Joe Conason's Journal

Why won't Sullivan, Bennett and Novak blast the pope for opposing the war? Plus: Frightening new estimate of the number of Iraqis who died during the Gulf War.

Published February 11, 2003 7:25PM (EST)

Unholy war
If you oppose immediate and unilateral war on Iraq, there's a good chance that your patriotism will be questioned (sometimes by a resident foreigner or very recently naturalized person) -- and that you will be slandered as a "supporter of Saddam." Only one category of skeptic seems exempt from this treatment, and in fact exempt from being mentioned at all: the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will reaffirm the church's opposition to war at its annual Social Ministry meetings in Washington. The 500 Catholic leaders from dioceses and parishes all over the country are unlikely to get the kind of coverage lavished on the National Religious Broadcasters, because the president isn't speaking to their convention. But they represent the enduring viewpoint of the Catholic leadership, including Pope John Paul II, who have repeatedly warned that the American drive toward violent "regime change" is not consistent with the principles of "just war." Their latest analysis, which is quite cogent and clear-eyed, may be found here.

Among the leading advocates of war are devout Catholics such as William Bennett, Andrew Sullivan and Michael Novak (who showed up in Rome the other day to convince Church leaders that this war is "just," and whose fatuous arguments apparently had the opposite effect). Rarely, if ever, do these conservatives mention the hierarchy's opposition to war -- since that might require acknowledging the possibility of sincere, patriotic, reasonable doubt about the wisdom of administration policy.

In determining whether war is "just," one of the most serious issues is "proportionality," meaning whether the expected costs in human life outweigh the likely benefits. No one knows, of course, how many lives this war will cost. If reports that the Pentagon plans to rain thousands of missiles on Baghdad within the first few days are true, that cost could be extraordinarily high -- not only immediately, but in the months after hostilities cease. Discussion of dead Iraqis isn't popular in the mainstream media, but Business Week recently interviewed Beth Osborne Daponte, a professional demographer who studied civilian and military casualties in the Gulf War for the U.S. Commerce Department. The first Bush administration suppressed her horrifying estimates of the real "collateral damage" because they contradicted what Dick Cheney was saying at the time. But the American Statistical Association endorsed her findings.

Daponte, who now teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated that "13,000 civilians were killed directly by American and allied forces, and about 70,000 civilians died subsequently from war-related damage to medical facilities and supplies, the electric power grid, and the water system." Do you suppose anyone will poll Americans to ask what level of death and devastation to innocent Iraqis would be too much?
[11:30 a.m. PST, Feb. 11, 2003]

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