I know it seems awful to say that when I heard about the alleged massacre of 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan on Sunday, I felt relief.
It’s an inappropriate emotion, a sibling to guilt, but undeniable. Relief that it’s not my mess to clean up.
“A mess” . . . another inappropriate – at least crass – description. But in the world of public affairs, that’s what this is: a terrible, horrible, tragic mess. Personally, a mess of explaining the unexplainable. Of responding to inquiries and issuing statements that never tell the whole story because telling the whole story is impossible. And, on a larger scale, a tangled mess of unraveled efforts and relationships.
I remember cleaning one of those up in Afghanistan. (But to say I cleaned it up would be a generous exaggeration. Messes like this can never be completely scrubbed clean.)
It was Feb 12, 2010, and it was the worst day of my life. The night before, there had been a Special Forces raid on a house in nearby Gardez City. Somehow, five civilians, including three women, were dead. The details were hazy. This is what they call the fog of war. Fog is thick in Afghanistan. Bodies were moved, cleaned, hooded and prepared for burial before investigators arrived, leaving them scrambling to connect an ever-shifting set of dots. The local anger swelled, and we watched, horror-struck, as eight months of relationship-building were undermined in a matter of a few chaotic minutes.
At the center there were five lives, the collateral damage, buried in the fog of war. There was absolutely nothing we could say. But we couldn’t remain silent, couldn’t leave a void to be filled by rumor, speculation and insurgent propaganda. So we said what we could. And it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.
Another emotion: understanding.
I understand why the soldier did what he did.
This is not to be confused with condoning his actions. Nothing could ever justify murder. That’s what this was: murder. But it’s not all this was.
Anger is easy. Blame is easy. Denouncement and apology are easy. But they don’t tell the whole story. The truth is, nothing can.
WAR IS NEVER BLACK AND WHITE. Like I discussed in my last post, war is a human experience, and humans are never black and white. Especially humans who have been to war.
When humans go to war, they change. There is no denying this. Whatever the individual experience, no one remains the same. I would go so far as to say that some people actually become two distinct people – a war-induced schizophrenia – split into “soldier” and “demons.” (Hell, go ahead the throw a third person on there, too. Soldier + demons + regular person with a regular life and a wife and two children at home.)
I have demons. Sometimes they act on their own, independent of me. They’re buttons that, when pushed, can send me into a Hulk-like rage or a tailspin of sadness. My demons are mild compared to many. While in Afghanistan, I never directly experienced death. I never got blown up. I never had to point my rifle at a person. I never had a person point a rifle at me. If I had experienced any of these things, I can’t comprehend the strength my demons would have.
The accused U.S. Army sergeant has been to war four times. God only knows what he’s seen, what he’s done, the demons he carries. It would be foolish, it would be outright wrong, not to blame, at least in part, those demons for this act.
That is not an excuse for murder. It is not a complete explanation. But it can’t be ignored.
Another emotion: anger.
Yes, it’s an easy one and I’m guilty of it, too. I’m angry at the sergeant for the mess he created. But I’m also angry at the rumors. I fume over articles chronicling this incident from the “Afghan perspective,” over the locals’ explanations of what happened and how. I want to believe them, to pity them for what they’ve endured, and on some level I do. But on another level I know that in Afghanistan when a car backfires the Taliban will claim an attack on a U.S. convoy that killed eight soldiers. I know that on Feb 12, 2010 villagers claimed that U.S. aircraft had bombed the residential compound where the raid took place. I know they claimed specific high-level government officials had been killed – government officials who were sitting in meetings with our unit’s personnel, very much alive, as the claims were being made.
Truth is elusive, especially in Afghanistan. And that makes me angry.
I’m also angry over apologies. In a statement Tuesday, President Obama pledged to take this situation “as seriously as if this was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.” Maybe it’s my demons talking, but I want to know, on the flipside, where was the apology when I was in Afghanistan and a man dressed as an Afghan Border Patrolman sneaked onto one of our unit’s Combat Outposts and blew himself up outside U.S. soldiers’ sleeping quarters? Where was the apology when a “trusted informant” killed seven CIA agents at a base gym in the neighboring province? Where was the apology last month when, in indiscriminate retaliation for the Koran burnings by U.S. troops, my friend, JD Loftis was shot at close range. Murdered.
I want to know, after ten years, 1,900 deaths, more than 15,000 reported injuries, and millions of demons, not to mention billions of dollars, why are we always apologizing.
Another emotion: what feels very sad but can only be described as hope.
Lots of hope. That this doesn’t create more anger. But that’s a foolish hope, so I hope that the anger is managed, that it doesn’t manifest itself in more indiscriminate retaliation, in more meaningless death and suffering, in more widowed wives. Hope that these unraveled threads aren't irreconcilably tangled. Hope that the actions of one soldier and his demons don’t overshadow the work of thousands of other men and women over the last decade. Men and women like me. And JD Loftis.
And I hope that justice – whatever that means – is served.