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Open Letter: My Burden of Conscience

I have struggled to write anything of significance since This Is Counterterrorism, Senator was published at National Review Online. For days, I have thought that it was due to being tired. It was, however, the fact that parts of that article re-opened a personal wound, a burden of conscience that I have carried since 1991. I will always carry it, for the consequences of America's actions that year are irreversible. But the prospects of repeating those actions have blocked me from writing and thinking on anything else of significance until my mind had properly addressed what has weighed so heavily. Sitting in "quiet solitude," what spilled forth was not simply the expressions of the powerless, but rather a plea to those who hold the power to act.

Fittingly published at the same venue where I had unwittingly re-opened my own wounds, at National Review is an open letter to Senators Reid and Schumer (et al). In part:

...Yet your very public words convey to those Sunni Iraqis that they may have made the same monumental and lethal mistake the Shi'a in Southern Iraq made in 1991. Recall - as they do - that it was American political leadership that betrayed their trust once their American-encouraged revolt against a murderous tyrant was irrevocably under way.

On what principles of conscience are we to base a repeat of such national behavior?

Just seven short months ago, an Assyrian priest, Father Paulos Iskander, was kidnapped and beheaded. A 14-year old child and parishioner was crucified. Their crime? Christianity. What unspeakable horrors then await the families of those who are now openly betraying al-Qaeda in Iraq if we abandon them now?

One is left - outside the Beltway - with the firm and undeniable sense that the burden of conscience would be borne far more greatly in the hearts and minds of men like me, with little power beyond the conviction of principle, than upon the hearts and minds of those in Washington attempting to abandon the Iraqi people while astoundingly calling it "counterterrorism." ...

We dare not avert our eyes once again.

In writing that letter, the personal burden is not lighter. Nor is it in recess. But it has returned to a form that is productive going forward, not debilitating.

What happened in 1991 cannot be changed, nor the lives brought back or the families restored. The burden itself, after all, is caused by the violation of core principles.

Acknowledging these facts, carrying that burden is, in a difficult way to explain, comforting.

For which is truly the greater burden, the absence of a sense of collective guilt or the absence of the principles which inspire it?

5 Comments

Steve, unless you were part of that crowd that clamored for the first Iraq invasion to be strictly limited, as the UN and the liberals did, then you have no collective guilt to bear. If you did your best, and most of us have only the limited powers of public argument and voting, then there is no guilt. If the super-surrenders accomplish the same feat again, the visibility of the blogosphere will hold their feet to the fire. I will also do my best. But I will not shoulder guilt just because I am an American, in an America where a party of treasonous weasels have temporarily seized power.
Not only is the guilt wrong, it is useless. Remember that the meme of guilt is the left's weapon of choice for affecting their control - be it social justice, or global warming (sic).

Steve: The "guilt" is more inward than real, I suspect (but I am not to judge your feelings). Unless you were a National Leader who decided to not finish the job back then, but was in the combat as you were, then the guilt for a job unfinished is not yours.

Would Saddam have fallen then, who knows what the actual outcome on world affairs. I suspect that World events might be quite similar. I think that al Qaeda would still be our enemy of today.

The question, as has been ably discussed on Threats Watch since I became aware of it, is how do we now prosecute a war to an "acceptable" end game when the Iraqi parliament has stated plans to take a two month vacation with all of their unresolved business, while our troops continue to fight and bleed and die. Or further, when it seems that the definition of the end game remains elusive.

Oddly, I now fear less the lack of resolve of the U.S., than the apparent complacency of the Iraqi "politicians." We cannot predict the outcome. In Iraq, we may not like what we see in the end, even if resolve were not in question.

Thanks for your moving letter, Steve. You're a principled man, which is why, even though we disagree on certain issues, you have earned my respect. Guilt, like many emotions, can be a double-edged sword. Because your heart is in the right place, you have found a way to channel it in constructive ways. That's a rare thing and I commend you for it.

Regarding the eventual outcome in Iraq, the true responsibility lies not with you or I, but with those in power, both in the U.S. and Iraq. The burden of guilt for each of us is lifted when, in our hearts, we know that we're individually doing all that we can, even if we disagree about what, precisely, is to be done.

"Men do not ride events events ride men." Only within the very restricted space of personal action do we bear moral responsibility. It's best to view collective behavior - that of species, populations, nations, organizations - as natural phenomena. Thus, it's a natural phenomenon laid down by America's geographic position that our people will not brook extended Old World military interventions, costly in U.S. lives, unless the American people's vital interests are threatened. Eisenhower knew this in 1956 when he abandoned the Hungarian revolutionaries whose uprising the U.S. had earlier fomented. Indeed, his decision was "moral" insofar as he decided not plunge the world into a WWIII.
As concerns Saddam/Shia,the Lebanese writer Fouad Ajami analogized to Renaissance Florence wherein the religious reformer Savanarola sought to expunge all sins by making a "bonfire of the vanities." The Merchant Princes allowed this for a moment but as the Khomeini of his time's madness spread out of control, they hired a "condottiere," or mercenary captain, to get rid of the "turbulent priest." The idea was that having done the job and being well recompensed, the condottiere chieftain would go to a comfortable retirement. Unfortunately this "Saddam" was not so obliging. The Merchant Princes had long to deal with him as a mortal threat.
With this analogical tale, Ajami was showing us that the events of our time also follow long established patterns. As such "tides" that follow natural laws we as individual persons are unlikely to deflect the tides much. Self-blame may be naive in that it overestimates our powers.

"...part of that crowd that clamored for the first Iraq invasion to be strictly limited, as the UN and the liberals did..."

I know that it's become part of the popular mythology on the right to say that "of course" we should have taken all of Iraq in 1991 and that there would not have been any negative repurcussions.

But let's take a deep breath here and revisit what actually happened.

The only way Bush 41 got all those American troops into Saudi Arabia is that he promised the Saudis (and everyone else in the region) that our objective would be limited to retaking Kuwait.

So

Had Bush said from the start that he was going to take all of Iraq the Saudis would have never agreed to take our troops, and the other nations in the area and in Europe would have never gone along with us either

Or Bush 41 could have initially said he was only going to retake Kuwait but then in the midst of Desert Storm said "gee I've changed my mind". Had he done this the coalition would have broken apart overnight and the situation could well have gotten completely out of control.

Bottom line is that it's easy to talk now about how "of course" we should have taken all of Iraq in 1991, but if you're going to do so you need to address the political realities of the day.

So Steve, your conscience should be clear. I don't see that we had a lot of choice back then given the political realities.