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What is Evil?

Simply ask yourself if a particular option will cause suffering. The decision then becomes easy, and it becomes particularly easy on questions of war.

What is evil? Rather than defining evil as a loss of goodness, a corruption of nature, or a type of failure, why not define evil as the injection of suffering into the world, suffering that was not there before and should not be there now? This definition provides for an Occam’s razor like resolution of complex political, economic, and social questions such as starting a war, blocking food distribution for the poor, or denying medical coverage to the needy. Simply ask yourself if a particular option will cause suffering. The decision then becomes easy, and it becomes particularly easy on questions of war.

As a model for the suffering caused by war, take the attack on Iraq by George Bush. Estimates of excessive deaths from the war range from a surprisingly low number by the Associated Press of 110,600 through April 2009 to an equally surprising high number by the British based Opinion Research Business of 1,033,000 by August 2007. An extrapolation forward to the present easily leads to an estimate of from 150,000 to at least a million and a half people dead, with the number still rising. Did they all die immediately with no suffering, or did some die slowly while being fully conscious of the approaching end? How much grieving was there for the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends of the dead? Many families lost more than one member. In keeping with Aeschylus, can grief be so great that pain falls drop by drop upon the heart even in sleep?

If between 150,000 and a 1,500,000 died, how many were injured? Estimating three people with injuries per death, between 450,000 and 4.5 million were injured. Some injuries may have been relatively minor resulting in little suffering, but others may have brought the victim to the brink of death. Some lost arms and legs, others had their bodies burned to the edge of recognition, and still others had traumatic head injuries that left them mentally impaired or incapacitated. Mental traumas alone must number in the millions. What is the psychological damage when you do not know if you will ever be able to marry, have children, and function in your community like a normal person? Are you a burden on society, or are you cast aside like so much waste?

What happens when large segments of the society become waste? Over four million Iraqis have become refugees since 2003, about half as exiles and half as nomads within their own country. As a result, how much depression was created due to lost homes, lost jobs, and lost educational opportunities for the young?

As with any modern war, the women and children suffered most. Women were raped and children lost parents. If you think women were never raped, that just means you were never in a combat branch of the military. Some of the most poignant suffering for women and children comes from the miscarriages and birth defects caused by American munitions. Iraq has become a toxic wasteland, where pollutants include depleted uranium, high levels of lead and mercury contamination, oil, gasoline, pesticides, and other poisons. InFallujah, more than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage. In November 2011, Hannah Gurman wrote in Foreign Policy in Focus: “In the years since the invasion, doctors in Fallujah have reported drastic increases in the number of premature births, infant mortality, and birth defects—babies born without skulls, missing organs, or with stumps for arms and legs. Fallujah General Hospital reported that, out of 170 babies born in September 2009, 24 percent died within the first seven days, of which 75 percent were deformed — as compared to August 2002, when there were 530 babies born, only six deaths, and one deformity. As the years go by, the problem seems to be getting worse, and doctors are increasingly warning women not to have children.”

Both the countryside and the society suffer. Since the war, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been polluted, and increases intyphoid, dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, diarrheal diseases, and cancer have been reported. Vital services are lacking or in short supply, including clean water, sanitation, electricity, housing, healthcare, and education. In the summer when temperatures reach 120 degrees there is often no electricity and therefore no air conditioning. According to David Swanson, the economy continues to suffer as “one-third of the labor force is unemployed and, when you include those under-employed, the figure is over half”. Iraq was the cradle of civilization, but now many of its artifacts and ruins no longer exist. When the Romans destroyed Carthage, they also sowed the fields with salt to prevent them from being used again. Essentially, the United States has done the same to Iraq.

Most American troops have left Iraq (although thousands of maintenance troops, mercenaries, and U.S. embassy staff remain), but April 2013 was the deadliest month in nearly five years. According to UN figures, a total of 712 people died and 1,633 more sustained injuries “in acts of terrorism and acts of violence”. Sadly, the month of May exceeded April, with over one thousand dead.June’s casualties were comparable to April’s with 761 dead and 1,771 wounded, and July tops them all with 1,057 killed and 2,326 injured.

These spasms of violence further unravel the society. Nearly all of Iraq’s educational institutions have been looted, illiteracy for young people has sky-rocketed, hundreds of professors have been killed by assassination, and many of the rest have fled the country. Women are forced to wear the veil, homosexuals have gone back into the closet, and unfaithful women risk their lives from religious fanatics. Most everyone suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, especially children, but there are only three child psychiatrists in the entire country. And then there is the sectarian cleansing in Bagdad. As judged by the Nuremberg Trials, the United States is responsible:

“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.

The “accumulated evil of the whole” includes Abu Grab. Do we assume that all the people tortured and confined at Abu Grab and elsewhere deserved it? To prove how easy it is to make a mistake in such matters, since January 2002, 779 men have been brought to the gulag at Guantanamo, but by May 2011, 600 had been released, and most of these men were released without charges or transferred to facilities in their home countries. As for the remaining prisoners, about half have also been approved for release, but still await their freedom. The United Nations’ Convention against Torture not only forbids torture but also condemns such confinement. Since 2001, the United States has become a country that dispenses retribution instead of justice.

The “accumulated evil of the whole” also includes suffering in the United States. American Military Casualties in Iraq are 4,488 dead and 32,021 wounded by official count, but perhaps as many as 100,000 by unofficial count. There is the standard assortment of lost limbs, damaged organs, blindness, and burns, but the most common types of injuries are brain traumas. Could anyone imagine George Marshall waiting a day, let alone years, to acquire effective plating for Humvees? How many American lives have been devastated because of inadequate protection from mines and IEDs?

The lives of returning veterans are often devastated not just from injuries but from various social maladies as well. Although unemployment figures have improved from a high in 2012, Iraqi veterans still lag behind the general population in finding employment, and the struggle to adjust to civilian life leads many to thinking they would be better off not being around. Indeed,nearly one third of Iraqi veterans have considered committing suicide, and at least 3,000 veterans who served after 2001 have done it. And like their Vietnam brethren, a large number are homeless, alcoholic, or depressed. One wonders how much do you have to suffer before you take your own life, live under an overpass, or drown your thoughts in alcohol. As Wordsworth wrote, “suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, and has the nature of infinity”.

Which brings us to this: what possible justification could there be for injecting this much suffering into the world, suffering that was not there before the war and should not be there now?

The primary motivation for the invasion of Iraq was always something of a mystery. There were the bullies like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who thought that slapping people around was necessary to assert American dominance. There were the tail-wags-the-dog types who fixated and obsessed on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s success in the Falklands War and the accolades she received. There were the standard militarists and imperialists in the military and elsewhere who have always wanted an American empire to be compared to Rome or who saw the invasion as a way to enhance their careers. There were the geopolitical theorists from the Project for a New American Century who thought they could play with history as a child plays with toys, but whose effect is always to have other people and other people’s children do the fighting and dying. There were the Israeli supporters and defenders whose primary objective was to protect the state of Israel from hostile neighbors, and who were also willing to look the other way when Israel’s borders expanded a little while attention was directed elsewhere. And, finally, lurking in the background and underground was always Big Oil and Corporate America. But what about George Bush? What was his motivation?

As reported by Russ Baker, “he was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz, who was contracted to ghostwrite an autobiography of Bush. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘one of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘my father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it’. He said, ‘if I have a chance to invade….if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency’”.

The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. “Suddenly, he’s at 91 percent in the polls, and he’d barely crawled out of the bunker”. And later as he crawled from under the 2004 election he proclaimed: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it”. Of course, the real capital he intended to spend was the capital of the Social Security Trust Fund.

Did Bush really inflict so much suffering abroad so he could privatize social security at home; and did he really squander so much of the nation’s treasure so he could be seen as a great leader and a commander-in-chief? Herskowitz also said that “Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father’s shadow”. So did Bush really use the people of Iraq as so much cannon fodder to assuage his damaged and inferior ego? Would a decent human being actually do such a thing? Most people would think not, and most people would also think it is not surprising that he now paints pictures of himself in bathtubs and showers? Like Lady Macbeth, he needs to wash off that “Damned Spot”.

So, what is evil? Is war evil? Is George Bush evil?

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