The Iraqi city of Fallujah has been in the headlines again. Most remember that Fallujah was the site of intense fighting in 2004 when over 100 American service members died in the province of Anbar. Fallujah has recently been overtaken by fighters connected with the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, which has caused over 14,000 people to flee the city.
Understandably, this news is not easy for many veterans of the Iraq war and their families. Nor should it be easy for the American public in general. As one veteran puts it, “Why did my friends die?” This should provoke a deep, heart-rending question for all of us: were the sacrifices made by American soldiers in vain?
In order to answer that question, we should remember one of Augustine’s points in City of God, a work provoked in part by the fall of Rome, “the eternal city,” in 410 A.D. Augustine reminds us that all earthly cities, nations and empires are temporal. They come into existence, shift hands, change rulers and often completely pass out of existence. So Christians should recognize that any sacrifice made for an earthly city is ultimately doomed to the same end: our cities and empires do not last forever.
The temporal nature of our cities means that we need to be realistic and honest about what our sacrifices can and cannot accomplish. American wars do not accomplish ultimate freedom, perpetual peace or infinite justice - for Americans at home or other nations abroad. Unfortunately, that reality is seldom reflected in national rhetoric. Even in the fifth century, Augustine noted that most rulers operatd with a civil theology that deceived their citizens. So it is in the present. The reality of present-day Fallujah is most disheartening to those who buy into unrealistic national rhetoric. When we are fighting for goals that are not actually possible, our sacrifices will always seem in vain.
The temporal nature of our cities means that we need to be honest about what our sacrifices can and cannot accomplish.
Furthermore, Fallujah can help us be more realistic about American history. Wars have never brought about ultimate freedom, perpetual peace or infinite justice. Some may, for example, point to World War II and the defeat of Hitler’s Germany as a clear example of accomplishing something good. Yet America allied itself with Joseph Stalin, a brutal ruler responsible for over 20 million deaths of his own people. The sacrifices made in World War II not only helped defeat Hitler, but also kept Stalin in power.
One might argue that this is simply the nature of world politics. I would agree. But the proximate goals of world politics are often packaged in the language of ultimate ideals. It is much harder to convince people to kill and die for proximate goals than for grandiose ideals of country, liberty, democracy and equality.
If America’s goal is more modest - to contribute to proximate (rather than ultimate) justice and relative (rather than absolute) peace - then we can ask what is necessary for us to do or not do to attain those goals. We will demand that America’s leaders have clear proximate goals outlined before entering a war and a clear plan of action if those proximate goals turn out to be impossible to meet. We will recognize that America is not the savior of humankind, nor could it be if it tried. We will recognize that only one sacrifice, only one person’s blood, founds an eternal city that will not be shaken. And we will recognize that any earthly city that tries to tell us otherwise is an idol.