On the Eve of War

Richard Dawkins


On the Eve of War

I write this on March 18, 2003, on the eve of war, haunted by my countryman W.H. Auden’s lines in “September 1, 1939.”

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire . . .

I know that what I say can make no difference—it will anyway be overtaken by events before it is published. All I can attempt is the long view.

Whether or not the war in Iraq has nominally ended by the time you read this, it will not be over. The Islamic world will be plunged into a seething stew of humiliated resentment, from which generations of “martyrs” will rise, led by new Usamas. The scars of enmity between Britain and her erstwhile friends in Europe may take years to heal. NATO may never recover. As for the United Nations, quite apart from the corrupt spectacle of the world’s leading power bribing and bullying small countries to hand over their votes, it is mortally wounded. The fragile semblance of a rule of law in international affairs, painstakingly built up since World War II, is collapsing. A precedent is set for any country to attack any other country it happens to dislike and is strong enough to defeat. Who knows how this may play itself out, if followed by North Korea, Israel, Pakis tan, or India—countries that really do have weapons of mass destruction.

Usama bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, could hardly have hoped for this. A mere eighteen months after he boosted the United States to a peak of worldwide sympathy and popularity unprecedented since Pearl Harbor, the totality of that international goodwill has been squandered to near zero. Bin Laden must be beside himself with glee. And, Allah be praised, the infidels are now walking right into the Iraq trap.

There was always a risk for bin Laden that his attacks on New York and Washington might raise world sympathy for the United States, thereby thwarting his long-term aim of holy war against the Great Satan. He needn’t have worried. With the Bush junta at the helm, a camel could have foreseen the outcome. And the beauty is that it doesn’t matter what happens in the war. Imagine how it looks from bin Laden’s warped point of view:

If the American victory is swift, Bush will have done our work for us, removing the hated Saddam Hussein with his secular, unIslamic ways, and opening the way for a decent theocracy ruled by Ayatollahs or Talibanis. Even better, as a war “hero” the strutting, swaggering Bush may actually win an election. Who can guess what he will then get up to, and what resentments he will arouse, when he finally has something to swagger about?

Divergent Views on War in Iraq

Covering a month-long war in a quarterly publication is difficult at best. Nevertheless, we feel it is important to air the views of secular humanists who have been vocal and articulate before, during, and after the war. While many opposed the war (as five FI editors did in the Spring issue), many others supported it. The secular humanist community includes doves and hawks, and many who recognize that very diversity as one of our movement’s strengths. In the pages that follow, we are pleased to present a selection of secular humanist opinion regarding the war in Iraq. The articles were written at various points in the crisis.

—The editors


We shall have so many martyrs volunteering, we shall run out of targets. Or, if the American victory is slow and bloody, things might be better still. Admittedly, Bush will probably fall in 2004 and Saddam be seen as a martyr, but never mind. The hatred that a prolonged war generates will set us up for the foreseeable future, even if the Americans elect a less gloriously useful president. How could we have hoped for more?

A handful of the zealous faithful, mostly Saudis with a few Egyptians, armed only with box-cutters and deep religious faith, simultaneously commandeered four large airliners and flew three of them, undisturbed by fighter aircraft or—mysteriously—by any immediate government attention at all, into large buildings with catastrophic loss of life. Praise be to Allah. But mark the sequel. It is almost too good to be true but, as a direct consequence of this attack, the entire might of the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force is diverted away from us and hurled at a completely different country, whose only connection with 9/11 is that its people belong to the same “race” and religion as our glorious martyrs.

Whatever anyone may say about weapons of mass destruction, or about Saddam’s savage brutality to his own people, the reason Bush can now get away with his war is that a sufficient number of Americans see it as revenge for 9/11. This is not only bizarre. It is pure racism and/or religious prejudice, given that nobody has made even a faintly plausible case that Iraq had anything to do with the atrocity. It was Arabs that hit the World Trade Center, right? So let’s go and kick Arab ass. Those 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, right? Right. And Iraqis are Muslims, right? Right. That does it.

The official reasons for this war were equally applicable before 9/11, and before the last election. Yet, though it has certainly lurked, ever since the first Gulf War, in the dark minds of some of the men behind Bush,1 it never got a mention in his election manifesto, nor in that of his stooge Blair. Indeed, of all major world leaders, only Germany’s Gerhard Schröder has put the war to an electorate—he was against it—and consequently he could claim to be the only one with a democratic mandate for what he is now doing.

As for my own country, even the minority who support Tony Blair’s pro-Bush policy do so with the minimum of enthusiasm. Max Hastings is a veteran newspaper editor with a stalwart reputation, dating back to even before the Falklands war, as a right-wing hawk on most issues. If anybody among British opinion-formers could have been expected to stand with Bush, it is Hastings. In the Telegraph, Britain’s most consistently right-wing newspaper, Hastings has written a remarkable piece, which is worth quoting.

Some of us have always argued that this is not a crisis about handling Iraq—it is about how the rest of the world manages the US. Our only superpower possesses the means to impose its will anywhere, without military aid from anyone. It is vital that allies should dissuade the US from pursuing a unilateral foreign policy, which is why I, for one, reluctantly support British participation in the war. . . .2

Hastings explains how Tony Blair’s desperate efforts to salvage some sort of respectability in international law were fatally undermined by the Bush administration’s transparent intention to go to war whatever happened, following a predetermined military timetable.

This was an irresistible invitation for others, notably the French, to throw the toys out of the pram. Mr Bush and his colleagues have casually insulted half the globe. . . . Watching [Donald Rumsfeld] in diplomatic action reminds one of an elephant taking a stroll in a Japanese bonsai garden. . . .3

Hastings hopes for a swift American victory that will leave the world “a marginally better place without Saddam.” But he notes:

Mr. Bush has achieved the near-impossible, by creating an international constituency for Saddam. Heaven help us; if he persists with his doctrine of the rightness of might after capturing Baghdad, he could build a coalition in support of Kim Jong Il.

Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil (the capital letters are deliberate). It is Us against Them, St. Michael’s angels against the forces of Lucifer. We shall smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all, and let God deal with their souls. Some of Bush’s faithful supporters even welcome war as the necessary prelude to Armageddon and the Rapture. We must presume, or at least hope, that Bush himself is not quite of that bonkers persuasion.

But he really does seem to believe that he is wrestling, on God’s behalf, against some sort of disembodied spirit of Evil.

Evil (like “Sin” and like “Terror,” Bush’s favorite target before the current Iraq distraction) is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who, for all sorts of reasons, should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn’t help: they will simply be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems so as to minimize the chance that they will rise to the top. In the case of Saddam Hussein, we in the West must bear some guilt. The United States, Britain, and France have all, from time to time, done our bit to shore up Saddam and even arm him.


And let us look to our own vaunted democratic institutions. The population of the United States is nearly 300 million, including many of the best-educated, most talented, most resourceful, most ingenious, most humane people on Earth. By almost any measure of civilized attainment, from Nobel Prize-counts on down, the United States leads the world by miles. You would think that a country with such resources, and such a field of talent, would be able to devise a constitution and an electoral procedure that would ensure a leadership of the highest quality. Yet, what has happened? At the end of all the primaries and party caucuses, after all the speeches and the televised debates, after a year or more of nonstop electioneering bustle and balloons and razzmatazz, who, out of that entire population of 300 million, has emerged at the top of the heap? George W. Bush.

Those of us who marched through London, a million strong, to oppose Tony Blair’s craven support for the Iraq war are sometimes accused of anti-Americanism. I vigorously repudiate the charge. I am strongly pro-American, which is one reason I am passionately anti-Bush. You didn’t elect him. You deserve better, and so do the rest of us. Even if the Florida vote wasn’t deliberately rigged, Al Gore’s majority in the country, reinforcing his majority in the Electoral College but for dead-heated Florida, should have led a just and unpartisan Supreme Court to award the tie-breaker to him. Bush came to power by what I can only, if oxymoronically, call a constitutional coup d’état.

Forgive my presumption, but could it just be that there is something a teeny-weeny bit wrong with that famous U.S. Constitution? Is it really a good idea, for example, that a single person’s vote, buried deep within the margin of error for a whole state, can by itself swing a full twenty-five votes in the Electoral College, one way or the other? And is it really sensible that money should translate itself so directly and transparently into electoral success, so that a successful candidate must either be very rich or prepared to sell favors to those who are? Would you do business with a company that devoted an entire year to little else than headhunting its new CEO, from the strongest field in the world, and ended up with George W. Bush? Think about it, guys.


1. Many of them are listed on the remarkable Web site of the Project for the New American Century (http://www.newamerican century.org/), which should be visited by only those with a strong stomach.

2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/ main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2003/03/16/do1603.xml. A somewhat similar point was made in an excellent article in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria: http://www.msnbc.com/news/885222. asp?vts=031620031350#BODY.

3. Hastings might have added that undermining the United Nations has long been an end in itself, for some elements in Bush’s support base. See http://www.getusout.org/ index.htm, http://www.contenderministries. org/UN/intrelations.php.

Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. An evolutionary biologist and prolific author and lecturer, his collection of essays, A Devil’s Chaplain, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in September 2003.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.