As Executive Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Quinnipiac University, many people expected me to take a strong stand against the recent war in Iraq. After all, Albert Schweitzer won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and promoted his philosophy of reverence for life quixotically and energetically until his death in 1965.
For many years, Schweitzer was regarded as one of the great moral examples of the 20th century, but fewer and fewer people remember him and what he stood for, especially for anybody younger than forty years of age or so. It is time to call attention to his ideals once again, especially in light of current events.
The phrase reverence for life came to Dr. Schweitzer in a flash of inspiration while he was writing on a boat taking him to his hospital in Lambarene on the Ogowe River in what is now the country of Gabon in Africa.
Although the phrase reverence for life has become commonly accepted among those who study and love Schweitzer's philosophy, it is more accurately translated from Dr. Schweitzer's native German as "in awe of life," recognizing that we are all life, including plants and animals, among other life struggling to survive.
Schweitzer felt that if this was an internationally accepted philosophical basis for civilization no matter what religion or culture one adhered to, that very different decisions would be made about the allocation of resources, decisions to take life, and how the population of the world would treat each other.
He recognized that sometimes life had to be taken to eat or to eliminate an evil, but this action should only be taken after thinking through and/or trying out all other possible courses of action.
Looking through the prism of Schweitzer's philosophy at the recent war in Iraq, one begins with Saddam Hussein. Clearly, almost no one is displeased that this dictator was removed from power and that he fits the definition of evil.
The evidence is irrefutable that this man and his sons held life in very low esteem as he and his progeny, over the course of his rule, gassed Kurds, tortured Iraqi's, and made war against his neighbors. It was very clear that they had no reverence for life and was only in awe of their own lives and perhaps that of their immediate family and friends from Tikrit.
I therefore think that Schweitzer would have supported their removal from power through the use of force.
However, it was obvious from early on in his dictatorship that he was a violent man as he killed his rivals to consolidate power and quickly spread fear of his vengeance throughout his country.
Yet the United States supported him throughout the 1980's in a marriage of convenience as the U.S. was more fearful of the prior Iranian revolution. Indeed, we supplied him with the arms to keep his government in place, fight a war with Iran, and his opposition at home intimidated.
To now say that the United States is now fighting to bring democracy to Iraq after supporting Saddam for so many years is to open up oneself for a charge of hypocrisy and that removing an abhorrent person from power occurs only when a dictator like Saddam had outlived his usefulness to the United States.
Returning to the decision to invade Iraq to remove Saddam while considering Schweitzer's ideals, one has to remember that Schweitzer would have wanted the least harm done to any and all life before, during and after the war and that respecting life requires that one also respects their opinions.
Schweitzer would have demanded that all other options were exhausted before any invasion occurred, that the world act in concert for Saddam's removal, and that extraordinary care be taken with the civilian population and their needs.
Instead, we are now left with a constantly changing rationale for the invasion, increasing hostility from the local population, a loss of respect for the United States from many of our friends let alone our enemies, and a profound sense that the United States shaped the facts to support what it wanted to do instead of vice versa.
Additionally, most Iraqis are struggling to find food, their hospitals have been stripped of medicine and equipment, and there is no evidence of economic improvement for most Iraqi's in at least the next several months. Clearly, these needs were not anticipated well by the U.S. government, something Schweitzer would have deemed as essential.
Therefore in light of Schweitzer's ideals, one must conclude that the relationship between Iraq and the United States was seriously flawed for years.
Instead of looking through the prism of political expediency to make foreign policy judgments, the prism that needs to be used is that of Dr. Schweitzer and his philosophy of reverence for life.
If one is in awe of life, one does not support dictators who abuse the people in his or her country, nor does one support a unilateral decision for war.
Rather, if individuals and/or nations reflect on the importance of the life of another, then their policies and actions will echo those considerations and recognition will occur that ones own needs for security, food, and shelter will be met when those same needs are met in the lives of others.