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Campus forum: Thomas G. Barnes

This is a transcript of remarks delivered by Thomas G. Barnes at a forum of UC Berkeley faculty experts convened at Zellerbach Hall on April 1, 2003, to discuss the war with Iraq. Barnes is a history and law professor, co-chair of UC Berkeley's Canadian Studies Program, chair of the faculty committee for the ROTC program, and the author of eight books.

I am going to take the position, which I suppose will be somewhat unpopular (certainly in the Berkeley context), but first of all defending President Bush’s decision to go to war. Secondly, to argue that none of the objections to the war are stronger or more persuasive than the obvious necessity for it. I also want to point out that wars are never simple and seldom quite as short as everyone wishes to believe. And I also want to deal with the issue of casualties, which are on everyone’s mind at a time of war. Casualties that are unfortunate, but of course inevitable, and they are by and large supportable, if never acceptable, if the strategy and tactics from which they result are by intention to spare life, in execution, sound, and in result, victorious.

Thomas Barnes
'I think most Americans are prepared to take casualties in a just war. And I think that the judgment of this country is that this war is just. It may not seem so in Berkeley, but it is elsewhere.'
—Thomas Barnes

To deal with the first point, the president’s decision to go to war. As one looks back over the twelve years since the conclusion of the first Gulf War, at the attempts made to disarm Saddam Hussein, involving very long periods of inspections, and a very heavy series of sanctions, none of which sufficiently persuaded him to do so, and none of which, by the way, seems to have very much inhibited his capacity to go on making weapons of mass destruction. One is struck by the fact, and I think it is a fact, that the only way that Saddam Hussein will ever be disarmed is in fact to lose power.

Attempts were made in the course of the past six months, beginning with Resolution 1441 of the United Nations, which would have, and did, put pressure on Saddam Hussein to agree to and cooperate with a regime that would determine that if he had weapons of mass destruction they would be destroyed, or if he did not have weapons of mass destruction, that would be adequately established.

That attempt over the past six months came to utter and complete failure. Not for want of trying, but I think quite obviously because there were particular nation states, and I speak here primarily of France, that probably never had any intention from the outset that any force would ever be used against Saddam Hussein, the motivations for which I leave you to chose. I would put the darkest interpretation on them.

Therefore, given the failure to get the United Nations to enforce 1441, to get that kind of a consensus of the world community, if such a thing does exist, fail to get that kind of backing has led the president to a coalition of the willing. And by the way, I don’t care whether you count 20, 30, or how big or how small, at least to take steps to bring about the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. That decision, of course, is now actively in operation.

Objections to war … they of course are many. But I don’t think any of them are overwhelmingly persuasive. I think that we will in fact see, when this war is completed, the full extent of the horrors of Saddam Hussein, and I also am pretty sure, some of the newscasts to the contrary, that we will find large-scale support in Iraq for his overthrow. I don’t think anybody’s going to come out of the woodwork particularly until they’re absolutely sure that he is gone. And I don’t blame them. Our policy was not of the best in the spring and summer of 1991 when we did fail to remove him from power. I think, by the way, for very good reasons, for very high moral reasons as well as very pragmatic ones.

Therefore, to get rid of Hussein, war has been necessary. If you don’t believe that getting rid of Hussein is important, then the war is indeed unnecessary. Then it does indeed become, as Professor Al Sayyad said, a matter of choice, a war of choice.

Now as to the question of the simplicity of war and the shortness and duration of war. The military historian is always stuck by the fact that the initial strategy and the initial tactics that are used to enforce that strategy undergo a rapid change in the actual course of operations. There are very few generals who, like Field Marshal Montgomery, were able to say, long after the fact his entire strategy at Normandy was a shambles, that he was sticking to the original strategy.

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Wars are complex. They are complex operationally. They are complex psychologically and they are very complex emotionally. And they are seldom short, certainly not as short as we wish them to be and I think as we had convinced ourselves this one would be.

The first man to try to make a law of war, that is, to make war less horrible than it really is, was a German publisher and lawyer by the name of Francis Lieber. In 1863, he drew up a code of military law to govern the relationship of belligerents and the treatment of prisoners and the treatment, in fact, of the determination of who prisoners were. And that was based upon a very simple postulate of Lieber’s, who by the way had been almost mortally wounded, he described, at the battle of Namur just after Waterloo in 1815, and that is that the best wars are short wars. And the way that life is in fact best preserved and the way that in fact life is best not shed is to make war as short as possible.

The fourth point: casualties. We are all very much concerned with casualties. I think most Americans are prepared to take casualties in a just war. And I think that the judgment of this country is that this war is just. It may not seem so in Berkeley, but it is elsewhere. I say they’re supportable because they are necessary to the conduct of war. And Americans have usually been pretty good about taking casualties when that war has been just.

But casualties are only supportable if the strategy and the tactics that demand them are intended to spare life. I think that’s very important. We’re seeing a new kind of warfare, in which life is given great emphasis and much prominence, where life is, in fact. indeed not to be shed, not to be destroyed wantonly – either our lives, the lives of our enemy, or the lives of civilians.

But those strategies and tactics also have to be, in execution, sound. In other words, they have to work. And if they don’t work, then you go on into a quagmire of loss-of-life unnecessarily and insupportably. The Vietnam War was a perfect example of it, because that was a war we did not intend to win. We at best intended not to lose. So that is why war also should result in victory. Because if it does not, the casualties are indeed insupportable.

The chancellor posed a series of questions as he introduced us all. Is this the first of many wars? It’s not even the last of many wars. War is, in fact, the default position of mankind. There will be more wars. Under what circumstances and why, we will not know until in fact we come very close to them. I don’t think Iran and Syria are necessarily much danger, but there will be places in this world where the United States feels that it has to defend itself.

Read the complete remarks by:
Chancellor Berdahl
Nezar AlSayyad
Thomas G. Barnes
David D. Caron
Laura Nader
Steve Weber
Janet Yellen
Q&A with audience
Can there be a peace without peace in Israel and Palestine? Of course not, but at the same time, peace between Israel and Palestine cannot be based upon the assumption that Israel should be driven into the sea.

Will there be more terrorism or less? I don’t think, as a result of this war, there will be either more or less terrorism. I think terrorism will be with us for a very long period of time and I think we will have to cope with it as best we can.

The impact of this war with a new regime, and a hopefully democratic regime in Iraq, may in fact change something of the complexion of the Middle East. I’m not an expert, I do not know. I am an American, I can hope.

So as we now only see the future darkly, I think that we also have to recognize that this war must be victorious and that it will be.