[Editor’s Note: Michael J. Baxter teaches Religious Studies and directs the Catholic Studies Program at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. He served from 2001 to 2012 as director of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, an organization supporting conscientious objectors to war through counseling, education, and advocacy. He is currently completing a book titled Blowing the Dynamite of the Church: Radicalism Against Americanism in Catholic Social Ethics (Cascade Press). He spoke to Charles Camosy about the current situation in Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s decades-long intervention in the country.]
Camosy: As we’ve seen Afghanistan fall to the Taliban so close to the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 I couldn’t help but think of you and wonder about your reaction. What have you been thinking and feeling?
Baxter: What I’ve been feeling is sadness for all the lives disrupted, ruined, lost. For the people killed on 9/11, including a seminary classmate of mine, Neil Hyland, an Army officer who worked at the Pentagon. For people in the military who deployed to Afghanistan, and had a hard time coming home, or didn’t come home. For people in Afghanistan who endured the uncertainty and chaos of war for the past two decades — and long before that too: People desperate to leave the country, people who fear the repression to come.
What I’ve been thinking is that the U.S. exit from Afghanistan is another sign of the end of the American Empire, along with the attacks on 9/11 and a string of unsettling events in between: the invasion of Iraq, the crash of 2008, the rise of ISIS, the election of Trump, the intractable racism, the siege of the capitol in January—all signs, as I see it, of the United States in decline.
The morning after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the Office of Readings offered poignant lines from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Lord, the Lord of hosts, shall take away from Jerusalem and Judah support and prop, hero and warrior, judge and prophet . . . I will make striplings their princes; the fickle shall govern them. And the people shall oppress one another.” Following the events in Afghanistan, ruminating over such passages, my thoughts get Augustinian: This is the fate of earthly cities, divine recompense for our American exceptionalism and nationalist pride.
Back in December of 2001 you gave a provocative interview to US Catholic in which, among other things, you said that Americans who called for violent vengeance in response to 9/11 worship a “warrior God.” Do you still think we, as a country, worship this violent idol?
Yes, I do. But let me put this statement in context. Two days after September 11, Lance Morrow, in Time Magazine, made “the case for rage and retribution” in which he screamed, “What’s needed is a unified, unifying Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury.” He got what he asked for. Flags went up everywhere. The president vowed to hunt down al-Qaeda. Kids enlisted to go and fight. Patriotic songs filled the churches. The U.S. Catholic bishops gave a carefully worded approval of invading Afghanistan. Others did so with less restraint, taking the lead of President Bush who declared that you either back the United States or back the terrorists — no neutrality in this war. All this resonated with what Randolph Bourne said during World War I: “War is the health of the state”; in other words, war is good for the state because all segments in society get united behind a great cause — making the world safe for democracy, eliminating the terrorists — and all dissent is squelched, coercively if necessary, but usually with a flood of pro-war slogans and clichés. What I saw and felt in the fall of 2001 certainly looked and felt like idolatry. That’s the context in which I made that statement that the people in this country worship a warrior god.
Subsequent events bore this out. Eighteen months later, the United States invaded Iraq on the false premises that it had weapons of mass destruction and terrorist links to al-Qaeda. It was a disaster for Iraq, wreaking destruction on its people and splintering the society into three parts. In pursuit of this two-pronged “war on terror,” the United States rounded up suspects, placed them in black sites, tortured them, held them in prison without trial, in some cases still holds them. It also conducted military operations and extrajudicial assassinations with the widespread use of drone warfare, killing more civilians than combatants and generating animosity throughout the Muslim world. Moreover, under cover of the Patriot Act, enacted shortly after 9/11, the National Security Agency developed an illegal surveillance program over U.S. citizens. And this has been the work of several Administrations — Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden — made possible with the majority support of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Do U.S. Americans still worship this idolatrous war god? Maybe not at the moment, what with the ignominious U.S. departure from Afghanistan. But the idolatry will reemerge with another terrorist attack, cyberattack, nuclear threat, or international crisis. People will wave flags and unite behind the nation—yet again. There’s nothing wrong with the United States that a good war will not cure. That’s what Bourne meant when he wrote “war is the health of the state”—a phrase, by the way, that Dorothy Day used for a chapter title in The Long Loneliness…