Is the War in Afghanistan a Just War?

Last week a friend phoned me to describe a bumper sticker she had noticed on a car in the parking lot of a local mall. Playing off a familiar query, it posed this question: “What would Jesus bomb?” It’s a disturbing question because few of us can imagine the Jesus who blessed little children, and chose for himself to absorb violence rather than dish it out, would ever give a thumbs-up to fully armed commandos in camouflage. But it’s also in some ways an irritating question, because it does not seem to acknowledge the complexities of living in a fallen world.

 

Christians have normally been deeply troubled by war. And war has always been recognized as more than a political or strategic concern. It is also a profoundly moral issue. As Christians we have a right, and an obligation, to consider whether a particular war is a morally defensible campaign. Presently we should be asking this about the war in Afghanistan.

 

Historically Christian attitudes toward war have fallen roughly into three camps. There are first of all the pacifists—those who believe that as followers of the Prince of Peace, of the one who calls his disciplines to love even their enemies, they must bravely abstain from war altogether. Ultimately, they reason, it is better to be killed than to kill.

 

At the other end of the spectrum are the Christian patriots or nationalists who believe that a Christian’s obligation is to be a faithful and dutiful citizen, to answer with loyalty and without hesitation any call to war that the nation’s commander-in-chief of may issue. It is the responsibility of the nation’s leadership to assess the morality of a war; it is the moral obligation of the citizens to respond as patriots.

 

The first option may be unrealistic; the second is certainly irresponsible (ask any German from the 1930s and 40s). And so a third option for Christians has been the “just war” position, and indeed it has been the majority view in America since the nation was founded. The key idea here is that there are times when war becomes a regrettable, but unavoidably necessary means of restraining evil aggression, and achieving justice and peace in the world. But not all wars qualify. And so Christians have a responsibility to evaluate the moral legitimacy of each war effort to determine whether it truly qualifies as a “just” war and can be supported with Christian integrity.

 

Through the centuries Christian ethicists (including the great Thomas Aquinas) have developed and refined the criteria by which conscientious Christian citizens should test and evaluate a war, or a proposed war effort. For example: Is the war effort a measured response to the prior aggression of an enemy, or an act of aggression itself? Are the means used restrained and proportional to the goals in view? Is the nation at war properly motivated, or driven mainly by greedy national self-interest? Is it respecting the dignity of combatants and the safety of non-combatants?  Traditionally these and many other hard questions must be answered satisfactorily before Christians should support, or continue to support, a war.

 

One of the traditional tests of a just war is particularly relevant to our current reflections on the war in Afghanistan. For a war to be considered just, and worthy of Christian involvement and support, it must have a reasonable prospect of success. Fighting a lost cause, however heroic it may be, can never be a just war. Now of course the phrase “reasonable prospect” is vague and imprecise, but the principle nevertheless stands. This is because wars are horrific enterprises in which blood flows, bodies are maimed, and lives are snuffed out. Atrocities and deadly blunders inevitably occur. So it is wrong—it is sinful—to initiate such scenarios, or allow them to go on, if the challenge has been underestimated, or the war has little likelihood of success. Under such circumstances war becomes a tragic exercise in futile destruction. The impoverishment of a nation, and the blood of its victims will cry for justice, and those in power will someday be held responsible. This is one reason why the current debate over the future of the war in Afghanistan is, among other things, an urgent moral issue.

 

9 Responses to Is the War in Afghanistan a Just War?

  1. John Mustol November 11, 2009 at 6:57 pm #

    George, it’s great to hear from you. I think you bring up provocative ideas that relate to the question of the justice of our actions in Afganistan.

    Dave, thank you again for your help. Thank you especially for the link to Captain Stewart’s entire paper and for the info on the Afganistan Pakistan Hands Program. I think we have established that cross-cultural/language work is vital to the Afganistan effort in all its complexity. The military appears to be moving in this direction. Questions remain as to how this will be implemented and how deeply it will influence policy, both inside and outside the military.

    Dave, your point about not being able to train everyone is correct. That is why I asked about specialists who would be involved at all levels, especially “frontline” work in order to advise and guide commanders, leaders, policy-makers, and so on. My concern here is in principle. In my view its necessity is self-evident. Just how it should be implemented is beyond my knowledge and experience.

    A principal goal of cross-cultural training (and language-learning) is the capacity to empathize and identify with the the “other” people, nation, culture in and with whom one is living/working. This is difficult because it requires a kind of giving up of one’s cultural possessions, a denial of one’s cultural identity (Mt. 16:24-27), and a recognition of the value and justice of other’s view. This is a spiritual/moral task of prodigious difficulty. In Glen Stassen’s book, Just Peacemaking, 1998, one of the peacemaking practices is what is called “self-transcendence.” This includes 3 things: (1) transcendence of one’s own interests and perspectives for the sake of understanding the interests and perspectives of the other side, which calls for the virtue of empathy, (2) transcendence of one’s pride and defensiveness, which inhibit the acknowledgement of injuries done to others – a capacity for repentance and perhaps restitution, and (3) transcendence of one’s own grievances and desire for vengeance over injuries inflicted by others – a capacity for forgiveness (p. 87). I think this is what Glen Scorgie was trying to get us to think about last year when he posed the question about national repentance.

    This issue of self-transcendence and entering heart, soul, and body into the story and life of another people and culture derives directly from Jesus and his gospel. He, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but became a human – the ultimate self-transcendent “cross-cultural” act (Phil 2). Paul exhorts us to adopt this same approach (2:5). In effect, this “self-transcendence” is an expression of the gospel – to recognize that we are all sinners, whether individuals or nations (Rom 3:23).

    The Christian God is God of the whole world – not just the U.S. With this transcendent God’s help, the American church and its constituents ought to be able to transcend our national perspective and interests and assume the view of a “world Christian.” From such a view, can we not see that we are just one nation among many, one more empire in a long succession of them, and that we are no better than anyone else – sinners saved by grace? America’s history is not without sin. Does this not help us toward self-transcendence and open our hearts to reconciliation? As Reinhold Niebuhr evidently said, “Nations, [like] individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts.” (The Irony of American History, quoted in Just Peacemaking, p.88).

    To the best of my knowledge, just war theory contains no article on this issue of national self-examination, confession, and repentance either before, during, or after a war. Perhaps something along these lines should be added if we are to have a truly “Christian” just war theory.

    In this vein, we might consider my previous question regarding the morality of “nation-building” in light of Scripture (Is. 40:15-26; 45:1-7; Jer. 18:1-10; Dan. 4:17,25-27, 34-35; Mt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:5-6; Col. 1:16-17; Rev. 2:26-28; 11:18; etc.). If this is a biblical principle and we are in violation of it, how can we repent and turn from our sin? How should this affect our Afganistan Enterprise?

  2. Dave Harvey October 21, 2009 at 10:21 am #

    I thought this MarAdmin (Marine Corps Administrative Message) was relevant to the discussion:

    http://www.marines.mil/news/messages/Pages/MARADMIN0599-09.aspx

    Key points of the AFGHAN PAKISTAN HANDS PROGRAM (APH):

    THE OBJECTIVE OF THE APH PROGRAM IS TO IDENTIFY, SELECT, TRAIN, AND MANAGE A COHORT OF EXPERTS TO BRING GREATER UNITY AND COHESION TO THE FIGHT IN AFGHANISTAN.

    [HAVING] THE GOAL OF ESTABLISHING A DEDICATED COHORT OF APPROXIMATELY 600 MEMBERS…SPECIALLY SELECTED TO CAPITALIZE ON, OR FURTHER DEVELOP, PROFICIENCIES IN COUNTER-INSURGENCY (COIN) DOCTRINE, REGIONAL LANGUAGES, AND CULTURE.

    TOUR LENGTHS WILL BE A MINIMUM OF 3-YEARS…[AND] APH INDOCTRINATION INCLUDES HIGH LEVEL ECHELON STAFF, LANGUAGE (PASHTU, DARI, URDU), AND CULTURE TRAINING.

    Sounds like they’re doing just what you were asking for, John.

  3. Dave Harvey October 20, 2009 at 12:09 am #

    John-
    Yes, I recall our conversation re. the Iraq War last year; my point is that labeling it as “clearly unjust” – though it may be so in your mind – is not quite fair, due to the fact that there are legitimate arguments to be made for both sides. It would be like me stating as part of my premise that the war in Iraq is “obviously justified.” You would have an issue with that, and rightly so, because it begs the question that my conclusion is true simply because I claim it is true. In effect, I am taking for granted that my bias is shared by everyone else.

    To answer your other questions:

    Yes, I am currently in the military, albeit currently as a chaplain candidate with the California National Guard rather than with the Marines. As of yet, I have not served in Afghanistan, though that will likely change in the next year or so. As for my military background, experience, familiarity, etc. I have spent 18 years in the Marines, completing two Middle East deployments, and trained with a wide variety of foreign militaries. For the last two years of my time in the Marine Corps (2004-2006) I served as an exercise planner for Marine Corps Forces, Europe in Stuttgart, Germany. While there I deployed first to Senegal to help train them in peacekeeping ops, then to the Republic of Georgia to train one of their battalions for duties in Iraq. Since I haven’t deployed to Af (yet), I don’t have – and don’t claim to have – firsthand experience. However, having traveled to 15+ countries courtesy of the military, I do have some degree of familiarity with how the military prepares its personnel for duty overseas. In addition to that, my familiarity with Af comes from the recent and/or current deployments of a number of friends of mine, as well as lessons learned and after-action reports I’ve read.

    I will talk to some of my buddies who have either just returned or who are still in-country to find out the latest developments in the training arena. As for training of all types, before I went to Georgia our unit spent two weeks undergoing cultural & linguistics training at Quantico. We were assisted by having language pamphlets & CDs, but no one became an expert in the Georgian language – for that we had interpreters. Our unit was the precursor to the Foreign Military Training Unit that was stood up just a few years ago. On my previous deployments to the Persian Gulf, we spent much of our time aboard ship either conducting or receiving classes on the area(s) to which we were headed, which included studying the history, geography, and religious/political views.

    I would assume that the same thing is being done in regards to Af, but in a more thorough manner. I would also suspect that all inbound personnel receive a degree of training to familiarize them with the local systems (culture, religion, politics, language, etc.), but not enough to make them anything like an expert. While the DLIFLC program is awesome, as Capt. Stewart points out it is extremely time-intensive, making it out of reach for most soldiers/Marines. They do have distance learning programs – and the military offers a bonus for DLI-certified linguists – but I would be surprised if there was any “official” language program. There simply is no way to get everyone “ramped up” to such a level. Such efforts would normally be left up to the company commander. Remember, their main purpose over there is to fight, and the development/sustainment of those skills takes priority over everything else. However, this is an area I would focus on were I a commander over there.

    The most trained/skilled operators over there would have to be the Special Forces troops. Their groups are organized according to regional areas, and all of them learn a second language (or third) that corresponds to a country in their area of operations. In addition, they tend to spend more time with the indigenous Afghans, so they build a better relationship with them over time.

    The Army has, at the battalion level, an S-5 (S-1 = admin, S-2 = intel, S-3 = operations, etc.), which is their Civil Affairs officer. A close friend of mine (and fellow Bethel grad) who is currently a chaplain did a tour in Iraq in that role – I will ask him what training he had and how well it prepared him for his role over there. At a higher level, there are FAOs and RAOs (Foreign or Regional Area Officers) that go to DLIFLC for a year to learn the language, and then spend much of their time in their assigned country – they are truly “specialists,” but there number is limited.

    So no, there will never be enough linguists or “cross-cultural specialists” in any country in which we operate – simply because not everyone requires the same level of expertise in order to do their jobs. And the military always operates behind the power curve in that regard – we get boots on the ground first, and then figure out the situation as best we can and go from there. Yes, there is prior planning by experts at the staff level, but the average “grunt” probably gets relatively little in the way of formal training.

    I’ve read Capt. Stewart’s paper (see the whole text at http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA495880&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf), and agree with his statements – there is certainly more that the military can do to identify and train linguists at an earlier stage, then conduct a “train-the-trainer” approach that has worked well for us in the past. Certainly there is more that we can and should do. But to say that we are “blind doctors” who have only made “token efforts” is inaccurate and misleading.

    You were a missionary physician for a number of years, so let me pose the question to you. If a group of 30 people from your home church wanted to come over to the Comoro Islands to do a work project, would you require them all to be fluent in the local language? What level of cultural understanding would you demand that they have? How would you accomplish this? What if it were 300 people, instead of 30? How would that change things? My point is that as the numbers increase, it becomes exponentially harder to train everyone to the same level.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation on this – I look forward to hearing your response, and I will try to gather more relevant information to post.

  4. George Cox October 17, 2009 at 5:21 am #

    Hate to weigh in on this, but here goes.

    John, I said before Iraq started that we had failed to meet the test of just war theory. I agree with your view that Iraq was not a just war. (Claiming pre-emption is very dangerous – if you KNOW your enemy is going to attack, the burden falls on you to produce the evidence … and then stand by it … we never did that).

    Afghanistan met the test for just war (defense against attack). But the “war” was won with the change in government. This is what is so hard for most people (Americans) to understand.

    I taught just war theory in the military. It is an easy concept to grasp. What is not easy is the concept of peace. We won the war, and lost the peace (kind of a specialty of America). We changed the government, and thought that was it. Peace is not the absence of war … peace is something richer, fuller, greater.

    We have the quagmire we have today, because we failed to promote, nurture and secure peace. How we failed to advocate for peace in an Islamic country is beyond me, but we managed.

  5. John Mustol October 15, 2009 at 4:51 pm #

    I thank Dave for his comments, as together we seek the mind and heart of our Lord Jesus Christ on this issue.

    Regarding the injustice of the Iraq War, please see our conversation last year on this website, http://glenscorgie.com/2008/04/22/the-power-of-national-repentance/#more-34 .

    Dave, you seem to speak as though you have been in Afganistan and that you know the country well. If I recall correctly you were in the marines and served in the Gulf War. Are you currently in the military and have you served in Afganistan? What is your experience with Afganistan and the Afgan people? Perhaps you could clarify your military background, international experience, and familiarity with Afganistan and region.

    General McChrystal’s address does indeed speak to language and cross-cultural issues. I am pleasantly surprised and grateful to learn that he seems to recognize their importance. But he does not say what is being done about it. He does not say what specific plans or programs are being implemented nor how this fits into the overall strategy.

    I read what I could of the Kaplan book on Googlebooks. It does address cultural and language issues. (I could not access the chapter on Afganistan.) The book lauds the prodigious cross-cultural skills of military personnel (as an ex-missionary, I am awestruck and envious) and mentions several people who spoke various languages, but only occasionally says where and how they learned them. Much of the cultural education and language learning seems to be informal, on-the-job, learn-as-you-go rather than planned, organized, and intentional. On the other hand, the book seems to suggest a “culture” that values and encourages language and cross-cultural skills. It mentions the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Monterey, CA, http://www.dliflc.edu/index.html, DLIFLC. Evidently the DLIFLC along with its subordinate, the Defense Language Institute-Washington, DLI-W, implements the Defense Foreign Language Program, DFLP, for all military services and other DOD agencies. According to the DLIFLC website, it provides “culturally based language education to military language professionals, while simultaneously supporting the general purpose force with pre-deployment materials in more than 40 languages.” They note: “language acquisition is dependent on how well one understands the culture, religion, beliefs and value systems, economic strata, and geo-political climate of a particular nation.” Amen! They have about 3,500 students from all services and 1,700 faculty, 98% of whom are native speakers. This sounds excellent but far too small to train enough people for operations like Afganistan (and Iraq). I did not find information on the website about a specific program for Afganistan. I am very encouraged to learn about this, but it seems to support the claim that we are not devoting anywhere near enough resources and time to this problem.

    An article from the DLIFLC by Harold E Raugh, Jr. , “The Origins of the Transformation of the Defense Language Program,” Applied Language Learning 16, no. 2 (2006): 1-12, http://www.dliflc.edu/archive/documents/all16two.pdf, is critical of the lack of trained linguists and language training in the intelligence and military services. It describes efforts to improve language training after 9/11, including the formation of the Operation Enduring Freedom Task Force, OEFTF, which oversaw expansion of language training for Afganistan and the region, including Dari and Pashto. They provided “language survival kits,” LSKs, which contain a “list of English words and phrases translated into target foreign languages with native scripts) in Pashto, Uzbek, and Dari” (p.5). These have been distributed to the Army Mountain Division, Special Forces, Air Forces units and to Guantanamo. This article appears not to describe efforts beyond 2003, but if it is accurate, it again suggests that language training in support of OEF was (is?) woefully inadequate.

    Another document I found on the Internet from M. N. Stewart, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, VA, “Cultural Training in the Marine Corp,” dated 7 Feb., 2006, http://www.stormingmedia.us/08/0885/A088594.html , regarding Iraq says, ” Achieving operational success in a Fourth Generation Warfare environment [Iraq and Afganistan] requires positive interaction between Marines and the local population, and building such relationships requires cultural and linguistic understanding on the part of Marines. To deal with the problems presented in the current and future operational environment, the Marine Corps should implement cultural and linguistic training programs for all Marines, similar to the Foreign Area Officers (FAO) model.” If this document is reliable, it suggests that even as late as 2006, at least the Marine Corps had still not implemented adequate language and cross-cultural training for its soldiers.

    This research is incomplete and “woefully inadequate,” but the picture at this point suggests that language and cross-cultural training for the Afganistan Enterprise has been meager at best. Many questions remain. What programs are in place for cultural immersion and language training within Afganistan itself? My overseas experience suggested that there is no substitute for systematic, supervised in-country, in-village training and immersion. Perhaps Dave can give us information from his own experience or from friends who have served in Afganistan. What exactly is being done for selection of personnel, language and cross-cultural training, studies in history, social structures, religion, politics, customs, etc. both in-country and out, and how it is being applied in Afganistan. What training and education do all troops receive? Are there specific “cross-cultural” personnel who receive intensive training and become “specialists” for particular language/ethnic groups/regions? How and where are trained personnel being deployed? How many skilled linguists and cross-culturalists are there and what do they do?

    In the Q&A, General McChrystal said that their goal for achieving adequacy of Afgan security forces was 2013. Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, commander of 2nd battalion, 8th marine regiment in Afganistan stated on 60 Minutes, 10/11/09, that counterinsurgencies require on average 14 years to complete. Rory Stewart speaking on Bill Moyers Journal estimated that stabilizing Afganistan would require 30-40 years. These estimates suggest that we will be there for at least several more years.

    Concerning the Afganistan Enterprise and just war theory, I offer the observation that we are not simply engaged in a war there. We seem to be engaged in at least two endeavors – maybe more. We are fighting a war against enemies – the Taliban, Al-Queda, and perhaps others, and we are trying to restore and rebuild the country – nation-building. I think we all agree that the Afganistan Enterprise is extremely complex. These two activities (and perhaps others) are mixed together. I suggest we recognize that this is not just a “war.” The question “Is the war in Afganistan a just war?” addresses only part of what we are actually doing. Just-war theory may be helpful, but it is inadequate to evaluate the morality of the overall Afganistan Enterprise (OEF).

    I suggest again that from a biblical perspective the “nation-building” enterprise is morally and spiritually problematic (Is. 40:15-26; 45:1-7; Jer. 18:1-10; Dan. 4:17,25-27, 34-35; Mt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:5-6; Col. 1:16-17; Rev. 2:26-28; 11:18; etc.). Do we agree that this is a biblical principle? If so how should we as Christian citizens of the U.S. apply it to our Afganistan Enterprise?

  6. Dave Harvey October 10, 2009 at 1:02 am #

    John-

    First of all, opening your post with the statement that the war in Iraq is “clearly unjust” is a sure way to cause me and others who post here to read with a jaundiced eye any other things you may have to share. Blanket statements such as that rarely enlighten (you share no specifics) and end up merely showing your own bias while being insensitive to those who have served honorably in that theater. You are certainly entitled to your opinion on the matter (though I happen to disagree with your assessment), but the matter is far from settled, and there are cogent arguments to be made for our involvement there – though this thread is not the place for such a discussion.

    In fact, your paragraph on your return from Africa is very similar to my reaction whenever I hear people espousing their views on the war in Afghanistan, or as I shall refer to it, “Operation Enduring Freedom,” or OEF. I too hear or read reports about our efforts there by people who don’t know and can’t understand the complexity of the issues, because they haven’t been there and have no real clue what our military (and the 41 other countries who support this effort) are doing over there. For instance, I would ask where you get your information that “the military has made only token efforts to train American soldiers in local languages, history, culture, ethnicity, social structures, politics, cross-cultural issues, and so on” or that there is “mistrust between American military units and their Afghan translators.” If it’s not from a credible source, i.e., someone with “boots on the ground” who has worked with some of those issues you claim, I would be highly skeptical as to the veracity of the claim.

    Maybe you should peruse some of the books about Special Forces types who have worked closely with local Afghanis (“Imperial Grunts” by Robert D. Kaplan is excellent) or perhaps read about the success that the Marines are currently enjoying in their approach to working with local tribes. To gain a better understanding, I would suggest starting with Michael Yon (http://www.michaelyon-online.com/), an imbedded reporter who has a long history of accurate reporting.

    This is not to say that we understand all of the complexities involved in our long-term involvement in Afghanistan and OEF. Wars, especially in the 21st century, are always nasty affairs that involve uncertainty and ambiguity. Von Clausewitz referred to this as the “fog of war,” and we rarely – if ever – have the ability to operate free of its constraints.

    You also state that “our leadership (civilian and military) are almost completely ignorant about Afghanistan.” I would refer you to the recent speech that Gen McChrystal gave to the International Institute of Strategic Studies a week ago, and see if that changes your opinion at all. The text (and video of discussion afterwards) can be found here:

    http://www.iiss.org/recent-key-addresses/general-stanley-mcchrystal-address/watch-the-qa-session/

    Having read the speech, I believe that McChrystal has as good an understanding as anyone on the complexities involved over there, where even such an altruistic act as digging a well can initiate a power struggle and lead to further conflict.

    Emo D-
    Since you propose a “third option,” I would be interested to know exactly what “exigent circumstances” would, in your mind, warrant a war.

  7. John Mustol October 2, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    As I understand it, just war theory goes back to Augustine in the fourth century. He formulated it, not to justify war per se, but to try to circumscribe the violent propensities of some people of his time who saw war and violence as a primary way of dealing with certain problems. Since then, it has been extensively commented on and developed, as Glen says, by Aquinas and many others. But it is not Scripture and, in my view, does not carry divine authority. It is a human attempt to articulate this very difficult problem. I am not a pacifist, but I think the voice of pacifists is, at least sometimes, the voice of the collective conscience of the Church, reminding the rest of us Jesus-followers who more readily embrace violence and killing, that the way of Jesus may not be quite what we think it is and that war and violence by Christians are probably far too often rationalized and sinfully engaged in – contrary to the will of God.

    In contrast to the Iraq War which is clearly unjust, the Afganistan conflict is more complicated. Our 2001 invasion met most all the just war criteria except, perhaps, the one about there being a “reasonable prospect of success.” It is not clear how carefully the Bush Administration considered this question when they decided to invade back in 2001. At this point, eight years into the enterprise, it is not clear what we have accomplished or what “success” means or whether it is possible. The American public, like a woman in labor, probably wouldn’t mind the pain as long as they were seeing progress. But for us American hoi polloi, progress in Afghanistan seems difficult to define and hard to discern.

    Based on my missionary experience (8 years in the Comoro Islands), I wish to make a point that I feel is very important. That is: We don’t know what we are doing in Afganistan. We are like a blind doctor doing major surgery on a patient whose physiology and anatomy she does not know or comprehend. As I understand it, our goal in Afganistan has been “nation building.” Notwithstanding the sad silliness of such pretentions from a biblical perspective (Isaiah 40:15-26, et. al.), I would comment that, in order to “build a society,” one has to know what building blocks one is working with. The fact is we don’t. For example, as far as I know, during these 8 years, the military has made only token efforts to train American soldiers in local languages, history, culture, ethnicity, social structures, politics, cross-cultural issues, and so on. How can we “win hearts and minds” and “transform culture” if we don’t speak the language or know the people? How can soldiers have any idea what is going on around them if they don’t speak the language? I have heard that mistrust between American military units and their Afghan translators is a problem – small wonder. The tragic absurdity of this seems obvious. As a missionary physician, I experienced situations where the use of translators and cultural disconnects led to gross misconceptions and damage. Could not the same thing happen in our Afghanistan endeavor?

    The American public and, evidently, our leadership (civilian and military) are almost completely ignorant about Afghanistan (and Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the region). How can we possibly know what is really going on on the ground, in the families, clans, villages, and mosques of that distant land? The fact is we cannot. Ignorance is inevitable and ought to engender profound humility – or at least abate our arrogance. Yet we have engaged policies that require such knowledge, if we are to “succeed.” The probability of misunderstanding the situation and implementing wrong policies is very high.

    When I came back to the United States from Africa, I found American news stories and the talk of Americans about Africa both humorous and distressing. Time after time, I would hear or read American news reports or hear Americans talk about Africa, and I would protest, “But it’s not like that!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Americans don’t understand Africa, and I don’t think we understand Afghanistan either. Our ignorance wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t coupled with enormous power and the foolish belief that we do know.

    I give thanks to God that the situation in Iraq has calmed, and we are able to begin withdrawal. But as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” The final outcome in Iraq, in my view, remains in doubt. The wise leadership of General Petraeus (and probably a number of mid- and low-level officers) probably helped turn the tide of disaster and bring the current calm we see, but, lest we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, the current calm and, in the end, the outcome of the Iraq War is and will be determined by forces outside our knowledge and control – by what goes on in the homes, villages, slums, offices, and mosques of Iraq – in and among the Iraqi people. We, the American public (and our leadership, both civilian and military) are, for the most part, not privy to such things.

    I suggest that the main lesson of the Vietnam War was that we grossly misunderstood what was actually occurring in that land at that time and, as a result, pursued wrong policies. As Robert McNamara admitted many years later. we just didn’t know what was really going on. That misunderstanding resulted in disaster. The risk today that our misunderstanding of Afghanistan could lead to similar disaster is huge.

    Along these lines, there have been two recent broadcasts on Bill Moyers Journal on Public TV that, I think, are helpful. They involved Nancy Youssef, an Egyptian reporter, and Rory Stewart, who spent years in homes and villages of Afghanistan. They can be viewed at: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09252009/profile.html
    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09112009/profile.html

    I would also like note that Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary offers an alternative to “just war theory.” He calls it “just peacemaking.” I refer you to two books: Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.) and Glen Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices forAbolishing War, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998, 2004).

    I don’t know whether the war in Afghanistan is a “just war”, and I don’t know what should be done now. I suggest that the course of events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places will evolve as a result of a far larger and more complex array of forces and factors than we Americans can comprehend or control. We Americans will play our part and do what we do. Bombs will explode, bullets will fly. In the midst of this perhaps some will ask the question: Is there a better way, and did Jesus have it? But in the end, what happens lies with God. This is our faith, and we can be thankful for that. Let us pray for ourselves, our soldiers, our leaders, and for the innocent people who suffer and die, for the land that is ravaged. And let us strengthen our hope in God – and pray that someday, we who claim to follow Jesus might truly grasp, in heart and action, what he meant when he said, “Love your enemies.”

  8. Dave Harvey October 1, 2009 at 10:59 am #

    You are right in pointing out the moral requirement for weighing whether or not any war has “a reasonable prospect of success.” However, as you have also noted, this is the area wherein things become murky – for in effect we are essentially trying to predict the future. Francisco Suárez stated that certitude of victory is not absolutely essential, but that all considerations having been carefully weighed, “the expectation [of victory] is preponderant.” The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, writing “A Presumption Against War” acknowledged that probability of success “is a difficult criterion to apply, but its purpose is to prevent irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile.”

    Back in the days of kings and knights, such a determination would’ve been much simpler than it is today: one simply had to count the number of fighting men that a given opponent could field, and calculate the odds. But even then, numbers don’t always denote victory, as the Israelites discovered at Ai and the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

    Nowadays, such prospect of success lays not only in one’s military might, but in the will and determination of the government (and by extension, the people) to see it through to a successful conclusion. We lost in Vietnam for that reason – we were “winning” by military standards, but the political/cultural climate at home had shifted, making our position untenable. Again in Somalia, there is no doubt that we had overwhelming force vs. Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s thugs, but the publicly televised losses of American lives (seen in Blackhawk Down) caused the Clinton administration to shift policy and suddenly withdraw all forces less than six months later.

    Another sticky point in this consideration is the meaning and definition of the term “success.” In WWII, it was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but that notion is dispelled in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the opposition is comprised of insurgents, jihadis, mujaheddin, etc. that do not fall under a central government. Indeed, the definition of success may very well shift repeatedly as the conflict develops and continues, as we’ve seen happen in Iraq. Prior to the “surge,” many were arguing that we couldn’t possibly win there, but the last few years have seen a huge shift in the balance of power, to the degree that we may finally be able to extricate ourselves with honor and hand over the reins of power to a new Iraqi government.

    In my opinion, I believe that the war in Afghanistan IS winnable – the new commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was the former head of JSOC – Joint Special Operations Command – and has an intimate knowledge of tactics and techniques needed to succeed in irregular warfare. The question remains to be answered whether the current administration has ability to set reasonable goals and the will to see them through to completion.

  9. Emo D September 28, 2009 at 6:31 pm #

    Nice summary of the Just War ethical stance. I would posit that the there is a grey area you can live in that is between the Pacifist and the Just War, one in which (I personally fall into as well) only exigent circumstances would warrant a war. Some of the criteria in which a Just War could qualify have so much wiggle room that a leader or person could easily convince themselves that many situations fall into that (when most certainly a majority would not).

    Agreed that once fighting a war that turns into lost cause is: unwarranted, devaluing human life, not in the interest of national security, promotes unnecessary violence, expenses and death.

    However I think you could imagine many situations where (even Biblically) wars were started, that seemed improbably to win, were still moral.