First Things First — A View on the War in Iraq

This piece was the introduction to Pieces of War: A Mosaic of Views on the War in Iraq, a special section that appeared in the first and only issue of Mosaic: A Magazine of Arts, Sciences & Everything in Between, which evolved into this website. The links below have been updated to make sense within the Potluck context.

Here at Mosaic, we fancy ourselves systems thinkers. Systems thinking is just that, a way of thinking, a way of making connections. It’s not an ideology. It does not give answers, only ways of dealing with questions. Rather than spend our time giving thumbs up or down in the usual debates, we’re more interested in using the systems perspective to shed new light on old issues.

In general, we intend to steer away from topics covered well elsewhere. But sheer volume doesn’t guarantee that a topic has been covered well, that the most helpful perspectives have been brought to light. The war in Iraq is one of these topics. While it may be a new war, the reasons behind it aren’t new at all. And for all the attention it’s being given, for all that people both for and against have said, we thought that maybe our perspective might have something new and worthwhile to say. You’ll be the judge.

Systems thinking isn’t going to tell us whether the U.S. should or shouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq. It’s not going to tell us whether or not Saddam Hussein is evil.

Systems thinking does suggest, though, that absolute declarations of almost any kind aren’t the “truth”–that they are instead simply the passionate statements of someone thinking a certain way in a certain context. And sometimes those statements are helpful, and sometimes they are not.

Systems thinking also suggests that the best way of bringing about lasting and desired change for a situation is to seek a fundamental solution, not to go for the easy fix, the symptomatic solution. Does this mean treatment of mere symptoms is bad or wrong? No. Far from it. When I get a cut, I want a bandage and some antibiotic ointment. But having those things around doesn’t give me an excuse to be careless. And relying on them too much might make me forget that being careful is even an option. Far too often, we address symptoms, side effects, secondary issues that will never go away until we commit ourselves to fundamental solutions to the primary issues. It’s not about denying treatment–it’s simply a question of prioritizing. First things first.

How do we find the primary issues? One path is to keep asking why until we don’t think we can ask it anymore.

A crucial question to ask about the war in Iraq is why Saddam Hussein even came to power. Is it because he’s a lunatic who used his own forceful personality to get what he wanted? In a global society which has systematically created dictators and despots and oppression for thousands of years, the answer to this question must be no. And if the answer is no, then toppling Hussein’s regime must be seen as addressing a mere symptom of a larger problem. Hussein may die, and democracy may be brought to Iraq. Maybe the war will succeed with flying colors and make Iraq and the Middle East a better place even in the eyes of the war’s opponents. But what about the next dictatorship, the next despot, the next oppressed population? Do we wage war until we lick every last one? That’s a grim–and, in countless ways, expensive–prospect. Worse, it won’t fundamentally change anything. Dictatorship, despots, and oppression will keep popping up, which makes it impossible to wage war until they’re all gone. Waging war will never get rid of them all. Does this mean war is wrong? No. But it does mean war is something much less than a fundamental solution.

So why does our global society systematically create dictators and despots and oppression? It’s beyond the scope of this little piece to go into detail on this. But however we dig into the answers to this question, we begin to see that our society creates these things in the same way that it systematically creates famine and ecological degradation and terrorism and widespread illness and inequality. And when we begin to see that, we can’t help but realize that we are in the midst of an extremely serious world crisis–one that’s been upon us for many years and for reasons completely independent of and much more troublesome than 9/11/01 or the war on terrorism or Saddam Hussein or the war in Iraq.

Count up all the people who have died as a result of 9/11 and the events that seem to have directly followed it. Odds are that it will be a smaller figure than the number of people who die in the world every day as a result of other cases of terrorism and despotism and oppression and as a result of famine or disease or poverty. Does this mean the deaths from 9/11 and beyond are insignificant? No. Far from it. On the contrary, it means that they are even more significant than we imagine, the result of far more powerful and chronic forces than most people even realize. Unfortunately, chronic problems aren’t as sexy as acute problems, so we tend not to hear much about them. If the media bothered to cover chronic problems in proportion to their seriousness, there’d be no time for anything else. Of course, maybe then we’d get closer to fundamental change.

The war in Iraq is a serious situation. There is no question of this. But unless it escalates into a much larger conflict–something even the majority of its die-hard supporters surely must not want–then the fact is that, in the grand scheme of things, the war in Iraq is a truly minor part of our global society’s much more fundamental crisis, a crisis that will drive us all into the ground if we don’t fundamentally change the way we go about our business. In this light, and again short of escalation, it just doesn’t matter so much whether we support or oppose the war. Our best prospects for making the world a fundamentally better place lie elsewhere entirely.

Whatever we may passionately feel about the war itself, I think–and, on the whole, Mosaic thinks–that it’s always much more constructive to get to the root of something than to treat symptoms. Systems thinking suggests that things are connected in complex ways which deny simple chains of cause and effect. A may affect B, B may affect C, etc., but it turns out that Z affects A. There is no root cause in the system itself. How do we find our root, then? By understanding both the system itself and our goals for the system, and by realizing that these are two different things. Through this we can identify leverage points, places in the system where action will yield the greatest impact on the whole. This creates the roots for the fundamental changes we desire–and those are the only roots we need.

In this light, the most constructive thing we can possibly say about the conflicts over Iraq is that nothing about them lies anywhere close to a leverage point. For people on any side of any of these conflicts to bring about what they most desire, they’re going to have to start looking at far deeper issues. Again, our best prospects for making the world a fundamentally better place lie elsewhere entirely.

Having made this point, I hope you will read on and see what some other people here have to say. Feel free to express your own opinions as well. We’ll try to publish any responses that add new insights to the situation.

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