Thursday’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport was the most deadly attack on American forces in Afghanistan since 2011. In remarks on the attack, President Biden honored the fallen soldiers by quoting the Hebrew Bible. “The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me,'” Biden said, in an allusion to Isaiah 6:8. “Each one of these women and men of our Armed Forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way, to risk everything; not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.”
Biden’s point was that the Marines and other personnel overseeing the evacuation knew they were in danger of precisely the kind of attack that occurred but continued their duties anyway. In that respect, it was a fitting effort to honor their courage.
But the Biblical verse he used was a bad choice to make that point. Jews read Isaiah 6 as describing God’s calling to serve as prophet to the chosen people. For many Christians, it is seen as prefiguring the vocation of missionaries to promote the Gospel. In both interpretations, the phrase “Here I am” expresses willingness to participate in the fulfillment of divine purposes.
The conflation of foreign policy with a religious vocation is a recurring tendency in American history. It’s also a dangerous one, because it transforms agonizing calculations of risk and benefit into contests between good and evil. Biden is leading American forces out of Afghanistan and appealed to national interests elsewhere in his remarks. Yet the crusading attitude that the Bible quote expressed is part of the reason we have failed to secure those interests for the last two decades. To avoid similar disasters in the future, we need to remember that presidents are not prophets and the U.S. military is not the army of God.