On Sunday, a US Army Sergeant left his base in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, walked a mile into a village, and going door to door, methodically murdered at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children. In the wake of anti-American riots prompted by Koran burnings, NATO officials fear this massacre will further inflame the Pashtuns against US involvement in their country.
The US Army tells us this is the action of a deranged individual, and I believe them. Perhaps I have been bamboozled by crafty public affairs officers but my experience with US combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has convinced me that compared to most militaries, the Americans are extremely conscious of the need to limit harm to the innocent. The imperative to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population has been deeply imprinted on the consciousness of the US Army, even at the platoon level.
And yet the Sergeant, now in custody, has served in the US military for 11 years. He has done two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Armies are in the business of killing and brutality is brutalizing. Remember Haditha, remember the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmudiyah. Atrocities are as old as warfare. In medieval times, a conquering army would be given three days of freedom to sack a fallen city, rape and pillage one of the few benefits of an ordinary soldier’s life. Maybe the anomaly today is not these atrocities but rather that they are rare enough to be newsworthy.
A few years ago, after spending a week at a US Army base in Diyala Province north of Baghdad and ingratiating myself with my military hosts, I was invited to a memorial service for a 19-year-old soldier killed by a roadside IED. He was part of the Colonel’s Personal Security Detail. He was younger than my own son. He wanted to grow up and be a doctor. The ceremony, which we did not film, was incredibly moving. It ended with his sergeant calling roll. When they heard their name called, each of the dead man’s comrade shouted “Here” or “Present.” Then the dead man’s name was called. Silence. Utter silence. My arms still get goose…