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The Tricky Math of Moral Calculus

By Wil Forbis
May 1 , 2003

I was never very good at math. In high school, I got a D- in Algebra and had to retake the class. My problem was that I just couldn’t get interested in the subject. History fascinated me, English classes were enjoyable, but when it came to math, I couldn’t understand how all these numbers and formulas applied to real life. At some point in the history of math education, someone must have identified this problem and they created what we know as the word problem. The word problem attempts to give the student of numbers (poor sod) examples in which math can be applied to day-to-day living. A standard word problem might read something like: Ralphie is driving from Los Angles to San Diego at 55 miles per hour. Pedro is driving from San Diego to Los Angeles at 60 miles per hour. If they both leave at noon, when will they pass each other?

While the theory was that word problems would make math easier by showcasing some practical application of the subject, for me, they just made it more difficult. Faced with such word problems, my head would spin and I would find new questions flowering in my mind. Why is Ralphie driving so slow? Is Pedro a drug smuggler from Tijuana? And most importantly, who fucking cares when Ralphie and Pedro pass each other?

The problem with word problems was that they still didn’t really apply to life. Students still couldn’t relate to them. (You may recall the controversy a few years ago about the math teacher in the ghetto who was crafting wording problems like “Manuel is sending three of his hos out to meet four Johns each…” or “LaShandra has five rocks of crack cocaine.”) Ever since I left high school and gone onto real life, I’ve yet to find a situation that could be summarized by a word problem.

Until now.

Like most people, I had conflicting feelings about the war on Iraq. I was certainly never convinced they had weapons of mass destruction. It never seemed like a “legal” war.* But at the same time, Saddam and his sons were bastards, and there was no denying that the Iraqi people would be better off without them. I also didn’t see him ever leaving power unless forced. And the arguments that the war was simply a US grab for oil felt too simplistic, too easy, like “U.S. Foreign Policy for Dummies.” (I’ve become far more interested in the argument that the war was provoked, for a multitude of complex reasons, by a group of far right presidential advisors known as the NeoCons. But it’s hard to print all that on a protest sign.) My head was swirling with contridictions.

* Though International law seems to be a quagmire of half truths and dirty compromises anyway. And I doubt that, had Bush decided to ignore the sanctions and resume trade with Iraq, those who decried the illegality of the war would make similar claims about breaking legal U.N. sanctions. We’re all for the law when it’s on our side.

Once the bombs started dropping, and the innocent dead were piling up, I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that President Bush had blown it big time. You might recall that period of the war – Iraqis were fighting back, the Arab street was more enraged than ever, and the blood of innocents was splattering on the streets. It looked like we were headed for another Viet Nam (as well as many more September 11ths.)

And then, suddenly, it stopped. Baghdad went without a fight. The hordes of angry guerrilla warriors pouring in from Syria simply disappeared. And many Iraqis seemed genuinely overjoyed at the fall of Saddam and the appearance of U.S. Forces (bringing with them, “Democracy, Whiskey, and Sexy…” though not necessarily in that order.)

Once things settled down I started to contemplate what had happened. Yes, the war was still illegal, the WMD’s still hadn’t been found, and one had to worry whether this boost in confidence for the U.S. military (Overcoming much of the legacy of Viet Nam – this is our first “real” victory since WWII.) would mean cocky invasions of other countries. BUT, the outcome of the war still “felt” like a good thing. Looters and vigilantes may had overtaken Baghdad, and the Iraqi people were making clear that they opposed a continued U.S. presence in their country, but none of that could even begin to compare to life under Saddam. (Some of the best reporting I saw on the war came from Salon’s Phillip Robertson, and the only thing more memorable than his reports of the Iraqi’s jubilation at freedom were his reports of their descriptions of the terror (and gore) of life under Saddam.) It seemed like the best possible outcome.

As always, there was a price. While the war was going on, I, and many other people were watching the Iraqi Body Count web site. As a web site, it made no bones about its anti-war beliefs (if a web site can have beliefs), but it seemed to do a fair and thorough job of tallying the war’s innocent dead. And each time I visited the site, I have to confess I was shocked and awed but what I saw. I was amazed the numbers were so low**. At last count  (04/27/03) the numbers were around 2000-2500. Not bad for a war where Jeneane Garafalo had warned us of hundreds of thousands perished.

** Of course, the fact that these numbers were only four digits wide has as much to do with the anti-war movement as anything else. Had they not raised their voices so loudly, I doubt U.S. war strategists would have developed their obsession over minimizing civilian casualties. Much as I hate to give props to hippies, for this we owe them a round of beers… or prune juice, or whatever they drink these days. (Yes – I know not everyone in the anti-war movement were hippies… There were also some commies. And a few Trekkies.)

But were the numbers low enough? 2500 was still a lot of people with families left grieving. People who had done nothing to deserve their fate. It was while contemplating this I began crafting a word problem for the moral calculus of the war. If a war lasts three weeks, and leaves 2500 innocent people dead, but results in the ouster of a dictator who, over 30 years of rule, is estimated to be responsible for the death of a million people, is it “worth it?”

At first glance, the answer, even to the math impaired would seem obvious. Of course it was. Some have even said the amount of innocents killed in this particular three weeks was akin to three weeks of normal Saddam rule (One million divided by thirty, divided by 52, times three. Hey, even I can figure that out.) There are of course, certain caveats that made the calculation more difficult. We should probably also add to the number of Iraqi dead a percentage of the Iraqi army who were killed, as many of them were simply conscripts forced into war. The one million number also holds Saddam responsible for the deaths of his own troops on the first Gulf War, which I find disingenuous. (Ditto for the Iran/Iraq war.) He didn’t actively will their deaths the way he did the prisoners he tossed into plastic shredders, or the Kurds he gassed en masse. But even with these alterations, then numbers eventually come out well in favor of the fall of Saddam.

Of course, unlike math, the real world has one big gray area: The future. Two plus two will always equal four, but there's no guarantee that preemptively attacking Iraq will result in less death. If the war on Iraq generates a nuclear terrorist act as its response, we’ll all have a lot of thinking to do. If Iraq falls into a decades long quagmire of constantly warring religious sects with thousands of innocents caught in the crossfire, second thoughts will abound. Or the dark side of democracy could rear it's head with the Iraqi people electing a new oppressor, as bad as Saddam. Even worse, the Arab nations could destabilize like a row of dominoes, plunging the area into chaos. These are all possible, if not likely scenarios.

And it's these thoughts about the future that make me realize that, while I think we are right to celebrate Iraqi's freedom from the shackles of Saddam, there's no easy answer to my word problem .

But as I said at the beginning, I was never very good at math.