Yemen: trusting in princes, trusting in chariots, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends

In my last article on Yemen, I wrote: “Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.”

Within two weeks, it was looking increasingly like the answer (as I suspected) is that it wasn’t true. Although White House spokesman Sean Spicer had said on February 8th that “We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil,” and Pentagon officials have said that the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” and Donald Trump spoke in his State of the Union Address of “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,”  the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.

More significantly, in late February, several senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any.  Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul. Retired Admiral Jim Stravidis is clearly sceptical that there is any. “When we look at evidently very little actual intelligence out, the loss of a high-performance aircraft and above all the loss of a highly trained special forces member of SEAL Team 6, I think we need to understand why this mission, why now, what happened, and what the actual output was.”

But from a moral point of view, does it matter? Because, of course, the really significant thing about the raid was the fact that it killed 25 civilians – including 9 children.  Would the killing of 25 civilians be more morally acceptable if the US gained useful intelligence as a result of the raid? And come to think of it, since when does gaining intelligence become a legitimate justification for killing 25 civilians?

What the Bible says . . .

Which brings me to my second point. Here is the full quote of what Donald Trump said about the Yemen raid in his State of the Union Address:

We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation. I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- we will never forget him.

Let us leave aside the fact that I am sceptical that the Yemen raid did anything whatever to secure the USA. Let us also leave aside the fact that I would question whether Ryan Owens, in any meaningful sense, actually died for his friends, or for his country, or for anyone’s freedom.

What I find deeply disturbing is that these words of Jesus are not just quoted out of context; they are quoted in a context that is highly inappropriate. The words of Jesus are about laying down one’s life – voluntarily allowing oneself to be killed. To quote the New Testament scholar Leon Morris, “In the context, this must refer primarily to the love of Jesus as shown in the cross. There He laid down His life on behalf of His friends.” To apply it to an armed man, involved in a raid that killed 25 civilians, including 9 children, is simply grotesque – even blasphemous. And if anyone objects that Ryan Owens did lay down his life, in that he risked his life by going into action – then it could be said of every fighter on every side in Yemen’s civil war that “they lay down their life for their friends.”

Some lives matter more than others

And as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out,

The raid in Yemen that cost Owens his life also killed 30 other people, including “many civilians,” at least nine of whom were children. None of them were mentioned by Trump in last night’s speech, let alone honored with applause and the presence of grieving relatives. That’s because they were Yemenis, not Americans; therefore, their deaths, and lives, must be ignored . . . .

This is standard fare in U.S. war propaganda: We fixate on the Americans killed, learning their names and life stories and the plight of their spouses and parents, but steadfastly ignore the innocent people the U.S. government kills, whose numbers are always far greater. There is thus a sprawling, moving monument in the center of Washington, D.C., commemorating the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam, but not the (at least) 2 million Vietnamese civilians killed by that war.

Politicians and commentators condemning the Iraq War always mention the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who died but rarely mention the hundreds of thousands (at least) innocent Iraqis killed: They don’t exist, are unmentionable. After a terror attack aimed at Americans, we are deluged with media profiles and photographs of the victims, learning their life aspirations and wallowing in the grief of their families, but we almost never hear anything about any of the innocent victims killed by the United States.

Senior Chief Ryan Owens is a household name, and his wife, Carryn, is the subject of national admiration and sympathy. But the overwhelming majority of Americans do not know, and will never learn, the name of even a single foreign victim out of the many hundreds of thousands that their country has killed over the last 15 years. This imbalance plays a massive role in how Americans understand themselves, the countries their government invades and bombs, and the Endless War that is being waged.

Those words are worth reflecting on. So is the rest of what Greenwald says in his article. Do read it.

Something else the Bible says

There is one other thing that Greenwald says that I want to comment on.

” . . . it is also intended that the soldier’s nobility will be transferred to his commander in chief who is so solemnly honoring him. As demonstrated by the skyrocketing post-9/11 approval ratings for George Bush and the endless political usage Obama obtained for killing Osama bin Laden, nothing makes us rally around a president like uplifting war sentiment. . . . War makes people instinctively venerate the authority and leadership of the president who is presiding over it. That’s why . . . presidents like wars due to all the personal benefits they generate.”

In other words, to put it crudely, in speaking about Ryan Owens, Donald Trump is saying “put your trust in me.” But the Bible says: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” Trusting in princes comes all too naturally. And not just in times of war. It is, however, always foolish. Politicians and rulers make great claims. People eat it up, but it is nonsense. And the more you examine it, the more obvious it becomes that it is nonsense.

And who does this prince, President Trump, put his trust in? Well, in the case of the Yemen raid, he put his trust in generals, in military men. On Fox News, he said

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

His enthusiasm for generals has been noted, as he has chosen a remarkable number of them for top White House posts. And that enthusiasm for generals seems to be related to a trust in military power in general – or, as the Bible would put it – relying on horses and trusting in chariots. Which, according to the prophet Isaiah (31:1), is not a good idea:

“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!”

It seems to me that the complete fiasco of the Yemen raid shows that Isaiah was right.

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