Civilian Deaths, Military Evangelism and the Nonviolent Christ

Posted: May 7, 2009 in Uncategorized
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A few weeks ago, the United States adopted a new policy for public response to U.S.-caused civilian deaths: apologize quickly. The administration took this step after repeatedly being shamed into admitting culpability for high-civilian-casualty events following initial denials of responsibilities. One could see this new policy at work at the State Department over the past two days after reports surfaced of massive casualties at Bala Baluk. But, over the last 24 hours, we’ve seen a new tactic over at the Defense Department: claiming we’d been framed.

[U.S. Army General David] McKiernan, however, hinted that the American airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah. “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties,” McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to investigate further.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “the Taliban went to a concerted effort to make it look like the U.S. airstrikes caused this.” The official did not offer evidence to support the claim, and could not say what had caused the deaths.

Everyone knows that the Taliban are cunning opponents, and that they’ve been fantastic (in that really awful way) at using propaganda tactics and information warfare to recruit and turn the locals against the United States.   And, to be fair:

Accounts differed as to whether the villagers voluntarily took shelter in several walled compounds or were forced by Taliban fighters to congregate there. The insurgents have been accused of using civilians as human shields.

But the message from unnamed Defense officials that these casualties were caused by the Taliban and then blamed on us strains credulity for several reasons, not least of which is the U.S.’s record. Last August, for example:

Following an investigation by their Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, the United Nations has announced that it is convinced that a minimum of 90 civilians were killed in Friday’s US airstrike in Herat Province. This number, they reported, included 60 children, and stands as one of the largest incidents of US-inflicted civilian casualties since the 2001 invasion.

And, if this were a Taliban set-up, it would be a completely new tactic:

Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, a senior Defense official who did not want to be identified “said late Wednesday that Marine special operations forces believe the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, who then loaded some of the bodies into a vehicle and drove them around the village, claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike. A second U.S. official said a senior Taliban commander is believed to have ordered the grenade attack.”

As the AP reported, “it would be the first time the Taliban has used grenades in this way.”

While the Pentagon spins its story, the International Committee of the Red Cross has stated bluntly that US airstrikes hit civilian houses and revealed that an ICRC counterpart in the Red Crescent was among the dead.

It should be fairly easy to determine whether the damage to a given structure was caused by a grenade or by a missile, so stay tuned.

More generally, we know that airstrikes tend to cause large numbers of civilian casualties vs. other military tactics. If it turns out that you’re heavily utilizing this tactic, it’s only a matter of time before you have an episode like this.  Well, guess what?

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show.

In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.

April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July.

With a record-setting number of airstrikes capping off four months of escalating strikes, it’s absolutely reasonable to expect an event like this. Even if it turned out that the Taliban did frame the U.S. in this particular event, it’s only a matter of time until we do kill another huddling mass of non-combatants if we insist on using airstrikes in Afghanistan.

For that matter, choosing war from among several options with which to respond to the 9/11 attacks guarantees civilian deaths. Anyone who can read should know by now that modern warfare kills more civilians than combatants. Where officials who argue for this as “The Good War” get off acting sad and shocked when the inevitable happens is beyond me. Regardless of whether the Taliban or U.S. forces caused this particular mass casualty event, it’s past time to jettison the idea that it’s possible to fight a sterile, “combatants-only” war. If the United States is serious about the oft-stated desire to avoid responsibility for civilian casualties, they should stop dropping things that explode in other people’s countries.

[UPDATE: Siun has an excellent post available that offers a roundup of details that continue to argue against the military’s insinuation that they were framed: military officials were warned that civilians were in the area, but despite that the air strikes lasted for more than an hour and included two villages, and the International Committee of the Red Cross’s investigative team confirmed air strike casualties.]


Much has been made in the last few days about a video showing U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan encouraging troops to use Pashto-language Bibles to evangelize the locals. For me, the shocking thing about this video is not the call to evangelism–most Christians believe they have an imperative for evangelism that transcends any military General Order. (Although from the counterinsurgency perspective, it should put paid to any notion that a military dominated by conservative evangelical Christians can perform anything remotely like textbook counterinsurgency. The fact that the military thinks a General Order will stop something like this is silly. Seriously, they’re evangelicals for Pete’s sake–they evangelize!) The shocking statement in this video comes at 4:56:

…Our mission [is] to eradicate insurgents, the Taliban and everyone else who’s bad…

This idea that there are people so evil that they must be eradicated absolutely infects modern Christianity, and it’s utterly opposed to the teachings of Jesus. But this idea lays the foundation for Christian participation in war, and it fits so well with our instinctual drive for safety that it enables our willingness as Christians to “regret” civilian deaths without stopping the activity that makes them inevitable.  This militarization of the faith helps enable the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, and it absolutely guarantees that we’ll trade the lives of civilians in pursuit of vengeance and safety, neither of which are of any value from the perspective of the gospels.

So long as Christians in this country continue to ignore Jesus’ rejection of violence and enmity and his call to display self-sacrificing, even suicidal love for opponents, we will continue to kill civilians in Afghanistan and other places around the world.

I wish these chaplains would pay more attention to the words of another chaplain, Father Zabelka, the priest who blessed the crew of the Enola Gay before they dropped the atomic bomb:

…I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clearly: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

…Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the church refuses to be the church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie.

…All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people…The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus.

Christians in Afghanistan, if you want to evangelize, and if you want to truly avoid civilian casualties, lay down your weapons.

  1. […] Civilian Deaths, Military Evangelism and the Nonviolent Christ posted on May 7th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

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