Twenty years ago, Holly and I were living in the woods. I had left my position at a university in 2000 because we wanted to live close to the land, and we had some friends with property where we could all learn together. We were young, and we were enthusiastic and optimistic, though not so much about society in general as confident in ourselves. We believed we could help change the world, with our bookshelves full of Foxfire anthologies, Back to Basics, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, and essays by folks like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Aldo Leopold. This wasn’t a complete leap of faith; all of us came from families where we grew up with some combination of gardening, camping, backpacking, building, or farming. We weren’t against technological innovations, but we were trying to be intentional about our lives and livelihoods. We wrote poetry, painted landscapes, and hosted literature-themed dinners. There were some hardships and frustrations, but, looking back, it was idyllic.
On September 11, 2001, we were working on the cabin. I was in the front yard, prepping lumber for a window repair. We got a call to turn on the news, that the US had been attacked. We spent the rest of the day listening to NPR on a little battery powered radio. The news did not slow down over the weeks and months ahead. Congress authorized US forces to be used in response to the 9/11 attacks on September 18. By October 7, the United States and United Kingdom invaded Afghanistan in an operation they named Enduring Freedom.
The Answer Is Always the Same
On October 15, The Washington Examiner would publish an editorial by Max Boot making “The Case for American Empire.” His words captured the spirit of the nation, or at least of my neighbors and community. He insisted that: “The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.” He insisted that the USA must occupy Afghanistan, but not for imperial gains. This would be merely “a temporary expedient to allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over.” The US needed to not only kill bin Laden but make it impossible for another to replace him. “We must not only wipe out the vipers,” he wrote, “but also destroy their nest and do our best to prevent new nests from being built there again.” (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/the-case-for-american-empire )
Still, there was some hesitation. So, on November 2, Thomas Friedman famously wrote in The New York Times that we should “Give war a chance.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/02/opinion/foreign-affairs-one-war-two-fronts.html ) War did indeed get its chance. The US and the UK were joined by other allies, including the Northern Alliance, and, by December 17, they drove out the Taliban. It was a surprisingly swift fall, and the victors then built military bases across the nation and settled in for nearly 20 years of ongoing violence. There was never a declaration of war, other than the ubiquitous and ambiguous War on Terror.
Yet all of us committed to peace and justice around the world continued to speak and act up. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a big part of my own personal work shifting from life in rural Missouri, with an emphasis on family conflict and violence, to life in post-conflict Cambodia, with an emphasis on community development and conflict transformation. Our time in Cambodia, three overflowing but brief years, gave us an even more sobering context for the US’ War on Terror. Even though the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, civil war continued. The situation became desperate enough that in 1992-1993, the United Nations governed Cambodia in attempt to disarm the warring factions, promote stability and resettlement, and begin the process of rebuilding the shattered infrastructure. One of my colleagues at Peace Bridges told me, in those days, it was cheaper to buy bullets than rice.We were there from 2007 to 2010, but the work we were doing was still rooted in the violence that plagued Cambodia for all those decades. The impacts were everywhere: lurking in laws, hidden in reinterpretations of culture, displayed in the huge industry that had grown up around international aid and NGOs, passed on through intergenerational trauma, and displayed in the museums that continuously collected unexploded ordnance and landmines. On my first trip to the southern countryside, I also encountered a stunning visual reminder. I kept noticing shallow ponds that were used for agriculture in some way. I thought at first that this must have been some special project, but the reality was grimmer. These were the craters left from US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. I learned an old lesson in a new, visceral way: it is fast to drop a bomb, fast to destroy, but life takes time and hard work to heal and grow.
Twenty Years of Violence
My mind has been full of these kinds of memories as we mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and watch the continued and tragic fallout of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. I understand the outrage, and I share it. I am heartened by all the people and organizations mobilizing to receive and advocate for refugees, or to provide ongoing support within Afghanistan. I feel the fear for people facing so much uncertainty and violence, whether in a devastated homeland or in an unfamiliar, and perhaps not always hospitable, place. And there is plenty of room to criticize and protest the way President Biden and his administration has handled this withdrawal. But I am also concerned that too many people in the USA have forgotten what has happened in the last 20 years. The peace worker in me keeps crying out: where was your outrage for the two decades of coercion, violence, and domination? How did so many people in the United States manage to forget that we have subjugated the people of Afghanistan, military personnel, aid workers, and journalists to the horrors of war for 20 years?
I am not questioning that there is genuine compassion buried in our outrage. Watching the news of people desperate to escape, making impassioned pleas, not just for help, but for justice, should break our hearts. But we could have been listening for 20 years; we could have been exercising compassion for 20 years; we could have been working together to put an end to the violence for 20 years! So why now? My suspicion is that our collective outrage over the withdrawal is connected to perceptions of American weakness, as much as it is to compassion for the people of Afghanistan. As a society, we have entertained ourselves with fantasies of American exceptionalism, and with delusions that every violence enacted by others is suspect and evil, while every violence enacted by our nation is virtuous and good. We train our minds to believe that we don’t make mistakes, that we are the white-hat-wearing good guys. It is convenient to hide the horrors of 20 years of war and occupation – the secret prisons, the torture, the countless and horrific civilian deaths, the now ubiquitous buzz of drones with bombs – because we viewed them as justified costs of American dominance.
If the withdrawal had gone as planned, and if the Taliban’s return to power had taken place over months and years, rather than days, all of these current tragedies would have unfolded more slowly. Most importantly for preserving our civic myths, the United States would not have been in the middle of it all. It would have been easy to feel sad, reassure ourselves that we did our duty, and console ourselves that it was someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility. But the swiftness of the collapse in Afghanistan will not let us escape this introspection. Despite the insistence that the War on Terror was making the world a better and more democratic place, even those who believe that war can be “an engine of freedom” have concluded that the last 20 years has amounted to “fighting wars against our own democracy” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/09/11/how-911-triggered-democracys-decline/ ). If you are angry and horrified by what is happening in Afghanistan now (and you should be), you should have been angry and horrified for the last 20 years.
Yet how can we possibly measure these horrors? We turn to statistics, but it is easy to forget that, behind every number, there is a life and a story. Ellen Knickmeyer, drawing on data provided by Harvard University’s Kennedy School and the Brown University Costs of War project, has summarized some of the costs:
- In time, twenty years is almost a generation, and nearly 25% of the US population has been born during the war and occupation.
- In lives lost, 2,448 American military members; 1,144 allied military members; 3,846 US contractors; 444 aid workers; 72 journalists; 66,000 Afghani military and police members; 47,245 Afghani civilians; and 51,191 Taliban and other fighters have died.
- In money, Knickmeyer points out that this war was paid for “on credit, not in cash.” In contrast to the Korean War (which saw President Truman pay for by raising the top tax rates by 92%) or the Vietnam War (when President Johnson raised top tax rates 77%), President George W. Bush “cut tax rates for the wealthiest, rather than raise them,” by “At least 8%.” The result is an estimated $2 trillion in war costs in Afghanistan and Iraq “that the United States has debt-financed as of 2020”. By 2050, the interest costs are estimated to be “Up to $6.5 trillion.”
- To this, we add more than $2 trillion in expenses for continued and much needed services to roughly 4 million veterans (“in health care, disability, burial,” etc. (https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-afghanistan-43d8f53b35e80ec18c130cd683e1a38f )
“If you purchased $10,000 of stock evenly divided among America’s top five defense contractors on September 18, 2001 … and faithfully reinvested all dividends, it would now be worth $97,295. This is a far greater return than was available in the overall stock market over the same period. … That is, defense stocks outperformed the stock market overall by 58 percent during the Afghanistan War.” (https://theintercept.com/2021/08/16/afghanistan-war-defense-stocks/ )
Is Another World Possible?
Though you can find thought experiments imagining what we could have done with the money spent on war (https://theintercept.com/2021/09/03/war-on-terror-911-cost-climate-health-care/ ), we have never invested in peace at these levels. Nevertheless, movements to bring healing and peace continue to spring up around the world, usually among marginalized people and without the support of those who control money and politics. This makes it tricky to gauge the relative amount of violence or peace in the world. According to the Global Peace Index at Vision of Humanity, there has been an increase in diplomacy and a –
“shift away from large-scale violent deaths and heavy militarisation, towards democracy. Battle deaths in the last 25 years make up only 3% of battle deaths in the last 100 years, or 7% excluding World War II deaths. The number of alliance agreements in place in 2012 was 77 times the amount of alliances in 1918.” (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/world-become-peaceful-since-wwi/ )
However, these improvements have been paralleled by increases in internal conflicts, military spending, and incarceration:
“For the 11 countries with incarceration data available since 1950, excluding the massively higher rates of the US, the average increase in incarceration rates was 142.9%. Incarceration levels, population displacement and security spending speak to the resources necessary to maintain peace. A more peaceful society could reduce spending on security and instead invest in structures that improve stability and build peace — education, physical infrastructure and strong business.” (ibid)
This roadmap toward social health reminded me of the ongoing research on altruism and cooperative behavior. A 2012 study argued -
"that humans developed cooperative skills because it was in their mutual interest to work well with others -- indeed ecological circumstances forced them to cooperate with others to obtain food. In other words, altruism isn't the reason we cooperate; we must cooperate in order to survive, and we are altruistic to others because we need them." (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121119094629.htm )
This is our evolutionary reality. Yet we have been taught for ages that, although violence is the last resort, it is also, somehow and ultimately, the best answer for the problems we face as a society. (https://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf ) Commitments to nonviolence, or at least to sustaining communities where violence is something to be healed and transformed, have been criticized and dismissed on the basis of being naïve or gullible. We are blamed for creating the possibility for violent men to come to power. These are important insights and cautions, not to be dismissed. And proponents of transformative justice, or of nonviolence, non-hierarchalism, and regenerative communities, need to be open to dialog, criticism, and change. But in my experience, we have been willing to do that.
What I have not witnessed is a willingness to reconsider the logic of violence or the persistence of Western powers in clinging to the legacies of imperialism fueled by White supremacy. (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-08-29/beltway-fantasies-fueled-afghanistan-tragedy ) As I mentioned earlier, destruction is quick work, and I think that is one of its appeals. It offers the delusion of a fast solution. The rich and powerful among us keep traumatizing and devastating the peoples and ecologies of the world, and it is the nurturing and caring among us that then spend decades and centuries attending to the healing. You drop a bomb in a moment and consider yourself a mighty man, but the power of destruction is nothing compared to the power of creation and life. You bury us beneath the rubble of 10,000 years of coercion, domination, and death, and we keep rising up, like dandelions in cracked pavement.
When people are tired of feeling outrage, when their anger dwindles, the people of Afghanistan will still be hard at work trying to fashion a society where they can live and thrive. Decades from now, the work to heal and grow will still be ongoing. If you want to feel hopeful about the future, consider this: even though the violence continues, even though the bombs are detonated and rights are crushed, there will be people who insist on working for change. There will still be people who, in the face of national and international war machines, still say that peace is possible. There will still be people who, in the face of terrorism, whether in the form of violent extremists or domestic abusers, still say that we can create communities where violence is not needed.
“One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the U.S. around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.” (https://news.fordham.edu/living-the-mission/university-mourns-death-of-daniel-berrigan-sj-peace-activist-and-poet-in-residence/ )
We need these idealists and dreamers. We need to keep a vision of humanity alive that doesn’t rely on coercion or violence. We need the hope and determination to do the hard work that too many people are afraid to do: to face the devastation wrought by inflicting and suffering violence, and to begin the process of healing. We need to insist on creating communities that invest in the beautiful and wonderful things that create, rather than destroy, life, and savor joy. When Afghanistan and all its troubles leaves the headlines, the people who believe these things will still be there, doing the hard work, like transforming bomb craters into fish ponds, teaching children to read, offering trauma-healing workshops in remote villages, developing family violence programming, and advocating for human rights. So please remember the people of Afghanistan who are and will be keeping the possibility of peace alive, even when they are forgotten. Support them, and others like them around the world, and join their ranks, if you want to help make another world, not just possible, but something real.