WHY DOES the apparent suicide of David Kelly strike such a chord? The British weapons expert found himself in the middle of the controversy over the Bush-Blair hyping of the Saddam Hussein threat. Unsourced BBC reports, an aggressive parliamentary interrogation, the stresses of weapons inspection, a government's credibility in jeopardy, a rat's nest of deceptions - all of this together could weigh too much on one man.
Though the private demons of any suicide remain mysterious forever, it seems that being snagged into this dispute sparked an anguish in Dr. Kelly that he could not bear. ''He told his wife he was taking a walk,'' an AP report said. ''A local farmer said Kelly smiled as he passed.'' Some hours later, early Friday, he was found near a woods, his left wrist slashed.
Kelly gives a name and a face to the fact that the dispute over intelligence manipulated to justify a ''preventive war'' is a matter of life and death. This is not a mere question of politics anymore, another argument between liberals and conservatives. When told of Kelly's death, Prime Minister Tony Blair called it ''an absolutely terrible tragedy.'' But the burden that broke this man was, at bottom, weight of the absolutely terrible question, Was the British-American war against Iraq necessary?
Every person killed in that war - certainly including the young American soldiers still dying by the day - represents ''an absolutely terrible tragedy.'' On the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, a daily honor roll is kept, with photographs of dead Americans shown in silence. It has become a poignant and depressing ritual, but in that silence, one also asks: And what of the Iraqi dead?
The coalition air war commander, Lieutenant General T. Michael Moseley, revealed this weekend that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had to personally sign off on any airstrike ''thought likely to result in deaths of more than 30 civilians,'' as The New York Times reported. ''More than 50 such strikes were proposed, and all of them were approved.'' Moseley also revealed that the much celebrated stealth attack on Hussein's bunker early in the war was a double miss. Not only was there no Hussein; there was no bunker. Sorry about that.
One sees the traditional just war ethic at work: A necessary war can involve the ''collateral damage'' of civilian deaths - tragic, but acceptable. But was the war necessary? That question defines the stakes in the dispute over the ways George Bush and Tony Blair misrepresented the prospect of Saddam Hussein with nuclear, biological, and chemical arms. When allied warplanes knowingly and repeatedly attacked targets that would kill significant numbers of civilians, only the urgent effort to prevent Hussein's mass-destructive and imminent aggression could have justified such carnage. But now the proffered rationale of necessity is being shown to have been false. The ''preventive war,'' as it turns out, prevented nothing.
At a press conference in Japan the day after David Kelly's body was found, Tony Blair was asked, ''Have you got blood on your hands, prime minister?'' Alas, there is an ocean of blood on the hands of Tony Blair and George Bush. Whether shown to be ''lying'' or not, they shunted aside the ambiguities and uncertainties that characterized the prewar intelligence assessments of Hussein's threat. And though, as I argued last week, there is a long tradition of leaders manipulating intelligence estimates for their own preset purposes, the act of war is in a special category. When disputed intelligence is the basis of war, then the leader's reading of that intelligence had better be proven true. Otherwise the just war argument from necessity fails.
No wonder the dispute won't die. The questions matter too much. No wonder polls are shifting away from Bush. Citizens of the United States do not like to think of themselves as wanton killers. No wonder American soldiers in Iraq are openly expressing doubts. A democracy's first requirement of military discipline is the army's belief in the moral necessity of its mission. No wonder, even, pressures of the dispute may have driven one man to kill himself. The issue is mortal: Was George Bush's new style ''preventive'' war just another war of aggression, after all?
Tony Blair was asked if he would resign, and at least one prominent Democrat hurled the word impeachment at the president. But the political consequences of this controversy begin to take second place to the moral, and even legal. The traditional ethic declares that a war of aggression is inherently unjust and that every civilian death caused by such a war is murder. More than 50 air raids, each with more than 30 Iraqi civilian fatalities, each expressly approved by Rumsfeld. Absolutely terrible tragedies, every one. And also - more evident by the day - every one a war crime.
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