James C Moore: When morality vanishes from the battlefield, the war is lost

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In Italy, there is a bust of Julius Caesar in Torlonia Museum that scholars have insisted depicts the great conqueror as a Christ-like icon. The resolute warrior's face has been more compassionately composed and the oak wreath of the soter, or saviour, slips low across his brow, hardly distinguishable from a thorny crown. As grand a general as Caesar was, though, he fought with no more moral purpose than to expand the glory of the empire. His deification was about art; not history. Caesar's and, ultimately, even Rome's undoing was that their armies drew blood without a righteous cause. A soldier must fight for something more eternal than the emperor's reputation.

In Italy, there is a bust of Julius Caesar in Torlonia Museum that scholars have insisted depicts the great conqueror as a Christ-like icon. The resolute warrior's face has been more compassionately composed and the oak wreath of the soter, or saviour, slips low across his brow, hardly distinguishable from a thorny crown. As grand a general as Caesar was, though, he fought with no more moral purpose than to expand the glory of the empire. His deification was about art; not history. Caesar's and, ultimately, even Rome's undoing was that their armies drew blood without a righteous cause. A soldier must fight for something more eternal than the emperor's reputation.

The notion of empire is still as misguided today as it was when the legions of Rome were marching the earth. America and Great Britain, however, have always been able to rationalise their presence in foreign lands with intellectual constructs. We may have been extracting natural resources and other treasure to sustain our own homelands, but we were educating and civilising the natives whose countries we were occupying. We gave them our governmental institutions and our religion and were convinced that we had improved the backward colonies.

We were wrong, of course, and the deadly lesson, whether it was learned by Her Majesty's armies in Africa or American troops in Vietnam, is that the occupied never want to be occupied. They will out-fight us, out-die us, and outlast us because our boots are on their ground. Through loss, Caesar slowly came to understand that the further his armies were from Rome the more difficult it was for them to retain power. Geography may be less of a challenge to the modern military, but the battle still offers the same teachings. And no matter how loudly President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair argue to the contrary, the US and the UK are presently engaged in repeating history's most egregious mistakes with their exploits in Iraq.

Both Bush and Blair have tried to convince the world that Iraq had to be invaded as the first front in the war on terrorism. Stopping al- Qa'ida and ridding Iraq of Saddam and his torture chambers provided the moral justification for rolling our armies across those ancient plains. If the dead are given the truth at the time of redemption, though, our fallen soldiers now know they lost their lives for considerably different reasons than those provided by their leaders. The war in Iraq began with a lie and it has spiralled into an even greater immorality, which is where all lies eventually lead. Our bombs and bullets cannot tell the difference between the innocent and the enemy and in our effort to learn the distinctions we have resorted to immoral tactics.

More than prisoners died at Abu Ghraib prison. America and the UK lost their moral purchase; we killed the story that we were liberators guided by our god to bring freedom to the oppressed. Bush, meeting Palestinian leaders last year, explained to them: "God told me to invade Iraq." The Muslim world must be wondering if the god of Bush and Blair also told them to torture and kill at Abu Ghraib. If not, how did that happen? Undoubtedly, Muslims are as unfamiliar with that Christian god as they are the Allah whose name is invoked by al-Qa'ida during decapitations. The denouement of this plot is the moment when the camera reveals the liberators have the same tendencies as the oppressor they have just deposed. Nothing has changed for the Iraqis except for the fact that the prisons are now open under new management.

More than even oil or terrorism, though, it was faith that sent Americans and the British to Iraq. Of course, it is also religious conviction that is prompting Jihadists from every Muslim nation on the planet to make their way to Iraq. Each al-Qa'ida fighter or Iraqi insurgent who dies is convinced god is on his side; just as Bush and Blair are confident their troops are doing the Lord's work. It is unsettling, as an outsider, to hear descriptions of the British Prime Minister as having a stillness, a kind of peace and confidence about him while Iraq disintegrates into near anarchy. The American President, meanwhile, admits to rarely being awake past ten o'clock each evening and has said, repeatedly, "I sleep well at night." These two men of faith have clearly trusted too much; either in their god or their commanders.

From the time of Caesar to the invasion of Iraq, the command has reflected the commander. The Anglo-American breakdown of morality in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners was caused by the conflict between the warrior's objectives and religious tenets. Bush and Blair can be as filled with the spirit of their god as is a Muslim mullah with his; but if their armies do not have strict orders to choose right over wrong, the faith of the President and Prime Minister becomes nothing more than a personal attribute. When Jesus said he didn't like killing, he never added a qualifying clause that it was okay as long as it was for appropriate political goals.

Immorality is the gangrene of the war in Iraq and manifests itself in wild political assertions; not just torture. As marines and Iraqis were dying in Fallujah, President Bush was telling his constituents: "Most of Fallujah has returned to normal." Our failed morality at Abu Ghraib cannot prevent Donald Rumsfeld from being described as a "superb" secretary of defence or inhibit Blair from his unwavering commitment to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Bush. A beheading is repositioned as an independent act of evil rather than retribution for our own moral collapse. Everything is opinion; nothing is fact. This is the most insidious form of immorality.

Caesar's legend, eventually, was turned into a religious parable representing the betrayal of Christ. Brutus, as Judas, turned his back on the dictator-general, claiming to have "loved Rome longer and better". Bush is no Caesar. However, Blair cannot avoid what his rigorous intellect must be telling him about Iraq; only his faith is betraying him. Ultimately, that too, will falter and the Prime Minister will have to choose his country over his confederacy with the US President. Blair's career will become a minor consideration. Finally, his faith will not be enough.

Truth dies swiftly and easily in every war. But a battle can still be won if morality is the last casualty. There is always hope that what is good and right will prevail. In Iraq, however, it is no longer easy to know whose cause is more just and there is little reason to think our two nation coalition will succeed. When morality vanishes from the battlefield, a war is lost.

James C Moore is the author of the just-released 'Bush's War for Reelection: Iraq, the White House, and the People' and is the co-author of The 'New York Times' bestseller 'Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W Bush Presidential'

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