The Power of National Repentance

The word “repentance” has an antique ring to it. To many it belongs with top hats, sailing ships, and snuff boxes. To others it sounds as psychologically unhealthy as self-flagellation, hair shirts and the shaming of children. But most people will agree that even today, if someone’s done something really bad, they should admit it and express sorrow for it. Repentance is essential because it increases the chances that a behavior won’t be repeated, and it helps the healing and reconciliation process for everyone involved.

But do only individuals repent, or can whole nations? Suppose Americans reach a consensus that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a wrongful use of its superpower. Might it help for the United States to repent?

The evils of the Nazi regime in Germany, especially the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, are seared into the conscience of the whole world. To their credit, many post-war German leaders have expressed public remorse and repentance for the evils perpetrated by their nation. They have supported the establishment of memorials and honored them in annual times of remembrance. Likewise in South Africa in more recent years, progress on the path toward healing of the scars of racism and apartheid has been propelled by public declarations of repentance and acknowledgments of past sins. I am not equating America with the enormity of Nazi guilt, but simply pointing out a precedent of exemplary response to wrong-doing.

Last year in Hong Kong I met a philosophy professor from a major university in the People’s Republic of China who is a clandestine Christian. He shared with me his search for faith and meaning in life, and the process by which his choices came down to Buddhism and Christianity. Like many other informed Chinese today, he remains outraged by the atrocities of the Japanese army during the infamous Rape of Nanking. He noted that the Japanese have never confessed or repented of those atrocities in which hundreds of thousands of helpless Chinese citizens were abused, degraded and murdered. But he was also aware that Germany had expressed remorse for what it had done during those same years of World War II, and he remembered that the Germans were at least a nominally Christian nation. The contrast in national responses was the decisive factor in this particular Chinese intellectual’s decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

Should America repent for the fateful choices of its administration? It is common knowledge around the world that the preemptive invasion of Iraq not only violated international law, but also the established “just war” criteria developed through the centuries within the Christian tradition itself. The original justification for the invasion was morally insufficient in the first place. When the perceived threat to America was later discovered to be an imaginary one, the invasion became indefensible. Acknowledging responsibility for conflict and injustice, and seeking repentance and forgiveness is one of ten practices recommended for abolishing war in Just Peacemaking, 2d ed. (2004), a serious and significant book edited by Glen Harold Stassen, professor of ethics at Fuller Seminary. To do so would take nothing away from those in the military who have obeyed their orders with courage and honor.

Many Americans, including many American Christians, believe that to acknowledge wrong-doing now would constitute loss of face, and only weaken America’s power in the world. Others are convinced that we should stop focusing on the past, and stop wasting energy on assigning responsibility for what has happened. It is time to look forward, they argue, to focus on stabilizing the Middle East, and move on.

But the Christian tradition would say: not so fast. Admittedly it is hard to admit wrong. It is hard to say that we are sorry. But we have to go back before we can go forward. Otherwise we will perpetuate the same strategies when the next challenge comes up. To repent is to relinquish one kind of power for another—the power of force is replaced by the power of restored moral authority and the possibility of trust. This last ingredient will be essential to reclaiming a future with a future.

17 Responses to The Power of National Repentance

  1. John Mustol August 29, 2008 at 2:46 pm #

    I appreciate Dave Harvey’s comment above, 29 July, 2008. I confess, however, that I find it extremely confusing. Perhaps he could offer responses to the following questions.

    1. You say that Nazi Germany and South Africa repented of events “within their borders.” Are you saying that the need for national repentance depends on whether or not the moral evil is done inside or outside the country, or do you mean that if the “common citizenry” are not aware of the events, and that only certain leaders/individuals are aware of it, it does not require national repentance? When and how do we incur corporate guilt?

    2. You observe that with their system of Apartheid South Africa deprived millions of blacks of their citizenship and other basic rights. Would this be comparable to slavery in the United States? If so, how?

    3. You say that national repentance needs to take place “within a reasonable amount of time after the offense,” otherwise it loses its “power and weight.” How long is that? Since you cite Nazi Germany, I assume it is at least 63 years, but maybe it is longer (or shorter?). Does moral responsibility dissipate with time, or disappear with the deaths of those who suffered or with the fading of human memories?

    4. You say, “While I can think of several events that are either ongoing or have occurred in recent history where a national repentence might be merited, I admit that I’m unable to come up with a single military and/or social event that the United States has perpetrated that would merit such action.” This statement seems to be a contradiction. On the one hand, you can think of several events that might merit national repentance, but, on the other hand, you are unable to think of any event that requires national repentance. What do you mean?

    5. What is the difference between morally evil actions (that presumably require national repentance) and “mistakes,” “blunders,” and “ill-advised military actions” (that presumably do not require repentance)?

    6. You indicate that the United States has not been guilty of “such human rights violations on the order of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the Janjaweed in Darfur.” These are indeed extreme examples so they do not offer much help in defining what sorts of acts would require national repentance. Can you explain more clearly your criteria for acts that would require repentance?

    7.Your reference to James 4:17 seems to indicate that it is applicable to nation-states in international affairs. You said in an earlier entry (2 June) that “moral and ethical Christian leadership” is “rarely consistently possible on an international level.” This is confusing. Is Christian leadership possible or not? Is the book of James applicable or not? For example is James 4:14, or 3:17-18 applicable to nation-states in their international affairs?

    It is evident that I find Dave’s comments very confusing. I look forward to his responses.

  2. Dave Harvey July 29, 2008 at 8:52 am #

    Thanks for getting us back on track, Glen. As I re-read your original post, I wonder what sorts of events would merit a national repentance of the type you refer to.

    Both of the instances you cite (Nazi Germany & South Africa) repented of events that occurred within their borders (even if, as in the case of Germany, those borders had been enlarged by force). The Nazis built concentration camps within their own country (Dachau, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald, to name but a few) and ruthlessly set out to exterminate all “untermensch” who were not part of their Master Race. The South Africans enforced their policy of apartheid against their fellow countrymen, depriving nearly 19 million blacks of their citizenship and other basic rights.

    And, in each case the common citizenry shared the blame with the elected officials who passed the laws; this was not something happening outside their borders where they could either claim ignorance and/or helplessness.

    Yet another common element of these two examples is that they both occurred within recent memory. Apartheid only ended in 1994, and there are still people alive today who can recall the horrors of the Holocaust. From this, I think it is safe to assume that any national repentance undertaken must be done so within a reasonable amount of time – otherwise, it loses its power and weight. After all, how much good does an apology do if there’s no one around who remembers the original offense?

    While I can think of several events that are either ongoing or have occurred in recent history where a national repentence might be merited, I admit that I’m unable to come up with a single military and/or social event that the United States has perpetrated that would merit such action. Mistakes? Yes. Blunders? Of course. Ill-advised military actions? You betcha. But human rights violations on the order of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the Janjaweed in Darfur? Thankfully, no.

    On the other hand, maybe we should apologize for what we’ve *not* done. After the genocide in Rwanda that only recently ended, much of the world wrung its collective hands and declared, “Never again!” Yet here we are faced with a worsening situation in Sudan where brutalities and atrocities are being committed on a daily basis (for a tear-jerking account, go to
    – but be warned: it isn’t pretty).

    “Anyone then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” -James 4:17.

  3. Glen G. Scorgie July 28, 2008 at 5:05 am #

    This has been a civil, thoughtful and extended conversation about the moral legitimacy of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. This is understandable, given my original charge that the invasion was moral illegitimate. But the question I was originally interested in is the question of the potential value of a national declaration of repentance. Since then the discussion has shifted almost entirely to whether repentance is appropriate in this instance. One side is strongly convinced it is, and the other equally convinced that there’s nothing to repent about. In retrospect I’m thinking that perhaps I should have posed a question about the potential benefits of national repentance in the theoretical event that it might ever be warranted. I say this because I realize that many America Christians would be hard pressed to identify a single military action since 1776 for which national repentance would have been, or would still be, an appropriate and constructive response.

  4. Dave Harvey July 25, 2008 at 4:06 am #

    This is in response to Thorsten Moritz’ earlier comment about not defending anything:

    “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that; and if you do it to these men, you can’t also do it to those. Hence from the outset the law of beneficence involves not doing some good to some men at some times…And sooner or later, it involves helping A by actually doing some degree of violence to B. But when B is up to mischief against A, you must either do nothing (which disobeys the intuition) or you must help one against the other. And certainly no one’s conscience tells him to help B, the guilty. It remains, therefore, to help A. So far, I suppose, we all agree. If the argument is not to end in an anti-Pacifist conclusion, one or other of two stopping places must be selected. You must either say that violence to B is lawful only if it stops short of killing, or else that killing of individuals is indeed lawful but the mass killing of a war is not.” – C.S. Lewis, “Why I Am Not A Pacifist” from The Weight of Glory

  5. Dave Harvey July 24, 2008 at 10:08 pm #


    Thanks for the kind words – we are indeed brothers in Christ, and our service to and for His kingdom should supersede all other allegiances. That said, we do still live in this world, and we must work through the difficulties of relating in a Christ-like way to our neighbors, whether individually or on a global scale.

    Awhile back, Thorsten Moritz said that “There does not seem to be ANYTHING in the NT to suggest that we either have the right or the need to defend anything, including ourselves.” While the pacifist theme may be laudable insofar as my personal defense is concerned, it is problematic at best when applied to others. If someone else is being attacked, do I have a right – or even an obligation – to protect and defend them, if such is within my means? Clearly, the command to “love my neighbor” must be weighed – but the fact remains that I cannot love everyone equally at all times; there are times when I must choose whom to love at a particular moment. For example, if my wife is being mugged do I show more love to my wife by rescuing her or to her attacker by choosing not to harm him?

    True, Jesus did not advocate overthrowing the Roman Empire, but neither did he condemn its actions or the service of those who (like the centurions) were responsible for enforcing its imperialist intentions. Likewise, John the Baptist doesn’t tell the soldier to go AWOL from Caesar’s army, but instructs him not to extort money, falsely accuse others, and be content with his pay (Luke 3:14).

    I watched a show on the Biography Channel last night about Saddam Hussein’s family – horrific stuff, to say the least. Laying aside the argument about WMDs for the moment, there is (I believe) sufficient grounds to justify our invasion of Iraq as a means of removing this brutal dictator (and his equally psychotic sons) from power. Were we acting purely out of self-interest, we would logically be more concerned with subsuming their oil reserves for our own exploitation and less about repairing/rebuilding their social/economic infrastructure.

    We can debate until the cows come home about the various blunders and failings that have occurred since the opening salvos, but one thing is clear: a repressive and cruel regime has been deposed, and the Iraqi people are better off because of it. One can argue further about why we acted in Iraq, yet leave other dictators alone or fail to intervene in places like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, etc. While there are numerous answers to this, the gist of the questions leans us towards more action, not less. And all of it, as John Mustol points out, must be laid out for public scrutiny by our elected civilian officials before we go anywhere.

  6. John Mustol July 16, 2008 at 5:04 pm #

    Again, I express my appreciation to Dave Harvey for his willingness to engage on this issue. We are brothers in Christ, seeking to better understand how to live Christ in this difficult and complex world. I thank him for his honest and sincere comments.

    We are blessed to live in a democracy where political leaders are answerable to the people and where the military is subordinate to the civilian leadership. We witness, for example, General Petraeus explaining himself before a congressional committee. Such proceedings make me very proud. I recognize the resentment a military person (Dave) may experience when a nonmilitary person (me) criticizes our civilian leadership (President Bush) and alledges that this leadership has misused and abused him. Since I am not a military person, I can only imagine how difficult this must be. But that is democracy. God help us if this situation is ever reversed. If we lived in a dictatorship, the church (Dave, myself, and others who name Jesus as Lord) would, I hope, still speak out and stand for truth and righteousness. In a case where the government has acted wrongly, “higher moral principles” must control our words and actions.

    As followers of Jesus, our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. It is this “higher set of moral principles” of which Dave speaks, the “culture,” and the “patrimony” of the Kingdom of God, as revealed and inaugurated in the life and work of Jesus Christ, that supercedes all earthly kingdoms and allegiances. It is the Lord Christ whom we serve before all others. We seek to interpret and judge the behavior of earthly kingdoms, armies, generals, kings, and presidents in terms of the values and principles of the Kingdom of God. This is the basis for our words and actions, not only on issues of security, war and peace, but also on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and so on.

    It is my fervent prayer that conditions in Iraq will continue to improve as it seems they are doing now, and that our troops will all be able to come home as soon as is reasonably possible. As Dave says, we have a moral responsibility to remain until the country is stable; or as Colin Powell put it to President Bush, “You break it; you own it.” And it is also my prayer that we learn from these events. And again, I pray, may God have mercy on us all.

  7. Dave Harvey July 12, 2008 at 6:13 pm #

    To be fair, I should also note that I am well aware of my own particular bias on this issue: I’ve served in the Marine Corps for many years, and have a number of friends who are currently serving or have very recently served overseas in either Iraq, Afghanistan, or both.

    For me, the issue poses a different set of problems. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that the government I’ve served for so long (not to be confused with a particular administration) would or could gamble my life in an unjust cause. On the other hand, it’s equally difficult for me to sit quietly and listen to civilians who have never served a day in uniform and don’t know the first thing about how to conduct military operations excoriate our commander-in-chief on his prosecution of the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq. And I’m not necessarily referring to anyone posting here – the media is full to overflowing with everyone from well-meaning but uninformed armchair quarterbacks to self-righteous windbags whose passionate hatred for Dubya indelibly stains any conversation about the war.

    What I take away from this conversation and debate is a renewed commitment to a higher set of morals and principles. The U.S. government (nor any other) will never act in a perfect way – hence, no war will be waged in perfect accordance to Augustinian ideals. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for it, or fail to hold our officials accountably when they fall short. But living in this imperfect environment means that we also need to salvage the good where we can find it – and for this war I think that means not abandoning a fledgling Iraqi government just when it needs us the most. It means continuing to refine and reshape our policies, even as we are still learning to understand the needs and goals of our erstwhile allies.

  8. Dave Harvey July 10, 2008 at 9:45 pm #


    While I appreciate your comments as well as your high regard for the men and women who serve in our nation’s armed forces, there are a few issues I have with the xxx in your post.

    You say, “With their minds fogged and their hearts wounded by the pain of 9/11 and haunted by fears of another attack on the US, both the President and “a majority” in Congress were not thinking clearly.” This is presumptious, at best, to describe our leadership as still being “foggy-minded” more than a year after the 9/11 tragedy. Had it been days or even weeks after the event, I might could agree with you. Yet even that would not have been without precedent; recall that President Roosevelt declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked – was *he* not thinking clearly as well? In fact, 3 days after the Twin Towers fell, Congress unanimously passed S.J. Res. 23, a joint resolution “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” Was that a bad decision? But by applying your logic, it would be possible to describe *any* decisions/actions taken by the President, Congress, House of Representatives, etc. as an emotional response – so where do you draw the line?

    Citing two of the most ardent democrats in Congress (Byrd & Kennedy) as evidence of opposition does little to bolster your claims. I could well cite the fact that there was only 1 republican Senator (Chafee) who voted against it, and argue that partisan politics had more to do with it than the true legitimacy of the cause. The fact that those two voted against it doesn’t surprise me – what does surprise me is that 29 other democrats (including all of the former presidential candidates) *did* vote for it.

    As to the decision to invade Iraq being made in the summer of 2002, that’s hardly surprising to me: if the issue was to come up for vote before Congress in October, I would expect someone to do their homework ahead of time to be able to clearly delineate the issue. In the military, one plans operations months (or even years) ahead of time before presenting a brief to the decision-makers.

    I agree with the gist of what you say about the subsequent planning & execution of the war. From a military standpoint, Rumsfeld bears the brunt of the blame for his refusal to tolerate opposing strategies and insisting on surrounding himself with “yes-men” who would do his bidding without question. But on the other hand, it will never be an easy matter to transition from “winning the war” to “winning the peace.” Much of that depends on the ability and willingness of the host country to shoulder their part of the responsibilities – much as Germany and Japan did post-WWII.

    I realize I’m probably not going to change your mind re. the initial justification for the Iraq war. That’s ok. However, I will point out that one’s perception of the initial decision invariably affects all future decisions re. the issue. Kinda like using sour milk for your cereal – it doesn’t matter what kind or how good the actual cereal is – the fact that you start with sour milk means it’s not going to taste good (unless you’re into that sort of thing). If you didn’t agree with it in the first place, it’s unlikely that you are going to admit that things are going well and that there might be a lot of good to come out of this in the long run.

  9. John Mustol June 13, 2008 at 2:55 pm #

    In the comments of Fr. Austin and of Dave Harvey I sense a deep desire to honor our nation and to support our armed forces. I share this desire. I am thankful for our military, for the great traditions which it maintains, and for the protection it provides to us all. As I write this tears of gratitude mixed with sorrow well up as I think of our fine men and women in uniform who have paid so dearly in a war that was unnecessary. I understand the need of patriotic people to find meaning in the death and maiming of their loved ones. It is indeed a very serious offense to our nation and to the honor of our military when our leadership misuses and abuses men and women who are dedicated to serving their country and doing what is right.

    Regarding the question of pre-war justification for the invasion of Iraq, to argue that “there was sufficient evidence at the time to convince not only the President but a majority of Congress as well” does not hold. With their minds fogged and their hearts wounded by the pain of 9/11 and haunted by fears of another attack on the US, both the President and “a majority” in Congress were not thinking clearly. President Bush was under enormous pressure. There is ample evidence today that the administration (or at least certain members of the administration) had decided to invade Iraq by the summer of 2002, and that their conscious task after that was to control information to that end and sell it to the public (and to Congress). Despite this work of (what amounts to) deception, there were many who were not deceived. The Senate vote was 77 to 23; the House vote was 296 to 133. Senators Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy argued forcefully against it. A number of people around the country vigorously questioned the decision. For example Dr. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, and a specialist in Shia Islam and Middle East History, was appalled by the plan and tried in every way he could to influence events. I heard Cole describe his efforts in a lecture he delivered at SDSU in 2004. He foresaw many of the problems that ensued during the occupation. There were many others who spoke out. (I personally wrote many letters to congress people and the President.) But it is clear that our top leaders made a mistake – a very serious mistake. It may be understandable, but it is not excusable.

    Moreover, the planning for the occupation of Iraq was poor at best. We simply did not know what we were getting into. The history of our occupation until 2007 was one of trial-and-error, ad hoc patchwork operations, and ignorant bungling. People in charge of both military and civilian operations did not know what they were doing. Like a surgeon who performs major surgery without properly “working up” the patient first, we plunged into Iraq without proper research or planning. If the truth be told, there are probably a lot of mid- and low-level officers who managed to save many situations by smart and resourceful thinking under pressure. But the grinding injustice of it is that the blundering of our top leaders has been paid for by the blood of our fine troops. This is manifestly wrong.

    In the last several months the situation in Iraq seems to have improved. We have all prayed for this, and we pray it continues to improve. I am not sure why this has happened. The “surge” has probably helped. General Petraeus’ new policies including “reconciliation” and payoffs with various tribes, factions, and groups that we had considered enemies, has probably helped. He has managed to cobble together various alliances and truces that have held so far. Moqtada al Sadr’s faction and other Shiite militias seem to be holding their cards (and weapons) for the moment. Perhaps the Iraqi people are tired of war. How long this will last and how it will pan out is anyone’s guess, but I pray to God that it will continue to improve so we can begin to bring our troops home.

    I would like to insert a truth here that is vital if we are to act rightly in the world and avoid more mistakes like the invasion of Iraq. The fact is that the American public, and, more importantly, most military and civilian leaders do not understand Iraq or know what is going on “on the ground” there. Neither do we understand Afganistan, Iran, Pakistan, or other nations of the region. I spent 8 years in the Comoro Islands as a missionary. At the end of that eight years of living “on the ground,” with the people, I was only beginning to grasp the culture and worldview of the people and society I was working in. It takes a very long time. You have to live with the people, speak their language, listen to them, sweat with them, bleed with them, laugh and cry with them. Then if you are humble enough, if you pray enough, if you listen hard enough, if you bend your mind and heart enough, after a very long time, they will let you into their lives and you will begin to learn and understand. It is a transforming experience. Politicians who visit Iraq and spend a few days walking around with American troops and talking to officials learn very little by doing this. An American soldier who does not speak the local language, knows little of Islam, and has not studied the history and culture of the region and people groups; who lives in a compound; who walks the streets in body armor carrying a gun, who works through a translator, is not going to be admitted into Iraqi society and life and is not going to know “what is going on the ground” in the minds, hearts, families, clans, and inner circles of the people of that land. Likewise his commanders will not know either. But it is these very things that will determine what actually happens in Iraq. In the end, the fate of Iraq will be decided by the Iraqi people, not us. We are and will remain outsiders. Despite our hubristic belief in our own omni-intelligence and omnipotence, we are, in reality, the passive objects of forces and events beyond our control.

    Finally, I would like to quote from a speech given by Spencer Tracey near the end of the movie, Judgment at Nuremburg, when he, as the judge, renders the verdict on four German defendants. For those who have not seen this movie, I highly recommend it. Tracey is speaking as an American at a time when America and its allies, in the late 1940s, had just overcome Nazism and now were facing communist threats. I have edited it slightly to make it more understandable outside the context of the movie.

    “There are those in our own country today who speak of protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made in the life of every nation. At the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, when it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy – to rest survival on what is expedient – to look the other way. [But what sort of survival is this?] A country isn’t a rock. It’s the extension of oneself. It is what it stands for. It is what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

    I love my country, and it grieves me to see it commit actions in which it sacrifices what it stands for in the name of self-protection. When we pervert justice to defend it, then justice, for us, no longer exists. When we deceive ourselves and others in order to defend the “truth,” then truth, for us, no longer exists. We may survive, but we no longer stand for anything. We will be alive, but our life will be hollow.

    The tragedy of Iraq is all the worse because it is the United States that produced it – the nation which, I would have thought, stood for what is right, just and good – my country. If it had been some perverse dictator of some rogue nation who, on false pretenses, invaded a nation much weaker than itself and sought to impose massive social and political changes by force, it would have been what was expected. Perverse dictators do those kinds of things. But it was the United States of America, the country I love and honor, who did this. Many of our finest soldiers and many more Iraqis have paid with their blood. The wound is deep and very serious. It may never heal. But, as Glen has said, the only way to begin healing is confession and repentance. May God have mercy on us all.

  10. Dave Harvey June 2, 2008 at 7:29 am #

    “It is common knowledge around the world that the preemptive invasion of Iraq not only violated international law, but also the established “just war” criteria developed through the centuries within the Christian tradition itself.”

    As Austin Mansfield pointed out, the United States waited until “after the United Nations had already authorized military action against Iraq for Saddam’s continued violation of U. N. Security Council Resolutions 687, 1373, and 1441, before taking action.” In actuality, we had been waiting well over 14 months. The UN had imposed multiple sanctions upon Iraq, which Saddam flagrantly ignored. During Operations Vigilent Sentinel and Northern/Southern Watch, U.S. planes were routinely fired upon, yet rarely returned fire.

    “The original justification for the invasion was morally insufficient in the first place. When the perceived threat to America was later discovered to be an imaginary one, the invasion became indefensible.”

    Disagree. The majority of Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of invasion after 9/11, on the credible grounds that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and was intent on using them. I don’t think that a preemptive strike (also termed a “spoiling attack” in military parlance) is necessarily “morally insufficient.” If we had found stockpiles of chemical/nuclear weapons, Bush would have been pretty well vindicated by the same people/nations that are now taking him to task. The fact that WMDs have not been found doesn’t necessarily mean that the threat was an imaginary one, though that is one possibility. It also could mean that a) Saddam did not have WMDs, but acted as though he did, as a means of intimidation or b) that the WMDs were moved elsewhere – much as his fighter squadrons suddenly decided to visit Syria until Desert Storm was over.

    Also, comparing the current war to the Holocaust, apartheid, and the Rape of Nanking is unfair. No, you’re not “equating America with the enormity of Nazi guilt,” but you are calling all of them evils that need to be repented of. I’m sure you could’ve found historical examples that more closely matched America’s response to Iraq, but that wouldn’t have the hard-hitting punch of evoking images of jackbooted Nazis or South African shantytowns now, would it? For all it’s many faults, I don’t think you’ll find a much more benevolent country than ours. That’s not nationalism speaking, it’s pretty much a fact. We spend more *privately* on international aid than any other country spends *nationally.* We offer assistance to friend and foe alike – even countries like Burma and China. Are we perfect? By no means! But I daresay that the way we’ve conducted ourselves internationally over the years would put most other countries to shame. Does the U.S. look out for her own national interest? Certainly, but so does everyone else. This is where Christian influence should come to bear – as John Mustol points out, “American behavior has been characterized by self-interest and realpolitik.” We need to do what we can to encourage moral and ethical Christian leadership, but that is rarely consistently possible on an international level, where compromise is a real and often necessary part of the game. On a micro-level, think of police arresting a known drug dealer. Should he go to jail? Certainly. But what if he can provide information that will lead to the takedown of an entire drug cartel? Should he be able to plea bargain and get a reduced sentence or even immunity? If so, has justice been done? Now bring this up to international levels and the concessions that are necessary in order to deal with varied and corrupt governments, and you might get some slight indication of the diplomatic minefields that are often tread.

    John Mustol:
    “There was no good evidence that he was a threat to the U.S. There were many other ways to deal with him besides waging war. ”

    Again, there was sufficient evidence at the time to convince not only the President but a majority of Congress as well. Even if you don’t like Bush, consider that Colin Powell was convinced that Saddam had chemical stockpiles. The fact that the intelligence of the time hasn’t produced the intended results does not mean that it was not credible to begin with. As for “other ways” of dealing with Saddam, we’d been playing that card since 1991. Embargoes, sanctions, military enforcement of airspace/shipping lanes — nothing had worked. Don’t believe me? Read the evidence out there of Saddam’s actions between 1991-2002. I was there in the Persian Gulf when he kicked the UN inspectors out for the 2nd time in 1998, and remember the real-time military intel about what they had seen – we would’ve been justified to have gone in then, in my opinion.

    “Today we are in a terrible predicament in Iraq. We don’t know what we should do to pacify the country and move toward extracting ourselves from it.”

    Again, this is the opinion of someone who gets his information from some other source other than those who are actually working/fighting on the ground in Iraq. Casualties – for both Americans and Iraqis – are at the lowest levels ever. Progress is being made toward self-government and self-sufficiency. Petraeus, McMaster, and others have developed remarkably efficient Counter Insurgency (COIN) methods that have broken the backs of most organized Al-Qaeda in Iraq organizations. Stabilization/reconstruction is never easy – we were in Japan and Germany for years after WWII, and that was with their cooperation!

    “Moreover, the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States represents a stupendous example of modern hubris, of so-called “nation-building.” It manifests the modern humanistic belief that humans can make of the world whatever they want.”

    Yeah, and that hubris also re-built Germany & Japan into the modern powerhouses they are today, as well as playing a continuing part in the efforts to develop and support many African countries through small but well-organized military efforts. Also, I noticed you didn’t mention Afghanistan – is that also an example of our modern hubris, or did we get that one right?

  11. John Mustol May 27, 2008 at 1:48 am #

    My wife is reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and ran across a provocative comment about Alexander Kutuzof, the Russian Commanding General. The occasion is October, 1812. After the Battle of Borodino, Kutuzof had withdrawn the Russian army to the east leaving Moscow to the French, but stripping the city of supplies. The French had been in the city for five weeks, and Kutuzof began to hear rumors that they were going to retreat. Tolstoy comments.

    [Kutuzof], with his sixty years’ experience, knew how much dependence was to be put on hearsay, knew how prone men who wished anything were to group all the indications in such a way as to conform with their desire, and he knew how in such a case as this they are glad to overlook anything that may seem opposed to it. (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Alexandra Kropotkin, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, p. 600)

    This is chillingly reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq War. Men who wished to believe Iraq was up to no good and attack it “grouped all the indications in such a way as to conform to their desire,” and overlooked anything that opposed it. The wisdom of history from the pen of Tolstoy had been available for over 100 years. All they had to do was read it. Kutuzof was a wise leader in many ways. In the end his skill and cool head resulted in Napolean’s crushing defeat. If only our leaders of 2003 had read War and Peace, perhaps they would have behaved more calmly and wisely.

  12. John Mustol May 12, 2008 at 4:18 pm #

    The Christian virtue of humility has been brought forward as indeed it should. Certainly all of us should be humble about judging the behavior of others (Mt 7:1). But this does not exclude judging (Mt. 7:5; 1Cor. 6:2; etc.). An important role of the church as separate from the state is to be a critic of it. The church should be the moral conscience of the state (and the culture), calling it to account when it violates the ways of God and of his Christ. Jesus is Lord! The moral and spiritual atrocity of the Iraq War perpetrated by the American Government should have provoked an avalanche of criticism (and judgment) from all quarters of the American Christian Church. The fact that it has not is evidence of the pathetic moral and spiritual state of the American Church. In this vein, I encourage all to read the Barmen Declaration – available on many websites. For myself, I admit that I could be wrong. If I am, I ask that someone show me through Scripture and sound argument.

    Moreover, the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States represents a stupendous example of modern hubris, of so-called “nation-building.” It manifests the modern humanistic belief that humans can make of the world whatever they want. Such pretensions are debunked by the prophet Isaiah (40:6-26). This arrogant foolishness is not consistent with the humility engendered by a Christian worldview and is in violation of the ways of God and of his Christ.

  13. Thorsten Moritz May 8, 2008 at 3:23 am #

    I appreciate the diversity of opinions expressed here and wish to add just a few brief points: (1) There does not seem to be ANYTHING in the NT to suggest that we either have the right or the need to defend anything, including ourselves. As far as I can see, the evangelical tendency to claim the right to defend ourselves, our way of live, scripture itself etc. is not grounded in the Jesus covenant in any shape or form. (2) If anyone had any conceivable reason to wage a (so-called) just war against an evil empire it would have been Jesus (c.f. Rome!). But he declined in no uncertain terms and asked Israel instead to subversively love her enemy. I don’t think he was joking. (3) The peace that Jesus is calling for (and died for) far transcends the pietistic ‘Jesus in my heart’ notion. Does it include that? Sure. But it is also expressis verbis cosmo- and socio-political in scope, as he made clear in Nazareth and beyond. Ditto Paul, Peter and especially John in their letters, including Revelation. Perhaps our first question shouldn’t be ‘what would Jesus do?’ (i.e. as if he were not in our midst), but ‘what did he in fact do [and say] and how do we as God’s people measure up to that standard in terms of our priorities?

    Do we need humility? Yes. Would Jesus’ focus on enemy love in the face of an evil empire be a good starting point? Probably!

  14. Bill Steinwedell May 7, 2008 at 9:50 pm #

    I am always surprised when I hear judgments against this war as revealed here, by two men who in every intellectual (probably others as well) way my better. I have been on a Board of a medium sized company. ($2 Billion in revenue). The amount of reading, and preparation for meetings require time and effort in order to honor one’s fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders (unitholders)

    Seeing the results of many hours, sometimes hundreds and hundreds, and quickly judge them as being wrong is naïve and dangerous to the health of a company. Many times the information and entirety of context presented cannot adequately be described without going back in time and experiencing, debate, presentations, with homework completed. I have seen this be a problem in churches as well as a Christian School.

    Humbly, I suggest, there needs to be some humility in approaching this subject with such harshness against one’s country, and one’s executive government. You know, David, showed some of this with his relationship with Saul, God’s anointed, however bad a kind he was.

  15. John Mustol May 6, 2008 at 6:26 pm #

    I welcome the comments of Fr. Austin Mansfield, who obviously holds very strong views about this. His comments touch on many issues and bring up a multitude of questions. The history of American involvement in Iraq is complex, conflicted, and contradictory. Fr. Austin’s comments call for response, but they are so varied and diverse in nature, a specific response is difficult. If he wishes to discuss a specific issue, I would welcome it. Meanwhile, I will make just three comments.

    Fr. Austin is correct that Abu Nidal, a vicious Palestinian terrorist, probably was given sanctuary in Iraq by Saddam on more than one occasion. In 2002, he turned up dead in Bagdad. Although the circumstances of his death are not clear, there are reports that he was killed by Saddam’s hitmen or died in a gun battle with Saddam’s security forces. Nidal is believed to have been psychopathic, and, in the aftermath of 9/11 Saddam may have thought he was too dangerous to have around. Saddam’s official report was that he committed suicide, but this is almost certainly false. Nidal had received support from Kadaffi in Libya, from Syria, and possibly other governments. In addition, Saddam supported other regional terrorist groups who committed acts of terror primarily against Iran and Israel. Saddam, a secular and immanently self-interested ruler, had little taste for the religious extremism of jihadists who wanted to wage a cosmic war of “good versus evil” against Western “infidels.” He opposed the state of Israel, but only insofar as it served his interests. There is no credible evidence that he had any operational connections with Al Queda, and there is no firm evidence that he supported or was connected with the 9/11 attacks. This information was available prior to March, 2003.

    Besides Saddam, several governments in the region have actively supported terrorist groups and activities, passively given aide, or looked the other way when terrorists operated in their area. These include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afganistan, Yemen, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Libya, Tunisia, and probably others. In addition numerous private individuals, families, clans, tribal groups, associations, organizations, and corporations have had ties to terrorist groups and activities from time to time in various and complicated ways over the years. So we can see that singling out Saddam and Iraq as a target for war because of terrorist activities and support does not make sense.

    The United States’ involvement with Iraq has been complex and contradictory. We supported Iran as a balance against Iraq in the 1970s while Iran was under the Shah. (We knew that the Shah was not, by any measure, a benevolent ruler.) In 1979, with the takeover of Iran by a conservative Shia government and the taking of hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran, we turned against Iran. In the 1980s, we supported Saddam in his war against Iran (1980-88), providing intelligence, money, and weapons. During this period, while we were supporting him, Saddam is known to have used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and to have supported terrorist operations against Israel and Iran. Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurds in the north in 1988. In fact the Reagan Administration knew of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons and his terrorist activities (as well as his brutalizing and murder of his own people) yet we continued to support him as a counterbalance against Iran. All this changed in 1990 when Saddam occupied Kuwait. This led to the Gulf War of 1991. One can see that American behavior has been characterized by self-interest and real politik. We can hardly make the claim that we are “righteous and good” and that Saddam was “evil and bad.” Claiming that Saddam was an evil ruler and supporter of terror and that this justifies our invasion of Iraq to depose him does not wash in light of the above.

    Regarding the number of Iraqi civilian deaths that have occurred since the American invasion in 2003, Fr. Austin is correct that this number is not known with certainty. The latest study, The “Iraq Family Health Survey” study group estimated 151,000 violent deaths (95% confidence limits: 104,000 to 223,000), New England Journal of Medicine, 358, no. 5 (January 31, 2008): 484-93. Other data include the Burnham – Johns Hopkins study which estimated 601,027 dead (Lancet, 368 (2006): 1421-8), and the Iraq Body Count that estimates some 83,000-91,000 deaths to date. The Iraq Body Count records only deaths that are corroborated by two separate sources (media, hospitals, morgues, NGOs, military and government reports). Since 12/07, they are including “credible” single source reports. It is widely known that under local custom, bodies are taken home where they are quickly prepared and buried. So, while useful, the Iraq Body Count underestimates the actual number of deaths. It is incorrect, however, to claim that estimates of over 100,000 Iraqis killed is “long discredited.” This is clearly not the case. Whereas I recognize that due to violence, danger, rapid mass migrations of people, corruption, disorder, cultural concerns, and instability, obtaining accurate information of this kind is difficult, I think it is reasonable to infer from the above data that, as I stated, at least 100,000 Iraqis have died violent deaths since the invasion in 2003.

    Although I cannot speak for others, I can speak for myself. For the record, I am not a pacifist. I believe that there are times when force is necessary. The invasion of Iraq, however, was not one of them. It is heartbreaking to witness the needless misuse and waste of good soldiers due to the poor leadership of their commander-in-chief. The decision to use force ought to be undertaken with great care and humility. That did not happen in this case.

    The gospel of Christ says that while I was God’s enemy, I was reconciled to him through the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10). Rather than executing violent reprisals against me as would have been perfectly justified, God set me the example of the Cross, of sacrificial love and reconciliation. In addition he has conferred upon me and his church the “apostolic” ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). I am called not to return evil for evil but, as best I can, to be at peace with all people ( Rom. 12:17-18). This is a peace which is not simply internal, but external. It should be manifested outwardly in the way I live within the world and within the nation-state in which I find myself. Jesus is Lord. My first allegiance is to him and his kingdom.

  16. Austin Mansfield May 3, 2008 at 7:17 am #

    We are free in this country to believe that the war in Iraq is a sin, and even to tell others. However, in Iraq, we would not have enjoyed such freedom under Saddam. We would have been beaten, jailed, and probably tortured for the enjoyment of Saddam or his sons, Uday and Qusay, who had a particular delight in lowering people into large plastic shredders just to hear them scream.

    We are free to believe that this war is wrong. We have the comfort in the United States of organizing protests against the people upholding our freedom to do so while many in our nation support and apologize to the people whose overarching goal in life is to kill Americans merely because we are Americans.

    I believe that as Christians, however, we are not free to distort the Gospel of Jesus Christ by declaring that we are evil or sinning by having prevented Saddam Hussein from killing hundreds of thousands as he worked closer to obtaining nuclear capability. To sit back and watch would have been sinful.

    Every intelligence agency in the world, and even Saddam himself, believed he had weapons of mass destruction — especially since he had gassed his own people just a few years before. So the “Bush lied; people died” mantra, so often espoused alongside the long-discredited “over 100,000 Iraqis killed” is disingenuous at best.

    The enemy we face is evil and real. They target women and children deliberately. From Ma’alot in Israel to Beslan in Russia, Islamic terror tactics against innocent civilians are authorized because they believe no infidel is innocent. This does not mean all Muslims believe that, but all Muslim terrorists do. Translations of Arabic broadcasts of interview with radical imams are clear.

    If the other bloggers would speak with actually military veterans who have recently returned from Iraq, or to Iraqis themselves, rather than parroting the usual talking points or the mainstream media whose credo has always been “if it bleeds, it leads,” they would see a different perspective. One in which our nation is viewed by the people of Iraq as a liberator rescuing them from the oppression they endured, first under Saddam and then under Iranian and Syrian armed al-Qaeda. As for the idea that no terrorists were in Iraq before the invasion, Abu Nidal is just one of many who received sanctuary there under Saddam.

    As reported August 19, 2002, “Abu Nidal, 65, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna, had a reputation as one of the most ruthless Palestinian guerrilla commanders. As the head of head of the Fatah-The Revolutionary Council group, Nidal broke with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974, saying the organization and Yasser Arafat were too moderate. He tried — and failed twice — to have Arafat assassinated. Nidal did kill many of Arafat’s confidants and other moderate Palestinians.

    “Nidal and his group have been blamed for more than 90 terrorist attacks that killed more than 300 people and wounded 600 others. The attacks struck at Middle Eastern, European and U.S. targets.

    “Major attacks included the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985, the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, the Pan Am flight 73 hijacking in Karachi in September 1986, and the City of Poros day-excursion ship attack in Greece in July 1988.”

    For the record, is not an avid supporter of the current administration.

    The Iraqi people recently have begun trusting that we wiil not abandon them for political ease, and have started to turn the terrorists in to their own new Iraqi police forces. It takes a while for a nation to rebuild its infrastructure — post-World War II Germany and Japan took many years to rebuild.

    War is a last resort for us, and in war civilians are always injured or killed; but no nation in history has focused more efforts and expense on trying to prevent civilian casualties than the United States.

    The Bible describes a war in Heaven pitting good against evil, with Michael the Archangel assailing Satan and his demons. So clearly, not all war is evil. Joshua at Jericho, David against the Philistines, and Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus Epiphanes IV were not condemned by Christ, whom many people today have resurrected in their own image as a pacifist. The Just War Doctrine of St. Augustine is a powerful example of the necessity in this fallen world of standing up against evil, sometimes at great cost. Had Ricin, Anthrax, and nuclear proliferation been part of Augustine’s frame of reference, his parameters would likely have been expanded, while maintaining the overarching goal of limited force as a last resort.

    The peace that Jesus left to his apostles and to us is in our hearts, amid the strife and pain of this world. Physical, global peace will arrive with him upon his return — an apocalyptic description quite warfare-like when you think about it. The Prince of Peace will arrive in Glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He came first on a colt, but will return on a cloud with an army of angels. Pacifism is not the plan of the day.

    As Edmund Burke stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” For 14 months our nation waited, after the United Nations had already authorized military action against Iraq for Saddam’s continued violation of U. N. Security Council Resolutions 687, 1373, and 1441, before taking action. This is hardly the “rush to war” it is often portrayed as.

    While we think about whether to apologize for, or repent of, the actions of the very nation that provides us the freedom and safety to rally against it, consider the following benefits that the people of Iraq are now free to enjoy:

    Over 400,000 kids have up-to-date immunizations.
    School attendance is up 80% from levels before the war.
    Over 1,500 schools have been renovated and rid of the weapons stored there so education can occur.
    The port of Uhm Qasar was renovated so grain can be off-loaded from ships faster.
    100% of the hospitals are open and fully staffed, compared to 35% before the war.
    An interim constitution has been signed.
    Textbooks that don’t mention Saddam are in the schools for the first time in 30 years.

    Perhaps we might be better served to focus our efforts on productive apostolic action instead of apologetic hand-wringing. We could purchase some additional vaccines for some Iraqi children; or build a school; or send some missionary doctors and nurses to help. Any of these ideas would be more Christlike than the incessant disparaging of the most benevolent nation in the history of the world.

    As an American, I commend our leaders for making the tough decisions to do what’s right, knowing that the Monday-morning armchair quarterbacks stand ready to criticize every mistake.

    As a former serviceman, I salute those young men and women who are eagerly defending our freedom, while they endure the hostility and harping of cowards who claim to support the troops while protesting their every action.

    As a Christian, I pray that those who are doing everything in their power to destroy us do not gain strength of will from the actions of our own misguided activists.

    And as a priest, I ask that God will bless us with his wisdom and grace and open our eyes to the need to fight against evil in all its forms.

  17. John Mustol April 23, 2008 at 7:57 pm #

    The American decision to invade Iraq is one of the worst moral and practical failures in the history of American foreign policy. The ongoing conduct of the war has manifested arrogance, ignorance, and breathtaking stupidity on the part of our leaders. How many times in history have good troops been misused and squandered by foolish commanders? As happened in Vietnam, so in Iraq, we persist at an enterprise in which we have little idea of what we are doing or how to bring it to a close.

    Confession and repentance are indeed called for. Above all we need to ask for the forgiveness of the Iraqi people who, at our hands, have suffered the near complete destruction of their nation and its institutions; the deaths of over 100,000 of their people; the injury and maiming of unknown thousands more of their men, women, and children; the displacement of over two million of their people; the destruction of fragile desert ecosystems; and the humiliation and ignominy of our unwelcome presence on their soil.

    Our use of Iraq as a venue to carry on our war against Al Qaeda and other real or perceived enemies – the notion that it is better to fight the terrorists “over there” in Iraq rather than on our own soil – is manifestly immoral. It is based on racism and power politics. It is based on racism in that it assumes that Iraqi lives are worth less than American lives. It is based on power politics in that we just happen to be powerful enough to carry on a war eight thousand miles away in a foreign nation simply because we want to. Weaker nations would not be tempted by such proud foolishness.

    There were no significant international terrorist elements in Iraq prior to our invasion, and there was no good evidence of any operational connection between the Saddam Hussein regime and Al Qaeda or other Jihadist groups. Terrorists appeared in Iraq after our invasion of it. It was our presence there which not only drew terrorists to Iraq but gave birth to thousands more of them both in Iraq and around the world. Thus “terrorists” whom we wanted to kill presented themselves, but at the same time, we caused the Iraqi people untold suffering.

    Saddam Hussein was a bad ruler, but in 2003 there were (and still are) many bad rulers in many nations around the world. His brutality and tyranny were no justification for us to attack him anymore than any of the other tyrants around the world. There was no good evidence that he was a threat to the U.S. There were many other ways to deal with him besides waging war. Our invasion of Iraq to depose him was known at the time and is obviously known now to be a foolish enterprise in which the cure would be worse than the disease.

    We who follow the Lord Jesus Christ should call our nation and our leaders to account. Our nation has done great harm to Iraq. We need to apologize for it. We need to ask forgiveness of the Iraqi people. Today we are in a terrible predicament in Iraq. We don’t know what we should do to pacify the country and move toward extracting ourselves from it. As a follower of Jesus I argue that confession and repentance would be a start toward constructive healing of ourselves and of Iraq, and might lead to our being able to leave in peace someday. Let us confess, repent, and ask forgiveness of Iraq – and the world. We and everyone will be better off for it.