When Morality Fails Us

Just how pervasively and insidiously the grinding and open-ended Iraq war has eroded our moral foundations became clear to me late last week when I came across an article titled "Plan B for Iraq: Winning Dirty."

It was written by Morton Kondracke, veteran executive editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, and a regular contributor and co-host on Fox News.

"The administration and its critics ought to be seriously thinking about a Plan B, the '80 percent solution' - also known as 'winning dirty," he wrote.

The 80 percent alternative involves accepting rule by Shiites and Kurds, allowing them to violently suppress Sunni resistance and making sure that Shiites friendly to the United States emerge victorious...

Winning will be dirty because it will allow the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military and some Shiite militias to decimate the Sunni insurgency. There likely will be ethnic cleansing (emphasis added), atrocities against civilians and massive refugee flows...

He ends his column by quoting an unnamed Congressman who supports this approach:

'The quicker we back the winning side, the quicker the war ends," his source says. "Winning dirty isn't attractive, but it sure beats losing."

Kondracke, a Washington journalism insider for decades, seemed to be suggesting that America can still win in Iraq - if only it would support ethnic cleansing by an American-friendly faction of Shiites against the Sunnis.

He might as well have written: "They may be indiscriminate mass murderers, but they are our mass murderers." But then, what would that make us?

After reading Kondracke's piece on www.realclearpolitics.com, I rubbed my eyes and waited for the fallout. Not a word.

Perhaps Kondracke, co-host of Fox News' the Beltway Boys, was speaking strictly for himself. Perhaps his wild "plan" didn't dignify a response? But what, I wondered, if this was but the first "trial balloon" of an emerging administration Plan B? Would anyone notice?

Because whatever its origins, Kondracke's bankrupt reasoning seems an inevitable outgrowth of four years of daily carnage in Iraq. The erosion of American law, of the Geneva Conventions, of military conduct and ultimately of our country's morality have been gradual but grinding. In 2004, for example, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison, captured in still photos by the interrogators themselves, shocked the American public. In comparison, disclosures nearly two years later of a Marine massacre of 24 men, women and children in the town of Haditha -- four were charged with unpremeditated murder -- caused barely a stir. Stories of other U.S. atrocities continue to trickle out, the result no doubt of a war being fought without clearly defined purpose, without true engagement by Americans at home, without clear end.

War, it's said, is Hell. If it must exist, it should be limited to times when one wrong is so far worse than others that someone must combat it. Adolph Hitler's Germany comes to mind, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as evil as he without doubt was.

But this is not a column about why we entered the wrong war. It's about why we keep fighting it and how, in doing so, we are draining our capacity to differentiate right from wrong. As awful as they have been, I can fathom the worst actions of our troops better than I can the cold-blooded calculations of some politicians and pundits stateside who seem bent on continuing the war at all costs.

American troops are fighting for their own lives and for each other - not for raw power or some vague strategic goal. They are the pawns let loose in madness, some perhaps turned mad by its grip. William Golding's Lord of the Flies comes to mind.
But what excuses have those arguing for ways to legitimize mass murder in the name of foreign policy? And what excuses have those who, by standing by, continue to let the bullies and morally bankrupt hold sway?

Neither political party is blameless here. Yes. This is George Bush's and Dick Cheney's war. Every serious Republican presidential candidate for 2008 continues to back it.

But even as congressional Democrats push to set limits on funding, they've been slow, the International Herald Tribune reports, to roll back the most heinous aspect of the Military Commissions Act. The law, passed a year ago, denies even the most basic right of law - habeas corpus, the right to challenge detention through the courts - to so-called enemy combatants held in Guantanamo and elsewhere. This creates a Catch 22 for a democracy - how can a country determine whether the bad guys are really bad (and the good guys really good), when those bad guys have no rights and no voice? How can a democracy lock people up, throw away the key and still call itself a democracy?

Then comes Kondracke's suggestion that we accept "ethnic cleansing" in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing, of course, is simply a euphemism for genocide. We ignored it in Rwanda. We've ignored it in Sudan. Are we now going to actively support it in Iraq?

Just what would we call ourselves then? Or have we, as a nation, reached the point where winning is all, where nothing else much matters?

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at EmersonCollege in Boston. He can be reached atjerry_lanson@emerson.edu.

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