War creates a search for moral stance, clear line of good and evil WAR IN THE GULF

February 24, 1991|By Diane Winston

Michael Dopkin, like many Americans, didn't want war.

How could the United States defend democracy in Kuwait since that country had no democratic traditions? Why were U.S. leaders suddenly worried about oil when they had never developed a national energy policy?

And most important, what about the innocent lives that would be sacrificed in state-of-the-art combat?

But Mr. Dopkin's moral qualms about the justness of war and the inappropriateness of civilian casualties have been supplanted by a larger concern. He believes that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is evil and that the war is a morally justified battle against him.

"When you have someone who is so clearly evil, that becomes your focus," said Mr. Dopkin, a local businessman and a member of Beth El, a Conservative Jewish congregation. "I honestly don't think [Iraq's call for a cease-fire] will change the ethical basis of the war."

Like many Americans, Mr. Dopkin says he reached that conclusion after listening to some sermons and squaring the religious message with what he felt were political realities. But that path to moral decision-making -- short on rigorous probing of ethics and tradition -- strikes some as a failure on the part of religious institutions.

"There is something missing in our religious formation," said Dick Ullrich, who belongs to Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore and works for a Catholic religious order. "People aren't raising moral questions -- whether from a Jewish, Christian or Muslim perspective."

That absence of formal moral guidance is something on which hawks and doves agree: Churches and synagogues could do more to shape the ethical debate.

But Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics, says too many clergy would rather wave a flag than stake out a controversial moral position.

"Christians don't have a sense there's a

difference between being a good Christian and a loyal American," said Dr. Hauerwas, who teaches at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "American churches have been playing up the patriotic experience."

That's not true, says George Weigel, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Mr. Weigel, who is a Catholic, said patriotic churchgoers were expressing sentiments appropriate for supporters of a just war.

"It's quite clear there's no room in the Christian mentality for a crusade," said Mr. Weigel, who believes the Persian Gulf crisis meets the criteria for a just war. "But once one has reached the conclusion this is a morally justified use of force, we should support people who are put in harm's way."

Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, also believes the current war is justified. And he adds that even if some local churches and synagogues didn't push hard enough, the American people still debated the moral aspect of the war before Jan. 15.

"Many Americans believe Saddam Hussein is evil. That's the moral justification for the war," said Mr. Novak, a Catholic layman. "This is an ethical country. We do think about right and wrong."

If their religious institutions failed to lead the moral debate over the war, Americans found other venues. Talk-shows, taxicabs, barrooms and editorial pages became sites for sounding out the issues. And without specific religious injunctions, many people fell back on personal experiences and political analyses to help with decision-making.

Ashraf Ghani, a professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, suggests people's historical backgrounds shape their feelings about war:

Men and women who lived through World War II are wary of appeasing Mr. Hussein, whom they liken to Hitler. Those who came of age during the Vietnam War gingerly support the war because they don't want another siege to tear society apart. College-age citizens, raised in an increasingly interdependent

world, empathize with the troops their age who are fighting in the gulf but also feel for the Iraqi people.

For each age group, participation in the war is justified by the news media, Mr. Ghani said.

"The media plays a crucial role because the language of justification for the war comes from the media," he said. "Television is a common bond which supplies ready-made answers."

These answers, say ethicists, provide moral justification for the war.

"Everyone agrees war is a bad thing, so we need to find reasons for doing it," said Deni Elliott, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

"The United States government is controlling the information on this war. In the last two decades, the government has put into place a public relations system that is as at least as sophisticated as their weapons systems."

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