NEW YORK — One of the first casualties of any war — although often overlooked — is language. Perhaps this has never been more true than in the present war against Iraq. Diplomacy, we are told, “failed.” The United Nations, we are told, has become “irrelevant.” The attack against Iraq, we are told, is “totally legal under international law.” A careful analysis can show that these supposed “truths” are actually false.

The fact that most of the countries in the U.N. Security Council refused to condone war against Iraq was not a failure of diplomacy. It was a failure by the United States and Britain to force Security Council members to authorize an unpopular and illegal course of action.

When countries with relatively little power can stand up to the most powerful country in the world and its few allies, that does not means that diplomacy has failed. On the contrary, it means that diplomacy has succeeded.

Has the U.N. become irrelevant? Again, collective disagreement with the rationale for the most unpopular war in recent history does not make the U.N. irrelevant. The U.N., as the organization in which all countries can freely voice their opinion, is now as relevant as ever. What the U.N. has done is respond to the wishes and beliefs of the immense majority of the world’s population.

The U.N. mission is not merely to authorize war against a particular country. The U.N. is a complex group of agencies that include, to name a few, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, which has had a remarkable record of improving children’s lives; the World Health Organization, which has led a sustained effort for better health throughout the world; and the United Nations Development Program, which has supported development efforts of the poorest countries worldwide.

As for the legality of the war against Iraq, there is widespread opinion, established decades ago at Nuremberg, that a preemptive war against a sovereign country is not legal.

Writing in the Free Press about the Nuremberg Charter, Robert Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman remind us that American, British, French and Soviet international law experts considered international conventions, legal precedent and a global moral consensus to establish a code of conduct that would become the standard for all nations.

According to Article 6 of the Nuremberg Charter, “Crimes against peace” involve “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties . . . or participation in a common plan or conspiracy . . . to wage an aggressive war.”

Since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had not launched an aggressive attack against the U.S., a war against Iraq was not justified.

Although the U.N. ordered Iraq to disarm, there was not yet conclusive evidence that Iraq had failed to comply with this order. More to the point, Iraq was in the process of destroying part of its arsenal when war was declared.

Nor is this war one of retaliation, since Hussein had not attacked any other country in more than 12 years and most of the country is a no-fly zone.

According to one poll, more than 40 percent of Americans believe that Hussein was behind the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, in a speech delivered on the floor of the Senate on March 19, stressed that there was no credible information to connect Hussein with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Language, when it is well used, enriches our lives. By misusing language, we impoverish our lives and alter the mechanics of the democratic interplay among peoples and nations. When this fractured interplay occurs at the level of the U.N., we risk weakening what has been the most important body for world peace in the last half century.

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