"I WONDERED at first whether the women were exaggerating."
The writer is Pamela Bone, a noted Australian journalist and self-described "left-leaning, feminist, agnostic, environmentalist internationalist." She is writing about a group of female Iraqi emigrees whom she met in November 2000.
"They told me that in Iraq, the country they had fled, women were beheaded with swords and their heads nailed to the front doors of their houses, as a lesson to other women. The executed women had been dishonoring their country with their sexual crimes, and this behavior could not be tolerated, the then-Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, had said on national television. More than 200 women had been executed in this manner in the previous three weeks. . . . Because the claims seemed so extreme, I checked Amnesty International's country report. . . . Some of the women's 'sexual crimes' were having been raped by one of Saddam's sons. One of the women executed was a doctor who had complained of corruption in the government health department."
Bone's words appear in an essay she contributed to "A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq," a 2005 collection edited by Wellesley College sociologist Thomas Cushman. To read her essay this week, with the war entering its fourth year, is to be reminded of the abiding moral power of the liberal case for the war. While most of the left was always opposed to liberating Iraq, a small but honorable minority never lost sight of the vast humanitarian stakes: Defeating Saddam would mean ending one of the most unspeakable dictatorships of modern times. Wasn't that a goal anyone with progressive values should embrace?
That was why, "in February 2003, when asked to speak at a rally for peace, I politely declined," Bone writes. "But I added, less politely, that if there were to be a rally condemning the brutality Saddam Hussein was inflicting on his people . . . I would be glad to speak at it."
But condemning Saddam's brutality, let alone doing something to end it, was not a priority for most of the left. I remember asking Ted Kennedy during the run-up to the war why he and others in the antiwar camp seemed to have so little sympathy for the countless victims of Ba'athist tyranny. Even if they thought an invasion was unwise, couldn't they at least voice some solidarity with the innocent human beings writhing in Saddam's Iraqi hell? Kennedy replied vehemently that he took a back seat to no one in his concern for those who suffer under all the world's evil regimes, and demanded to know whether supporters of war in Iraq also wanted to invade North Korea, Burma, and other human-rights violators.
It was a specious answer. The United States may not be able to stop every homicidal fascist on the planet, but that is hardly an argument for stopping none of them. If the Bush administration had listened to Kennedy and to the millions like him the world over who raised their voices against invading Iraq, would the world be a better place today? Leaving Saddam and the Ba'athists in power -- free to break and butcher their victims, to support international terrorists, to menace other countries -- would have emboldened murderous dictators everywhere. The jihadists of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, celebrating the latest display of American irresolution, would have been spurred to new atrocities. The Arab world would have sunk a little deeper into its nightmare of cruelty and fear. And women's heads would still be getting nailed to the front doors of Iraqi homes.
Three years into the war, with many Americans wondering if it was a mistake and the media coverage endlessly negative, one voice I miss more than ever is that of Michael Kelly. The first journalist to die while covering the war, Kelly had covered the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, and in one of his last columns, filed from Kuwait City, he reflected on the coming liberation of Iraq: "Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.
"I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications, of America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti, or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?"