What Thomas Merton Can Help Us Understand About The Afghan Crisis

Soldier shares a moment of peace with young Afghani. (Photo courtesy of The Independent)

This week I spent a peaceful hour in meditation amid the cherry trees and cypresses of the Japanese Garden in Urbana, not far from the University of Illinois. Such moments fill me with gratitude — first, that there are such tranquil places within driving distance of my home, and also that I have the freedom to experience this kind of repose whenever I need it.

Before going to the garden, I had been re-reading Thomas Merton’s 1961 essay, “The Root of War.” I could not help thinking as I sat in that quiet place of the violence and suffering unfolding some 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.

Merton published his essay 60 years ago in the Catholic Worker newspaper amid the cold war and soon-to-worsen conflict in Vietnam. His thoughts on peace and non-violence remain as resonant as ever:

“There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace. This is a true war-madness, an illness of the mind and the spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world.”

Merton’s point is that war is rarely — if ever — the right answer to the world’s problems. If we didn’t see that in Vietnam when Saigon fell after more than 10 years of American involvement and the loss of 55,000 U.S. soldiers and countless Vietnamese lives, perhaps we can see it now in Afghanistan where two decades of war has caused the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Afghan citizens, American and coalition troops, and militant fighters.

A pond surrounded by several trees including a weeping willow in a Japanese garden with Japanese-style house in background.
A pond surrounded by several trees including a weeping willow in a Japanese garden with Japanese-style house in background.
A pond surrounded by cypresses, a weeping willow and other trees is one of the many tranquil spots in the public the Japanese Garden of Urbana, IL.

The Taliban has re-emerged despite that human cost and $2.2 trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars expended to oust them — funds that could have been spent on humanitarian needs. As one commentator put it, “We aren’t just back to zero, we are back to minus zero.”

What to do then going forward? In his essay, Merton writes:

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all power and intelligence, with faith, hope in Christ, and love for God and humanity, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.”

U.S. soldier reaches down to lift Afghan baby to safe area over a wall rimmed in barbed wire during hectic evacuation of Kabul.
U.S. soldier reaches down to lift Afghan baby to safe area over a wall rimmed in barbed wire during hectic evacuation of Kabul.
U.S. soldier reaches to take Afghan baby into a safe area of the Kabul Airport during the hectic evacuation of Kabul. (Photo courtesy of The Indian Express)

And what now? There are no easy solutions, but there are efforts that can begin. First, the U.S. government and democratic nations across the world must pressure the new regime in Afghanistan to insure the protection of its citizens, especially women and girls.

People of faith need also need to demand this. Our faith communities must support with financial assistance the humanitarian efforts of peaceful, non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan.

Additionally, the U.S. now has a moral obligation to accept Afghan refugees, as we did Vietnamese refugees, so that Afghans can begin new lives here in safety.

All this is not to say that there is never an obligation to fight evil. Certainly Nazism and Fascism, which set out to exterminate entire ethnic groups, needed to be stopped. Merton also allowed for some exceptions. He believed, however, that war should never be the first response — or the only response — as it has so often been.

Ground wars, he wrote, can lead not only to continuous quagmires, but also run the risk of provoking the eventual use of nuclear weaponry.

As he writes:

“There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probably at every moment everywhere …

“Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”

Tough words, but true nevertheless.

The people of Afghanistan need and deserve our prayers — as do the people of Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and all other hotspots of conflict. At one Catholic parish in Maine, a pastor encouraged the entire congregation to PUSH — Pray Until Something Happens.

This week, let us PUSH for the many suffering Afghan families and people in other war-torn countries so that they too can enjoy quiet days in a lovely garden as I did this past week, in peace.

A stone pagoda amid weeping willow, bonsai tree and various shrubs at the Japanese Garden in Champaign-Urbana, IL.
A stone pagoda amid weeping willow, bonsai tree and various shrubs at the Japanese Garden in Champaign-Urbana, IL.
One of the many peaceful meditation spots at the Japanese Garden in Urbana, IL.

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.