Ironically, Seymour Hersh delivered the fifth C.L. and Henriette Cline lecture in Austin on March 19, 2012. Hersh was in residency at the University of Texas the week of March 18-23 as the Cline Centennial Visiting Professor in the Humanities. Earlier in his career, Hersh broke the stories on the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam conflict and later the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq conflict. We are experiencing déjà vu all over again with the alleged killings of 17 civilians in Afghanistan by Army Sergeant Robert Bales earlier this month. George Packer offers a view of this latest alleged atrocity and it should make us all squirm. If this is a (fair & balanced) look into our self-induced amnesia, so be it.
[x The New Yorker]
Sergeant Bales's Shame And Ours
By George Packer
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It’s hard not to be haunted by the story of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. Everyone in Norwood, Ohio, where he grew up, seemed to like him: outgoing, a joiner, a middle linebacker who played above his size, thoughtful toward others. He enlisted in the Army after the September 11th attacks, out of patriotism and righteous anger.
Three deployments over six years in Iraq, including one during the “surge” with intense fighting. A wound that cost him part of his foot, then a head injury in a vehicle accident. Frustration at being unable to find and kill the enemy. Over the years, as the deployments pile up and the mission gets lost, he starts to sound jaded, coarsened. Ten years in, he misses out on being promoted to sergeant first class, and he doesn’t land the recruiting job he wanted, or the coveted posting to Germany or Italy. Instead, he’s sent back to the wars—this time to a remote combat outpost in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where he sees a buddy lose a leg to a land mine.
Back home, his wife loses her job when Washington Mutual goes under, and there are mortgage problems on their house in Washington state. You couldn’t write a more succinct history of what went wrong in the decade after September 11th.
In a sense, none of these facts matter. It shouldn’t be hard to see the bright line between war fatigue, or P.T.S.D., or whatever name you give it, and hunting down, shooting, and stabbing little children in their homes, and women and men, burning their bodies, and then returning to base and demanding a lawyer. If there was alcohol, it doesn’t matter; if there were marital strains (how could there not be), it doesn’t matter. That Bales assaulted a woman ten years ago is irrelevant. None of these facts begin to explain why he stands accused of monstrous crimes. The idea that no non-combatant is fit to judge a man in uniform is ridiculous—an insult to all the combatants who, in the same extreme circumstances, don’t lose all sense of the humanity of the other and descend into criminality. Worse than ridiculous is the ugly praise Bales has received on some right-wing Web sites, as if war crimes were a blow against political correctness. The smugness of the I-told-you-so anti-war crowd isn’t much better. Pundits and commenters of all stripes find that the Panjwai episode proves what they were saying all along. How satisfying.
No: shame is the only response the rest of us are allowed.
Part of the shame goes beyond the massacre. Just as it should be possible to stare at this nightmare without medicalizing or psychologizing it away with a few biographical details, it should also be possible to see its singularity and its context: a decade of war with no clear, measurable goals and no end in sight, fought by the tiny number of Americans who belong to our all-volunteer military. President Obama has recently been eloquent on the subject of war, its seriousness, its costs. But it has been in the interest of neither his Administration nor his predecessor’s for the electorate to think too much about the fighting on the other side of the planet. Politically, both Presidents have downplayed it—Bush by creating a false image of a clear moral cause demanding relatively little sacrifice, Obama by talking about it as little as possible.
So the fighting goes on and on without a national discussion, or a national investment. It’s easy for most Americans to go days without giving the war a thought. That’s a quieter, longer source of shame. It’s wrong to put the whole burden of a protracted war on so few people while the rest of us get a pass, though that didn’t make the massacre in Panjwai either inevitable or understandable.
The military, on its end, seems to want things this way. However often you hear soldiers complain that the rest of the country is at peace while they’re at war, the institutional military tries very hard to keep the citizenry out of it. Leave it to the experts: this is the view of the top brass, echoed by Mitt Romney in his opportunistic attacks on Obama. The experts kept the name Robert Bales secret for days. Before anyone knew it, they whisked him out of Afghanistan to Kuwait, and when Kuwaitis got wind of his presence, he was whisked home, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Though I know all the reasons why a trial in an Afghan court would be impractical and unfair, I don’t have any more confidence in the ability of an American military court to conduct a trial that gives people in this country or, especially, in Afghanistan, a sense of justice done. This isn’t conspiracy thinking—the military is capable of finding war criminals guilty when the circumstances are this clear, as in the case of Private Steven Green, who committed atrocities in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. (On the other hand, if killings of civilians take place within an hour or a mile of combat—as in Haditha—forget it.) The military, to all appearances, didn’t attempt a cover-up, as in the case of My Lai, and if convicted Bales won’t get house arrest followed by a Presidential pardon, like Lieutenant William Calley. But there’s a culture of secrecy in any military, which has grown worse in the post-9/11 wars, and leaving it to the professionals is part of this.
There’s still more to the shame than the willed irresponsibility of the American public and government. What makes the Panjwai massacre even more bitter is that it comes at a moment when the war in Afghanistan appears all but hopeless. No one in this country sees the point of more fighting there, except maybe some of those experts, and the politicians who hide behind them. Obama’s surge failed, as Bush’s surge in Iraq ultimately failed, because we don’t have the means to solve these problems other than by fighting—and fighting alone won’t solve them. Counterinsurgency turned out to be a tactic, not a strategy, and a limited one at that. That’s the wonkish way to put it. The straightforward way is to say that all the deaths, Afghan, American, and other, are proving to be a colossal waste.
It’s easy and currently fashionable to sneer at the entire ten-year effort. To say that it was doomed from the start, and no one but a fool would try to change Afghanistan. Didn’t we learned anything from the British and the Soviets? Wasn’t this the graveyard of empires? When would we ever realize we can’t police the world or occupy Muslim countries? It looks pretty obvious now. It gets less obvious when you go back to where we were after September 11th and give it an honest reckoning. Pursue bin Laden but leave the Taliban in power after they refused to give up Al Qaeda? Get rid of the Taliban and then leave Afghanistan to its own and the U.N.’s devices? More troops, more money, a harder push against corruption and warlordism, when our presence is so obviously part of the problem and we could never do it “right”? Afghanize faster and watch the Taliban return even sooner? Find a better partner than Karzai—if so, who?
I hope thoughtful, informed writers will write excellent books that ask questions like these, and maybe answer them. I hope they will tell the story of the American experience in Afghanistan fully, which means sparing none of us but also avoiding the easy condemnations that come when there’s a failure on this scale. I hope Sergeant Bales will appear in these accounts not as a symbol of the American heart of darkness, or a victim of a heartless military machine and a checked-out public, or a case study of post-traumatic stress disorder, but as the author—if he is—of the single worst episode of the war, for reasons that might remain known only to him.
But to be honest, what I expect in the next few years is the willful amnesia that always comes with the end of unsuccessful wars. We will have a lot to forget, starting with Robert Bales. Ω
[After graduating from Yale, George Packer served in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003. His most recent books include The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (2005) and Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade (2009).]
Copyright © 2012 Condé Nast Digital
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves