THIS IS an unusual, perhaps unique, moment in American history, as the nation nears an apparent deadline on which it is likely to declare war. A year from now, perhaps only months or even weeks from now, we may well be looking back at this period to try to figure out what happened.
There are several possible outcomes for the crisis in the Persian Gulf. It is still possible JimCastellito find a peaceful resolution. But the Bush administration seems determined to use force against Iraq to get it out of Kuwait.
The use of force is never bloodless, although some national leaders still cling to the illusion of a clear air war in which only a handful of Americans die as they kill thousands of Iraqis. The more optimistic estimates project a short, bloody war.
But the chances are better that it will be bloody than that it will be short. Iraq, after all, kept a bloody war with Iran going for a decade. And Americans, who have been preparing to fight jungle wars in Asia and Latin America for more than a generation, are at a clear disadvantage in a war fought in the desert.
When the inevitable time comes to look back and see how what happened happened, it is not just the president and Congress whose role will be examined. There will also be questions about the response of the religious community, which bears a special responsibility to address the moral dimension of public policy, particularly when that policy involves matters of war and peace.
The religious community's response has gone through several stages. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and Bush sent U.S. troops to protect Saudi Arabia, religious leaders were virtually unanimous in condemning Iraq's aggression, supporting Bush's deployment of troops, and praying for peace.
As time wore on, the churches became more explicit, supporting peaceful pressure on Iraq, backing an embargo (although not on food and medicine) and warning about the human cost of going to war.
Reaction became sharper when, the day after the mid-term elections, Bush announced that he was doubling the number of American troops in the gulf. In the Vietnam era, that was called an "escalation."
Religious leaders have raised more concern as the administration's rhetoric became more bellicose. On Nov. 15, the National Council of Churches' general board accused the administration of "reckless rhetoric and impudent behavior" in its emphasis on the use of force.
The most detailed and analytical critique has come from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have applied the traditional "just war theory" to the gulf crisis. When Bush announced his escalation, the chairman of the bishops' international affairs committee sent Secretary of State James Baker a letter expressing moral concern.
The bishops endorsed that letter at their general meeting in November and their president, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, sent an even stronger letter to Bush.
Pilarczyk explained the relevant just war criteria, including "a clear and just cause for war, proper authority and sufficient probability of success to justify the human and other costs of military action.
"The criteria," he said, "also ask whether war is genuinely a last resort: all peaceful alternatives must be fully pursued.
"Another criterion is proportionality: the human, economic and other costs of war must be proportionate to the objective to be achieved by the use of weapons of war. In this case, will war with Iraq leave the people of Kuwait, the Middle East and the world better or worse off?"
"I fear that, in this situation," he said, "moving beyond the deployment of military forces in an effort to deter Iraqi aggression to the undertaking of offensive military action could well violate these criteria, especially the principles of proportionality and last resort."
"The use of weapons of war cannot be a substitute," Pilarczyk said, "for the difficult, often time-consuming and frustrating work of searching for political solutions to the deep-seated problems in the Middle East which have contributed to this current crisis."
When we look back on this period in the post-crisis atmosphere, it will be possible to argue that America's religious leaders should have spoken out sooner, louder or more often.
But at this point -- before the first shot has been fired -- it will be impossible to say that the churches did not clearly spell out the moral dimensions and costs of war.