Recent events in Afghanistan remind us that no one should doubt that “tragedy” is an apt description of political existence. Reinhold Niebuhr—among the intellectual founding fathers of this magazine—proffered “tragedy” as an important corrective to liberal Christianity’s failure to accurately grapple with the reality of power in the world. In Niebuhr’s hands, tragedy served as an antidote to the ideological utopianism that too often undergirded Christian belief that society could be transformed—within history—into the kingdom of God, whether through foolish confidence in the power of the State or by equally naïve, hippy-dippy nonsense about the Church providing so compelling an alternative moral witness that recalcitrant belligerents would lay down their weapons—whether offensive or defensive—and join the converted.
Claptrap. The world—cursed because of human sin—will not return to what it ought to be until the clouds part and we’re privy to the sounds of trumpets, a hundred million angels, and a big kettledrum. Meanwhile, responsible human beings must stand between the innocent and the wolves. Most know this, of course. But among them are those who insist that despite the nature of reality we can nevertheless “rest in God” and be spared “the assumption that we must be in control of history.” In abusing a basic truth and turning it into an excuse to desiccate dominion, they prove that tragedy, while a helpful corrective, is no panacea. Misapplied, it can fuel the very thing it was meant to overcome.
We take the wrong lessons from the tragic view when we postulate that Christian suffering in the world—like Christ’s—is simply a measure of obedience to the new kingdom’s demand for non-resistance against the conditions of history. Eschewing utopianism for an anemic kind of faux-realism, some counsel non-violence—whatever the evils around us—not because non-violence works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain. On the one hand, if particular Christians are hellbent on martyring themselves by keeping their commitment to a supposed obligation to not resist their attackers, so be it. But when I consider the darkness descending again on the women of Afghanistan or see images of our terrified Afghan neighbors falling from those ascending C-17s in a frantic effort to flee whatever horrors they fear are about to engulf them in the hands of the Taliban, I find the pacifist commitment to non-violence stomach-churning.
But I find it morally incoherent as well. Those who mean evil—the Taliban in the present case—have ensured that violence will be an ongoing reality. There is no choice to be made between violence or non-violence, violence is already here. The only choice is whether violence will be used only to slaughter the innocent, or whether counter-violence—just force—will be deployed in their defense as well. In elevating personal piety over approximations of shalom, the practical outcome of the pacifist commitment to non-violence is simply that violence will only ever be used to victimize, never to rescue victims. Many pacifists recognize this but see this tragic outcome as part of the cost of obedience in a sinful world. Perhaps I should be heartened that the honest pacifist recognizes their commitment to doing nothing-effective even in the last resort means that the innocent might be marched away to their deaths, but I do not find their theology any less abhorrent merely for being transparent.
Niebuhr’s own understanding of tragedy was not without its own problems. I’ve written before about the unnecessarily extreme tension—almost contradiction—that he placed between human moral obligations to both love and responsibility. According to Niebuhr, given the conditions of our world, moral human beings cannot strive to meet all the requirements of love—they simply cannot be met. But we can strive to achieve decent approximations of our responsibility to one another, including our innocent neighbors under assault. But the costs of doing this duty came at a cost—because love counsels non-violence, responsibility—especially in its martial aspect—came at the price of individuals having to do what ought never to be done. The consequence of this Niebuhrian tragedy is that for the morally responsible actor—including the warfighter—it is not possible to move in history without becoming tainted with guilt.
While all this sounds a bit inevitable, it’s clear not all tragedy is simply unavoidable. Tragedy as a result of stupidity is well on display, both now and throughout history. Every second person is presently relitigating the Afghan war or our withdrawal from it—we’ve done a bit of it ourselves—and I’m not going to say much more than that none of the horrors we are now seeing were simply inevitable. The long train wreck now unfolding could be seen from far off. It didn’t have to be this way. Blame will be apportioned—rightly and wrongly—in due time and will land in the laps of Americans, Afghans, and near countless other nations and actors both friendly and belligerent to us. Accountability—and calling to account—is important, but the blame isn’t itself the point. We need to understand what went wrong and to learn some desperate lessons about strategic wisdom, cultural competence, political courage, resolve, operational creativity, and humility of purpose. We had better learn them fast; otherwise, despite the brilliance, capacity, and martial virtue of our warfighters we’re heading toward having our asses handed to us on a much bigger and consequential stage.
All this to say, while “tragic” is an apt description of the moral life, it is misunderstood, misplaced, and not as inevitable as it sometimes seems. Therefore, while an accurate description, it is also insufficient.
Surely there is a moral law that states that there reaches a point when so many bad decisions have piled up one upon the other that the opportunity to make any good decision might long ago have departed. A good many of the horrors in human history are on account of such moral quagmires. In such moments, the best the moral actor can do is to take things case by case, asking how moral law applies to this particular context now. It is never, pace Niebuhr, a question of overruling the law of love or other moral norm in favor of responsibility or utility or some other value but, rather, it is a matter of trying to understand what the manifestation of a given moral norm looks like in the present moment. Talk about “lesser evils” or “dirty hands” only obfuscates. The Christian always chooses to do the greatest possible good that can be presently done given the constraints of right authority, proper cause, right intention, necessity, discrimination, and proportionality.
To be sure, under any circumstances the morally right thing to do will sometimes present as a grief or tragedy. It might not be particularly dramatic—perhaps only the grief of a broken heart one causes by leaving another’s romantic advances unrequited. In graver circumstances it may take the form of severe punishment, or a declaration of war. In the tangle of moral quandaries noted above, it may look like a mushroom cloud over a crowded city. Because these things are things both grave and undesired in themselves, being the causal agent of them most often ought to be a source of grief. The point though, is that while in the more dire instances we have to sometimes get our hands dirty mucking about in actions we would rather avoid, it’s essential to understand that dirt comes in different kinds—and not all of it stains our souls. Not all grief is indicative of guilt.
Applying this, any decision that could have been made regarding either a continued American presence in Afghanistan or a complete withdrawal would have had elements of grief and tragedy. No enviable options existed any longer. The seeds for this disaster have been sown by many hands over many years. But we have amplified the tragedy unnecessarily. I won’t defend here my belief that we probably chose the worst of the possible options (you can find such arguments in many places, including here, here, and here). I do want to stress, however, that even after having made the shameful decision to completely withdraw despite knowing—knowing—the Afghan government could not provide for its own basic security there are still some duties that ought–and can–be done.
National honor demands that we limit as greatly as now possible the harm done by having abandoned our allies, betraying the cause for which our sons and daughters have served, and for belittling the sacrifices made both by those of our sons and daughters who have paid the last full measure of devotion and those who have returned home broken, sometimes profoundly so, in body, mind, soul, or a sad conglomeration of each. National honor demands as well that we not cheapen the sacrifices made by those who fought alongside our sons and daughters—most especially our Afghan allies. We must refuse the perverse impulse to cast all responsibility for this calamity on them.
Meeting these obligations is about more than simply national honor. Our security depends on it. As Americans we like to imagine ourselves as manifesting as a nation the Marine Corps dictum that in us there can be found no better friend and no worse enemy. Because of our blundering exit we are, at the moment, at risk of reversing that dictum in the eyes of the world. That world has much benefited from American leadership. Should we scuttle our capacity or credibility to be seen as a reliable source of global leadership, the void we leave behind will be filled by regimes not of our liking. They are crouching at the door even now.
As well, as a nation we owe our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines nothing less than their being able to reflect on their service in Afghanistan with pride. Maybe it was never going to be the pride of a job done as well as we would have liked. But it ought to at least be the pride of a job done as best as we could. Through no fault of their own, we are on course to deprive them of that. Distant as they are from the strategic blunders and political cowardice that coalesced into these present events, the tragedy unfolding is not of their making. This might allow them some small measure of cold comfort found in T.S. Eliot’s–paraphrased–assertion that, for them, there is only trying—the rest is not their business. But it truly is cold comfort when we watch our national humiliation unfold. We have made a bad situation worse. We have exacerbated tragedy and pulled everything in reach into its vortex. That should crush us. As I canvass my friends who have served in Afghanistan, the overwhelming emotion being expressed at the calamity enveloping that nation is grief—or a grief punctuated by moments of grievous rage.
This grief and rage is right to feel. We have broken our contract with them. I refer here to the implicit moral contract that exits between America and her fighting men and women. The contract makes plain that our warfighters—as warfighters—exist to serve the Nation. They defend that Nation and its interests through the careful application of violence and by their willingness to risk violence deployed against them. The contract has an “unlimited liability” clause—the Nation’s warfighters are obliged to put their lives in peril when ordered to do so. In return, our warfighters are owed the confidence of knowing they will only be called upon for morally legitimate and weighty causes and with the implicit promise that the circumstances under which they are being called to kill and risk death are worth the risks. The US military, brilliant at logistics, provisions our troops with every material thing they need to remain functional in the battlefield. In doing so, American logisticians have largely overcome the privations of the nonhuman physical environment: heat, cold, dehydration, hunger, and disease, which have, throughout history, been the primary killers of troops. But our increasing understanding of moral injury also asserts that we have not yet managed to fully equip our warfighters with armor for their soul. As our warriors watch the cause for which they’ve given so much fall apart, as they watch their Afghan comrades who risked everything alongside them face the worst, they must see our nation do what’s right. That begins, at the very least, with the rescue of those thousands of Afghans who fought and bled and hoped with us.
Our warriors have nothing to be ashamed of. They did their duty magnificently. They fought with strength and honor. Whenever they begin to question that in the coming and future days we will need to remind them of that. We will need to remind them of the good things that were achieved in Afghanistan–from girls’ school, to more deeply respected women, to increased life-expectancy, to an improving economy–that still had a chance of enduring had we taken a different course. They kept America safe from further attacks. All of this will seem insufficient as they watch these goods fall away. But for now It will have to be enough.