill someone. A deeply religious man, he told me that he'd thought about this at length. Basically he was opposed to taking a life, but if it was the "nearest right," he'd do it.

Off he went, to spend three years in the deserts of North Africa as General Montgomery's British Eighth Army fought the Germans and Italians there. In Europe, the Germans had rolled over a dismal defense in France and occupied it. Until the US entered the war, Britain stood largely alone. My mother was conscripted to work in the Post Office, and she and I spent the war years in London, surviving the German bombings, long nights in air-raid shelters, food shortages, and various hardships that were nothing compared with the misery suffered by many millions of others in that war.

But Germany's aggression and brutality seemed so clear-cut that I do not remember the British people having much doubt about confronting it. It was the "nearest right" thing to do. There were a few conscientious objectors, who refused to fight, but they did not have much standing.

That was my first acquaintance with war. But in the years since, I've seen more of it than I cared to as a correspondent in Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other regions of turbulence around the world. Later in life, when I did stints in public service at the State Department and the United Nations, I did so in part because I hoped that I might make some small contribution to peace that would make it unnecessary for my sons to take up arms.

My abhorrence of war is hardly unique. It puts me in the company of most people in the world. The antiwar posters seem a little superfluous to me, for there is no pro-war movement. Hardly anybody wants war. What we are pondering, as we teeter on the brink of war in Iraq, is whether it is moral to use military might to right a wrong that peaceful means have so far failed to redress.

President Bush says he begins every day "on bended knee," praying "for guidance and for comfort." He has asked others to pray, and I suspect many of us do, asking that the president be given wisdom in making decisions and courage in implementing them.

If war comes in Iraq it will inevitably bring death and destruction. Soldiers on both sides, and innocent civilians, will likely die. But lingering in my memory are my father's words, before he went off to fight long ago, that in human affairs we must do the "nearest right."

Let's look at the facts: Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who maintains his rule on Iraq by torture and execution. He has used weapons of mass destruction on his people. He invaded Kuwait. When defeated by US and allied forces, he promised to disarm. He has broken those vows and been condemned by the world community. He certainly has developed chemical and biological weapons in the past.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN last week convinced most reasonable people that Mr. Hussein still has those weapons and has taken pains to hide them from UN inspectors. Hussein consorts with terrorists who seek to do harm to the US, other Western countries, and Israel. He is perfectly capable of sharing with those terrorists his weapons of mass destruction.

What are the risks of seeking to remove him forcibly? The most dismal downside: Heavy allied casualties; the unleashing of weapons of mass destruction; chaos in Iraq; furor in the Middle East. The most agreeable upside: Saddam Hussein's removal; the neutralization of his weapons of mass destruction; the liberation of Iraq's people; the emergence of Iraq as a democratic nation in the making to inspire other Arab countries.

Should we tolerate evil or attack it? What is the "nearest right?"

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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