9/11, Afghanistan, and the Heart of War

While I don’t know where you were on 9/11, I bet you do. My friends and I were in chapel, like we were every weekday morning of middle school, when the headmaster made an unexpected visit. He approached the rector and, after they exchanged a few muffled words, announced that the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City had been hit by airplanes.

I don’t remember what else the headmaster said, or whether we yet knew that America was under attack. But I do remember thinking that whatever was happening seemed to be happening “out there,” far removed from Oklahoma City, my home. Within the hour, however, several once-remote places and ideas became part of my world. Countries that just a half-day before were giving me headaches in geography class became easily identifiable on a map. And new ideas, including the Islamist doctrine of jihad, became familiar via the nonstop coverage of the attacks and their aftermath.

Countries that just a half-day before were giving me headaches in geography class became easily identifiable on a map.

War on Terror

While I was too young to comprehend all that occurred on 9/11, including the primetime repartee that dominated the network and cable news channels for what seemed like the better part of decade, I am old enough to remember that by the time George W. Bush spoke before a joint session of Congress, on September 20, no one doubted that the state of our union was strong. But no one doubted that we had become a nation at war, either: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or justice to our enemies,” President Bush announced, “justice will be done.” The Taliban “will hand over the terrorists,” including bin Laden, or they “will share in their fate.”

Twenty years later, it seems like we have forgotten President Bush’s prescient warning, that although the war al-Qaeda began on 9/11 “was brought upon us in a single day,” the war on terror would not be won in an instant. It would, instead, be a war of attrition, “a lengthy campaign” not only against individual terrorists and their networks but also the countries harboring them, till there was no place for refuge or rest.

While al-Qaeda brought war to American shores for the first time since 1941, President Bush was unequivocal: the war on terror would not be won or waged primarily on American soil. Rather, America must take the fight to the terrorists “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated” and to “every nation in every region . . . that continues to harbor or support terrorism.” And so we did.

Whatever your take on the relative wisdom or foolishness of the next 20 years, including the war in Afghanistan, our attempts at nation-building, and the concomitant invasion of Iraq, there is no question that last month’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, the once-remote country that became the epicenter of the longest war in our history, signals the coming of a new day. But it may not be the day we were hoping for.

A Botched Withdrawal

Despite the rhetoric coming out of the White House’s State Dining Room, we have not withdrawn from Afghanistan in “extraordinary success” but in utter defeat, sapped by 20 years of deadly warfare and the last-minute abandonment of scores of Americans and billions of dollars’ worth of munitions, military vehicles, and aircraft.

Whether our defeat in Afghanistan signals, as The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson recently suggested, “the beginning of a dark chapter in world history, marked by the eclipse of American power and influence in an increasingly dangerous world,” I do not know. I leave predictions like that to the clairvoyants and Sibylline seers. Of course, if Mr. Davidson’s right, and we’re on our way to another dark chapter in world history, and one peculiarly marked by waning American power and influence, I take solace that American hegemony, while consoling, is neither salvific nor sublime.

I take solace that American hegemony, while consoling, is neither salvific nor sublime.

While America is a great and exceptional power, Peter Leithart’s blunt assessment is nevertheless right: “in the end, [America is merely] another great power, another nation of ‘the world,’ acting in our interests while telling ourselves that we have the best interest of the world at heart.” That said, I hope you will join me in praying that our defeat in Afghanistan yields nothing, or at least nothing more, to Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, or Tehran. Just because one foreign war has ended doesn’t mean we should yearn for another.

While I am neither a war hawk, a neocon, nor a Machiavellian, I know just enough about world history and the human person to know that when nations tuck tail and run (like we’ve done in Afghanistan) emboldened enemies and geopolitical reverberations, including the possibility of new conflicts, are only one cause for concern. But there also is another cause for concern. It resides much closer to home and is far more dangerous. It is the war that looms, not in some faraway desert, but in the deserts of our hearts (James 4:1–2).

The Heart of War

At a time like this, it may seem absurd to expect you to be interested in a topic as intangible as the human heart. Right now, we are all reeling and restless from 20 years of war in Afghanistan (where thousands of American soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice and trillions of dollars were spent in a war it appears we have lost), to say nothing of the Delta Variant, Hurricane Ida, and the seemingly endless stream of California wildfires.

During this time of retrospection, and amid these external distresses, however, I may as well tell you plainly that although it may seem feckless to do so, to turn our attention to the human heart now is not only urgent but also important. Even though a major part of the war al-Qaeda began on 9/11 is now over, war nevertheless looms within each of us.

It often feels like the warlike chaos of life is exclusively attributable to externalities (and thus out of our control), but what ails us does not ordinarily, or even primarily, come from “out there.” Instead, what truly ails us comes from within, from hearts that, as those in the counseling professions tell us, incline us to “trouble our trouble” (Mark 7:21–23).

What truly ails us comes from within, from hearts that incline us to ‘trouble our trouble.’

You see, the spirit of self-interest, or incurvatus in se, mysteriously resides within each of us. It flows outward from the heart, which Merriam-Webster describes as that “hollow muscular organ . . . that by its rhythmic contraction acts as a force pump maintaining the circulation of the blood.” As broken-hearted humans (Jer. 17:9), each of us is, to paraphrase Alec Motyer, inwardly like an armed camp ready to strike at a moment’s notice, ready to declare war against anyone who disagrees with or double-crosses us.

In a word, by nature our hearts incline toward evil (Gen. 6:5). We hide and blame, attack and withdraw—especially when things are going badly “out there,” like the messy end to a 20 years’ war we’ve just witnessed. As we reflect on the last 20 years, however, we must be careful. With the war in Afghanistan behind us, at least for now, longtime enemies will recede into the background. But our warring hearts won’t stop looking for someone else to vilify or blame. You can see the broad outlines taking shape already in the sensational headlines our outlets run, the disdain we show to our neighbors and political rivals, and in the mountains the cancel culture continues to make out of molehills.

But we cannot let even slight dislocations of fellowship fester. The murderous heart of Cain resides within each of us, and we ignore it at our peril (1 John 3:12). At a time like this, we mustn’t forget that public problems—from the slightest dislocations of fellowship to the extreme violence of al-Qaeda—have private causes (James 1:14–15). To heal, we ought to turn our attention inward, and take stock of our hearts. Because the heart of war is just that: the heart. Consequently, any hope for a lasting peace abroad or at home begins there, in the seedbed of all conflict, war included.

9/11, Afghanistan, and the Heart of War

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