Pondering the philosophy of war


Conflict: As the fighting in Iraq continues, college instructors are using world events as a springboard for discussion and to provoke thought.

April 02, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IS THERE a gene that causes humans to engage in warfare?

Well, a case could be made, says Stephen Vicchio, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame. Since the fifth century, he says, there have been 962 armed conflicts, which means that on any day, the chances are quite high that humans somewhere in the world are killing each other.

"It's an appalling statistic," says Vicchio.

Vicchio is recovering from a stroke, so he has no students this semester. But he's busy speaking and writing about the Iraq war. And his colleagues in college and university classrooms everywhere are grappling with the compelling issues it raises.

War is grist for the philosopher's mill, Vicchio says, because it raises the eternal questions of right and wrong, good and evil, revenge and justice. And at times like these, students need to think critically and clearly without letting emotion cloud their judgment.

"That's terribly hard to do," says William Rice, chairman of the philosophy department at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus. "These are tough times emotionally and intellectually. I teach five courses, and every time I walk out of the classroom, I'm a dishrag."

Rice tries to lead his students to examine the war with critical thinking and applied logic. He says there's a dangerous tendency "to judge a war by its outcome: `If the Iraqi people embrace our soldiers in the streets, that's a good war. If they don't, it's a bad war.' That's too simple."

Smack in the middle of the discussion is the notion of a "just war." Rooted in the Middle Ages, but adopted 20 years ago by the U.S. Catholic bishops, the idea is that going to war is justified if doing so meets certain criteria. Among them: going to war must confront a real and certain danger; there must be the probability of success; the intention during the conflict must be the pursuit of peace and reconciliation (not capturing territory); and the damage inflicted must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.

Vicchio argues that the U.S. invasion of Iraq satisfies no more than half of the eight conditions of a just war. "I don't think [President] Bush has a moral theory about this war," he says. "If he does, it changes almost every day."

At McDaniel College in Westminster, Mark Hadley teaches a course on the issues of social justice and another titled "Malcolm and Martin," in which students study the lives and views of Malcom X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Hadley has rearranged both courses to take advantage of the "teachable moments" war provides.

What would Malcolm X say? "He'd probably say quite a bit about American imperialism and the disproportionate number of minorities and people of low income who are fighting our war," says Hadley.

Hadley says McDaniel students "aren't as clear about the purpose of this war as they were in the case of Afghanistan. And there's a real sense of their distance from the reality of war. For many, unless they have a relative serving in the military, it's `over there somewhere.' That may change, though. We're only a few days into this war. It took a long time for the anti-war sentiment to build in the case of Vietnam."

Hadley says campus reaction to the Iraq war differs in a major way from reaction to the Vietnam war 35 years ago. "In the case of Vietnam, the students were more liberal and anti-war than the faculty. Now it's the other way around."

At Salisbury University, Michael Waters, who teaches creative writing, says student reaction to the war has been so muted "that it's almost impossible to stir things up. My 14-year- old daughter has been engaged in more anti-war activities at her high school than most of the students here."

Thirteen years ago, just after the first Persian Gulf war, The Evening Sun published an essay by Waters about a visit to a poetry festival in Iraq. It was 1986, Iran and Iraq were at war, and his Iraqi hosts knew that the United States had sold arms to the enemy to finance another war against the Sandinistas in Central America.

Waters wrote that he needn't have worried. He was introduced as a famous American poet and treated kindly. As he was escorted through the streets, Iraqi children laughed, sang and jockeyed for position to touch him. Only later did Waters discover that the song was a pledge of allegiance to Saddam Hussein, a promise to shed blood for the leader.

That was 1986. This is 2003.

"As I was teaching the other day," says Waters, "I kept thinking about those children and wondering where they are today."

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