Much ink has flowed over the recent apologies from President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and General John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, following the burning of copies of the Koran and their careless disposal. An apology may have been justified. A national mea culpa was not.
When the president of the United States speaks for the nation, a national apology for the misguided acts of soldiers on the other side of the world has little meaning other than to feed the suspicions and hatreds of an enemy who hates the United States anyway. Implying that “we the people” are somehow to blame only legitimizes retribution on a potentially greater scale. Follow-on apologies by the secretaries of defense and state potentially extends that culpability to U.S. service personnel and members of the State Department. This compounds the threat to Americans posed by religious fanatics in this global war against al Qaeda and its confederates.
What is in order is an examination of the purpose and results of our strategy in the War on Terror generally and Operation Enduring Freedom more specifically. These apologies weaken the United States in the eyes of the Taliban, further jeopardizing our troops, who are already facing the daunting task of withdrawing to meet a temporal deadline driven by domestic political considerations rather than strategic reality. An army in retreat faces the twin threat of an emboldened enemy anxious to exploit perceived weaknesses and a force whose mindset is on disengaging and going home and not on fighting to win. No one wants to be killed on the day we turned out the lights at Bagram Air Base.
While controversy rages over the apologies, questions concerning this sorry mess remain unanswered. Who was responsible for disposing the Korans? When it was discovered that prisoners were communicating through messages written in the Korans made available by the prison library, who made the decision to burn the books? Did anyone think that these messages might hold intelligence value? What might have been learned had the messages been copied and analyzed? Did anyone think to slap a security classification on those Korans and then send them in secure pouches to CIA headquarters for exploitation? Had this been done under proper security, not only might we have gained valuable knowledge about the Taliban and al Qaeda, it would have been far less likely this sorry mess would have ever arisen.
On the other hand, if the decision was to dispose the Korans, why wasn’t that done in a proper manner consistent with Islamic laws and traditions? In this kind of war, it is imperative that our warfighters understand the culture within which they are operating, especially concerning religious matters. Our enemies unabashedly acknowledge the nature of this conflict as a religious struggle—a jihad. When we deny that fact, we give the enemy a strategic advantage. Additionally, the otherwise “politically-correct” and “culturally-sensitive” U.S. armed forces seem to have their quota of chaplains for every possible religious faith, even wiccans. It is hard to believe there is not a Muslim chaplain assigned to NATO headquarters in Afghanistan. If so, was he consulted on the proper way to dispose Korans? Did that occur to anyone?
These oversights and mistakes, as consequential as they have become, do not rise to the level of an apology required by the president of the United States. Due to a needless knee-jerk reaction in Washington, a level of culpability probably not exceeding a letter of reprimand in a junior-level officer’s file has escalated into a sorry mess with enormous political and military implications. Several Americans were needlessly killed. High-ranking officers may suffer career-ending consequences.
In March 1968, a handful of American GIs commanded by Lt. William Calley murdered 501 South Vietnamese women, children, and old men. Calley eventually stood trial, was convicted of several counts of murder, and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. He served one night in the post jail before receiving a presidential pardon. No one apologized to the Viet Cong—certainly not the president nor secretary of defense, neither of whom were in office when the incident occurred.
This My Lai massacre occurred at the start of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Troop morale was plummeting. Military leadership, from the top down, was out of touch with the true nature of the war.
History should not be ignored. Apologizing to the enemy reflects a gross misunderstanding of the purpose and realities to which “we the people” commit our armed forces in our national interest. We go to war with regret, but without debasing ourselves in what are, essentially, meaningless expressions of hand wringing. The real sorry mess is in our strategic assumptions and those who are responsible for articulating them.
— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.