Ending Endless War
“Never forget.” Those words have remained etched in our collective memory in the years since 9/11. We remember where we were on that day, and we can quickly recall the feelings of fear, vulnerability, anger, and uncertainty that accompanied watching planes crash into the World Trade towers and Pentagon. No single event has shaped foreign policy more over the past twenty years than the 9/11 attacks. While it is important to never to forget the lives lost on that day, it is also past time for the U.S. to end a posture of endless war. We need to more fully explore and invest in alternatives to militarism that will bring about true security and a shalom, that vision of the “interrelation of justice, friendship, and common security from violence” that we affirm as a Just Peace Church.
As we watch the last U.S. soldier leave Afghan soil, we can acknowledge our mixed emotions. There is relief that twenty years of military engagement and occupation has ended. There is grief for the people of Afghanistan who once again face Taliban rule. There is gratitude for all those who served as soldiers, diplomats, humanitarian workers, and peace-builders, who all contributed to some degree of security and progress in Afghanistan the past twenty years, even if fleeting. There is the recognition of the cost of war to the U.S. and Afghanistan with over 2,400 U.S. soldiers dead and over $2 trillion spent; and on the Afghan side, over 60,000 military and police dead along with over 40,000 civilians.[i] Although we would hope that such sacrifice would bring about a “victory,” the result is much more complex. As Neville Chamberlain once said, “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.” As we look at Afghanistan after twenty years of war, the Taliban once again have power, al Qaeda still exists, and ISIS is a growing threat, as seen by the recent ISIS-K attack on the airport in Kabul.
While debate swirls in the media and in D.C. about what we should have done, the words of our UCC Leadership in their statement on Afghanistan ring true:
“After 20 years of military intervention, it is clear that U.S. and international approaches have not brought about a Just Peace for the people of Afghanistan. Twenty more years of the same approach would not have done more.”
While public support for leaving Afghanistan has polled at 70% and many politicians in recent years have given lip-service to the need to end endless war, no President and only the most progressive members of Congress have been willing to question the underlying logic of U.S. military dominance. After twenty years, it was past time to leave Afghanistan.
Now, a question looms in front of us: we will ever change our approaches? If the recent drone strike in retaliation to the ISIS-K airport bombing is any indication, the short term answer is no. The U.S. is likely to only increase use of armed drones to kill terrorists wherever/whenever it pleases, often killing civilians in the process. These reprisal attacks are then used by the likes of al Qaeda and other groups as examples of the targeting of Muslims, the occupation of land (particularly Palestine), and U.S. hegemony which fuel anti-American sentiment. The cycle continues. Leaving Afghanistan did not end the “forever war” as some have claimed. Endless war has not ended – it has only changed.
As an immediate response to the situation in Afghanistan, it is critical that we call on the administration to expedite refugee protections, and explore how our congregations might welcome or support a refugee family directly, or by offering financial support for refugee and disaster ministries. To really end endless war, we must begin by interrogating the “global war on terror” itself and change both the laws and policies that perpetuate it as well as our national budget that incentivizes it. Further, we can challenge the logic of dominance, the myth of redemptive violence, and invest in alternatives – those “things that make for peace,” (Luke 19:41-2) which remain elusive but are real alternatives such as Just Peace practices that offer us hope of another way.
End Endless War – Repeal the AUMF
Twenty years ago, on September 18th, 2001, President Bush signed into law the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other groups. With that stroke of a pen, the “Global War on Terror” began. In the years since, the U.S. deployed troops, dropped bombs, and flew armed drones over 80 countries across South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The global ‘War on Terror’ inaugurated by President Bush has cost the U.S., and the world, dearly in both lives and money.
Although President Bush was the one to sign that bill into law, it was Congress that sent it to his desk. The 2001 AUMF bill sailed through both chambers, with only Rep. Barbara Lee voting “no” following a floor speech in which she warned, “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.” The truth of her statement has become more evident each year that passes as the 2001 and 2002 AUMF (that authorized the invasion of Iraq) have been twisted to cover a broad range of military actions, including a 2020 drone strike on Iran’s General Soleimani in possible violation of international law.
Rep. Barbara Lee and Senator Tim Kaine are among two members who have co-sponsored bills to revoke the 2002 AUMF. President Biden’s has already indicated his support. If it passes, it would be a first step in reclaiming Congress’ constitutional war powers authority and may open the door to repealing, or revising, the more controversial 2001 AUMF which has been the legal justification for the global war on terror for twenty years. The President would still have the power to authorize military operations in cases of imminent self-defense but would need Congress for any broader action. Addressing these outdated use-of-force laws would go a long way toward ending endless war. We must continue to pressure Congress to take this step, but the reality is that we must also address the other aspects of war, including what President Eisenhower dubbed the “military industrial complex,” if any real change is to be made.
The Cost of the “War on Terror”
America’s longest war has brought with a tremendous cost that generations of Americans will bear, financially and psychologically. According to estimates by the Cost of War program at Brown University, over 800,000 lives have been lost as a result of the 9/11 wars, and cost the U.S. an estimated $6.4 Trillion through Fiscal Year 2020. These figures include lives lost on all sides of the conflict (a figure not often shared) and estimated $1 Trillion in projected care for veterans over the next couple decades in addition to the estimated $5.4 Trillion in direct costs.[ii] They do not include the estimates of lives lost indirectly through environmental impact, exacerbated poverty or malnutrition, or damaged infrastructure that we know has taken an additional toll. The loss of life and livelihood that these numbers reflect are simply staggering. As people of faith who see the image of God in all people, we cannot calculate the price of any human life. However, the National Priorities Project “trade-off” tool gives a sense of what else $5.4 Trillion in tax dollars could have purchased with those funds over these years.
The U.S. remains an outlier in terms of where we put our money. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the over $750 Billion spent by the U.S. on the Pentagon each year is close to half of the $2 Trillion spent globally and dwarfs any other nation. The need to shift our priorities is clear. As the People over Pentagon campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign and other movements have affirmed, we can choose to reduce the Pentagon budget by $200 Billion safely, and begin to transform “the ‘War Economy’ into a ‘Peace Economy’ that values all humanity.”
There are some members of Congress who support cuts, particularly given the need to shift funding during the pandemic, but their numbers remain small. Too often members are concerned about potential loss of jobs in their district or the optics of looking “soft.” In reality, investments in domestic programs creates far more jobs than military spending. Further, the fact that some members individually benefit financially though investments in defense companies adds to the continuation of the status quo. As Erika Fein from Win Without War notes in that article, “To be able to vote to go to war, and then turn around and profit personally from that war, is, frankly, absurd.”
It is up to us to keep up the pressure on Congress not only to cut Pentagon spending, but also to invest that money, not as they have in the past, in military contractors, but rather in diplomacy, development, and peacebuilding.
Investing in Alternatives
Just following 9/11, the former Director of the United Church of Christ Washington Office, Jay Lintner, wrote this piece that warned of falling into the trap endless war. Lintner, who also served as the UCC’s “Peace Priority Coordinator,” predicted that the U.S. would be “giving bin Laden exactly what he sought: a holy war between the Muslim world and U.S. imperialism.” Much like Rep. Lee, Linter’s words have stood the test of time. We as a nation, and as a church, have not done enough to live into the call of our Just Peace designation or heeded its calls to support multilateral approaches or address the root causes of terrorism. We have not fully explored or funded alternative means to counter-terror operations.
President Biden’s speech in the aftermath of the recent attack at the Kabul airport was all too reminiscent of President Bush. “We do not forgive, we do not forget.” These words of retribution offered by another President rang all too familiar – and hallow. We need a different approach.
Rev. William Barber wrote recently about the situation in Afghanistan:
“…to make this right with God, we must begin to repent for our thinking, our believing, our insisting that bombs and missiles and drones and tanks could ever bring peace. We must get on our knees and pray for God’s forgiveness. And we must leave the political scapegoating behind, to do whatever we can to help our desperate sisters and brothers in Afghanistan.”
Although we may never forget, we must find new ways to forgive- both our enemies and ourselves -if we are to stop endless war and build God’s shalom on Earth.
Rev. Mike Neuroth is the International Policy Advocate for the UCC Washington D.C. Office of Public Policy and Advocacy
[i] Estimates from the Cost of War Program at Brown University https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2019/direct-war-death-toll-2001-801000
[ii] 2019 Report by the Cost of War Program at Brown University, by Neta C. Crawford. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2019/US%20Budgetary%20Costs%20of%20Wars%20November%202019.pdf
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