On August 26, 2021, President Joe Biden made a speech not only condemning the suicide attack on Kabul airport by ISIS-K, which killed 13 service members and many more Afghan civilians, but he also continued the long American tradition of ripping Scripture from its literary and historical context in order to justify the continuation of war and violence.
In his speech, Biden quotes the 2,500 year old book of Isaiah and conflates Isaiah’s prophetic call with America’s military objectives. He states:
Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?” The American military has been answering for a long time. “Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.”
Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.
And I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out of uniform, military and civilian, of giving the last full measure of devotion.
The suicide bombing in Kabul was a tragedy for all those injured and for the families and friends of those killed. It was also a devastating end to the war in Afghanistan, a war that has claimed the deaths of nearly 50,000 civilians.
Instead of fully lamenting the lives lost, not only in that specific tragedy but as a result of the 20 year plus War on Terror, Biden uses the speech to reinforce the myth that God blesses American war making and to prop up the dangerous idea that God specifically calls Americans to fight in wars that contribute to the deaths of thousands of civilians, to devastating injuries that impact thousands more, and to the internal displacement of millions.
The notion that God calls Americans to fight in war also serves to downplay the massive amount of anguish, death, and destruction that war causes. By implying that war is somehow God ordained, Biden (and the many other politicians, both Republican and Democrats that describe war and military service in religious language) seek to circumvent the difficult discussions that need to happen after the drawdown of military activities (and ideally before war even occurs) about the necessity of war.
Has the War on Terror, which encompasses not only the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, among other countries and involved thousands of coalition forces from dozens of nations really increased global security and saved lives? How do we calculate whether the War on Terror is worth the heavy price exacted on those who fought it, tried to flee it, or were caught in the crosshairs?
Is the estimated 897,000-929,000 lives lost as a direct result of the War on Terror, so far, an acceptable price to pay for “security?” Are the thousands of more lives lost to displacement, starvemention, and disease, also an acceptable price to pay?
No one wants to believe that the lives snuffed out and destroyed during the 20+ year War on Terror were unnecessary and that these hundreds of thousands of people did not in fact need to die.
No one wants to believe that loved ones died serving in wars that ultimately brought even more anguish, injustice, and oppression. No one wants to entertain the thought that the ideals that motivated them to serve and fight for their country and on behalf of civilians suffering under the violence of non-state actors were simply thin veneers to justify American greed and imperialism.
It makes sense that some grappling with the ramifications of war might want to take comfort in the rhetoric of war being part of the Divine will. It is often easier to believe that their deaths were divinely ordained and orchestrated.
But such comfort is often temporary and superficial. Real healing from the pain of war will only come from an honest accounting and reckoning of the global costs of the War on Terror and ensuring future wars are prevented.
In addition to papering over these tough questions about the necessity of war, the conflation of divine will and American foreign policy paints a disturbing picture of God.
Do we really want to worship a God that views lives as expendable? Because this God that supposedly calls people to fight in wars, not only views the lives of the opposition or civilians in foreign countries as expandable, but also the lives of our service members. The God that calls the American military to fight specific wars is condemning them to death, serious injury, and/or lifetime struggles with trauma and/or moral injury.
Do we really want to worship a God that looks the other way at torture and unjust detention? That takes a “the end justifies the means” approach to war? Do we really want to worship a God that views the death of innocent people as collateral damage, something to be glossed over as simply the necessary price of war?
Do we really want to worship a God that uses violence…to end violence? Make no mistake, the initial attacks on 9/11 that politicians and military leaders used to justify the War on Terror, were themselves abominable acts of violence.
The violence perpetrated by groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc are horrific. And it is also true that the War on Terror has not ended these groups’ reign of terror. It has not brought back the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11. It has only contributed to more death and destruction.
Conflating divine will with American military might, is harmful, bad theology, regardless of whether those endorsing it are Republicans, Democrats or moderates.