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Those who wish to either emphasize the fallibility of the Prophet or rubber-stamp the current Iraq war frequently cite President Hinckley’s “War and Peace” talk from the April 2003 General Conference. This talk is used by both sides of the aisle: the left, aiming to show the Prophet as being “just a man” who bought on to the neoconservative propaganda leading us into war; the right, aiming to show support from President Hinckley for the entire “war on terror”.
With both sides of the aisle using the same talk to justify their stances, where does one find firm ground to stand upon? What did Pres. Hinckley really say (and not say)?
First, it is important to understand the context in which the talk was given. This timeline of the Iraq war reminds us that only days before General Conference, the United States officially launched their offensive assault on the nation of Iraq, expanding the “war on terror” into another nation, this one ruled by a former ally. Support for the war was very high among Americans, and President Bush enjoyed a high approval rating (see table 2).
President Hinckley begins by stating that the war to which he refers is the “war on terrorism”:
And so I venture to say something about the war and the gospel we teach. I spoke of this somewhat in our October conference of 2001. When I came to this pulpit at that time, the war against terrorism had just begun. The present war [in Iraq] is really an outgrowth and continuation of that conflict. Hopefully it is now drawing to a conclusion. (emphasis and bracketed comments added)
He then goes on to discuss war in general, and highlights the underpinning theme common to all wars:
Isaiah speaks further concerning that great conflict (see Isa. 14:12-20). Modern revelation gives additional light (see D&C 76:25-29), as does the book of Moses (see Moses 4:14), which tells of Satan’s plan to destroy the agency of man. (emphasis added)
Having stated who is at the head of such catastrophic campaigns, Pres. Hinckley discusses man’s propensity to glorify brutality (not unlike Pres. Kimball’s infamous talk on the subject):
We sometimes are prone to glorify the great empires of the past, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and in more recent times, the vast British Empire. But there is a darker side to every one of them. There is a grim and tragic overlay of brutal conquest, of subjugation, of repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure. (emphasis added)
In an effort to apply such things to ourselves, the question should be asked: do we glorify any current empires? Are we nationalists who support or ignore the “darker side” of modern empire, or patriots who bind our leaders down to the Constitution? While there are various types of governments throughout the world (some quite oppressive), even a Republic can produce “brutal conquest”, “subjugation”, “repression” and “astronomical cost in life and treasure”. Surely we’ve seen such things in our own land.
But empires cannot long survive without an emperor or tyrant at its helm, fanning the flames of war. Of such tyrants, President Hinckley said:
In the course of history tyrants have arisen from time to time who have oppressed their own people and threatened the world. Such is adjudged to be the case presently, and consequently great and terrifying forces with sophisticated and fearsome armaments have been engaged in battle. (emphasis added)
There are two important things of note here. The first is that a characteristic of a tyrant is one who oppresses his own people and threatens the world. In our day of the Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act, domestic wiretapping, insanely high deficit spending, and all sorts of other repressive political policies, one might consider our own government oppressive (in some cases physically so, in most others, economically/socially). And the fact that we have soldiers and bases established in over 130 countries lends credence to the argument that we threaten the world through our hegemony.
Now, some might play the “luxury” card, arguing that because of our freedoms and standard of living, we are not nearly as oppressed as others throughout the world. While in comparison this is true, it nevertheless remains a fact that our own government has been oppressive not only to certain individuals whose constitutional liberties were refused, but also to the general public through the passing of comprehensive legislation which infringes upon constitutional guarantees and sidesteps fundamental liberties once enjoyed by and secured for all.
Regardless of one’s desire to apply this statement to our own nation, it is easy to apply this statement to a man like Saddam Hussein. But the second important thing to notice is the word ‘adjudged’ used by President Hinckley, indicating a transfer of responsibility for judgment. He did not say that “this is the case presently,” but instead that others have judged and decided that such was the case at the time.
Some might say that because he is the prophet, President Hinckley should have known the truth about the government’s judgment and claim of the war, and spoken out accordingly. Perhaps he did very well know the faulty nature of the government’s claim; we do not know, since he here only states what others in power have judged to be the case.
But in the case of speculating how much the prophet knew at the time, let us not assume that the prophet can make any demands of the Lord. While he has access to revelation and guidance for the church as a whole, and no doubt understands things far better than the rest of us do, in no way does his prophetic mantle entitle him to know whatever it is he desires. Who is to say that the Lord withheld an answer from his questions regarding the war? Who is to say he even asked? While the Lord can give revelation in response to a question, or even when no question was asked, it is naïve to assume that the prophet knows everything about everything.
The talk continues citing the condition of soldiers and civilians alike, all with different perspectives on and experiences regarding the war, showing what a difference of opinion is held by various members of the Church throughout the world. The question is then posed by President Hinckley: “Where does the Church stand in all of this?”
After stating our love and respect for people of all faiths, he says:
But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders.
This is in harmony with our scriptures, which say that “we believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside”.
I pause here to note an important distinction regarding the office of the President. Despite low approval ratings, a widespread recognition that he has plummeted our nation into debt, and the creation of ill feelings towards our nation abroad, many feel that the office of the President should still command our respect and support. The distinction I wish to make is that the President is our President, and only our President. Unfortunately, many also seem to feel that during wartime he is also our Commander-in-Chief. This is not the case.
Inasmuch as our leaders are respecting the rule of law and adhering to the Constitution, they deserve our support and obedience. But as the verse cited above continues, we are to do so “while protected in [our] inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments”. A president who abuses his power deserves neither our respect nor our allegiance. So said Theodore Roosevelt:
Every man who parrots the cry of ‘stand by the President’ without adding the proviso ‘so far as he serves the Republic’ takes an attitude as essentially unmanly as that of any Stuart royalist who championed the doctrine that the King could do no wrong. No self-respecting and intelligent free man could take such an attitude. (Theodore Roosevelt, via Quoty)
Referring to the leaders of nations, President Hinckley then says:
They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally.
Again, President Hinckley defers judgment to those with access to such intelligence (or lack thereof, some might argue). Rather than openly stating his approval of the war or its proposed reasons, he shifts accountability to those who have acted on the information they had.
This statement is true—political and military leaders have access to more intelligence than we do. But it is also true that such intelligence can be skewed, suppressed, misinterpreted, manipulated, and fabricated. Such has clearly been the case with the Iraq war, showing that those who adjudged that Saddam had WMDs were either lying or completely misinformed.
The fact that our leaders generally have access to greater intelligence does not condone their actions in the slightest.
Those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military service, they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.
As the scripture cited above shows, the allegiance is contingent upon the respect of law. The oaths of enlistment and of office clearly state that our military is to guard against enemies both foreign and domestic. Under no circumstance are they obliged at any time, future or present, to become the puppets of a dictator imposing his will on the masses as he pleases. President Hinckley is correct in stating that they have entered a contract by which they are bound. One would hope that all such soldiers would take it seriously.
Such a regard for law was evident in our Church’s history, when General Doniphan was ordered by his superior to shoot Joseph Smith. His response:
It is cold blooded murder. I will not obey your order. … and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.
And so, subjecting ourselves to the executive is clearly contingent upon the Constitutionality and legality of their orders.
In a democracy we can renounce war and proclaim peace. There is opportunity for dissent. Many have been speaking out and doing so emphatically. That is their privilege. That is their right, so long as they do so legally. However, we all must also be mindful of another overriding responsibility, which I may add, governs my personal feelings and dictates my personal loyalties in the present situation.
First, President Hinckley acknowledges the opportunity to legally protest and dissent. He recognizes this as a privilege and right. In doing so, however, he states that we must be mindful of another responsibility. The reader will note that he states that this responsibility governs his personal feeelings and loyalties in the current situation (war). This is a statement of personal opinion, not an over-the-pulpit suggestion, declaration, or commandment to think likewise.
That responsibility, as he goes on to explain, is the need to sometimes “fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression.” He cites a few scriptures supporting this fact, and states that nations at times are justified in doing so, and at other times obligated to do so.
The question to be asked, then, is “when are nations justified in doing so?” President McKay gave us the answer:
We see that war is incompatible with Christ’s teachings. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of peace. War is its antithesis and produces hate. It is vain to attempt to reconcile war with true Christianity. There are, however, two conditions which may justify a truly Christian man to enter, mind you, I say enter, not begin, a war: (1) an attempt to dominate and to deprive another of his free agency, and (2) loyalty to his country. Possibly there is a third, viz., defense of a weak nation that is being unjustly crushed by a strong ruthless one. (David O. McKay, via Quoty)
One might opine that President Hinckley was indirectly stating that he supported the Iraq war, as a war to fight for liberty, against tyranny, and topple a dictator. Even if that was his exact opinion at the time, he previously stated that it was based on the judgment of our leaders who had stated such to be the case. At no time did he express approval in general of the current policy, nor dictate that our support should be given down the road when new information was discovered or our cause, once thought to be noble, was learned to be fraudulent and pre-planned.
In a talk he gave three years ago, President Hinckley described the Book of Mormon as being “as current as the morning newspaper and much more definitive, inspired, and inspiring concerning the solutions of [our] problems.” Documenting its prophetic nature regarding our day, he said:
I know of no other writing which sets forth with such clarity the tragic consequences to societies that follow courses contrary to the commandments of God. Its pages trace the stories of two distinct civilizations that flourished on the Western Hemisphere. Each began as a small nation, its people walking in the fear of the Lord. But with prosperity came growing evils. The people succumbed to the wiles of ambitious and scheming leaders who oppressed them with burdensome taxes, who lulled them with hollow promises, who countenanced and even encouraged loose and lascivious living. These evil schemers led the people into terrible wars that resulted in the death of millions and the final and total extinction of two great civilizations in two different eras. (emphasis added)
Again we find the characteristic of a tyrant President Hinckley earlier described. This time, however, it refers to a leader oppressing the citizens of his own nation, leading them into wars, taxing them beyond reason, and lying to them.
If a person wishes to believe that the talk currently being analyzed gives express approval of the Iraq war and “war on terrorism” in general, s/he would need to reconcile those statements and beliefs with the talk cited here by the same author. Clearly our nation has not been given prophetic approbation regarding the current war.
This places us in the position of those who long for peace, who teach peace, who work for peace, but who also are citizens of nations and are subject to the laws of our governments. Furthermore, we are a freedom-loving people, committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy.
This single statement has been used by some to defend foreign intervention—America getting involved in the business of other nations. Surely President Hinckley is not endorsing anything that would run contrary to the Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution is our President authorized to invade other nations and change their forms of governments. What, then, is President Hinckley endorsing?
Said President Benson on the matter:
There is one and only one legitimate goal of United States foreign policy. It is a narrow goal, a nationalistic goal: the preservation of our national independence. Nothing in the Constitution grants that the president shall have the privilege of offering himself as a world leader. He is our executive; he is on our payroll; he is supposed to put our best interests in front of those of other nations. Nothing in the Constitution nor in logic grants to the president of the United States or Congress the power to influence the political life of other countries, to ‘uplift’ their cultures, to bolster their economies, to feed their people, or even defend them against their enemies. (Ezra Taft Benson, via Quoty)
So when President Hinckley says that we are committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy, is he suggesting that we are morally authorized to go around the world “spreading democracy”? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that he’s suggesting that Americans can defend liberty in America, Spaniards can do so in Spain, Afghans in Afghanistan, etc..
Those who believe otherwise need to apply the Golden Rule to their assertions. If it’s okay for us to meddle in the affairs of other nations to defend liberty, would we be so willing to see China, Russia, or Chile enter our borders to safeguard our liberties and oppose un-Constitutional laws? Hardly. Why, then, are we somehow morally justified in doing so?
Additionally, I might add that being “committed to the defense of liberty” does not necessarily imply military force. Can we not as a people unite in prayer, monetary support, and vocal action to defend liberty and urge change? I’m very committed right now to the defense of liberty in Darfur, but you don’t see me joining up with the UN police forces to patrol the streets and stop the bloodshed. Does that mean I’m not truly trying to defend liberty wherever it is in jeopardy?
Continuing, President Hinckley says:
I believe that God will not hold men and women in uniform responsible as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do. It may even be that He will hold us responsible if we try to impede or hedge up the way of those who are involved in a contest with forces of evil and repression.
This statement is in harmony with a First Presidency message from 1942 that said:
The whole world is in the midst of a war that seems the worst of all time. This Church is a worldwide church. Its devoted members are in both camps. They are the innocent war instrumentalities of their warring sovereignties. On each side they believe they are fighting for home and country and freedom. On each side, our brethren pray to the same God, in the same name, for victory. Both sides cannot be wholly right; perhaps neither is without wrong. God will work out in His own due time and in His own sovereign way the justice and right of the conflict, but He will not hold the innocent instrumentalities of the war, our brethren in arms, responsible for the conflict. This is a major crisis in the world-life of man. God is at the helm.
The next statement I find to be interesting, in light of the sentiment many seem to have towards those in the Middle East:
Now, there is much that we can and must do in these perilous times. We can give our opinions on the merits of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties.
A tactic used by pro-war politicians in every age and type of government is to demonize the enemy. Those who subscribe to the notion that our enemies are evil reincarnate must ponder these words by President Hinckley. To be sure, there are many throughout the world (and in our own country) that have a desire for bloodshed and death. This is nothing new, and we read of it extensively in the Book of Mormon. But is it a characteristic of swaths of people our government has declared to be in the “axis of evil”? Are there not innocent people who stand in the path of destruction in every war?
We know that you are not in that land of blowing sand and brutal heat because you enjoy the games of war. The strength of your commitment is measured by your willingness to give your very lives for that in which you believe.
Obviously, both sides of the battle are not fighting for the “true” cause. As the First Presidency message above noted, both sides feel they are right, yet both are probably not without wrong. And so, President Hinckley here does not say that they are giving their lives for “that which is right”, but instead says “that in which you believe”. Soldiers often are nothing more than pawns in a politician’s game of Risk, and are subject to the propaganda of their respective governments regarding their respective policies and positions.
Closing his remarks, President Hinckley says:
We call upon the Lord, whose strength is mighty and whose powers are infinite, to bring an end to the conflict, an end that will result in a better life for all concerned. The Lord has declared, “For I, the Lord, rule in the heavens above, and among the armies of the earth” (D&C 60:4).
Few notice that President Hinckley, a man suing for peace, calls for an end to the war—an end, he notes, that “will result in a better life for all concerned.” Could it just be that President Hinckley recognizes the moral, Constitutional, and societal benefits of bringing our troops home and ending this bloodshed? Granted, the Lord knows how best to end such conflict, but leaves man with the very agency which allows him to wage war and bring and early death to those who would otherwise continue to enjoy peace and a long life.
Not one to focus on negative, depressing things, President Hinckley ends his talk on a positive note, reinforcing the need for and possibility to attain peace:
[Jesus] has said, “Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me” (D&C 19:23).
And there, my brothers and sisters, we rest our faith. Regardless of the circumstances, we have the comfort and peace of Christ our Savior, our Redeemer, the living Son of the living God. I so testify in His holy name, even the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
And there you have it. I find this to be a masterful discourse by our Prophet, and am saddened to see it being twisted both to the left and the right, used by both sides to advance their agendas and claim prophetic endorsement.