[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.

In that interview you offered as an alternative to war the following: “I think the most interesting proposals have been to see this as more of a police action, in which the United States and other countries are going to round up a criminal who has committed a crime against humanity. A police action doesn’t really call for the kinds of operations the United States has launched against Afghanistan.” How do you think that suggestion has held up over time?

The idea of a police action probably seemed paltry in response to the devastation caused by the 9/11 attacks and the network of conspirators that carried it out. But when Osama bin Ladin was killed ten years later, it was done with a precise strike that did not require the massive military operations unleashed by the United States in Afghanistan.

The problem with the invasion of Afghanistan was that the objectives were not clear, so there was no way to know that they had been met and therefore no way to know when the war should end. It is not surprising that it dragged on. Nor is it surprising that the mission after 9/11 kept shifting and expanding changing from one of bringing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice, to waging a generalized “war on terror,” to confronting the “axis of evil,” to “regime change” in Iraq, to “nation building” in the Middle East. The idea of a police action was meant to check this “mission creep,” as they call it, but it’s nearly impossible to resist.

Almost without exception, wars that start out as “just” under the just-war principles morph into crusades with no limits. I didn’t think the United States had the moral resources to avoid this pitfall in the days after 9/11, and I don’t think it has them now.

In your interview, which was also with Lisa Cahill, you suggested that both pacifists (you) and just war theorists (her) would agree on most of the important aspects in responding to 9/11. Do you still think that way? Or was there a way that Just War Theory was manipulated toward actions and policies with which St. John Paul II fundamentally disagreed?

Catholic just-war theorists in the United States tend to divide over specific wars, according to liberal and conservative political views — no surprise there. The pattern came to the fore in the Vietnam War, it consolidated in the early 1980s with the drafting and promulgation of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace (1983), and it was on display in the wake of 9/11.

Conservative just-war thinkers, unlike many of their liberal counterparts (including Lisa Cahill), hastily called for invading Afghanistan. But it was in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that conservative, or neo-conservative, just-war theorists were most bellicose. Authorities in the Vatican — Cardinals Ratzinger at CDF, Sodano at State, Martino at Justice and Peace — said it would be unjust to invade Iraq. In response, Michael Novak travelled to the Vatican (on the U.S. government’s dime) to argue for invasion, maintaining it was a matter of prudential judgment that the laity should sort out. George Weigel made the same case in a lecture, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War,” suggesting (wrongly) that public servants (read: President Bush) have a special charism to discern such matters (read: the cardinals should butt out).  John Paul II sent his special emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, to dissuade President Bush from invading, on Ash Wednesday no less — but to no avail.

This disturbing defiance of the Holy See was carried out in accord with U.S. interests as set forth by the Project the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-con think-tank founded in 1997 by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Weigel served as a founding board member, along with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, who soon thereafter were working for the Bush Administration. The idea of PNAC was to respond to the power vacuum left in the Middle East after the breakup of the Soviet Union by filing it with U.S. military might. The opportunity came with 9/11, enabling the regime-change, nation-building agenda that has wrought so much death and destruction. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were different in key ways, requiring distinct moral analyses, they were part of the same, multifaceted, policy debacle carried out with the help of a twisted, manipulated, Americanist version of just-war theory.

Do you think the fall of Afghanistan could mark a turning point for Catholic moral theology in the United States? Where, in your view, do we go from here?

A turning point in Catholic moral theology on war and peace has been underway, in part due to this “forever war,” as Dexter Filkins has called it. Afghanistan, then Iraq, then the expanding war on terror has created widespread skepticism among moral theologians about just war theory. The accent is currently placed on “peacebuilding,” a notion focusing on creating the conditions in which a genuine and stable peace can take root in societies. This positive approach has gained endorsement in the upper echelons of the Vatican, including Pope Francis who, in his World Day of Peace address in 2017, endorsed nonviolence as “a style of politics.” All to the good.

The danger is that we can slide into an optimism that will likely collapse in the face of apparent failure. Too often, the results of peacebuilding can be unbuilt. This is what we will see in Afghanistan with the persecution of women’s groups, human rights groups, and NGOs, many of which have worked, not with the U.S. military but around it. In any case, peacebuilding must be valued, not only in terms of its effectiveness, but in and of itself, however ineffective it may seem.

The world-weary political realism that dominated Catholic moral theology on war and peace during the Cold War has been supplanted by a deeper appreciation of practices and virtues of peacemaking. Practices like reaching out personally to people in war torn lands, as Kathy Kelly and others in Voices for Creative Nonviolence have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or like counseling conscientious objectors in the military and attending to the needs of combat veterans; at the Catholic Peace Fellowship, we regularly spoke to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines about their rights and options under military regulations. Or like taking in refugees from war, as many are now doing for people from Afghanistan. Or like teaching peace, as many do in high schools, colleges, and parishes, evaluating war “with an entirely new attitude” (Gaudium et spes, 80) and thus strengthening the next generation of peacemakers.

These efforts are part of “the little way” of St. Therese de Lisieux. Carrying them out entails the virtue of hope, the belief that the seeds we plant now will at length sprout and blossom into a full harvest.

Where do we go from here? In times like this, with the headlines of the fall of Afghanistan, we redouble our efforts at building and witnessing to peace wherever we are, mindful that they will bear fruit in God’s time.