Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Least Bad Options?

President Obama just finished giving his speech at West Point announcing his decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The details have leaked out over the last few days, so what follows are a mixture of thoughts I've sat with for a bit and stream-of-consciousness reactions to the speech.

First, a disclaimer: I voted for President Obama, and I actively supported his campaign even though I did not agree with all of his policies. I opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and I have never quite known what to think about Afghanistan. I also pastor a church in a town connected to a large military base, so people I and my parishoners know will be on the ground for this surge. This is the context from which I am speaking, so take it for what you will.

As a Christian I believe that non-violence is always the most ideal solution to any problem. I believe that Jesus spoke against violence, and that his greatest followers throughout history (people like St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr.) have been fully committed to the path of peace.

That being said, I also recognize the reality of living in a fallen world and that the ideal solution is not always possible. In those situations, faithful, ethical decision making involves determining what is the "least bad" situation. I disagree with the "just war" theory articulated by St. Augustine. Violence is never justified, but there are occasions when it is the least bad option available in the absence of good options.

Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, and neither of them felt that the violence they engaged in was good, but they understood it achieved a better outcome than doing nothing in the face of aggressive, oppressive forces. In other words, they saw the conflict as the least bad option available to them. Every other combat veteran I have spoken to about these issues has expressed similar feelings.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, wrestled with the idea of "least bad options". Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount that passionately argues for non-violence at all costs. And yet Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a hypocrite? Did he change his mind on his core beliefs?

No. He saw an intolerable situation before him and realized that there was no good option available to him, and that doing nothing in the face of evil was worse than acting in a manner that was against his conscience. He said that he felt compelled to act, even if his actions sent him to Hell. Bonhoeffer felt that participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler was the least bad option available to him.

So while I'm not 100% sure what I think, it may be that the temporary Afghan surge is the least bad option available to us. Afghanistan is highly unstable, and as an occupying power we have a responsibility to consider the long term well being of the country as we hand over control to its people. The timetable set by President Obama may be the most responsible way to do this.

Should we have gone into Afghanistan in the first place? I don't really know. My sense is that we should have invested more in building infrastructure and schools in Afghanistan when the Russians pulled out instead of leaving the country full of weapons but few tools for long term, sustainable peace. But we can't go back in time and fix previous mistakes. We can only do the best we can given the situation today. So the President's plan may be the least bad option.

So what do you think, dear readers? What did you think of the speech? Do you think war is ever justified? Can it be a "least bad" option? Discuss!

PS- Regardless of what you think, please pray for the men and women on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. Please also pray for the civilians affected by these wars, and for the leaders of these countries that they will pursue a lasting peace.


Donald Sensing said...

Hi, Matt, sorry i couldn't stay today; I was kind of crammed! Thanks for bringing the hymnals back!

Anyway, here are some relevant links I suggest:

My own op-ed for UMNS, "Just cause exists for action against Iraq."

"Hard Questions for Peacemakers," by Jim Wallis in Sojourners, Jan-Feb 2002.

"Moral Clarity in a Time of War," by Catholic theologian George Weigel.

"Iraq: the case for decisive action," in the decidedly left-wing UK Guardian, January 2003.

Matt Kelley said...

Thanks for sharing, Don. I know that you and I often disagree on these issues, but I appreciate your thoughtful insights.

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