Volume 3, Number 64
13 February 2003

Why Should we not Fight in Iraq?

Dear Friends,

Two readers have pointed out to me that, on good authority, President Bush was not telling the truth when he said that Saddam Hussein had gassed his own people. Here is a link to those comments, which are in the Readers' Comment section of TQE #63.

So what? Are there not enough atrocities that he has committed, such as executing his political opponents? Of course there are, but these happen in many countries against which we do not go to war. Answer me this, however: Is the fact that other governments commit the same atrocities as Saddam Hussein the reason Quakers do not want to go to war against Saddam (some of us, anyway)?

Or, do we depend on the proposition that it has not yet been proved that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction?

Are these our reasons?

Not for me they aren't. The Quaker reason should be that war is wrong; it is not a way by which we should resolve conflicts, no matter how severe they are.

During World War II, I felt that my pacifism had to depend on something else than excusing Hitler for his atrocities. I worked out the theory that if the French had refused to have anything to do with the occupying Germans — not serve them in restaurants nor sell them local food, not operate trains that transported them, not put gasoline in their vehicles, not serve as their secretaries, absolutely nothing — that the Germans could not have occupied France. The French would have had to be willing to sacrifice their lives, but of course their lives had been sacrificed in war, too.

But that is not enough for today's war, with its weapons of mass destruction. If United Nations inspectors can move around freely in Iraq, would they not be able to tell when these weapons are about to be used, even if they cannot find them now?

Even that is not enough. What would we do if we did discover that Saddam was about to fire weapons of mass destruction? Would we then go to war to stop him?

Hamas has so far eschewed terrorism within the United States. But now it has threatened that if the United States goes to war with Iraq, it will initiate terrorist operations within our borders. A cold, rational analysis would require that if we wish to avoid terrorism at home, a war with Iraq is not the way to go. Is this the reason we Quakers do not want war?

It is well to ponder these questions, but the ultimate one is that we cannot tell which of almost infinite configurations may occur. We must simply know that war is wrong and we must not engage in it, no matter what the consequences are to us. We must try every diplomatic opening, every bit of statesmanship, talk, talk, talk, hold Saddam and the Iraqis in the Light, examine every possibility as the way opens. We must live our faith. Finally, we must believe, and we must pray.

Yet none of this will assure us, 100%, that we will not be destroyed. But I believe the probability of safe haven, and of creating a peaceful, understanding world, is far greater if we live the Quaker way than if we make war on Saddam or Iraq. Do you?

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

PS: Enough of this preaching. I am an economist, not a preacher. I hope to get back to my field with the next Letter.

Readers' Comments

Along with Jack's list of questions regarding how one really makes peace, this basic issue of communicating and working with the average American's mentality and outlook seems lost in the typical Quaker peace-making discussions I hear. Taking what is seen by many as a morally superior attitude — and frankly very vague idea of non-violence under all circumstances — alienates Quakers from mainstream society rather than positioning Friends as leaders in moving our society toward a more rationale and peaceful world.

— John Whiteman, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

I liked this one because it does seem here in DC that many were convinced, or at least laid down their doubts, after Powell's speech at the UN, so your continuing to preach peace reinforces my position. If a person thinks war is wrong, then it is still wrong. I think we pacifists are ahead/behind/out of time in terms of practical solutions. But what else to do if we want a different time to come?

— Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting.

You are quite right in questioning whether we Friends oppose war with Iraq on some "practical" basis, such as that it would increase terrorism here at home, or because other governments also commit crimes against their own people and others. In my opinion, the basis for our Peace Testimony comes from what the early Friends said: war is against the spirit of Christ. To me that means it is intrinsically wrong because it deliberately harms people for some alleged good purpose. I can't imagine Jesus advising us to kill people for the sake of something. His message has as its bottom line that we should treat everyone as a unique, valuable person, not as some dispensable means to an end. There are enormous practical consequences to this, but they shouldn't define the bedrock principle of our Peace Testimony.

— Arthur Rifkin, Manhasset (NY) Meeting.

This ex-Marine's response to the problem of doubt raised by W. Hibbs, (old) Marine, to "empty the magazine" was to lay the magazine down. To answer doubt with such finality is abhorrent.

— Barry Laing, South Mountain Meeting, North Pacific Yearly Meeting.

I copied out a number of the responses to your letter on questions about Quakers and war — also worthy of study! I do political cartoons. A chuckle I woke up with this morning: "If ridicule could kill, I wouldn't be a Quaker." I'm still pondering the not-so-nice implications of this one!

— Trudy Reagan, Palo Alto (CA) Meeting.

For me the question of use of force revolves around whether one is using force or violence. I define violence as force without Love. Even we imperfect humans can use force to good effect, but Love will demand we stay with the project, even at serious cost to ourselves. The proponents of invading Iraq would have us believe part of the purpose is the liberation of the Iraqi people. I feel sure that if I lived in that country I would not welcome having my cities bombed, whatever the alleged purpose.

— Allen Treadway, Decatur (IL) Friends Meeting.

I think that in general Quakers have a much clearer idea of what the government should NOT do than what the government SHOULD do — protest is more natural to us than exercising power. We are pretty good at serving as prophets and social critics, and we get into trouble whenever we fool ourselves into thinking we're in the driver's seat.

What is the relationship of Quakers (or Christians in general, or people of any other faith) to the state? Many of your questions ask what we "should" do, and seem to assume that there is a definite, clear and prescriptive connection between our religious experience and the actions of government.

— Joshua Brown, Pastor, West Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.

I have enjoyed what I have read so far on your website. Good luck to you in this endeavor. I'll pass it on.

— Diane Bernardi, Irvington Friends Meeting, Indianapolis.

Only an economist could suggest the passive resistance strategy that you recommend to the French (from the safe distance of the future). Many primates, especially people, seem hard-wired to work in groups. That tendency manifests itself in cultures, organizations, and formal and informal power structures.

I say only an economist, because many economists (I don't know whether you are one of them) discount the emotional attractions and repulsions that form the bases of these social structures. These forces are as strong or stronger than price signals in forming our behavior. We depend on the resulting organizations for our lives and livelihoods. The more violent and oppressive the government, the more likely that any resistance will be viewed, and will eventually have to become, a counter-government. If the counter-government cannot guarantee property rights and enforcement of contracts, it will have a hard time getting far.

— Baird Brown, Philadelphia (PA).

Reply: I prepared this strategy during World War II, not from the distance of the future. I did not expect any nation to accept it, nor any other pacifist alternative. For my own conscience's sake, however, I could not justify my stand as a conscientious objector unless there existed some alternative to war, whether anyone else would accept it or not. — Jack


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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