In a span of just a couple of months, we have now seen video of American soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters, American troops mistakenly desecrating the Koran and causing riots and now a deeply disturbed U.S. Army Sergeant appears to have systematically murdered women and children in two rural southern Afghanistan villages.
This is not us. This is not America. This is not our military. We are not represented by these acts and we shouldn’t be defined by them. But they do speak to the horrors of war and how it breaks people and causes them to behave in ways that are completely antithetical to our values. We are the good guys- not….this.
When I have met and talked to members of our armed forces, I am always impressed by their civility and decency in big ways and small. It’s always the guys in their desert uniforms on the Metro at the Pentagon station who are the first to give up their seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person. Those were U.S. Navy men and women who rescued Iranian sailors from Somali pirates a few weeks ago. How many acts of unpublicized kindness have been committed by our troops in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan? I would venture to say thousands.
Our fighting men and woman have rebuilt schools, distributed food to the hungry, and given hugs to children orphaned by war. And that’s when they’re not putting their own lives on the line as the target of a sniper or an IED placed on a roadway. But it is hard when confronted by the acts of broken people, hardened and twisted by tour after tour after tour of duty- to not feel a deep sense of sadness and shame over the kinds of events that have occurred in Afghanistan recently.
Polls show Americans are weary of war. Solid majorities now think Afghanistan is not worth the cost in blood and treasure. Certainly, history has taught the British, the then Soviet empire, and now us, that taming this country by military occupation is a fool’s errand at worst, and indescribably difficult at best.
How we extricate ourselves from this decade-long conflict is complicated. It was in Afghanistan that the Taliban gave shelter to Al Qaeda as the terrorist organization trained to wage war on civilized society. It’s the Taliban who have oppressed women in ways unimaginable to most of us.
It’s up to our leaders to figure this out because, surely, they are now seeing the current course seems to be completely counter-productive to our stated goals of building trust with the Afghan people so that we can train their military and their government to do what they must eventually do for themselves.
Loose talk about military action in other countries ought to be sobered by events of the kind we have seen lately in Afghanistan. There is nothing glamorous or magical about the military option. And maybe for the sake of our own brave men and women who’ve sacrificed so much over the past ten years- and for our own collective sanity and self-respect- maybe war ought to once again, become the last possible option- and no longer, instinctively, the first.