[OPE-L] Norman Geras and the killing fields in Iraq

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Tue Oct 17 2006 - 15:39:04 EDT

Moral philosopher and ex-Marxist Norman Geras (author of "Marx and Human
Nature") writes:

"Too many people have died in Iraq and too many people are dying there - and
this is to say nothing of the wider social disaster that has overtaken the
country, the numbers of the dead aside. The above is not intended as a
comment on the latest Lancet report. I didn't comment on the first one, not
by so much as a syllable, and I don't mean to depart from that self-imposed
restraint. I didn't comment then and neither will I now, for three reasons.
First, I lack the statistical competence to be able to judge these reports.
Second, beyond any matter of technical competence, I don't know how -
morally, humanly - to deal in calculations that say that n deaths (where n
is a very large number) are an acceptable price to pay for some putatively
desirable end result. (...) Sometimes there is a justification for opposing
tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost. Had I been of mature years during
that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what
may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers."

It sounds very honest, but what a wonderful way to philosophize (sic.). All
of a sudden, the war in Iraq and World War II are morally equivalent
conflicts, and one form of tyranny and barbarism is a "lesser evil" to
another form of tyranny and barbarism... Geras admits he doesn't know how to
evaluate the deaths, though claiming there were "too many'', but
nevertheless felt confident to pronounce on the ethical justifiability of
the war, "whatever the cost" (in which case the number of deaths really do
not matter). This is purely a matter of faith, a bit like Tony Blair saying
that "history will prove me right" or some such thing, a rather neat way to
let yourself off the hook in the present. Just how the Bush government has
deluded the christian faithful is indicated by David Kuo's new book.

Nobody who is civilised has ever kept a moral accounting book such that "n
deaths are an *acceptable* price to pay for some putatively desirable end
result". What has been argued at times is that a certain number of deaths
are, in the given situation, realistically the inevitable or necessary price
that must be paid, to achieve some end result. The two are not at all the
same thing however, and I think Norm as moral philosopher shouldn't run them

The Lancet report
provides quite some detail on the methodology followed to establish excess
mortality. It states among other things that:

"Causes of non-violent deaths were much the same both pre-invasion and
post-invasion (p=0290). We estimate that between March 18, 2003, and June,
2006, an additional 654965 (392979-942636) Iraqis have died above what would
have been expected on the basis of the pre-invasion crude mortality rate as
a consequence of the coalition invasion. Of these deaths, we estimate that
601027 (426369-793663) were due to violence."

One could say in regard to the excess deaths estimated in the new Lancet
Report that:

(1) a fraction of the excess deaths estimated - just over 50,000 people -
was not directly due to violence,

(2) a fraction of those that did die from violence, did not die directly
from the violence of the occupying forces,

(3) an unknown portion of deaths could have been falsely blamed by
respondents directly on the actions of the occupying forces ("response

(4) The pre-invasion crude mortality rate might have been wrongly estimated
(too low).

The Bush-Blair team could claim that they are not "morally culpable" for a
portion of the excess deaths, many of which might have occurred whether
there was a war or not. That remains a matter of opinion. The main point is
that these people did die, in wartime. It is unlikely that respondents would
be able to lie successfully in the survey about people dying as such.

Commenting on the Lancet study, Richard Horton writes (bit of an

"Of most serious concern must surely be the collapse of a foreign policy
based, in UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's words, on "progressive
His doctrine of international community was forged on the humanitarian
crisis in Kosovo. At that time he claimed that "The most pressing foreign
policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should
get actively involved in other people's conflicts". A longstanding principle
of non-interference in the affairs of other states was no longer credible,
he argued. Intervention based on values as much as territorial ambition was
to be the new military strategy. "The answer to terrorism", he has said, "is
the universal application of global values." And in August, 2006, he called
for "a complete renaissance of our strategy to defeat those who threaten
us.by showing that our values are stronger, better, and more just, more fair
than the alternative". Yet the splinter of our presence in Iraq is
increasing, not reducing, violence. By making this a battle of values, Tony
Blair and US President George Bush risk pitting one culture against another,
one religion against another. This could rapidly become-and for many it
already is-the politics of humiliation."

What is the point of pursuing "the universal application of global values"
if they lead to this much killing and maiming (the study does not delve into
the number of injured or disabled)? What kind of "values" are these anyway?

What Norman Geras is really saying is that "I don't know how to evaluate
this war, technically or morally, but nevertheless I believe the war was
justified". But that has precisely been the problem with this war all along.
It was started on false pretenses, in contravention to principles of
international law, and the perpetrators have invented more and more
after-the-fact justifications for it, suggesting that, in time, the war
would justify itself, as the New Babylon (new Jerusalem?) arose from the
ruins of the old. As it turns out, however, the moral justifications offered
for fighting the war are the weakest, rather than the strongest for fighting

The strongest moral case that might have been rationally made in favour of
the war, is that either any alternative course of action would have led to a
worse result, i.e. would have caused more casualties, or that there was
simply no alternative in practice (which is basically what Dick Cheney
argues). But that would be difficult, if not impossible to prove. After all,
conceivably a new humanitarian deal could have been struck with Saddam
Hussein whereby the billions of war-dollars (Stiglitz suggested an all-up
war cost of $2 trillion!) would be spent on improving life in the ruined
country, through direct intervention under a UN mandate - if, as Horton
suggests, human health was made a foreign policy priority and a "global
value". Even a fraction of the total financial cost of fighting the war
would have sufficed to that end.

Faced with the disastrous consequences of the war, there is really only one
sort of apology left - that the perpetrators at least had good intentions in
terms of what they thought could be positively achieved as the outcome of
the war, i.e. that they wished the best for the Iraqi people and the world
and genuinely aimed to reconstruct the country. However, it is likely that
more inquiries into the real decision-making processes leading to the war
will reveal that even those good intentions didn't really exist, at least
not to the extent of the public rhetoric.


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