"Can an American want the United States to lose the war in Iraq and still be patriotic?"
This was a question posed to Prof. Lawrence Lessig
in a recent broadcast of Bill O'Reilly's cable show. Now, as Lessig correctly points out, this is a loaded question: "It not-so-subtly implies that those who oppose the war want the United States to lose and, even worse, want American soldiers to die." Even without the McCarthyite implications, the question is problematic: what would it mean, after all, to "lose" the war in Iraq? As far as I can tell, no one has ever figured out what would constitute victory in the war, so it seems that we can't even define "defeat" as simply the absence of victory.
Lessig, for his part, contended that "a patriotic citizen could in principle want the nation to lose a war if the war is unjust and if losing meant that fewer American soldiers would die for no good reason." I think that's a fair statement. It does, however, require some further elaboration. What exactly does it mean for a war to be "unjust?" And at what point can we say that soldiers are dying "for no good reason?"
As to the first point, libraries could be filled with the books written on the question of "just war" theory; I won't attempt to summarize all of the arguments, dating back to Thomas Aquinas and earlier, regarding the problem. We should, however, be able to agree that waging war in contravention to international agreements is, at least prima facie
, "unjust." If a nation has pledged itself to obey certain rules before initiating aggression, and if we hold that such promises are both legally and ethically binding, then its failure to abide by those rules is manifestly unjust -- and that is true even if the object of the aggression is, by all measures, an evil, cruel, intolerable regime.
Furthermore, a war that is unjust in its origins does not gain legitimacy by virtue of the passage of time or by the fact that, having once initiated the conflict unjustly, the aggressor comports itself honorably and in accordance with the laws and usages of war (that's the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello
). Nor is an unjust war made any better by the noble intentions or worthy goals of the initiator. In other words, a war that starts out unjust will remain unjust, and the initiator of such a war has only one obligation: to end it and to make the appropriate amends.
The question, then, is whether this
war is an unjust war. I've posted some of my thoughts on this subject elsewhere
. Just to summarize those remarks and to make my opinion clear, I think the US's attack on Iraq constituted an illicit war of aggression, contrary to the UN Charter and international law, and that the persons responsible for the decision to attack should be held legally accountable for their actions. The war in Iraq, in short, is an unjust war
Having resolved this question, it becomes rather simple to assess whether or not US troops are dying "for no good reason." It is, I would contend, never
a good reason to die in an unjust war. Indeed, the only honorable response for an individual to take would be to refuse to fight in such a conflict, just as an aggressor nation's only honorable response is to cease hostilities and attempt to rectify its wrongs. And that, in sum, is what I want the US to do.
To be sure, an immediate cessation of hostilities would require an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. That's true, and I want that as well. Of course, such a precipitous withdrawal would undoubtedly lead to chaos -- although it might be difficult to distinguish that chaos from the chaos that currently reigns in Iraq, but at least fewer Americans would be dying. It is, nevertheless, incumbent upon the US not only to cease its aggression but to make amends, i.e. to make it so that Iraq is in no worse position than it was before the war, and preferably to make it better. This is no place to lay out all the possible scenarios for this to happen; I believe, however, that it is at least conceivable both for the US to withdraw and
for it to take steps necessary to make Iraq a stable, peaceful state. And since it is possible, it must
be done: to do otherwise would be to act unjustly.
Now, for most people, such an immediate withdrawal would signal defeat for the US. As I mentioned before, I'm not quite sure what "defeat" means in this context, but if immediate withdrawal means we are defeated then so be it. Better that we admit defeat and recognize our obligations under international law than to prosecute an unjust, lawless conflict.
I'm sure that Bill O'Reilly and his kind would say that no patriotic American could hold such a position. Does that mean that I'm not a "patriot?" Well, I want the US to stand for legitimacy and order in the world. I want it to uphold its promises and fulfill its solemn obligations. I want it to cease acting in a way that threatens not only its own safety but the very fabric of international society. I want it to avoid acting in a way that threatens to destroy an international regime of laws that, up to now, has only benefitted it. Truly, if a patriot wants the best for his country, then there is no one more patriotic than me.
So, can an American want the United States to lose the war in Iraq and still be patriotic? Yes. And I am one of those Americans.
EDIT: corrected some spelling errors