Columnists > Voices

Over there

This nation owes its troops a better explanation for the war in Iraq

Issue: "Looking at India," Dec. 9, 2006

Dear Colin: It was good to bump into you at church yesterday morning. I'm glad you got home for Thanksgiving break, and I know your Mom and Dad were excited to have all six of you there to celebrate.

Now you're back in college, facing finals in just a week or two-and then only one semester to go before you finish your whole college career. I suppose everybody says the same thing to you: I can't believe you're a senior!

But what I really struggle with, as we discussed briefly yesterday, is that you won't just be getting your college diploma next May. You'll also be getting a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, following up on your ROTC training over the last four years. I think you mentioned that you're hoping for an assignment with an artillery unit-which sounds terribly real and terribly sober.

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I looked in your 22-year-old eyes yesterday morning, and I wasn't prepared for my own reaction. I'm having more and more difficulty asking you to put your life on the line for a cause wrapped in so many ambiguities.

This is an admittedly unsettling thought-for I have been an ardent backer of the war in Iraq. I have believed it first to be an appropriate exercise in our own nation's self-defense. But I have also supported the idea of building a model of self-government in the Middle East-a model so healthy that other struggling nations in the region might emulate it. Self-defense for us; self-government for them. For five years, those have seemed-and still seem-like two legitimate and reasonable goals.

But I have questions. The self-defense argument-"Let's fight them there instead of here"-remains attractive to me. But even it ultimately works only if there's some promise of establishing self-government "there" as well.

And that, Colin, is where the issue gets so sticky for me. The evidence for the possibility of viable self-government under an Islamic mindset has never been terribly promising. Where-over the whole globe and in all the 1,200 years of Islamic history-has it ever happened? As optimists, of course, and as people who believe in God's common grace, we shouldn't say it can't happen. But we also watch the signs. And the signs haven't been all that encouraging.

The conflict in Iraq is the United States' fourth serious war during my lifetime. All four have, of course, included moral and ethical ambiguities. But not in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam was our country ever asked to risk life and limb to give specific credibility to a religion that is so explicitly anti-Christian.

The war in Iraq, though, gives the impression that we're dealing with half a dozen different expressions of Islam-all of them quite ready to blow to smithereens anybody who doesn't agree with their own particular expression. We call it "sectarian violence," and it comes across as a group of sects all treasuring their own petty idiosyncrasies a good bit more than they do the possibility of establishing a self-governing nation. It is precisely their fanatical devotion not only to their own religion, but to their unique expression of that religion-and then their bloody disdain for anybody else's-that is keeping their very own nation from being built.

I realize, Colin, that this is not a politically correct argument-on either side. The president still seems obligated to refer to Islam as a "religion of peace." And his liberal critics would never ever admit that somebody's wrong religion was at the core of the war's failure.

But right now, I'm not thinking about political correctness. I'm thinking about you, Colin-about your Mom and Dad, your five brothers and sisters, and the half dozen others from our own little church who have served in the military since 9/11. I'm thinking how much, even in the very best of circumstances, we are asking you all to give up and to do.

Freedom of religion? Go for it, of course. Freedom even to exercise a false faith? That too, amazingly, is part of our God-given heritage. But ask you then also to put your life at risk to ensure the dominance somewhere of an alien and anti-Christian faith? If that's a worthy goal, I think your nation owes you a better explanation than any I've heard so far. And I hope our country finds such an explanation by the time you get your commission next May.

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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