Columnists > Voices

Compassionate war?

Possible, if we say "Oh my God" and remember who He is

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

Here's more about Daniel Pepper (see "Dividing, then uniting," April 12), who admitted that he "was a naïve fool to be a human shield for Saddam." In a column, Mr. Pepper described how he had followed the pacifist playbook by saying to one Iraqi, "Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good." He writes that the Iraqi responded with "an expression of incredulity ... and started to speak in broken English about the evils of Saddam's regime ... how all of Iraq's oil money went into Saddam's pocket and that if you opposed him politically he would kill your whole family."

Mr. Pepper, fellow shield Jake Nowakowski, and four others eventually fled Baghdad (see "Quotables," April 5). Once in Jordan their Iraqi driver said he knew that "the Americans don't want to bomb civilians. They want to bomb government and Saddam's palaces. We want America to bomb Saddam.... All Iraqi people want this war." Mr. Pepper writes, "We just sat, listening, our mouths open wide. Jake ... just kept saying, 'Oh my God' as the driver described the horrors of the regime. Jake was so shocked at how naïve he had been. We all were."

"Oh my God"—those are common words as we all at times go through the shock of recognition, with previous presuppositions suddenly overturned. But what god do we then worship? Providentially, many of our soldiers worship the true God of the Bible. The Boston Globe told of a Massachusetts soldier, 24-year-old Anthony Taylor, who held a khaki-covered Bible given him by his father-in-law, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. "I've got this to help me," Mr. Taylor said. "I'll be all right." True: In life or in death, those who love God will be all right.

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"Oh my God"—whether or not U.S. soldiers have personal faith, a biblical worldview typically pervades their operations and underlies the compassionate conservatism that makes this war different from many that characterized the brutal 20th century. Major General J.N. Mattis told the First Marine Division as the war began, "Our fight is not with the Iraqi people, nor is it with members of the Iraqi army who choose to surrender. While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam's oppression."

Can a war be compassionate? Any student of history is likely to be wary of claims of wartime chivalry. I have five World War I posters on the walls of my living room; one poignantly asks, "Must children die and mothers plead in vain?" Some World War I images turned out to be propaganda, and we should be skeptical about current claims.

But not cynical. The Bible is full of strange-but-true incidents that overturn our presuppositions. One of the strangest episodes in the Bible is that of the bronze serpent in chapter 21 of Numbers. The Israelites, as usual, were complaining about the MREs known as manna that God sent them. God then sent poisonous serpents among the people; when they pleaded for help, God told Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live."

The apostle John later applied that passage to Christ: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life." Those are the two verses directly preceding the famous John 3:16 verse: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

How strange that viewing a serpent, the symbol of evil ever since the Garden of Eden, should lead to new health. But oh my God—how strange that Christ, sinless Himself, should be crucified as if He were the worst of criminals. How often God takes an evil situation and transforms it into good! God may make wise the simple, even those who went to Iraq as human shields and found they were shielding lies.

"Compassionate war" sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of "good unfairness." But can it be that this war actually will lead to liberation that will last, with Iraqis free to discuss both politics and the claims of Christ? The record of sinful man that we call "history" suggests that the answer is no. But as we watch television reports of the war, our responses of "Oh my God" should generate prayer that He will bring good out of it.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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