The price of peace

This week’s guest writer is Nathan Hershberger. Nathan is from Harrisonburg, VA, USA, and studied theology and history at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Virginia.  He is currently serving with MCC as an English teacher in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.

The Islamic State group or ISIS is a difficult topic for pacifist Christians, and rightly so. It seems impossible to argue against U.S. or Canadian airstrikes when they are arguably holding back religious cleansing. I have lived in Iraq with MCC for about a year and I still don’t know quite what to say. A seminary student showed me a photo of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier who has reportedly beheaded a number of ISIS fighters and said to me, “This man is a hero.” I was left speechless. This student is a kind and generous man who loves Iraq and wants to remain in his country—a rare and precious thing in his generation. Is brutal war against ISIS the price of peace here?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials — including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits — were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities.  (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Fighting ISIS with any and all possible means seems so self-evidently necessary.  I confess that when U.S. airstrikes began in August and seemed to cut off an ISIS advance that threatened Erbil (where I live), I felt safer. If ISIS had made it to the city, it would have triggered the displacement of over a million additional people and left more Christians, Yezidis, and other minority groups vulnerable to ISIS.

This feeling of necessity is true not just of airstrikes in Iraq, but Western-led military interventions in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. On its own terms, each airstrike, weapons shipment, and campaign seems limited, efficient, and completely justified.  In Libya, strike the army of Muammar Qaddafi before it can massacre the population of Benghazi. In Iraq, destroy an artillery piece aimed at Erbil in order to ensure that Kurdish Peshmerga can defend the city from ISIS. In Syria, ship weapons to rebels to help them push back both ISIS and Assad.

With the greater caution of the Obama administration, Western powers seem united behind a foreign policy of surgical strikes. What the West seems to be faced with is not only an enemy that personifies evil itself, but the means of fighting it with a precision and economy that leaves our hands feeling clean, mostly.[1]  What can a Christian pacifist say to that?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Heads of households register their families in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. These materials were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Heads of households of displaced families register in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

But despite the new sense of distance and control, Western-led intervention in the Middle East is intimately trapped in a spiral of conflict. We are fighting an endless war where each victory makes the next battle necessary and seemingly inevitable. ISIS itself is a product, in part, of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Libya, where a seemingly surgical intervention in 2011 appeared to have scored a victory, chaos and civil war now reigns, inviting further intervention. Each of these campaigns seem necessary, but all together they are tracing a slow spiral of destruction in which war and peace are indistinguishable.

What, then, is the alternative?

The conflict in the Middle East, with the war in Syria at its heart, has turned more and more into a regional war, and thus, the solution—short of total victory for one side or another—has to be regional and diplomatic. Additionally, relief aid and economic development throughout the region must be higher priorities for the international community both immediately and in the long-term.

But these answers feel deeply inadequate when I am speaking with students forced from their homes by ISIS.  All I can think of in those situations—but don’t usually have the courage to say—is what Father Ibrahim,[2] a local Orthodox priest, said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks before Easter. “We are Christians. We have to love the stranger. We have to love ISIS. And we have to love the next ISIS too.”


[1] Despite their increasing precision, airstrikes do continue to kill civilians.  A few weeks ago, the U.S. bombed a power plant in eastern Mosul and an apartment building next door collapsed, reportedly killing 68 people. UN-SSI Daily Security Brief, April 22, 2015, UNAMI.   As the bombing campaign intensifies in urban areas like Mosul and Fallujah, and as ISIS begins to use human shields, such incidents will almost certainly increase, driving those affected to identify more with ISIS.  The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to adequately investigate these incidents.

As to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Defense current military operations in Iraq and Syria since last August have cost over $2 billion.  (For current reports of the U.S. bombing campaign and its costs and targets, see http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2014/0814_iraq/). Canada budgeted $122.5 million for its military operations in Iraq in 2014-2015.  For its expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, it has budgeted $406 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. These costs are above and beyond salaries and the routine costs of maintaining an army. See http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/canada-s-anti-isis-mission-in-iraq-syria-to-cost-528m-in-coming-year-1.2307991.

[2] Name changed for security reasons.

5 thoughts on “The price of peace

  1. Thanks for this reflection Nathan. I share your cognitive dissonance over the situation. Can’t imagine how you struggle with this constantly. I was watching video footage on Al Jezeera from the city of Homs, Syria. It was a graphic portrayal of how violence is just violence. Whether it’s ISIS, Free Syrian Army, or Canadian planes the bombs and mortars fall on the people and they have little appreciation for who is launching them. In Winnipeg I’ve been focusing on giving people the message that this is not just about violence between radical extremists. There are millions of peace loving Muslims, Christians, Yazidi, Alaweit, and others that we can all relate too like our own next door neighbour. But their voices are lost in the constant media barrage about violence and extremism.

  2. Thank you Nathan. I am on the Christian Peacemaker Team in Sulaimani (Iraqi Kurdistan). While I was back in Canada in March and April I preached a sermon saying many of the same things you write about. I had many of the Mennonites that heard my sermon think hard and ask hard questions. It is good to read that a fellow paciifist working in the region is struggling with the same sorts of things.

  3. Nathan, you’ve addressed a topic that has been an issue for Conscience Canada for some time. And it’s not an easy topic for us either. Thank you for your living commitment to peace in a place that is in such desperate need of it.

    My personal opinion is that this issue is difficult because we have such a hard time separating ourselves from the tooth-for-tooth and eye-for-eye system of logic, fairness, and justice. Especially in the face of such obviously demonic evil. On that basis, the ONLY logical thing to do is to teach ISIS (or whoever our enemy happens to be) an unambiguous lesson. And if this lesson is taught even BEFORE the premeditated evil is carried out, so much the better for all the innocent lives saved. In terms of logic, fairness, and justice, tooth-for-tooth and eye-for-eye can’t be beat! We think!

    The problem is that this approach basically defines ‘revenge’ and it never stops at ‘Okay, now we’re even. Let’s stop.’ In order to sweeten the already sweet taste of revenge, it is ALWAYS necessary (at least so it seems) to give that little extra punch in the nose or that one last stomp on the toes that says ‘Now, don’t forget and don’t try that again!’ before walking away.

    While Conscience Canada is not a faith-based organization, many of its members are people of one faith or another. And many of these members, like Jesus, operate on a completely different logic. Or maybe it’s that they’ve simply decided to live out their obedience to the golden rule, in whatever faith they find it expressed. Most of us also understand that there are vast amounts of money to be made in the production and sale of military hardware, and this dovetails so wonderfully with the increased fears that western leaders are trying to drum into their citizens.

    We acknowledge the futility of violent solutions to problems of violence, and long for the day when our government will allow us to divert our taxes to peaceful purposes only. Thank you for this article.

    Many blessings to you as you continue to make friends in Iraq!

  4. Thanks, Nathan, for sharing your thoughts. These situations seem nearly universal and timeless. As Kenya experiences violence from Al Shabaab, even some church leaders have remarked that we have no more cheeks to turn. It has been easy to consider it justified, and to feel safer, when a few “key leaders” of HSM and related groups are eliminated. But, as you pointed out, this does not bring resolution. Peace and blessings to you and to others in similar situations globally. Rand Carpenter, MCC Kenya

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