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National interest doesn’t explain our primitive urge to humble Saddam Hussein

There are dozens of wars in progress any time, any year. Few of them catch our attention: Because we are told our “national interests” are not involved, our personal interest wanders elsewhere. But Saddam Hussein of Iraq can catch our attention better than any foreigner alive. There is something odd and primal about the U.S.-Iraq confrontation, an echo of our primitive past before we developed diplomacy and other sophisticated means of coexisting.

After seven years of bickering, we seem poised to fight again. Blood will be shed -- blood of some vicious, gnarled Iraqi soldiers and young Iraqi babies and women and old men. When they lie dead in the rubble, it won’t matter to them whose fault the war was. Oh, and some American blood will be shed, but probably not much, because American blood is clearly more valuable to Americans and this country can better afford to protect it.

It’s such an unseemly fight, no one thought it would happen again. But now that the insanity seems almost certain, everyone is jumping in to say it’s insane. This conspicuously includes the churches. History testifies that even those who have no time for religion pay sharper attention to it when all hell is about to break loose -- it’s a straw we grasp whether we believe in it or not. There has been an impressive last-minute flurry by religious leaders to divert Gulf War II.

Seven U.S. cardinals and the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a strong letter to President Clinton. They praised U.S. diplomacy and castigated Saddam Hussein before getting to the main point, that there is no justification for this war. Leaders of a church that all too often in the past declared wars just whenever their country needed them, these prelates can still be a powerful voice in a world woefully short of moral muscle.

They wrote: “We ... urge that instead of using the military option, you reinforce the diplomatic initiatives by widening the participation of other governments, especially Arab states, in the concerted effort to bring about Iraqi compliance on these issues.” They appealed again for reappraisal of the United Nations embargo that is responsible for so many deaths of the weakest in that society. They reminded the world that the pope has frequently made the same plea.

In a similar vein, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the bishops’ International Policy Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We fear that the use of military force in this case could pose an undue risk to an already suffering civilian population, could well be disproportionate to the ends sought and could fail to resolve legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

One after another the antiwar documents appear, a chorus of challenge: from Cardinal Basil Hume in England to Pax Christi USA to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, from Australia to Canada, from America’s National Council of Churches to Iraq’s Chaldean-rite Catholic Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid of Baghdad, who appealed to the United States: “In a regime like the one we live in, the people are not the protagonist of politics but suffer the choices made by their leaders and receive the information given them.”

Meanwhile the warplanes line up in the Gulf. The diplomatic gestures grow more empty. Bigger numbers are getting killed elsewhere but this is the 1998 Super Bowl of war.

Sure, Saddam is one of the least desirable leaders on earth. And he has already unleashed so-called weapons of mass destruction. But he’s not the only one. The weapons of other nations, including our own, make him look like a mere pimple on the military rump of the world. It is well known that Israel, just down the road from Saddam, has weapons of mass destruction, but no one seems to worry. Downwind in unstable Russia there is still a mighty arsenal, while upwind in China there is another.

The leaders of these and other nuclear powers did not reach such high eminence by being choirboys. Yet most U.S. politicians will tell you we can do business with them. We’re out of the prehistoric caves now, and civilized, and we negotiate. Powerful though we are, we don’t always get our way in these negotiations, but that’s life in the late 20th century. We have special interests all over the place, most of them, ultimately, economic, and we’re too smart to fight unwise wars that would ruin everything.

Just as it was during Gulf War I, our favorite special interest is oil -- something Saddam’s neighborhood is full of -- which we need for our big cars and for turning the wheels of industry because business is our business, jobs are our bread and butter and progress is our American dream.

Then Saddam pushes some primitive button and the civilizing years are rolled back.

Iraq is where Mesopotamia used to be. It meant the land between the rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, where prehistory says the human race began. This makes it one of the most exotic places on earth, loaded with significance about who we are. It has also been a seedbed of violence and change. As Moses in nearby Judah received the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi, 17 centuries before Christ, received his own code of laws from the Babylonian sun god Shamash. Both codes incorporated the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and so on. This was not an auspicious start, an attitude that led, not surprisingly, to wholesale wars, destruction and changes of leadership.

One such leader was Sennacherib, king of Assyria, a tantalizing prototype of Saddam, who attacked Jerusalem in 1701 B.C. Shades of Kuwait 1991, or whatever. It’s there in the Bible: “The angel of Yahweh went out and struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp.” Shades of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. “In the early morning when it was time to get up, there they lay, so many corpses” (2 Kings 19:35).

Remember how Saddam killed his two sons-in-law? The tables were turned on Sennacherib: “One day while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons ... struck him down with the sword” (Isaiah 37:38).

Lord Byron the poet wrote how “the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,” meaning Jerusalem, in terms as contemporary as anthrax blowing in the wind:

For the angel of death spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed on the face of the foe as he passed.

There have been wars from that day to this. No country has a monopoly on war, but what is now Iraq had more than its share. And at the end of it all, it is ruled by Saddam -- what better argument for trying something other than war for solving problems. Byron goes on:

And the widows of Asshur are loud in their wail,

And the idols are broke in the temples of Baal.

Shades of 1998, Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, politicians, church leaders and all of us.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 1998