For those who oppose war, what now?
Boston Globe By Peter J. Gomes, 3/23/2003
and religion, with their demands and sanctions, are hustled into
oblivion when civilized people embark on mechanized war.''-- From the letters of Herbert Hensley Henson, Sept. 19, 1939
WELL, NOW IT HAS begun. ''Shock and awe'' -- blitzkrieg -- in the
name of the United States and in the ostensible cause of a more
peaceful and stable world. Who would have thought it?
The conventional wisdom now is that since war is a fact and not
just a rumor, with hostilities in view of anyone in the world with a
television, all dissent about it must cease. We must rally around the
flag and support our troops on the front lines and our president in the
Critics of President George W. Bush's failed diplomacy are told to
''Fermez les bouches,'' and are declared by the war party to be on the
treacherous slope to treason.
By what logic, moral or otherwise, however, is a war that millions
thought to be unjustified and immoral even before it occurred now made
justified and moral by the fact that it is occurring?
Does the fact of a conflict-in-progress nullify all questions about the legitimacy of that conflict?
Are those who opposed the orchestrated drumbeat to war, and who
remain unpersuaded by Bush's repeated and changing rationales for his
war, now simply to acquiesce in devout silence to the course of
international violence from which he has refused to be deterred?
Are we to ignore our own consciences because he has determined to ignore our protests?
Of course not.
The experience of Vietnam reminds us that protest in time of war is
a legitimate and powerful expression of those rights for which previous
American wars were fought; and make no mistake, it was protest that
brought the Vietnam War to an end. Mawkish appeals to patriotism and
national unity cannot stifle our right to dissent. A soft 60 percent of
the country supports this war with varying degrees of enthusiasm, while
the consciences of many are troubled; the fact that the president
enjoys a good night's sleep doesn't make sleep come any more easily for
the rest of us. What, then, are we to do?
I suggest that:
Of course we will win the fighting war, for why wouldn't we? The
fictitious ''Duchy of Grand Fenwick,'' with its cross-bows, has a
better chance than Iraq against the most competent fighting force in
the world. Victory is a foregone conclusion, as the beribboned generals
know, but victory is only a means to an end, and that end is a just and
We must not constrain our consciences. War is always the least
satisfactory road to peace; we cannot allow ourselves or our country to
become accustomed to war as a natural instrument of policy, and
therefore our consciences should always drive us the extra mile for
peace and for justice. We join with the pope in this.
We must pray for a swift and just conclusion to this war. This means
that the sooner the fighting is over, the sooner we can begin to assume
our responsibility for the restoration of Iraq and the restoration of
our reputation as a nation that stands for peace and cooperation.
We must offer our unqualified support to those men and women in the
military who are placed in harm's way, and who must wage the war whose
end we seek. We pray for them and for their families, and we know that
the best we can do for them is to get them home as quickly and as
safely as possible.
We must urge the Bush administration to be as assiduous in its
prosecution of peaceful reconstruction as it was in bringing about the
conflict. This government should be held to account for a peaceful and
nonimperialist postwar reality in Iraq. If ''it is not about oil,''
We must oppose with every energy the menacing morality of the doctrine
of preemption and, while we are committed to the just conclusion of
this war, we must continue to challenge the wisdom of those
policy-makers who forced this option upon us.
We must commit ourselves again to the principles of international
cooperation and affirm that such instrumentalities as the UN, NATO, and
the International Court of Justice, generally trashed in the run-up to
this war, will be essential for the peace.
We must affirm that the real work for peace begins the day the war is
over; the struggle begins when we take up the hard work of
We must demand that attention be paid to the real causes behind the
threats of terror to our country and our way of life: We must insist
that the Bush administration commit itself to a just resolution to the
Arab-Israeli conflict that persuades the world and the Muslim world in
particular, that we are as interested in justice for Palestinians as we
are in security for Israel, and that we insist upon peace for both.
We must remember the promises of those who brought us this war, remember
the silent ''do nothing'' Congress, and remember those who stood up for
peace in the face of spin, intimidation, and ridicule; and most of all,
when the time comes, we must remember to vote.
To this end all Americans are committed, for only a fool or a cynic
regards war -- even a smart, clinical war -- as a desirable state of
affairs. Work remains for our country and for our consciences.
We who opposed this war could not, alas, prevent it. We can,
however, in the great tradition of protest and witness, continue to
make our opposition known as have many millions before us, and as will
many millions to follow. We can do even more. Our consciences are not
on hold during the war, and when peace comes and the rhetoric of
bellicosity yields, as it must, to a thoughtful and provocative
encounter with new world responsibilities, then we who have been
ignored must insist upon being heard.
More than ever, the country will need our moral energy.
Now, what are we to do? I have suggested nine points for conscience, and
there are many more; but whatever we do, the very least we can do is to
work for peace, vote for peace, and pray for peace, in any way
The only hope for the world, and for our place in it, is peace. No
one put this better than our Boston abolitionist ancestor, William
Lloyd Garrison, when, against the evils of slavery in a culture hostile
to the very idea of abolition, he famously said, ''I am in earnest. I
will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single
inch; and I will be heard!''
So, too, will we.
J. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey
Minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard University.
This story ran on page H11 of the Boston Globe on 3/23/2003.