The War in Afghanistan

by Tom F. Driver

On Aug 21, 2012, The New York Times published the faces of all 2,000 U.S. American service members who have been killed while fighting the war in Afghanistan. Shockingly, some of these were shot by supposed allies. Since the beginning of this year, at least 40 NATO service members, most of them American, have been killed by active members of the Afghan forces or by attackers dressed in their uniforms.

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship mourns all these lost lives, holds them in prayer, and extends sympathy to their loved ones.

There can be no better tribute to the war’s fallen service men and women than to reflect upon their sacrifice to the futility of war. That reflection should lead us as Christians to a renewed understanding that war is both sinful and avoidable. Such thoughts are especially needed at this time, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) is undertaking a broad-based study of what the church should say and do about making peace and making war.

All wars spring from illusion, require deception, and breed further war. The so-called ‘war on terror,’ in the name of which the Afghanistan war began, rests on an illusion that is huge in its assumptions and its consequences. This is the idea that it is possible to make war against something intangible.

Terror is not an entity. Although a terrorist may be killed with a physical weapon this does nothing against terror itself. On the contrary, war requires terror and always increases it. America is no more free from terror today than it was on September 10, 2001. Meanwhile in other parts of the world there is more terror than before.

In exposing the illusion that terrorism can be defeated militarily, few writers have been more eloquent than Chris Hedges, formerly a war correspondent for The New York Times and other publications. Three years ago he was already warning us that the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were futile:

“We are fighting with the wrong tools. We are fighting the wrong people. We are on the wrong side of history. And we will be defeated in Afghanistan as we will be in Iraq.”

Hedges then pointed out that our best interests in the struggle against terrorism require something other than guns.

"The only way to defeat terrorist groups is to isolate them within their own societies. This requires wooing the population away from radicals. It is a political, economic and cultural war. The terrible algebra of military occupation and violence is always counterproductive to this kind of battle. It always creates more insurgents than it kills. It always legitimizes terrorism.” (Posted Jul 20, 2009 on

All wars have consequences both unintended and unwanted. It matters not whether the particular war is thought to be ‘good,’ ‘necessary,’ ‘inevitable,’ or ‘blundering.’ World War II (in which I served in uniform), often said to have been ‘good’ and ‘necessary,’ brought about carpet bombing, fire bombing, nuclear bombing, ‘unconditional’ war in pursuit of ‘unconditional’ surrender, and the inversion of the ratio between military and civilian casualties. Eight times as many civilians died in World War II as in World War I, and this proportion has continued in the smaller, more recent wars. In other words, that ‘good’ war opened yet another of Pandora’s war-time boxes.

The terrorist attacks of 9//11/2001 were immensely wrong: let’s be clear about that. But the resort to war has compounded rather than ending the wrong. For example, the Afghanistan war has killed at least three times as many people as did the 9/11 attacks, to say nothing of the immensely greater number killed by the war in Iraq.

America’s wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq have set many terrible precedents that threaten our values and Constitutional government.. Among them we may count:

  • Indefinite detention of prisoners without trial, charges of crime, or any appeal to law
  • The ‘rendition’ of prisoners to other countries for torture beyond the reach of American law.
  • The use and rationalization of torture by our own Government.
  • Public acknowledgment of assassinations by our Government
  • The choice of assassination targets by personal decision of the President
  • Assassination by pilotless aircraft (drones)
  • Assassination of American citizens by their own Government

As the last point indicates, measures that start by being directed against external enemies come to be used against ourselves. Indeed, it may plausibly be argued that the greatest damages of war are made at home. American democracy has been dangerously weakened by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War is blinding. An individual, a combat group, a command unit, a War Department, or even a whole society is prone in war to blind pursuit of chosen objectives. Rationalizations for war are always close at hand. With modern means of communication, its propaganda is as blinding as a blizzard. With respect to war, however, we are not dealing simply with mistakes or psychological foibles.

Sin is blinding. That is one of sin’s major attributes. Blind pursuit of self interest is a good description of sin, although it does not yet come to the theological heart of the matter. In theological language, sin is action and desire contrary to the will of God. We have it from the lips of Jesus that the divine will can be summarized as the love of our neighbor, which is “like unto” the love of God. War and its rationalizations obscure this truth.

On the day that World War II began, September 1, 1939, W.H. Auden wrote later-famous lines in a poem bearing the name of that date in history. They are about the blindness and sin of war:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority ....
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

There is a long tradition of Christian thought, associated with theories of “just war,” that is predicated on the idea that in certain circumstances war is necessary, or at least inevitable, however sinful it may be. This idea stems from blindness to the fact that there are nonviolent alternatives to war. Their pursuit is the principal objective of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

Tom F. Driver, a former member of the PPF National Committee, is the Paul J. Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York