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Messy stuff

Amnesty for Iraqi killers is shocking, but freedom and war have never been neat activities

Issue: "Kerry picks Edwards as VP," July 17, 2004

At first, the very thought seemed outrageous. What a gaggle of unmitigated ingrates, I fumed.

The Associated Press had just reported that Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was considering offering amnesty to Iraqi insurgents -- perhaps even pardoning those who had killed Americans.

A spokesman for Mr. Allawi even said that fighting U.S. troops was "justified" because it was resistance to occupation. "If he [a guerrilla] was in opposition against the Americans, that would be justified because it was an occupation force," said a representative for the prime minister.

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But come on! How brash! It had been only six days since the prime minister had taken office. Now here he was trivializing part of the price that had been paid for his and his countrymen's freedom. And the nerve! He was saying these things at the very moment that many in the United States were patriotically celebrating their own country's birthday.

The prime minister's announcement, which rubbed a lot of Americans very much the wrong way, was said not to reflect any final decisions by the new government -- especially when it came to the detail of amnesty for those insurgents known to have participated in the killing of Americans.

It's a violent jolt to our sense of moral neatness when Iyad Allawi, while we have not even finished burying our American dead, says that some of their killers may be let off scot-free. Where has honor gone? Don't we need to stand up for what's right? Whatever the fallout, shouldn't we insist on a little principle? How could you possibly agree to such a settlement and then face the parents of an American who had died in Iraq?

It may, however, be a time for swallowing hard. It may be one of those occasions when you have to hold one set of ideals lightly to give way to something that may be even more ideal. It won't be fun. It may chafe your conscience.

For nailing down freedom is almost always a messy process. To the extent that war is a tool for nailing down freedom, war especially is a very messy process. That's true, of course, in a literal sense. Bombs and beheadings are repulsively bloody. But for any civilized people, war and the purchase of freedom are messy also in the sense that they take our ethics and our ideals and our vision of what is humane -- and they turn all those things topsy-turvy.

On the battlefield, one code of honor says a soldier will not casually walk away from the body of his fallen buddy. A higher code, though, says that he will not foolishly risk his own life merely to honor his fallen comrade. And especially, he will not put at risk the safety of his unit only for honor's sake. The point is to win the war, not simply to win a few nobility credits along the way.

So must the mom and dad of such a fallen American assume their soldier died in vain -- that he sacrificed his life only so that ungrateful Iraqis could snuff out his heroic memory in a few short days?

No, indeed -- and that too is part of the terrible messiness of war and the purchase of freedom. Nobody gets a precise receipt for what he pays. In free-for-alls like this, it's hard to keep score; only God knows what the actual record is.

Might it also be that young Americans -- perhaps devoted Christians among them -- shed their blood so that young Muslims will live instead of dying at the hands of a dictator, but that those young Muslims might enjoy peace and even grow old in their Islamic error? What kind of messy trade-off is that?

Pondering all this, Christians need to remember three things:

First, that it has always been so. In the bigness of God's redemptive program, He sketches His purpose in a scope that remembers us as individuals, but far transcends us. Most of us as individuals will be unthanked, anonymous, and quite forgotten. So instead of demanding what we think is our due, we just need to stand in awe at the enormity of His blueprint.

Second, perhaps nothing will validate the deaths of heroic Americans in Iraq over the last year more than the success of the Allawi government. And few things would stamp those lives as wasted more than the government's early collapse.

Third, before leaping all over Iyad Allawi, many of us -- including most American Christians -- should be looking in the mirror. If ungratefulness for the sacrifice of another is what's got us in a dither, let's tackle a few of the logs in our own eyes.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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