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 bumps thinking about it. His absence, his death was heart rending.
Four Generals showed up to that young Private’s memorial service. This, of course, is as it should be. We need to honour those who die for their country. But imagine, if after the battle of the Somme, each of the 50,000 casualties were so honoured. The generals would have had no time to sip champagne or plot the next battle. Until relatively recently, generals were profligate with human lives, including those of their own men. But today, probably because of the ubiquity of television coverage in war zones we all feel deeply in our bones the sanctity of life, the tragedy of death. A name on a casualty list in a newspaper is a statistic, video of his empty boots, of his comrades crying, much more affecting.
War is a tool in which violence is used to compel obedience. A civilian population knowing they are at the mercy of a better-armed and ruthless enemy are more likely to submit. But democracy and television have blunted that tool. We in the West don’t want our boys to die on distant battlefields and we are horrified when they murder the innocent. These are good things, a sign of our evolution as humans. But the failure of the US military in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is beginning to convince me that except in the case of a genuine threat to national survival, democracy and television are incompatible with the deployment of effective military force. Considering that democracy and freedom of expression at home are much more important to most of us than whatever is happening in Helmand Province, perhaps we should strive to restrain our leaders next time they are tempted into a war of choice.