Iraq and just war, revisited

George Weigel

A year later, here’s the question posed to those who argued that it would be morally justifiable to use armed force to compel Iraq’s compliance with U.N. disarmament resolutions: if you knew then what you know now, would you have made the same call?

I would.

We know some things now that we also knew then. We know Saddam Hussein was in material breach of the “final” U.N. warning, Resolution 1441; his formal response to 1441 was a lie. We know he had the scientists, the laboratories, and the other necessary infrastructure for producing weapons of mass destruction [WMD]. We know he was seeking long-range ballistic missiles (again in defiance of the U.N.) to deliver biological, chemical, and perhaps nuclear weapons. We know now, in even more horrifying detail, that Saddam’s was a terror regime in which unimaginable brutality was normal state practice. We know, now as then, that Saddam’s regime provided safe haven for terrorists.

And we should know now, as we should have known then, that these four facts – Saddam’s pursuit of WMD, his internal repression, his defiance of the U.N., and his links to international terrorism – were of a piece. Some have said recently that Saddam himself was the real “weapon of mass destruction” in Iraq. That’s a little too clever. But the truth in the trope is that Saddam’s regime, as its actions and capabilities demonstrated, was an “aggression underway.” The aggression took different forms at different moments over twenty-some years. But the “aggression” was constant.

We also know now that we haven’t found caches of WMD in Iraq. What difference does this make to the moral analysis?

Prior to the war, no one doubted that Saddam had WMD. The U.N. thought he did. France thought he did. The only question in dispute was, how was he to be disarmed? And while the investigation of Saddam’s WMD programs is incomplete – millions of pages of documents remain to be translated; some high-ranking Iraqi WMD scientists still refuse to cooperate – it seems to me that something like this happened:

Saddam got rid of chemical and biological weapons in various ways: some were destroyed outright, other materials may have been sent to Syria, still other weapons may remain buried. Saddam was willing to bet that the U.N. would never authorize an armed enforcement of its resolutions; that the U.S. would cave in; and that he could then ramp-up his WMD programs after U.N. sanctions were lifted. Meanwhile, as David Kay noted in his now-famous report, internal controls were eroding in Baghdad, making it more likely that Iraqi military officers or scientists would transfer WMD to terrorists or other rogue states (which is why Dr. Kay told the Senate that, despite the failure to find WMD caches, Iraq was perhaps even more dangerous than we thought).

Suppose we knew all that in March 2003? Would that have made a substantive difference to the moral case for the war?

I don’t think so. If the “regime factor” is crucial in calculating “just cause” in situations like this, the more complex WMD situation as we now understand it doesn’t vitiate the case for the war. As David Kay suggested (in a largely unreported comment), it may strengthen it in some respects.

And while moral arguments from consequences are not without difficulties, the case for the war has also been strengthened by several of its results: Iraq is building the infrastructure of a civil society; no more mass graves are being dug; rape is no longer an instrument of state policy; a free press flourishes; children are learning from reliable textbooks rather than being poisoned by propaganda; an interim constitution that provides protection for a broader array of human rights and a more representative form of government than can be found anywhere else in the Middle East has been successfully negotiated by a wide variety of Iraqis; Iraq’s economic resources, including its oil, are being used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, not a murderous regime; the Iraqi people are vigorously engaged in publicly debating their future.

A year later, I would still contend that the war was morally justified. The argument isn’t a simple one. In this kind of world, it never is.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.