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U.S. Christians Unfazed by Civilian Deaths in War

Based on longstanding and widespread reports of government corruption in Afghanistan, I’m no fan of the country’s president.
And it appears that Hamid Karzai is again exploiting an ambiguous situation involving the U.S. military for his own political gain.

Karzai ordered U.S. special operation units out of Wardak province in response to accusations that U.S. forces there were directly involved in abuses against innocent civilians, which included disappearances and deaths. The move allowed him to appear to stand with his people and against the military occupiers.

Although an earlier investigation could not confirm that the U.S. forces or their Afghani partners were involved in these abuses, still another inquiry is getting under way in order to clarify what most observers see as a confusing situation.

Most of those observers evidently think the U.S. military will be absolved of wrongdoing.

But there’s still the possibility that CIA operatives working with renegade Afghanis were directly involved in the disputed incidents, which means that the U.S. could have played a part in the abuses.

The CIA would not comment on the accusation.

What isn’t in dispute is that the abuses occurred – the abuses not against the Taliban, but against innocent Afghani civilians.

And that means that, for all the discredit that can be directed at Karzai, he needs to be credited for exposing what Americans need to confront about our continuing involvement in not just the obvious ambiguities of the “fog of war,” but also those – maybe especially those – ambiguities that aren’t so obvious.

Like the ongoing death of innocents.

We’ve been through a couple of decades of such deaths, in wars declared and undeclared.

Think of the Balkans. Think of Somalia. And, of course, think of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In each case, the lives of innocent civilians were lost – in as few as in the dozens in Somalia and in the hundreds of thousands in the Iraq wars.

The death toll against civilians was even worse between those Iraqi wars, when hundreds were killed by U.S. bombs in order to protect “no-fly zones” and economic sanctions took the lives of an estimated half-million children.

When asked, in a May 12, 1996, “60 Minutes” interview, if this death toll was justified, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright said, “I think this is a very hard choice. But the price, we think, is worth it.”

As recently as last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham reported that U.S. drones have killed approximately 4,700 people since 2004, with most of the strikes occurring during the Obama administration.

Graham acknowledged that, “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida.”

In the confirmation hearings for John Brennan becoming director of the CIA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein indicated that she understood the civilian death toll to be in the single digits.

Whatever the numbers, the questions are: What are Americans, and particularly American Christians, to make of this and to do about it?

The answer, if John Tirman of the Washington Post is correct about our historical record on this matter, is not much.

In a January 2012 article about Iraq war casualties, Tirman writes, “The inattention to civilian deaths in America’s wars isn’t unique to Iraq. There’s little evidence that the American public gives much thought to the people who live in nations where our military interventions take place.”

He later adds: “Our lack of acknowledgment is less oversight than habit, a self-reflective reaction to the horrors of war and an American tradition that goes back decades.”

Can that continue?

In Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Luke, some people come to Jesus to ask if the death of innocents is caused by their own sin.

In other words, did the dead innocents deserve the death they got, whether caused by nature or a political ruler?

Jesus tells the inquirers that there’s not a chance that this could be the case.

The issue, Jesus maintains, is whether the innocents or those asking the question have repented of their sins.

In short, rather than wondering about what may have caused the death of others, the question is whether the inquirers have taken advantage of the time given to them to seek forgiveness.

In Luke, Jesus then tells the story of a gardener who persuades the owner of the land to give an unproductive fig tree another year – with the help also of a little manure – to yield fruit.

If it continues to be fruitless after that year and that intervention, then, yes, it must be cut down.

Are we being given a little more time to repent for the innocent lives we have taken in and out of war?

Have we the access to the fertilizer that might make us life-givers rather than death-dealers?

Can we make use of the time we’ve graciously been given to be fruitful rather than as useless as a fig-less fig tree?

Will we recognize that repentance is essential?

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.