American Staff Sergeant Robert Bales went out the other night allegedly and slaughtered 16 Afghans, mostly women and children, then burned their bodies. He was in Afghanistan on a4th deployment to a war zone, after being in Iraq three times. He had sustained wounds during his previous tours; his family life and finances were complicated by the housing crisis. The day before one of his fellow soldiers was crippled by the enemy. No doubt he had learned of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their supposed-American allies with deadly results. He probably watched coverage of the deadly rioting that ensued after U.S. forces disposed of copies of the Qu’ran by burning. Copies that had been used to pass notes from one terrorist to another.
Let’s face it, no one in the United States who is not a Muslim can understand the Qu’ran rioting. Not in the least. How can human life be less sacred than even the words of God, if those words can be reproduced?
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales snapped, it seems. That’s all we can think. Like Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he could only think, “Exterminate the brutes.” Then, of course, he did nothing of the kind but slaughtered innocent civilians.
When I heard about this, I thought immediately, as I’m sure many Americans did, of Lieutenant Calley and the My Lai massacre of as many as 500 in Vietnam. That horror has remained in our collective memory since 1968 because, while atrocities were rife in Vietnam, My Lai summed up the naked horror the war had become. So many fought bravely; great efforts were expended to give the Vietnamese democratic institutions. The Vietnamese simply did not have the will to do it, though—not enough of the Vietnamese.
In Vietnam, we found ourselves having “to burn the village down in order to save it.” In his delusion, Sergeant Bales thought his only recourse was slaughter.
Like the Vietnamese, the Afghans don’t want the form of government we’d like to give them; they fundamentally reject the premises of western civilization, with its roots in Christianity. The other day, when Afghan protesters burned President Obama in effigy, they also added a cross to the fire. I haven’t heard anyone talk about that.
Clearly, we no longer have any grand purpose in mind in Afghanistan; once again, we’ve been disabused of our better intentions by the brutal reality of the world–the tragic dimension of history that Americans resist understanding again and again.
In these circumstances, President Obama should announce a fall-back position as to how we are going to project enough power in the region to remain a force for stability. Then we ought to get our troops out of Afghanistan with all due haste—well before 2014.
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