Trapped in the duality of conflict

Asked by a reader this week to offer some comment on the invasion of Iraq, we confessed to a profound personal ambivalence, unsure what to say.

Having generally opposed the political course by which our nation has sped toward preemptive and undeclared war, the overthrow of a foreign government, and the lengthy and uncertain occupation that will follow, we nonetheless find

ourselves hoping that its prosecution will be efficient, its complications few, and its end swift and favorable.

We also hope to keep our own community whole; yet like our nation, we find within ourselves many divisions.

As citizens of the United States and fans of democracy, we’d like to trust our leaders’ motives and wisdom, and hope that our nation prevails. As citizens of the world averse to the idolatry of the flag, we’re chagrined by the subversion of diplomacy and disregard for international opinion that got us here.

As aspiring optimists, we hope that peace and prosperity will someday flourish in the troubled Middle East, perhaps by our nation’s design. As instinctive pessimists, we fear that the war will bring unforeseen conflicts, international resentment, and perhaps new and more determined foes not bound together into easily vanquished nation states.

As students of argument, we might offer the obligatory concession that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a bastard. As students of history, we know that Uncle Sam has too often cosied up with tyrants and bastards when it was politically or economically advantageous.

As patriots, we stand in awe of our brave troops and fearsome weaponry in their swift march across the desert sands toward Baghdad. As humanitarians, we lament once again our tragic gravitation toward sword rather than plowshare.

As scholars of conflict, we could quote something relevant from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”; as mourners for lost peace, we might instead offer a passage from Confucian contemporary Lao Tzu:

“Weapons are the bearers of bad news;

all people should detest them.

The wise man values the left side,

and in time of war he values the right.

Weapons are meant for destruction,

and thus are avoided by the wise.

Only as a last resort

will a wise person use a deadly weapon.

If peace is her true objective

how can she rejoice in the victory of war?

Those who rejoice in victory

delight in the slaughter of humanity.

Those who resort to violence

will never bring peace to the world.

The left side is a place of honor on happy occasions.

The right side is reserved for mourning at a funeral.

When the lieutenants take the left side to prepare for war,

the general should be on the right side,

because he knows the outcome will be death.

The death of many should be greeted with great sorrow,

and the victory celebration should honor those who have died.”

We could echo: Treat your victory like a funeral, because for your enemy -- and anyone hapless enough to be caught in the crossfire -- that’s what it is.

Perhaps that’s what we’ll say.

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