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The Just War

Guest Column
Robert F. Eaton

Victory in spite of all terror. These words appeared on the scaffolding surrounding the Bldg. 7 faÇade shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, hanging below an American flag. This was a reassuring symbol that American solidarity at MIT was alive and well. Such naÏve thoughts, however, were quickly cast aside the following day, when Churchill’s immortal and poignant words from the Second World War were altered, replacing “Victory” with “Peace.”

Before the ink dried on even the first death certificate, before NATO invoked its mutual defense clause, before a single troop had been deployed, the cries against military action had begun. At a time when there was unprecedented global and national support for retaliation, the internal criticism of such action seemed more vitriolic than any could have imagined. Why is there such an aversion to military action, even when justified? War is bad, costing and disrupting lives, drawing vast amounts of human, material, and financial resources. But because it is bad, that does not make it wrong.

Columnists and pundits think they are taking the moral high ground by assaulting American action abroad, citing anything they can in order to justify the immorality of the War on Terrorism. We hear a litany of objections -- the deaths of Afghan civilians, the negative perception on the “Arab Street,” the treatment of the Guantanamo detainees, even the criticism of regimes with some of the worst human rights records on Earth -- all of which are supposed to convince us we are wrong in prosecuting of this war. It must be frustrating to these individuals to see that the overwhelming majority of the American population disagrees with them. Such people should take solace in knowing that their failure to convince others of their views most likely stems not from their lack of effort or conviction, but from the fact that they are wrong.

The deaths of civilians in the Afghan war are, indeed, unfortunate, but one has to look at the broader picture before assigning blame. At the heart of the issue is this: the modern American military consciously tries not to target civilians, and this differentiates it from nearly every other fighting force it will ever face. Civilian casualties are unfortunate but necessary in armed conflict, and any nation which has ever engaged in war has no right to cast judgment on the United States for the impressively small number of Afghans who died in American bombings. Middle Eastern nations who wantonly kill their own people, and “enlightened” European nations who raised no objections to the firebombing of Dresden or the V-rocket attacks on London, should take a look at the skeletons inside their own closets before raiding ours.

The arguments about American perception in the Middle East have gained intensity since the release of a Gallup poll showing that the vast majority of Middle Easterners feel that American action in Afghanistan is “not morally justified.” This couldn’t have a shock to anyone, and with good cause. Looking at another question on the poll, we find that the majority (albeit somewhat less vast) does not believe that Arabs were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on America. This comes as no surprise, since the official news services of two of our “allies” in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, perpetuate the fiction that Zionists were responsible for the attacks, which leads to the conclusion that al Qaeda and the Taliban are innocent victims of a vast Israeli-American conspiracy against the Arab world. While some responsibility for the misinformation falls in the hands of the American government’s lack of sufficient public relations, but until the “Arab Street” concedes to the reality of Sept. 11, I give little credence to their moral conclusions about our response. If an informed Arab world still harbors such objections, then, and only then, should we feel compelled to address them.

Thankfully, the Guantanamo controversy has quieted significantly from its peak when leaders around the world finally found an acceptable excuse to lambaste the United States. This is such a non-issue that I’m tempted to ignore it entirely, but I will say this: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld may have been glib when describing the generally pleasant climate and humane conditions that the captured terrorists and Taliban endured in Cuba, but he was right -- these people are a lot better off than their contemporaries who are now being annihilated in the snowy mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Total victory in the War on Terrorism is a daunting task, but one which we are destined to win. On Sept. 20, President Bush reminded us that “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” Those who seek to portray America as a perpetrator of immorality and injustice may be vocal and eloquent, but they are nonetheless incorrect. The war against terrorism, like those against Nazism, fascism, and communism, is a just one, and we should be proud of our nation for standing strong in the face of the world, doing not what is easy, not what is popular, but what is right.

Robert F. Eaton is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.