As if the winds of war weren’t already approaching gale force in the wrong direction for the US and its NATO counterparts in Afghanistan, contrary to Administration talking points designed to polish this turd of an Occupation, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales went on a village-to-village, house-to-house killing spree. With whatever thought process he had at his disposal after three combat tours in Iraq, he permanently liberated by summary execution 16 Afghan villagers from the Taliban. To make matters worse for embattled US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Bales admitted it. Not even a shot, excuse the double entendre, at an effective cover-up.
Before the cordite – or more accurately, smoke from the charred remains of victims, including pre-teens and toddlers – had even settled in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai in Kandahar province, stock apologies began to roll out from NATO heavy weights, followed by new song-and-dances from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Familiar outcries of recrimination laced with demands for answers and the removal of ISAF security forces from every Afghan village outpost are making those villas in Dubai look better with every massacre.
As if synchronized, and against a backdrop of an early cherry blossom bloom, atonement echoed from the White House Rose Garden. After all, with more than ten years in southern Asia and almost as many end states for victory, apologies are now Commander-in-Chief stock-in-trade. Once again our latest war president pledged a thorough investigation, and then followed up with a very Presidential, in fact rhetorically perfect, act of contrition.
“We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military.”
The only thing missing, besides a rubber-stamped “hearts and prayers” sign off – was the unlikely absolution.
But there was something else.
This latest heartfelt overture had an oddly familiar ring. It was aggravating and then it started to come to me, like the closing credits from Hearts and Minds scrolling into view, flashes from the past. There it was again – “It’s not who we are…not who we are as a country.”
Like just last May, while responding to requests for the release of photos of his trophy kill, Bin Laden – the first of several mission objectives in Afghanistan:
“We don’t need to spike the football…that’s not who we are.”
Obviously, that would be more distasteful than opting for a headshot in the first place, or providing Osama a cell in Leavenworth, without internet privileges, next to Bales.
That’s just not who we are. Seriously?
And the very same day at the UN, speaking after a Security Council meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gravely announced:
“Like many Americans I was shocked and saddened by the killings of innocent Afghan villagers this weekend. We send our condolences to families who have lost their loved ones and to the people of Afghanistan…”
Wait…wait…are you ready for it?
“…This is not who we are.” There it is again.
And then again last September, while chastising a GOP Presidential debate audience for booing a gay soldier and cheering at the prospect of someone dying without health care:
“That’s not reflective of who we are.” Let’s go to the replay.
Is there a pattern here?
This is not who we really are. If this is not who we are, then who the hell are we?
And why would the rest of the world share this sentiment, after Fallujah, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha or our increasing reliance on drone attacks for prosecuting a war on suspected terrorists, as well as innocent bystanders? It’s a tough sell after Obama’s first term and almost 300 Drone attacks on Pakistan alone. According to a February 2012 report by the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism in cooperation with the London Sunday Times, between 282 and 535 civilians had been killed, including 60 children, by CIA and Air Force joy-stick jockeys over eight thousand miles away. To make matters worse, tactics now include targeting responders tending to the wounded.
But this is not who we are?
Secretary Panetta might have summed it up inadvertently last week when he admitted that “these things happen, and they’ll probably happen again.” And again, and again, and again. Do Americans even care anymore, or have we become so inured to hostility that atrocities have become interchangeable with normalcy, a metaplasia as insidious as the slow boil of the 10,000-day war in Vietnam? And we all know how well that went.
While all this started to sink in, as well as the fact that our country’s new signature wartime mass-killing had taken place the week of the My Lai massacre’s 44th anniversary, it was announced that Bales will be represented by Seattle’s brash, flamboyant defense counsel John Henry Browne, a hired gun for the indefensible. A case like Bales’ is right in Browne’s wheelhouse, having gained his share of notoriety over time representing serial killers and mass murderers like Ted Bundy and Seattle’s Benjamin Ng.
In fact, it only took Browne one meeting with the defendant to come up with the perfect plan for starters. “I think the war is on trial, I think the war should be on trial, and I’m hoping that the war will be on trial.”
Most of the underpinnings for disaster have been hiding in plain sight in the kill zones of Afghanistan much longer than the Pentagon will admit. Multiple deployments, nonstop asymmetric warfare, circular mistrust of US and Afghan counterparts, sliding timelines and phantom end-states point to more frayed psyches, and hate for hate atrocities – kill teams, desecrating bodies and religious artifacts, night raids resulting in injury or death and the wanton destruction of property, most spun as the acts of rogue soldiers.
Can this possibly be reflective of who we are?
In a recent article in The American Scholar, Afghanistan: The Gathering Menace, by embedded journalist Neil Shea, an Army sergeant encapsulates the mood, if not the state of our combat force in Southwest Asia in 2012, trapped in the midst of a failed policy for far too long:
“This is where I come to do f*cked-up things.”
His face had been clear and smooth, his smile almost shy. It was a statement of happy expectation, as though Afghanistan were a playground. He was the de facto leader of a platoon I will call Destroyer, and although he is a real person, not a composite, I have heard his words in many variations, from many American combat troops. But he and some of his men were the first I had met who seemed very near to committing the dumb and vicious acts that we call war crimes.
If this is not who we are, it is what we are becoming.
In most criminal cases, multiple versions of the truth may exist, even in Kandahar province. As the defense team sifts through the detritus of forensics and motive, it is likely that long-overdue light will be focused, not diffused, on the grit of causation in a failed state, and not solely Afghanistan but US intervention in Southwest Asia and elsewhere.
However long it takes before the defense rests, there will be more than ample culpability to go around, but nowhere near enough justice – and certainly not for Afghan villager Abdul Samad’s nine children, whose worst nightmares were realized before they could even yawn or wipe the sleep from their eyes.
Then again this just might be one of those times when even an unrivaled counsel for the defense will have to settle for a higher power to sort things out.