Tom Bowring writes: I fall into writing this piece from a place of unwilling necessity following a period of reflective silence. If you were to ask my wife, she’d tell you I never talk about Afghanistan and, as psychologists do, go on to suggest this is as much about personal growth and transition as it is theological discussion and spiritual conviction.
I joined the Royal Air Force in 2004 at the age of 18 and, before my feet hit the ground, my friend and I, who had formed a bond through training and were posted to the same squadron, found ourselves loaded onto a bus to Brize Norton ready for a journey to a place we’d only heard of in the papers. The land of lawless intolerance, murderous Muslims, drug production, dirt, mountains, camel spiders and fundamental Islam—Afghanistan, the heart of the fight of good verses evil, logic verses intolerance, freedom verses terror. And how that rhetoric has stuck.
I spent an initial 5 months in Kabul and then Kandahar with the US military as part of an early action team headed up by the International Security Assistance Force, and then returned to southern Afghanistan in 2008 along with the British Armed Forces. I didn’t find Christ until I hit 26, some years after my experiences of Afghanistan, yet I recognise the part that the moral and spiritual reflections I gained from the experience have played, as all things do, in the tapestry of the journey to conversion God weaves for each of us. In no small part it contributed to my further journey toward pacifism and my eventual call to leave the RAF in 2018 to enter full-time ordained ministry.
Rage and Anguish
As the dramatic and tragic events have unfolded over the past month, I’ve been contacted by previous colleagues who see me as a safe space with shared experience to whom they can relate, vent and cry. Their reflections and opinions range from bewilderment, through anger and even some to the sarcastic joy of “we told you so.” I have talked to friends sending medals back to Downing Street and others in fits of both rage and anguish. From one person to the next there have been no matching outcries; each has their own unique reaction.
I’ve also read numerous theological reflections, pastoral pieces and ministerial engagements around the Afghanistan crisis from very well-intentioned and respectable sources, as well as the inevitable few from less well-intentioned and thoughtful contributors.
As we try to work through the reasons behind major events and find God’s sovereignty amongst chaos we’re often led to gravitate toward an idea of good verses evil—the grand cosmic battle of both the physical and metaphysical realms that forms the overarching narrative of existence. And true to form, the spiritual battle of the Godhead versus Satan has been referenced in abundance in relation to recent events. It is a preacher’s illustration gold mine if you’re that way inclined, but I’m hoping this reflection might cause us to pull back from that imagery, rethink our analysis and move past the notion that we, as western post-Christendom nations, still carry the ancient Israelite’s combat blessing into our conflict with the enemy. This is not and was not a battle of good versus evil; it was and is a consequence of evil infecting the perfect world of God.
Good versus evil?
Firstly, we need to note that this exact same rhetoric of good versus evil is one that extremist Islamists have been declaring for many years and now transmit freely from the minarets that used to wake me and my friends up first thing every sunny Friday morning in Helmand. As any Bible reader knows, despite their losses, eventually the people of God will triumph over evil. They will face hardship and setback, and all will seem lost, but through their perseverance, martyrdom and unwavering faith they will repel Satan’s hordes and God will establish them as conquering rulers to experience the triumph of jubilee that they deserve for their commitment to the true faith.
It is exactly what the Taliban believe they have done. In their eyes, they fought the good fight against overwhelming opposition and God has rewarded them duly for their courage and faith by removing the evil from their land. This might be hard to hear, but it is exactly how they see it—and who can blame them? I dare say we’d be peddling the exact same story: “Our boys destroy evil and free the nation.” You can even imagine the front page with this exact type sitting below a red-topped banner.
Secondly, there is little in war that is God-given, honouring or “good” to face off against evil. From exploitation of the poor to fund the astronomical cost of conflict, the inherent inequality of military hierarchies, morally questionable tactics of people disconnected from the reality of combat, abhorrent calculations of acceptable causality losses and the frightening directive of collateral damage—I saw little in Afghanistan that was good and right as any veteran of conflict present or historical will tell you.
What I did see was a local populace exploited by the materialist west, people driven closer to fundamentalist affiliation through grief, and friends and family torn apart by a lack of care and support back home for those called to carry out the will of a nation. We have come a long way in our care and support for our armed forces, and this is in no small part thanks to the dedication of those very same red tops I satirised previously. I remember distinctly following my return from Afghanistan in 2005 being called a baby killer and being spat at on numerous occasions in public, something that would be considered intolerable today. Despite the advances in support there are still huge distances to traverse as a society until we adequately address the wounds that war carves out of service-people and their families who suffer daily torment and pain in fighting against the horrors we as humanity were never created to experience.
Conflict and corruption
However, I must also emphasise the positives I saw as a result of the conflict—women working in shops smiling and men joyfully dancing, young girls reading openly and boys playing freely. I don’t want to discredit what was achieved for a second; that would be dishonouring to the brave friends who laid down their lives as well as the commendable effort made by coalition forces as they tried to do what they believed was true and right, despite the lies and manipulation of politics.
But, despite the positives, this was not a fight of good versus evil. It was not the outplaying of events foretold by Paul or John; it was not a sure sign of an impending apocalypse or an eschatological warning. It was, at its heart, as all conflict is, a broken world corrupted by sin trying to fix an arterial wound with a bandage. Putting our personal political views aside, the reality is that it was corrupt, consumerist materialism driving the military machine using virtue as cover.
If you need evidence of this, I urge you to read about the logistics and security arrangements made between the US and Taliban military commanders, rebranded as security chiefs, for the safe delivery of goods to troop bases (warning: it may very well change your view of the morality of the conflict). It was flawed reason and exploitative tactics trying to save face against the inevitable re-emergence of Afghanistan tribal nationalism once the political dust had settled and blame could no longer be attributed to those in power. It was men and women, often through a lack of social opportunities back home, being killed, injured and forgotten about by society. It was a broken world fighting another broken world. It was sin fighting sin increasing sin. It was pain causing pain and hurt breeding grief on both sides. It was many things, but it was not good versus evil.
The real good news
Many will have taken up the stage, podium, pulpit or social media platform this weekend with well intentioned reflections designed to encourage and inspire. Some will seek to bring peace and hope to those affected and lead them through the on-going trauma of Afghanistan, dressing reopened wounds that have been healing for over a decade. Some of us will be faced with renewed community hostilities in the face of immigration and will preach a message of loving your neighbour before your own desires. Some of us will offer a prayer and go on our way with no further thought, and yet others will be so torn by their personal experiences they will be unable to form the words to adequately express their pain and lament.
However we approach the people of God this week, whether as a leader or as a brother and sister, do speak about Afghanistan and its effect on the world, but don’t speak about it as a battle of good versus evil. Talk about loss and speak about hope. Encourage people to care for those hurt by this conflict, and to give sacrificially as if all they had actually belonged to God. Prophesy to the powers and governments of the world about a better life that can be had, about the way we are lovingly and beautifully created. Tell them about the cry of your God who declares “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10) Share with those listening the glorious message of triumphal resurrection and the final peace and victory to be had through Christ.
Do all of these things and more because we, as God’s people are called to speak his wisdom into a broken and sinful world. Talk about Afghanistan, but don’t talk about the fight of good versus evil, for only God is good.
Rev Tom Bowring served for fourteen years in the Royal Air Force before leaving to be ordained as a minister within the Baptist Union of Great Britain. He currently pastors Oakham Baptist Church in Rutland along with his wife Jodi and their four children.