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Hammers, Nails, and Afghanistan

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 2.

I confess. I'm one of the eleven Americans who think warfare was not the best response to the September 11 attacks. (Actually, there are probably a few million of us.) If you think it's lonely being an atheist, just try opposing this "war"! I believe the September 11 attacks, hideous as they were, should have been treated as monstrous crimes rather than as acts of war. Acknowledging that mine is a minority viewpoint even within our own minority community, I'd like to set forth why I think the war was a bad idea—and why I think events have largely vindicated my misgivings.

First, take the Bush administration. Before combat adrenaline blurred our vision, many Americans saw George W. Bush (accurately, I think) as an underachiever who never quite amounted to the sum of his handlers. Some of those handlers were open "fascist wannabes" whose social and ideological visions secular humanists justifiably found chilling. Moreover, the administration came to power under a cloud of electoral illegitimacy.1 Before September 11, I hoped nothing much would happen in the world until 2004, when a proper presidential election might pluck the national foot from the banana peel. Such was not to be.

Second, take the nature of war. By most definitions, war is a conflict between sovereign states. The September 11 attacks were not the work of a sovereign state. That is no pedantic distinction; throughout history warfare has proven an effective tool by which one sovereign state can unseat another's government. Its utility for other tasks—say, neutralizing a multinational private paramilitary network or apprehending a six-foot-five-inch former Saudi playboy—is less well established. Catching Usama bin Laden is a police function, so we shouldn't be surprised by unintended consequences when we send soldiers to do a cop's job.2

Let's inventory those unintended consequences. By some standards—certainly, by those the commercial media emphasize—American military action in Afghanistan was astoundingly successful. We toppled the Taliban government, a likely boon to millions of Afghans. But that was never our primary objective. Surely few considered Taliban perfidy sufficient cause for war before September 11. No, our core missions were to capture or kill bin Laden and to neutralize his Al Qaeda network. America signally failed in those missions. As I write, bin Laden remains unaccounted for and presumably at large. Al Qaeda took a body blow in Afghanistan, but as Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet admitted to Congress on February 6, the terror network remains active in many other countries. All we accomplished fully was to topple the Afghan government.

To reduce it to a box score, we didn't apprehend our principal target (police work). We didn't neutralize Al Qaeda (counterterrorism). We did manage to knock down the sovereign government that happened to be standing closest to our real quarries. This should surprise no one; we chose to wage (undeclared) war, and toppling governments is what warfare does best. That old saying, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," seems terrifyingly germane here.

Why should we worry? Because a war that doesn't—indeed, probably can't—achieve its stated goals can nonetheless be rich in unintended consequences.

  • It remains to be seen whether the future Afghan government will mark a genuine improvement over the Taliban. In any event, since the welfare of the Afghan people was not America's principal objective, we should not judge our success by whether we achieve it.
  • Speaking of the welfare of the Afghan people, University of New Hampshire economics professor Marc Herold has been tabulating civilian casualties, a pursuit that has unsurprisingly attracted more attention in European than domestic media.3 Despite allegedly precise U.S. air strikes, Herold pegs the toll at more than four thousand innocent dead, exceeding the roughly 3,100 Americans now believed killed in the September 11 attacks. You don't do ethics by counting bodies, but surely this does nothing to buttress American claims to the moral high ground.
  • Since war bore spectacular fruit in Afghanistan despite failing in its main objectives—and since new fighting might distract public attention from the Enron fiasco—further military adventuring seems inevitable. If we continue chasing a fugitive with armies, bin Laden will probably continue escaping—and the American Right may finally get its chance to shoot up every country on Earth that it disapproves of. There's no reason to think that many of these escapades will result in a better world.
  • Domestic dangers, too, abound. War licenses government to expand its power. Each American war left its scars on civil liberties. Given Bush's popularity, today "the government" largely means Bush's handlers, many of whom lusted to curtail personal liberties long before September 11. To me, the most frightening part of life after September 11 is not the threat of terrorism, but rather the prospect of John Ashcroft et al. arrogating more power because of war fever. From its push for military tribunals—fortunately blunted by concerted opposition—to cavalier disregard for Geneva protocols in its handling of Taliban (later only Al Qaeda) prisoners, this administration has exploited September 11 in ways that place the American dream at greater risk than foreign terrorists could ever manage on their own. I can't help wondering whether Bush's handlers feel more desperate—perhaps, desperate enough to cashier big chunks of the Constitution—precisely because the administration's legitimacy is dubious.

The world is a complicated place. To strain a metaphor, it's as rich with screws and lag bolts and swage-lock fasteners as it ever was with nails. Yet America strides the globe proudly swinging its military hammer, seemingly unable to imagine why it might need any other tool. As secular humanists and Americans, we need to exercise extraordinary vigilance. 


1. No, I'm not a frustrated Gore supporter. For the record, in 2000 I voted Libertarian, believing with Jefferson that "that government is best which governs least."

2. Admittedly, collaring Usama bin Laden is no job for Barney Fife. Had it been attempted, doubtless it would have been a police action with a substantial military component. The Israelis have shown great skill in equipping and training elite military units to conduct paramilitary "police work" of this sort. It's a much different undertaking from war.

3. Herold's work is available online (http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold). For an evenhanded analysis, see Michael Massing, "Grief Without Portraits," The Nation, February 4, 2002, pp. 6-8.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.

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