Published on Monday, November 19, 2001
Is Afghanistan War Worth the Price?
by Ira Chernus
Watching human rights and human joy return to Afghanistan, it seems hard to criticize the Bush administration's policies. But is the war’s outcome really worth the price?
To most Americans, it may seem like a silly question. The Taliban were so terrible, they say, that whatever it takes to overthrow them is worth it. But does the end, no matter how good, justify the means? Would we have killed a million Afghans to bring down the Taliban? Five million? How many of our own troops would we have sacrificed? Surely there is some limit to the price we would pay. So it always makes sense to ask whether the price is worthwhile.
Unfortunately, in this case we cannot weigh the price, because we cannot know it. The days of Vietnam-style “body counts” ended long ago. Now, since nearly all the killing is done from high above, there may be no way to get even a close approximation. This is the new way of war. We destroy the enemy’s air defenses and then bomb at will, never counting the human cost. All we know for sure is that many very real human beings are dead, maimed, or scarred for life. Some were civilians, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were Taliban soldiers who chose to fight for an indefensibly brutal regime. But many soldiers were draftees who chose to serve rather than be killed, or have family members killed. And all were once just as full of life as our fathers and brothers and sons.
We can also be quite certain that more will die in the days to come, as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of civil war. Again, though, we cannot know how many. The suffering may ease. But it may increase. The Taliban made it illegal for women to leave the house. The warlords may make it too dangerous to leave and just as dangerous to stay at home. Civil war may cut off relief efforts just as surely as bombing did.
Add to all this the unknown price that may trouble us most: the price in American lives lost in future reprisal attacks. When the war on terrorism began, the CIA told Congress that it was 100% guaranteed to provoke a reprisal. President Bush was furious when this news leaked out. Apparently he does not want us to consider the full cost we may pay for the war on terrorism. But until we know that cost, we can hardly begin to say whether the war is worthwhile.
This, too, is the new way of war. The outcome may be visible and even wonderful. But the price remains invisible. So we can never weigh the ends against the means.
Yet few stop to ask the question of ends versus means. This dulling of conscience is another hidden price we pay for war. In Afghanistan, as in Serbia and the Persian Gulf, it all feels so effortless, so painless, and so right. Why bother to ask the moral questions? Since the price in U.S. lives is so small, why bother our consciences at all? Each war makes it easier to start the next war, with no questions asked and no bodies counted.
But the question of ends and means will not disappear so easily. Should we carpet bomb every nation where human rights are violated? If so, we will be bombing -- and making enemies -- constantly, around the world. It is tempting to think every future war will be as easy as this one. Sooner or later, though, we will run into a seriously capable enemy, as we did in Vietnam.
If we will not go to war against every brutal regime, how will we know when and where to start bombing? The U.S. ignored the Taliban’s horrendous violations for years. Our government accepted and even aided their rule, despite the pleas of women’s rights groups. Apparently we will make war on brutal regimes only when something else is at stake. Should we leave it to the Bush administration to decide when war is worth the price?
We might insist that we will fight only in order to end the threat of terrorism. But President Bush has called the fight against terrorism “a task that does not end.” Vice-President Cheney said bluntly: “There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, `’There, it's all over with.’'' Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld agreed that we “surely will not” eliminate terrorism “completely from the face of the Earth.” They know that every war breeds new enemies and new terrorists. The cycle of violence has no end. Perpetuating that cycle may be the highest price of all.
Does the end of Taliban rule justify all these costs? I am not sure. But I am sure that we urgently need to debate the question, because the Bush administration promises that Afghanistan is just the beginning.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org