Friday, December 4, 2009

A Call to Arms

This week, President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  The so-called "surge" will begin immediately, even as the President also announced plans about a timetable to begin WITHDRAWING troops from that region of the world in 2011.  You can watch a video of the President's speech below, or read a transcript of it here.

The news of the President's decision is significant, not just because of the serious implications that it carries for the brave men and women who serve in uniform.  But, also, because it comes at a time when we - the American people - remain disconnected from what is going on on the other side of the world.

Consider, for example, the startling results from the recent poll conducted by the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.  The most interesting highlights from the poll for me:
  •  Only 46% of Americans believe that the Afghani people will be able to stand up to the Taliban
  • 49% of Americans think that the US should 'mind its own business internationally,' and let problems on the other side of the world remain the problems of the other side of the world
  • As a result: only 32% of Americans were in favor of sending MORE troops to Afghanistan.  (Regardless of what you think about the President, you have to at least give him credit for not making his decision based on public opinion polls.)
Our views on the war in Afghanistan are shifting at this very moment.  A few years ago, when the horrors of 9/11 were fresh in our mind, the country was firmly committed to both: capturing those responsible (out of a desire for justice), and eliminating al-Qaeda in such a way that the terror network would no longer be a threat to the safety of the West. 

Remember the moment when President Bush visited the World Trade Center site a few days after September 11?  Do you remember the cheers of the crowd, when he implied that we would be taking military action?  Relive the moment, with the video below, which records one of the key turning points in his presidency.

So much has happened since that day in New York City.  Approximately 5200 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.  (One of the things that we Jews learn from our study about the Holocaust is that big numbers are impersonal.  More important is the reality that there is a name, and story, behind every number - behind every person that is lost.  Please do take a moment to scan through the list of names of soldiers who have died in Iraq and of those who have died in Afghanistan.)

And yet, even with all of that sacrifice (not to mention the sums of money - too large even for me to try to comprehend), so little has happened.  Here we are: eight years later, and Osama bin Laden remains free.  And the threat of terror looms as large as ever.

Given all of this, now is a logical moment for each of us to re-examine our own thoughts about the war.  And in this Jewish forum, now might be a good time for us to revisit the Jewish ethics (and laws) of war.  What constitutes a "kosher" war, a morally-justified war, according to our tradition?

This was a question that Jewish scholars wrote at length on eight years ago, as the war opened.  My teacher, Dr. Mark Washofsky, wrote an excellent piece summarizing the Jewish perspective on the question of "permitted war," and the work remains relevant today.  You can find it here.

Washofsky draws on old Jewish paradigms to breathe new life into the question of: under what circumstances is war morally defensible?

He argues that wars fought in self-defense are most certainly defensible, within the framework of Jewish Ethics (remember: Judaism is not pacifistic). 

In the context of the current wars that our country is now fighting: are these wars wars of self defense?

On the one hand: yes, of course they are.  We know this to be true, if we see 9/11 as an act of war against our country (and many would argue that the threat of terrorism continues to affect our sense of national security today).  President Obama reminded us of this in his speech the other night.  And Senator McCain, perhaps the most well-respected Republican voice in Congress on matters pertaining to the military, agrees.  (See McCain's response to the President's speech here.)

Ultimately, though, if we follow Dr. Washofsky's responsum down to its conclusion, we learn that the morality of the current war in Afghanistan hinges on the question of whether or not we believe that al-Qaeda is about to attack us at any moment (meaning that our action carries the weight of being a preemptive strike - which is absolutely permitted in Jewish law), or whether our action is merely preventive in nature (i.e. there's a pretty good chance that al-Qaeda might attack us, and so, therefore, it would behoove us to take some kind of action to prevent it from happening - which is not permitted in Jewish law).

It may not seem like there is a big difference between those two positions...but, within Jewish law, trust me - it's a big one.  Making a preemptive strike against an enemy that is clearly about to attack at any moment is absolutely morally justified in Judaism. 

A preventive attack....where we are not absolutely certain that we are going to be attacked (by terrorists coming from/influenced by Afghanistan) a grayer area. 

In this regard, you might consider the provocative views of Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich.  He situates himself on the conservative portion of the political spectrum.  He's a Vietnam Veteran, and the father of a soldier who died in Iraq.  You can read a sample of his writing here.   Or you can listen to a recent radio interview with him by clicking here, then click on the mp3 link below the Dec 2nd show, and then fast forward to the 10:40 mark).

Determining whether a war is preemptive or preventive can be a largely subjective analysis.

Nonetheless, during this season, as we prepare to wish Godspeed to a new round of departing troops, I would argue that we have a basic civic obligation to figure out where we stand on these matters.

Of course we support the troops.  No matter what.

But do we support the decisions of the politicians who control their fates?

Did President Obama's speech resonate with you?  Perhaps Senator McCain better represents your perspective?  Or maybe the voice of Professor Bacevich, speaking from outside of the national security establishment in Washington, really resonated with you?

Whatever your opinion, we'd love to hear your thoughts.  Consider posting something here on the blog, or emailing Rabbi Brown privately.
Shabbat Shalom.

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