Fighting a Just War in Iraq

Report Middle East

Fighting a Just War in Iraq

April 8, 2003 4 min read
Joseph Loconte
Joseph Loconte, Ph.D.
Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies
Joseph was director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Numerous gloomy predictions have been made by pundits, journalists and religious leaders about the conduct and effects of a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Critics said that war would devastate Iraq's infrastructure, making it impossible to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. They speculated that Iraqi residents would scorn American and British troops as invaders, not welcome them as liberators. They predicted a humanitarian crisis, with widespread shortages of food, water and medical care. And they warned that American forces would kill massive numbers of civilians, either intentionally or unintentionally.

In the end, they've argued that the fight to liberate Iraq is an unjust war waged with unjust means to accomplish ambiguous ends.

Each of the anti-war predictions, however, has so far proven false. Indeed, it is difficult to recall any previous modern war being fought with such a sustained effort to protect civilians from combat and to minimize the harmful effects of war on their daily lives. This has come about because of intensive military planning, scrupulous attention to military targets, careful coordination among Coalition forces and unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. government, military and non-governmental relief organizations.

A Case Study in Protecting Civilians in War Time

Military historians already are pointing to the success of the Iraqi Freedom campaign as a likely object of study in war colleges: its use of air power, the mobility of its ground forces, its success in urban combat, etc. Underlying and shaping these military accomplishments, however, is the Western moral tradition. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the Christian "just war" tradition has defined the scope and style of Coalition engagement. At the heart of that tradition is the obligation to use all reasonable means to protect innocent lives from the ravages of war.

Those concerned about the requirements for fighting a just war should reflect on some of the most significant lessons of engagement from Operation Iraqi Freedom:

  • Putting relief organizations in position:
    Five months prior to the outbreak of war, emergency relief organizations began moving into the region, thanks to coordination between the U.S. State Department, Coalition forces and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). "We have assembled the largest Disaster Assistance Response Team…ever in U.S. history," says Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The pre-positioning of assistance is proving vital to the humanitarian relief effort.
  • Delivering humanitarian aid:
    Within days after the start of the conflict, food, water and medical supplies began arriving in southern Iraq. Thousands of tons of assistance already have been delivered, with significant help from Coalition forces. Though AID officials describe "pockets of humanitarian need" in Iraq, no NGOs are reporting a humanitarian crisis.
  • Protecting the nation's infrastructure:
    Coalition forces moved rapidly to secure the Iraqi oil fields, while bombing raids have avoided bridges, power facilities, water treatment centers and other infrastructure essential to resident populations. The military has been careful to avoid confrontation with religious leaders and to respect mosques and other religious sites-even when they've been used by Iraqi soldiers to hide weapons and troops.
  • Precision bombing to avoid civilian casualties:
    Unlike in any previous war, satellite-guided bombs are now carried by almost all U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters. Combined with real-time radar and targeting systems such as the JSTARS radar plane, these "smart bombs" allow Coalition aircraft to destroy even "hard targets" from a safe altitude with pinpoint precision. Though no reliable figures are available, there have been only a handful of undisputed reports of civilian casualties as a result of Coalition bombing.
  • Protection of civilians during combat:
    American and British forces have avoided engaging Iraqi troops reportedly attempting to use civilians as human shields. Coalition forces also have put their own lives at risk to get civilians out of harm's way. Last week, for example, most major news networks showed images of U.S. Army forces rescuing an injured Iraqi woman caught in the crossfire on a bridge at Hindiyah.
  • Humane treatment of POWs:
    Even with thousands of captured Iraqi troops, Coalition forces are reportedly upholding all Geneva Convention protocols for the treatment of POWs. According to news reports, between 60 and 80 percent of all casualties so far have been Iraqis, who are receiving medical care right alongside injured Coalition forces.

A Study in Contrasts

The contrast between the conduct of the U.S.-led military and that of Saddam Hussein could not be more stark. It has been widely reported that the Iraqi military is violating the moral norms of combat, including: using women and children as human shields; placing military equipment in schools, playgrounds and mosques; executing family members for refusing to offer their sons for suicide attacks; dressing as civilians to ambush Coalition forces; feigning surrenders to open fire on Coalition troops; and mistreating and possibly executing POWs.

The Iraqi tactics represent a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention, to which it is a signatory, and are serious war crimes. Their use of civilians as human shields and agents in suicide missions puts all civilians at risk: By tearing down the visible differences between soldiers and noncombatants, the Iraqis are violating one of the most basic moral principles in wartime: Civilians must not become targets of military action.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-led coalition has not responded in kind. It continues to uphold the Geneva Convention in its conduct of the war. American and British military forces have focused intently on Iraqi military targets, held their fire in the face of unwilling "human shields," rescued Iraqi civilians from enemy fire and made possible a massive program of humanitarian assistance. Military historians may soon identify Operation Iraqi Freedom as the most justly fought war in the history of modern warfare.


Joseph Loconte
Joseph Loconte, Ph.D.

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies