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To Sow the Wind: An Argument Against the War on Terror

Jul 28, 2015

On February 12, 2010, near a small village in southeast Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, a high-ranking member of the Afghan police intelligence service, was holding a party to celebrate the naming of his newborn son.1 At about 3:30 AM he heard voices outside. Assuming they were Taliban fighters and wanting to assess the threat, Daoud stepped into the courtyard. After an initial burst of gunfire his 15-year-old son was dead, and he was dying. In minutes four more people were dead and another dying.

Within hours, Canadian Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, speaking for the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], confirmed that a Taliban attack had occurred. An ISAF patrol had stumbled upon it, killed several Taliban insurgents, taken eight men into custody, and detained several other women and children while calling in medical support for the wounded. Tremblay noted that "ISAF continually works with our Afghan partners to fight criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians." The reference to civilians was to the point since among the seven dead were three women, two of them pregnant, who were found inside the house bound, gagged, and mutilated, apparently executed with knives. A senior U.S. military official informed CNN that the women were probably victims of a traditional honor killing and that their own family members might have been the murderers. To make matters worse, Daoud and the 18-year-old female victim who did not die immediately might both have been saved if the international patrol had arrived earlier.

But there is a problem with this narrative. The attackers were not the Taliban and no international patrol had come to the rescue. Members of the elite Joint Special Operations Command had poured sniper fire into the compound that night, killing seven innocent people by mistake. They thought that the guests included a suicide bomber. The women were mutilated because the U.S. soldiers who killed them decided to dig the bullets out of their bodies, in front of the family and guests, so that their weapons could not later be identified. Within two days a UN investigation—never publicly released—stated that the survivors of the raid "suffered from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by being physically assaulted by U.S. and Afghan forces, restrained and forced to stand bare feet for several hours outside in the cold." It further noted that witnesses alleged that the family begged for hours to be allowed to drive the injured to hospital, while their two loved ones slowly bled to death before their eyes. The promised helicopter arrived much too late to save them.

That night, Mohammed Sabir and six other men were taken into custody for three days of rough questioning. Mohammed missed the burial of his wife. "I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans," he said later. This reaction is not unusual. Journalists and soldiers repeatedly claim that Western interventionism in Muslim countries recruits far more warriors for Islamic extremism that it manages to kill. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.

Of course, standing alone this story doesn't prove anything. But it does illustrate how we all engage in some form of rudimentary just war thinking. Had Taliban fighters been responsible for the attack and had seven of them been killed by a NATO force interrupting the massacre, we might have been angered in a philosophical way about the violence but not disgusted and ashamed, not horrified. This is because not all killing is the same, even if we think, as some pacifists do, that all killing is wrong. But on what grounds do we make the distinction between the regrettable, the criminal, and the criminally barbaric?

These distinctions are grounded in the fact that while the sword may be outside the perfection of Christ, the sword is not outside the providence of God.2 Its use is not therefore indiscriminate. The sword puts to death the wicked and protects the good. If, on the contrary, the sword is used to protect the wicked and to punish and put to death the good, it has itself become the evil that ought to be restrained, punished, or put to death. This essay aims to identify one approach that might be helpful in thinking about the distinction between the right and the wrong use of the sword.

As already noted, the usual way to do this is by reference to the just war tradition. However, Nicholas Rengger argues that whereas traditionally the theory was used to limit the scope of justification for, and to put restraints upon, the use of coercive force, in the modern period it has been used to broaden the justifying scope of the grounds for the supposedly legitimate use of force.3 We are at the mercy of experts who assure us that any given proposal for war meets the relevant criteria: our intentions are good, coercive force is the only option, we will prevail, and the world will be safe for democracy.

How can we use just war theory as a drag on our willingness to go to war rather than as a justificatory spur? I propose to use a reformulation of the concept, namely, that the just war tradition in its Christian expression pertains to the restraint of force in the use of force in restraint of evil. The key word is "restraint."

I. Augustinian Skepticism and the Use of Force

Augustine believes that the governing authorities must use the sword in restraining evil and protecting the innocent. But he is preoccupied almost to the point of distraction with the abuse to which the use of this power is put.

"[T]his is characteristic of the earthly city: to worship a god or gods with whose help it might reign in victory and earthly peace, not from love of caring for others but rather from lust to exercise dominion over others."4 This is one of Augustine's most famous expressions of political suspicion. But there are plenty of others. "Remove justice, then, and what are kingdoms but large gangs of robbers," he asks and goes on to relate a famous story about Alexander the Great. When the king demanded of a captured pirate what he meant by infesting the sea, the man defiantly replied that he meant no more than the king himself in infesting the world. If you own a small ship, you are a robber; if a great fleet, you are an emperor, the pirate declared.5

Augustine thought this reply both "witty" and "true." His point is that we must not equate any political entity or form of government with the Kingdom of God, not even where those governments call themselves Christian. Rome, even converted Rome, is Rome nonetheless and its rulers operate in the opaque world of tragic necessity.

Showing us just how tragic the necessity was, Augustine takes us on an exhaustive tour of the Roman wars. He laments the slaughter and futility of war and is acutely aware that civil wars are the most pitiless and that urban warfare unleashes its own distinctive form of unspeakable horror. He details atrocity after atrocity committed against women, unarmed soldiers, and whole city populations. It is the sheer volume of his unrelenting invective that, I suspect, leads many readers to give up on any attempt at a close reading of the opening books of The City of God. It is like attempting a careful reading of the over 1,000 pages of Jeremy Scahill's chronicling of the American empire's mercenary armies and dirty wars or the trilogy on the dying of the American Republic by former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson.

But why drag in a comparison with a contemporary investigative journalist and a repentant cold warrior? The answer is that anyone infected with even a bit of Augustinian skepticism ought to be at least moderately interested in the goals of whistle blowers, good investigative journalism, and radical scholarship. Indeed, Noam Chomsky opens his book Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World with St. Augustine's recounting of the emperor-pirate story, saying that it "reaches to the heart of the frenzy over selected incidents of terrorism currently being orchestrated, with supreme cynicism, as a cover for Western violence."6

II. Augustinian Realism and the Restraint of Evil

While writers on the radical left like Chomsky and Scahill can give us insight into the full theo-political range and relevance of Augustine's skepticism, there is a group of Christian realist thinkers who can help us to understand Augustine's realism. Their argument that the American republic, since the end of the Second World War, has turned into a security state, and has, since the fall of the Soviet Union, become an aggressive and overextended empire, maps—fairly directly onto Augustine's argument that Rome's decline began with the fall of Carthage.

Augustine notes that there was at least one Roman leader who thought that it was actually in Rome's best interests to let Carthage survive. Instead, with its traditional North African enemy destroyed, Rome continued its quest for dominion through wars against smaller kingdoms—kingdoms that Augustine believed were much better positioned to pursue true human flourishing than empire could ever be. Furthermore, these wars were at the expense of "equitable and moderate" laws inside the empire and led to "the double burden of taxation and military service."7 To a surprising degree this Augustinian realism tracks closely with the arguments of American thinkers like Andrew Bacevich, Alberto Coll, Chalmers Johnson, and Caleb Carr, who share an alarm at the growth of the American security state, its history of meddling in the affairs of foreign powers, its overextension, expense, and what they consider to be its neo-liberal and neo-conservative crusading spirit.

America's revolutionary utopianism, with its attendant rhetoric of exceptionalism, is anathema to Augustinian realists. They scorn the idealistic rhetoric of humanitarian war, regime change, and the spread of democracy. War simply is not, and cannot be, humanitarian; at best it can only ever be necessary and tragic and it should never be entered upon until it has become the absolutely last resort. Furthermore, whatever it spreads, it is very unlikely to be the democracy that its very militarism begins to undermine at home. The Federation of American Scientists has compiled a list of more than 200 U.S. overseas military interventions between the end of World War II and the year 2000. Chalmers Johnson records their claim that in "no instance did democratic governments come about as a direct result of any of these military activities."8

Realists of course are accused of isolationism, but when confronted with the idealist alternative, we can see why that's tempting. Jackson Lears' critique of Hillary Clinton's book Hard Choices9 conveys a sense of the realists' fears. Clinton and her followers believe that "America's values are the greatest source of strength and security" for the world, writes Lears. They find it hard to believe that other actors in the international arena might have their own legitimate interests and different values that, realistically, have to be respected. Rather, for both neo-liberal and neo-conservative idealists, progress toward democracy is inevitable and the West has a mission to nudge it along. This sounds to the realists like wishful thinking. Clinton avers that “violent extremism is bound up with nearly all of today's complex global problems... That is an argument for America to be engaged in the hardest places with the toughest challenges around the world." But as Lears opines: "the pursuit of 'violent extremism' provides an open-ended excuse for global military intervention."

III. Augustinian Idealism and the Restraint of Force

The trouble with some realists is that, while it may be difficult to get them to go to war, it can be difficult to control their fury once they do. We must fight terror with terror, they argue. Christian idealists, on the other hand, argue that we are morally obliged to place restraints upon our use of force in the restraint of evil. What is right in war, jus in bello, matters as much as whether it is right to go to war, jus ad bellum. Traditionally, the two moral criteria at play here are called discrimination and proportion. They prohibit the fighting of terror with terror.

Even as we remain open to using the most severely punitive measures in an effort to contain terrorist organizations, we have to remember that terrorism is a tactic with several possible strategic objectives. Terrorists may intend to provoke a state into a self-defeating external overreaction, polarize a population by forcing the state into repressive internal measures, or mobilize their own supporters. Each of these objectives is rational; each intends to leverage a small use of force into large adjustments in the behavior of their enemy.

An Augustinian idealism can help us think about this theologically in such a way that we prepare ourselves for a variety of responses to terrorism matching the variety of its purposes. Provoking a military overreaction is one of the terrorist's goals and should not therefore be one of ours. It is often counterproductive as it ignores the necessity for a multiplicity of long-term approaches to terrorism designed to capitalize on its inherently repulsive nature. Wise governments can find ways to work with the grain of the moral, rational universe in nudging terrorists groups along the path toward their eventual collapse, for terrorist organizations tend to have relatively short lifespans.

So what means of pacification are available? Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff and principal British negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, argues10 that insurgents, while they cannot be brought to the negotiating table without coercive force, can never be defeated by coercive force alone. Furthermore, he believes that measured coercive force can indeed bring them to the table because they are inherently rational actors. Powell points to several studies that show that terrorists in the main are not psychopathic or uniformly amoral. Rather they have a rational set of objectives, and we need to know what those objectives are, either to deny them those objectives on the battlefield or to discuss them at the table. If, however, we create the impression that we view the enemy as nothing but purely evil and psychotic, and if we convince them that we will never talk, we have removed any incentive for a change in behavior and any grounds for discussion.

Powell argues that there are moderates and hardliners in any organization. That should encourage us to think that the Islamic State, for example is not all one thing, and that once operating as a state they will probably begin to modify some of their apocalyptic thinking in a more realistic direction. Therefore, while as realists never allowing ourselves to underestimate the evil we confront, we require a morally restrained use of force such that the terrorist's supporting constituency can see that the terrorist's target, in this case, the West, is in some manner or degree principled. Then the use of force has a chance of being harshly punitive in military terms toward the doctrinaire without closing the door of peace in the face of moderates and their civilian supporters. We should act so that moderates and civilian populations would see the West as predictable alike in its willingness to use lethal force and in its unwillingness to forgo moral constraints on the use of force.

Powell thinks terrorists are rational on empirical grounds. Augustine thinks so on theological grounds. All human beings seek peace, he argues. As the drumbeat of war invites us to divide the world into good and evil—"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," was George Bush's Manichean slogan—Augustine offers counsel to the contrary. Certainly there are those who love an unjust peace. Yet, says Augustine, no matter how perverted, all things participate to some degree in the essential order of things, otherwise they could not exist at all. Therefore no one's vice is so great that it destroys utterly the nature in which it subsists. War then, not by its own nature but by the nature of those who wage it, is oriented toward some conception of peace and order.

This gives us a reason to take terrorists seriously as political communities and to seek rational political communication with them even when waging war against them. This does not entail any moral relativism. Augustine teaches that the better the objects of its love, the better the people, and the worse the objects of its love, the worse the people. But in the case of both the better and the worse, there are common objects of love and around this love "there remains some sort of assembled multitude of rational creatures."11

Quoting Seneca, Augustine wrote, "He who hates bad men hates all men." They are to be loved, he said, just so that they not continue to be bad.12 This is a tall order. But if we have learned a skeptical honesty about our own complicity in creating the threats we presently face, if we are determined to confine our goals in war to the restraint of evil and not to the remaking of the Islamic world in our own image, then perhaps we shall have come to a place where we understand that moral and prudential restraint in the use of force is a key element in effective, long term, multi-faceted approaches to the containment of terrorism.

In conclusion, let us give the final word neither to Augustine the idealist nor to Augustine the skeptic, but to the pessimistic realist who at the end of his life witnessed the complete collapse of order in his beloved North Africa and died in a city under siege. There is a prophetic passage that begins with Augustine's distinctive ontological optimism, "The gang, too... is bound together by a pact of association, and its loot is divided according to an agreed law," but continues on a more somber note:

If, by constantly adding desperate men, this scourge grows to such an extent that it acquires territory, establishes a home base, occupies cities, and subjugates peoples, it more openly assumes the name of kingdom, a name now publicly conferred on it due not to any reduction in greed but rather to the addition of impunity.13

And that seems to be where we are today; we face a terrorist gang aspiring to be an apocalyptic state. Perhaps we don't need an argument against the "war on terror"—it may already be over, and we may have lost it. The lack of restraint exemplified in the story at the beginning of this essay may help explain why. The CIA calls it blowback; but centuries ago, and more memorably, Hosea warned that he who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind.

This is an abridged version of a a paper delivered in the Marpeck Commons at the gracious invitation of Canadian Mennonite University in February, 2015. To read or watch the full version,

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