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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Any discussion of Stanley Hauerwas and his theology cannot avoid one salient fact: that he is not, by his own admission, a sys

Stanley Hauerwas and the Iraq War: Did he tell us so?


By The Rev. Richard Wrede


While I plowed through the Hauerwas Reader, I was struck by passages and phrases in some of the essays that seemed to predict the mind-set and actions of the government, the electorate and, to some extent, the church in the Iraq War.  I found this remarkable given that many of Hauerwas’ essays are 20 or more years old, and that during his lectures, he did not present a great deal of new material.  Perhaps this is due on one hand to his general pacifism and cynicism towards nation-states and the other through his observation of American society during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.  But I still found it uncanny, and embarked on a search to see if that were indeed the case.  The page numbers for all the quotes are from The Hauerwas reader.


First, some background, as I have understood it.  A number of premises were given by members of the Bush administration for their decision to go to war in Iraq.  They included the belief that that nation harbored weapons of mass destruction (WMD): nuclear, biological, and chemical.  Proof of this was given through satellite surveillance photos, Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to allow United Nations inspectors unqualified access to all possible facilities, the dictator’s use of chemical weapons upon the Kurds in the north of the country, and Saddam’s own unwillingness to admit or deny their existence.  Other reasons included: to rid the world of a ruthless dictator, to eliminate him as a force in the Middle East, to protect his neighbors from his expansionist designs (given the invasion of Kuwait) -- or in other words, to complete the work begun during the Gulf War.  Unspoken rationale included the desire for revenge by the President for the assassination attempt on his father, George H.W. Bush, and (as Hauerwas pointed out forcefully in his lectures) oil.  There was also the implication that Saddam was somehow involved with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and linked in some fashion with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  To make the war more palatable to the public, the administration promised that American soldiers would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi people, a situation that would make the invasion successful and the occupation short.  And, as in the Gulf War, the U.S. would be accompanied by allies who would bear a significant brunt of what fighting there was.


Virtually none of these assertions proved to be accurate.  There were no WMDs found after exhaustive searching.  The elimination of the dictator as a threat was, by virtue of the economic and military condition of Iraq, shown specious, as the no-fly zones and economic boycott had rendered Saddam incapable of attacking his neighbors.  Ironically, the lawlessness and instability of the interim government could prove to be at least as potent a threat to the security of the region as Saddam.  The hope for immediate increase in world oil supplies was dashed by sabotage and made ridiculous by the major increase of gasoline prices.  While there was some initial Iraqi enthusiasm for the invaders, the insurgency has made the occupation miserable, and has helped to cause attrition among the few allies who came into Iraq with the US.  And even Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have admitted publicly Saddam Hussein was not in any way directly involved in the attacks of 9/11, although still speaking of ‘connections’.  Thus, at the end of the day, and given my own biases, the only thing that seems to have been accomplished is the President’s interest in revenge upon his father’s old enemy.  However, another goal was achieved: that of his re-election, accomplished in part by Americans’ reluctance to change leaders during wartime, in spite of misgivings about its purpose and conduct.  And the increased rhetoric that flies under the banner of ‘freedom is on the march’, that of an increase of democracy, freedom and justice created by the actions in Iraq has been employed to augment the fig leaf remaining from the initial rationale for war.


Self-defense, both from terrorists and WMDs was the leading reason for the invasion.  That self-defense should be used as a reason for war is not surprising.  As Hauerwas points out,


while we all want to minimize war in general, we will not relinquish the possibility of war for our national communities.  We do so not simply because we believe we live in a sinful world, but because we believe that our nations are the bearer of commitments and goods that justice compels us to defend even if such defense requires war (p. 418).


In the general course of things, when threatened, nations and individuals alike are more likely to turn to retaliation than to turn the other cheek.   The argument states that since United States was attacked it has the right to defend itself.  Yet given the nature of the attackers, unlike Pearl Harbor, the U.S. did not have an immediately obvious target.  The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as harborers of al-Qaeda became a logical focus given this understanding, and the American attack upon them was understood and to some extent sanctioned by world opinion.  This appeal to self-defense was extended to Iraq by offering evidence of WMDs in that nation.  That proof was not accepted with the same level of credulity, and rightly so.


                  Given the failure to prove the existence of WMDs, other rationales were necessary.  This included the concern for Saddam Hussein’s victims and potential victims.  Further damage to his nation would be prevented by dethroning him and bringing him to justice on one hand, and bringing democratic institutions and values to Iraq on the other.  As Hauerwas states in ‘The Servant Community’,


When freedom and equality are made ideal abstractions, they become the justification for violence, since if these values are absent or insufficiently institutionalized some conclude that they must be forced into existence…The state uses violence to restrain those who have no respect for the lives and rights of other people in that society. Thus it seems the state can claim to use violence as the necessary means to preserve freedom and justice.  And by further inference of this reasoning, when freedom and justice are missing, the Christian can resort to violence so that they may be achieved  (p. 390).


I find this prescient to the point of being chilling, but in race for colonies in the 18th and 19th century there violence was accepted as part of bringing European civilization to peoples benighted by ignorance.  The white man’s burden in this context was a far greater burden to its victims.  The Christian church by and large applauded this approach, and used similar techniques in their missionary endeavors.


                  The American people were told that the invasion and occupation would not prove difficult.  Our troops would be welcomed as liberators.  Given that assertion, many people were willing to agree to enter into this conflict.  The legitimatization of force for these purposes, Hauerwas posits “often comes from the attempt to have justice without risking the self, as when we ask the ‘state’ or the ‘revolution’ to see that justice is done, but in a manner that does not significantly affect our own material position”.  Given the volunteer nature of our armed forces, the large percentage of minority soldiers, the taking of the battle to a land far away and the promise of some payback in increased and discounted oil prices placed the burden squarely on the backs of the other.  This became particularly obvious to me when I discovered that only three or four members of Congress had children in the service (as compared to over 200 during World War II, along with three sons of F.D. Roosevelt).  Later, when facing criticism on this front, the President commented, “I never said it would be easy”. 


                  Given the facts, the failures and at least the appearance of deception on the part of our leaders, why has there not been a greater outcry among the American people?  First is that truth is actually not a part of the equation.  “The problem with politics, at least as politics is currently understood, is not that it involves compromises but that it so little believes in truth.  As a result, it becomes but a form of coercion without due acknowledgment that it is so” (p. 326).  Given that President Bush and his premier advisor Karl Rove have been lionized as being expert politicians certainly gives both truth to this statement and explanation for the situation.  Second, there is the sense of conformity that our democracy enforces.  The problem is that the guiding principle in the United States is to sublimate difference so that we won’t have to face up to [domestic] conflict.  As a result, society imposes on people a kind of peace that is really violent order” (p. 527).  Merely the thought of disagreeing with the war in any blue-collar bar is enough to calculate that silence in many contexts is a primary means of self-preservation.   Even the uncanny similarities with Vietnam and the appeal to history that could help to deal with the upfront dishonesty and the continuing quagmire is explained by Hauerwas.  For “that we no longer consider remembering as an ethical or political task manifests our questionable assumption that ethics primarily concerns decisions whereas politics brokers power” (p. 634).   As for the church, as the Roman Catholic bishops pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace states


[War] could also be used, in some cases at least to restrain evil and protect the innocent.  The classic case which illustrated [St. Augustine’s] view was the use of lethal force to prevent aggression against innocent victims…[Thus] the presumption that we do no harm, even to our enemy, yielded to the command of love understood as the need to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent.  This Augstinian insight is [the] central premise [of the just war argument]. (p. 411).


Certainly the administration made its case, at least in the earlier days of the debate, as abiding with this principle, even though it didn’t convince Pope John Paul II.


                  That Hauerwas’ vast knowledge of theology, ethics and human history can be seen as prophecy is, I suspect, of cold comfort to him.  And I feel disheartened that our nation could enter into such a situation with precious little evidence, that it is unlikely we will see the end of conflict soon, and that there are few glimmers that the American public realizes that it has been lied to and manipulated in a systematic and predictable way.   But at least I feel that I have answered to my satisfaction the first question Hauerwas appropriates from H. Richard Niebuhr, “What is going on?   Now I can begin to ask whether being “Resident Aliens” is the answer to  ‘What can we do?



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