Sixteen Afghan civilians have been killed, in their homes, under our protection. One man acting alone we are quick to say. And it’s probably true. An Army of one. But that one man is one of us.
There will be official statements, medical conjecture, military analysis, political showmanship, and protest. We will learn the facts over time, everyone hurrying to rule out abject senselessness with a justification of one kind or another. Posttraumatic stress and brain injury will be broadly blamed and we will hope that it is only something as terrible as that. We will become procedural in order to avoid being emotional. This will happen because this is how we respond to world events, but what is important now is what this one stunning occurrence means to our national soul.
The Taliban, our enemies, the group that justified our invasion of Afghanistan by harboring Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, have vowed revenge. The very men who have a brutal record of torture, barbarous treatment of women, murder, and terrorism have found in this massacre of families a way to claim righteous indignation. It is here where we have no defense. Our moral character is built on the emphatic claim that we defend the innocent, that we and our allies are just. We have tried with tremendous sacrifice to prove it: 1,787 Americans brought home from the valleys of Afghanistan to be buried, 15,460 wounded there … and now this.
In a land where trust is hard won, this betrayal will echo. Our president and commanders have apologized. The military necessarily speaks with humble resignation when civilians are killed because it knows that when villages are battlefields, collateral casualties are unavoidable. Afghans have simply come to expect tragedy. But these fatalities were not the result of an official operation, not an accident justified by the presence of an enemy. President Obama has said that “This incident does not represent the exceptional character of our military,” which is true except that our military is represented by this incident. The killer wore an American flag on his shoulder, a soldier of the rank and file, and by that symbol our military is colored by his act, and so are we. We cannot distance ourselves from him because we sent him there.
These Afghan children, the oldest being 12, were born into uncertainty and had lived their whole lives in a war we brought upon them, killed finally by a soldier we sent to protect them. This man, an American, was able to seek them in their sleep, shoot and stab them, and burn them in their blankets. Children the age of his own. Murderers exist without war, but because this act took place in war it makes him a war criminal, and it indicts the nation he serves. We know who threw the first stone, but history will judge us by how we throw the last one.
I commanded Marines in Iraq and I was responsible for every bullet my unit fired. The war was fought in villages, on farmland, in cities, and through homes. We endangered ourselves by how carefully we tried to avoid causing harm to noncombatants, but they lived in the crossfire and I have seen people cry for sorrows I had a hand in delivering. I cannot restore the dead, and I will not forget them.
Our wars have long haunted veterans who have survived their survival. I was born in the year of the Tet offensive, my parents protestors, but we have learned few lessons from that conflict. Civilian casualties were staggering. 700,000 men were drafted, most sent against their will to fight in the jungles, returning home to be vilified for serving the nation that sent them. Many have taken their own lives in part because of the lives they’ve taken and for those they’ve seen lost. The conflict is now known as a taxing lost cause, a mistake, the sufferings of our soldiers pointless, our view of the enemy never sensible. It was a war made by the generation that prides itself on its clean moral victory over fascism in World War II, but that war was ended by dropping atomic bombs on families.
We seem not to notice how linear our world perspective is. What we call the Vietnam War the Vietnamese call the American War. Veterans of Vietnam see all the same signs in Afghanistan and have long been vocal opponents of our deepening involvement. We would do well to ask them how we should feel right now.
In their oath of vengeance, the Taliban called us “sick-minded American savages.” We will be afraid to call our soldier mad, to admit that he lost his mind in war. This allows for the possibility that any one of us could go insane at any time, and that every veteran poisoned by their combat experience could be on edge for life. And some will be. The mind keeps our morality in balance, reminds us of learned social consequences, keeps rage and other primal instincts civilized. In many ways our ethical stability is preserved by our sense of community, security, and home. War takes all of those elements away, immerses the military in danger, and makes its members vulnerable to an involuntary loss of self-control. What is truly surprising is how rarely these acts of madness occur and how powerfully most veterans preserve their humanity.
Experts will try to find a cause to blame: fatigue, injury, disassociation, derangement, leadership, agreeing finally that all leave the act inexcusable, but we have to believe that we are in some way responsible, and feel regret. The cause may be our mission in Afghanistan and we might ask if that is a noble cause, something we believe in enough to invest so much life and produce so much death. What happens in the lives of others has yet to upset us where we live, and that has made these wars something that somehow does not include us here. Therein lies the danger in national disinterest. Do we have an honest collective emotional reaction to efforts that do not reach deep into our days and take something from us? Distant events stir little public empathy and we are a people known more and more for our selfish distractions than for our awareness. We will want to say that war estranged this soldier from our society, but there is much evidence that our society is completely disconnected from his war. This rampage far from us is part of what should be a much larger discussion about who we are now and what our wars mean. This act of one man is not allowed the convenience of being isolated, unrepresentative of our “deep respect for the people of Afghanistan.” President Karzai stated, “When Afghan people are killed deliberately by U.S. forces this action is murder and terror and an unforgivable action.” He is careful not to mention accidental deaths which have been tolerated as inevitable. We might consider this as we think about why we keep sending service members into situations in which they cannot be forgiven for what could occur.
We will put our children to sleep in our homes tonight, safe from wars, free to dream. We might take a moment to imagine what it would be like to lose our entire family, tonight, to a policeman, and wonder aloud what apologies would be worth.