A centuries old text may not seem like the best tool for present-day political analysis. But when I cracked the covers of The Law of War and Peace, by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Hugo Grotius, originally published in 1625, his words seemed hyper-modern and specially constructed to address the situation that exists right now in Iraq.
Unlike most of today’s public figures, Grotius did not glorify military matters. He understood that there was little noble about armed conflict. “War,” he wrote with characteristic candor, “is not one of the honest crafts. Rather it is a thing so horrible that nothing but absolute necessity or true affection can make it honorable.”
In his tome, Grotius tackled a thorny ethical issue that dogs us in Iraq: can a war be considered just? If there’s to be an answer, Grotius argued, the reasons for the war had to be fully aired. This is because the consequences of pitched battle “are so grave as to require more than plausible reasons for war. The reasons should be evident to everybody.” This ancient analyst said it simply wasn’t right for a nation to go to war without persuasive evidence of an enemy’s wrongdoing: “A man who knows his cause is just but who has not documents sufficient to convince the possessor of the injustice of his position may not on that account legitimately go to war.”
The bogus claim about yellow cake from Niger? The spurious story that Saddam Hussein had a chemical arsenal that could be deployed in 45 minutes? The non-existent connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein? There seems little doubt: to Grotius, these busted justifications would make this war illegitimate.
The Law of War and Peace also offers some clear-headed ideas about occupation. Here, Grotius quotes the great Latin orator Cicero: “If, under the pressure of circumstances, individuals promise something, even to an enemy, their promise should be kept exactly.”
The U.S. has promised lots of things. We promised Iraqis a better life, with stability, services, security, civil rights and democracy. Even the Bush Administration has acknowledged that we haven’t yet succeeded in keeping those promises. We promised the world that we would respect human rights. Yet we have suspended habeas corpus (the right of a prisoner to confront the charges against him or her, which has been on the books in English-speaking lands since at least 1305), we have maligned the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture of prisoners, as quaint and outmoded, and we have put forth the notion that our government can spy on citizens without a warrant. We promised that we would tell the truth even if it wasn’t pretty. Yet our leaders continued to declare that we do not torture even as the photos from Abu Ghraib and descriptions of conditions in the prion at Guantanamo were beamed across the planet. We promised that we understood the responsibility of taking over another country. Yet, to this day, no major commander or administration official has accepted responsibility for our shortcomings in Iraq.
Small wonder, then, that we are increasingly viewed as occupiers rather than liberators—even by people who suffered under Saddam’s brutal regime. And small wonder that the insurgency seems to be able to operate with impunity, no matter how many thousands we throw in jail. As it says in the Bible (Proverbs 18:19), “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.”
March 19th will be the third anniversary of the day we began the bombing of Baghdad. We tore through the country. By April 9, 2003, American Marines were helping Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. And on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush rushed onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the end of major combat operations. In the three years of this war, more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 16,000 have been injured. More than 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the conflict began.
Grotius had strong words to characterize a leader who wades into war without sufficient justification, words that apply to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and all the others who brought us to this point: “A king who goes to war for light causes, or in order to exact unnecessary penalties involving serious risks, is responsible to his subjects for repairing the damage resulting therefrom. For he committed a true crime, if not against his enemy, yet against his own people, by dragging them on slight excuse into so dire a calamity.”