This post will be a bit of a departure from what I usually write in two ways. First, I’ve chosen to include language that is not exactly kid-friendly. This is because I want to talk about some thoughts in a way that is more soulful and expressive. Second, I open up a little bit about my military experience. I’ve generally avoided doing this in the past, because my observation is that those who seek to follow Christ outside the bonds of institutionalized religion tend to embrace non-violence—a concept that I gravitate toward (with some reservations that I’m working through). I used to think that discussing military issues in conjunction with some of the other faith issues I explore would be a distractor and would perhaps undermine my credibility, but I’m at a place where I’m willing to discuss it, critique it, try to extract some value from it, and honestly seek the best way to approach conflict going forward. If any of that bothers you, and this post is not for you, that’s ok. I understand. With that out of the way… here goes.
Just over a decade ago, I did a very short stint in Afghanistan. I’ve heard frequent criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that revolved around civilian casualties. A segment of the population is convinced that the U.S. military’s approach to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was to indiscriminately kill non-combatants. This issue is peripheral to the theme of this article, and perhaps I’ll tackle it another time. For now, suffice it to say I’ve not observed that, nor have I heard any credible evidence to support it. However…
There’s no question that in many cases, the U.S. has participated in the cycle of violence, and despite the schools we built, the metric tons of opium that we prevented from being sold, the girls whose education we facilitated, and the economic development we fostered, many people in Afghanistan had their lives upended, and some non-combatants were killed.
As a nation, we were galvanized by outrage over the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. We responded with attacks against Al Qaeda outposts in Afghanistan and against their Taliban-government enablers. The occupation which followed was an attempt to rebuild the country with a democratic government, which, theoretically, would create an ally of the Afghan people.
We knew that the country was corrupt from top to bottom. We knew that ritual, sexual abuse of young boys was rampant. We knew that females were treated as second-class citizens. We knew that the overlords in the new, “democratic” government we supported were shiftless, corrupt back-stabbers. We knew that many families subsisted on opium production. We knew that our affiliation with many of the remote villages would invite retributive attacks from the Taliban.
My completely unsympathetic view at the time? That’s what you get for letting your country get fucked up. The September 11th attacks might not have been your fault, but you let your country get to a place where you tolerated those who would commit such atrocities. So that’s what you get.
Let’s put Afghanistan aside for the moment. Twenty years later, Russian troops initiated an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. We watched the buildup of troops. We watched the Russian military machine fumble its way through Ukrainian cities and countryside and leave devastation in its path. We’re now watching the Russians decimate Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in an attempt to get the Ukrainians to capitulate and cede a significant portion of strategic terrain to Russia.
Controversy over our support of Ukraine abounds. Did the possibility of NATO expansion stoke enough fear in the Russians that they felt compelled to use violence to show their resolve to defend their borders? Potentially. Was Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO justified? Maybe. Did U.S. meddling in Ukrainian political affairs almost a decade ago exacerbate the political tensions within that country? Quite possibly. Is the Ukrainian government exceedingly corrupt? I believe so. Does any or all of that justify Vladimir Putin’s evil schemes? Not even close. And my use of the word “evil” is not hyperbolic. Russia’s bumble-fuck of a military campaign has somewhat masked the diabolical intent behind the invasion, but the diabolical intent is there nonetheless.
But maybe that’s what the Ukrainians get for letting their country get fucked up.
Economic sanctions have thrown the Russian economy into upheaval. The authoritarian Russian government is persecuting protestors. Poorly trained and inadequately equipped conscripts are being thrown into the fray against their will. Russian men are dying on the front lines. Russian society will be reaping the consequences of this debacle for decades. But you know what? Maybe that’s what the Russian people get for letting their country get fucked up.
When you look at world events, you tend to view people as groups or to view nation-states as a homogeneous bloc of people. That’s a useful oversimplification when you’re trying to avoid the hard work of applying nuanced thought to the causes and effects of human violence, but it’s not really fair to individuals. It leads to an unsympathetic outlook, and that can be dangerous. It leads to scapegoating and perhaps unfair blame-casting. It causes us to be blind to our own faults.
How much hardship did the people of the United States cause the people of Afghanistan? Was it more than the “hardship” inflicted on the victims of the September 11th attacks and their families? I don’t know. How much responsibility do I bear for any unnecessary hardship we caused those who had nothing to do with September 11th? I don’t know. Certainly not all of it, but probably not none.
If karma, the principle of sowing-and-reaping, or moral cause and effect is a thing, then our own country is headed for some hard times. We’ve collectively made a series of bad decisions in every area of life, and those decisions are going to have consequences. We can try to stave off the consequences for a while, but we can’t do it forever, and I have a strong feeling that those consequences are going to start appearing with cascading effects—like falling dominos—very soon.
Maybe that’s what we get. Maybe that’s what we get for letting our country get fucked up.
What is certain, is that we all bear some responsibility for the way things are. The variables are too many to account for precisely, so we generalize. Nevertheless, the consequences for societal actions that hit us collectively affect individuals—no matter how much or how little they are to blame. It’s not fair, but that’s life’s rules, not mine. I presume we’d each like some sympathy for the consequences we face. Perhaps we should extend that same sympathy to others.
We can’t change the past, but maybe we can do our part to make things better going forward. Maybe, as individuals, we can help absorb some of the impact of the consequences of our bad decisions rather than scapegoating, casting blame, and perpetuating the cycle of violence.
That’s what Christ did. The actions of the individual may seem insignificant; but perhaps a strong minority, following Christ’s example, might be enough to atone for some of the misdeeds of the past. Maybe forgiveness will help dissipate the fury of the whirlwind we’re about to reap. Maybe through sacrifice, we can somehow help the group ride out the judgment that it deserves.
Or we can continue to cast blame, scapegoat others, set fires, and entertain ourselves while the city burns down around us. If that’s the path we choose, then God help us all. Maybe unattenuated judgment is what we’ll receive, and maybe that’s what we get.