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Chicago Sun Times

War Blurs Lines Between Good, Evil

They have rededicated the Lady Church (Frauenkirche) in Dresden. This baroque gem from the 1700s was destroyed -- along with much of the city and 130,000 lives -- by Royal Air Force bombers in February 1945, two months before the end of the war. This rededication comes as Germans ask whether they do not have the right to mourn their losses during the war -- 600,000 civilians killed by the planes of Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, also called "Butcher" by his RAF colleagues.

I fail to see how anyone can deny them that right, especially since research after the war demonstrated that the mass firebombing of German cities had no impact on the final outcome. The Germans started the war, it has been argued, and therefore they were to blame for what happened to them. The children who were killed in Dresden or in the fire storms in Hamburg were guilty? Or in the American fire raids in Japan?

I'm sorry, I can't buy that kind of moral reasoning. Collective guilt is a murky and messy concept, satisfying as rhetoric but dangerous in practice. The same logic would argue that, because Israel took land from Palestinians, suicide bombers are morally justified in indiscriminate murder of Israeli citizens.

The raid on Dresden was unconscionable. There were no military targets there worth the destruction of the city. Winston Churchill is alleged to have approved the raid because of pressure from Stalin. He certainly approved of Bomber Harris' systematic obliteration of German cities. Both of them should have been subject to war crime trials at the end of the war, just as were the German leaders. That the latter were far more evil in their deeds does not excuse the former. However, only the victors try the criminals, and they leave to history any judgments about themselves.

The lesson of raids on places such as Lubeck and Dresden is that even in just wars, the side that has justice on its side is likely to do many evil things. War sucks everyone and everything into its vortex of wickedness. The wars against Japan and Germany were obviously necessary wars and yet the victors (including the United States) emerged with bloody hands.

Moreover, wars are almost always longer than those who start them think they will be. In 1914, the German general staff predicted victory in 90 days after mobilization. The Confederacy thought that a few military victories would cause the Union to give up the fight. The British thought they could restore order in the rebellious colonies in a couple of months. Napoleon and Hitler both were confident they could knock over Russia in a single campaign. President Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished" after a few weeks. Now the majority of Americans believe that he does not tell them the truth.


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When good does evil to fight evil, it becomes -- in T.S. Eliot's words -- indistinguishable from the evil it is fighting. War blurs the lines between good and evil so they are hard to recognize and traps those who launch them in Big Muddies of self-destruction.

Yet humankind still enters wars with bursts of patriotism, self-confidence and desire for vengeance that blind populations to the risks they are taking and cause leaders to indulge in deception and -- perhaps worse -- self-deception about the terrible risks they are taking.

How could the leadership of this country not realize that an ineffectual war in Iraq would, instead of advancing the "war against terror," actually generate new generations of suicide bombers eager for, as the film title says, ''paradise now''?

How could so many members of Congress and American voters be so influenced by the pseudo-patriotism stirred up in the wake of the World Trade Center attack that they would eagerly and enthusiastically rush into another Big Muddy? Even though "regime change" in Iraq might itself have been a good cause, why were there so many who did not realize the lesson of history that the war would be long and costly and ultimately pointless? And worse still lead the country down the path to torture and murder, which go against all the nation's ideals?

Why were there so few who said, "Hey, wait a minute! What are the risks? How long will it last?"

Andrew Greeley

Andrew W. Greeley is a progressive Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist. He is of Irish decent and resides in Chicago.

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