This War Needed to End

It was a mistake to believe that bombs and missiles and drones and tanks could ever bring peace.

About the author: William J. Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He is a co-author of The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.

A U.S. marine in Afghanistan in 2009.
Peter van Agtmael / Magnum

As a pastor, I have loved and ministered to many members of my church who have suffered grievous hurt in war. Some have suffered visible injuries to the body; others cannot be seen but are serious injuries to the mind and soul. Moral injury is real—and in our current wars, moral injury has been far more common than it was in some earlier wars.

I have seen my church members, their families, and their friends come home with all of these injuries. And so many times, seeing them suffering with war wounds, I would remember how—even as they left for long deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq, or not-quite-public missions elsewhere—some had confided in me that they didn’t want to go, that they never thought we should have gone to war there in the first place.

For too long, as I have ministered to the injured, I have been aware that these wars are themselves a danger to those who fight in them, even if no bomb ever targets them, no bullet ever strikes them, no gas ever touches them. And I know that if we are to maintain any semblance of a moral balance, we must stand against these wars. All of them. For the injuries to all of us, fighters and taxpayers, participants and watchers—on all sides of these wars—are simply too severe. The human cost is simply too high.

Twenty years ago, Representative Barbara Lee of California stood alone, the only member of Congress to vote against giving President George W. Bush the authority to wage unlimited war in the name of stopping terrorism. She took the House floor just days after the attacks of 9/11. “This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me … to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction,” she said. Lee understood that authorizing what she later called a “blank check” for Bush to go to war required not a political or even strategic decision, but a moral one.

“Our country is in a state of mourning,” Lee said. “Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’” She referenced the memorial service held the day before at the beautiful National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., quoting a member of the clergy who urged, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

The next two decades brought brutal wars that began in Afghanistan and spread to Iraq and Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines, Kenya and Djibouti, and beyond. In secret and in the open, these wars brought death to hundreds of thousands, loss of home and often country to millions, and dispossession and impoverishment to tens of millions more.

The attacks of 9/11 were an enormous crime; they caused enormous human suffering. But they did not change the world. Bush’s words later that evening changed the world—when he said that he would answer this crime with a determination to “win the war against terrorism,” taking the world to war. Lee understood that danger, and her moral conscience, backed by the moral movement against war that took shape within hours of the attacks themselves, led her to stand up and reject war as an answer.

Then–Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said something very similar in his Nobel Peace Prize speech just weeks after 9/11. He might have been channeling Lee, even as he tacitly condemned the arrogance and imperial hubris of her country’s leader, when he reminded us all that for most people, September 11 did not change the world. “The old problems that existed on 10 September, before the attack, are still with us: the elimination of poverty, the fight against HIV and AIDS, the question of the environment, and ensuring we stop exploiting resources the way we’ve been doing,” he said. “All these issues … are still with us, and I think we need to focus on them as well.”

Lee saw into the future. She saw the lives that would be cut short, the children who would never grow up, the communities that would be shredded, the environment that would be destroyed. She understood what war would mean—and we all should have listened.

But we had only one Barbara Lee. Other politicians endorsed the war and used hundreds of billions of our tax dollars to support it, while refusing to provide funds to address poverty at home or in Afghanistan, because, they said, we couldn’t afford to. Somehow, they never asked if we could afford to pay the $2 trillion that the war in Afghanistan alone would ultimately cost. Somehow, they didn’t find it a problem that we still spend 53 cents of every discretionary federal dollar on the military budget. Lee perhaps saw that part of our future too.

This month, President Joe Biden finally did what should have been done years ago—maybe 20 years ago, right after we went to war to respond to a crime. And now that Biden has pulled out the troops from this war that should never have been started, the same representatives, senators, and former Cabinet members who cheered on the war want to blame him for what we see on the tarmac at an airport 7,000 miles away, where desperate people are moving in desperate ways to escape what they fear may lie ahead. There is a word for this, when you knew what was coming and ignored it as it came, and when you pretend that what you have seen and known for the past 20 years has somehow not happened at all: hypocrisy.

Those who voted to send our troops and spend our billions, and those who watched and cheered: How else did they expect this to go? How else did they think this war would be brought to a close, whether five years in, or 10, or almost 20? Did they really think it would end nicely and politely? What did they think would happen as they watched presidents continue the war, surging troops in, pulling troops out, and then sending them back again? How else did we expect a war that had already taken the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Afghans to end? Can anyone really claim to be surprised to see how messy, how confusing, how tragic the end of the United States’ involvement in this multifaceted war has proved to be?

We are witnessing an enormous human crisis. People on that tarmac at Kabul airport, people huddled in their homes afraid of what may come next, women cuddling their babies as they try to sleep on a piece of cardboard on a Kandahar sidewalk because their home was bombed, people who are simply afraid: All of this is a crisis to which we contributed, a crisis we compounded for 20 years. And now the only way to make this right with God is to do right by our sisters and brothers far away—the civilians of Afghanistan, the women and children so desperately endangered by our war and its aftermath. The only way to make this right is to protect them, to help them, to provide humanitarian support, and to demand that our government massively expand the number of people—refugees, asylum seekers, vulnerable women—who are welcomed into our country.

And to make this right with God, we must begin to repent for our thinking, our believing, our insisting that bombs and missiles and drones and tanks could ever bring peace. We must get on our knees and pray for God’s forgiveness. And we must leave the political scapegoating behind, to do whatever we can to help our desperate sisters and brothers in Afghanistan. We’ve got a lot of work to do.