Wills Calls Iraq War Unjust

October 12, 2004

Garry WillsCiting St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and political theorist Michael Walzer, author Garry Wills told a packed house at the Law School's Caplin Pavilion that he did not think the Iraq war is just.

"I think we need to admit that it was a mistake and then do what we can" to fix it, Wills said, suggesting that war could have been avoided or delayed, thus saving lives and money. "We have 6,000 maimed soldiers and the Iraqis have 10 times that many. That is worth a delay."

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than two dozen books, with subjects ranging from Thomas Jefferson to John Wayne, spoke on just war theory Wednesday in the latest McCorkle Lecture.

"He thinks like a lawyer," said law professor Kenneth S. Abraham in his introduction of Wills. "But he also thinks like an architect, a historian and a theologian."

Wills referred to a wide range of sources-from writers Leo Tolstoy and William Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln and military historian Karl von Clausewitz-and painted a grim picture of war and the moral choices that people make in times of conflict. Murder, he said, is the object of war and politicians have had to demonize the enemy to overcome a natural hesitation to kill.

But once it is unleashed, "controlling war is impossible," Wills said, which makes atrocities inevitable.

Wills mentioned the traditional just war checklist, which includes: war must be avoided if possible, it has to be declared by a competent authority, it has to have a proper intent and it must be a last resort, with success reasonably possible.

Garry Wills meets students
Author Garry Wills meets with audience members after delivering the Law School's McCorkle Lecture. Photo by Matt Kelly.

Augustine's view did not allow individuals to defend themselves or their property, but did allow them to defend others and approved of national self-defense, Wills said, stressing that Augustine believed people could not act on their own authority. And even when they defended their neighbors or nation, they had to love their enemies. Acquinas cited self-defense and defense of others, and discrimination between combatants and civilians and a proportional response to an attack.

Augustine and Aquinas' approaches created checklists, Wills said, but theorist Walzer stresses the moral dimension in judging action. "If something is immoral, then it is immoral" despite motives, Will said, citing Walzer. "But there are times when we have to do unpleasant things because to not do them would be more immoral.

"A just war is still a fountain of evil," Wills said, noting that war overrides society's moral strictures. "Fighting terror with terror turns a nation into its enemy,"

Wills emphasized the importance of having a competent authority leading a nation to be able to declare a just war. Authority rises from the people, but he said through state secrecy, people are being frozen out of the debate.

"The president is less accountable in a time of war," Wills said. "Permanent war equals a permanent suppression of democracy."

Most efforts to keep secrets do not protect security, but instead hide something embarrassing, Wills said. "They [the current administration] are trying to keep information from us," he said. "We need to challenge that at every step."

Wills condemned the Iraq war, but he said people have to support the troops. "We can't readily condemn those who respond to their country's call."

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