I was troubled and saddened to learn of the capture and murder of ten Christian medical aid workers on August 7 returning from providing eye care to rural Afghans; the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
When I heard of the attack my first reaction was: I hope our leaders don’t use this as an excuse to “get tough” on the Taliban, and try to whip up support for increased military action in that country. Right now there are deliberations in Congress over whether to continue to fund the war, as President Obama has promised to do, or to begin to withdraw as a small number of Congresspersons are seeking to do. This attack just heightens the personal and political stakes of that debate.
In no way do I want to diminish the pain, grief and even anger that the friends and families of the deceased must feel. At the same time, a vengeful response would be diametrically opposed to the spirit and motivation of those who were killed. Tom Little, the eye doctor who headed up the team, had been working in Afghanistan for 30 years, which means he had been working there during the worst of the Taliban rule, and even the Russian war with Afghanistan (when ironically the US was actually supplying the Taliban with weapons that are now being turned on us!). Another victim, Glen Lapp, a Mennonite Central Committee worker on the team had been in the country over the last two years in the midst of the war. Other stories could be told of each of the victims. They died as they had lived – selflessly and sacrificially, a sign of shalom amidst death, chaos and violence.
Much has been made of the fact that they were innocent victims of this war; this is true. They were not there as combatants but as healers. Yet, they are not the only innocent victims of the war; thousands of Afghan citizens have been caught in the cross fire between NATO and Taliban troops and are simply referred to as “collateral damage.” Most experts agree that the killing of these innocent Afghans has been the Taliban’s best recruiting tool. To respond with vengeance as a way of gaining support for the war is to be no better than our enemy, and to play into their hands
I am in basic agreement with those who advocate that we must get out of this war. I did not and still do not support President Obama’s plan to increase our military presence there. I cringed during his State of the Union speech when he said we would spare no resources in support of our military efforts there. While Democrats and Republicans bicker about taxes and spending here at home, they are in basic agreement on Obama’s support of the Afghan war. Meanwhile our poverty at home increases, we bicker about health care reform, and Democrats and Republicans debate the best approach toward addressing the economic recession.
However, in my mind I hear Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech in which he linked the suffering of the poor at home with the war in Vietnam; the resources we spend on war abroad only feed the poverty and devastation at home. Moreover, I think of so many in my generation directly or indirectly wounded by the Vietnam War. I worry for the twenty-somethings of today, who will be bearing the economic, social, and psychic scars of this war for decades, just as my generation lives with the after effects of the Vietnam War. Like the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan is un-winnable and has no redeeming purpose.
So I support the anti-war effort, and yet I don’t think we can just pull out and leave the Afghans to pick up the pieces; we have contributed to the chaos there, and have a moral obligation to do what we can to bring peace and healing to that divided nation. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said that in calling for social and political change, people must engage in both denunciation and annunciation. Denunciation involves denouncing the status quo that needs to be changed, in this case our current military involvement in Afghanistan. Annunciation involves projecting a vision of a positive future as an alternative; that’s where I think we in the anti-war effort need to do some work. We know what we don’t want – the war – but the only alternative we offer is getting out, and leaving the Afghans in disarray.
Despite their tragic deaths, the ten aid workers represent the alternative we in the anti-war effort must present: a vision of people coming to provide assistance in quality of life. As Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools has shown, well meaning people can operate in war-torn places like Afghanistan if they operate in collaboration with the local people and offer resources and assistance that address the their basic needs. Tom Little, Glen Lapp, Greg Mortenson, and others represent a vision of a positive American presence in Afghanistan that could do more to bring peace to that land than all the weapons and soldiers will ever be able to accomplish.
At the end of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson quotes a Muslim cleric who says that the enemy is not the Taliban, but rather ignorance, and that the building of schools in that country would do more to defeat the Taliban than the military intervention there. The enemy to be addressed in that poor and divided country are not the terrorist, but the poverty, the lack of health care, the lack of education, and other basic needs that serve as breeding grounds for terrorism. The vision we in the anti-war movement must cultivate is a vision of an Afghanistan that is healed and restored; a vision of empowering the Afghan people thru education, training and other basic services to rise out of their poverty and devastation. We need more not less people like those that were killed, who are willing to offer their services to those in need. If the military has a role, it is to protect and provide safe haven for those seeking help and those seeking to help.
If we truly want to end our military involvement in that war, this is the positive vision we must announce, even as we continue to denounce the war and its continuing devastation.